What’s past is prologue

15 May, 2012 | Danny Rees

Art and Lifestyle

A history of Theatre in Bolivia

This year FITAZ broke with tradition and opened with a Bolivian play, going against the international element integral to the festival's identity. This innovation is symbolic of the growing confidence which Bolivia has regarding its theatre. What, however, is Bolivia's history regarding the theatre?

Both before and after the Spanish conquest, theatre has been performed in this landlocked nation. However, a coherent tradition was somewhat lacking and traditional Spanish styles heavily influenced Bolivian theatre throughout the nineteenth century. How has this nation overcome its many problems in order to establish a theatrical heritage for its future generations?

Despite this lack of theatrical tradition, the plays performed during this year's FITAZ festival have been remarkably distinct and Bolivian. One reason for the underdeveloped theatrical tradition is Bolivia's imposing geography and relative isolation. Both communication and travel was, and to a certain extent still is, difficult in Bolivia, and so it was difficult to establish theatre companies. The Bolivian spirit of endurance has, however, overcome this seemingly insurmountable problem, and it has been incorporated into its theatre. With much of Bolivia's landscape being empty, a minimalist approach to both staging and direction has been created. The imposing and extravagant staging, characteristic of the West End and Broadway, often separates the audience from the play. However, the typically Bolivian staging includes the audience in the action, representing both the country's geography and the breaking of the fourth wall, a typically modern, Western theatrical convention.

The Aymaran culture also influences Bolivia's theatre: with such heavy emphasis on nature and on an individual's symbiotic relationship with Pachamama, Bolivian theatre works from within a play, as director Diego Arambaro comments, 'The work creates itself' – it is both the creator and the created. This elevates Bolivian theatre onto its own altiplano, giving it a higher literary appreciation and also a distinctly Bolivian quality.

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Despite the long-lasting political unrest that Bolivia has endured, its population often did not turn to theatre to express its sorrow or anger. During the War of the Pacific, in which Bolivia lost valuable land to Chile, including its access to the sea, the theatre did not reflect the political and social turmoil. However, as time has passed, Bolivia has become increasingly confident at using theatre as a vehicle for social and political expression and commentary. The War of the Chaco helped to unify the country in a quest for a national identity, and this time theatre played an integral role. Bolivians used the arts to create a new and distinct identity for themselves, with Antonio Díaz Villamil including the lively and expressive language of the lower classes, creating a more representative theatre. Again, working from within this national-identity crisis, Bolivians started to look at their problems and the theatre offered an invaluable avenue for expression and commentary: Raúl Salmón in the 1950s and 1960s wrote social plays with a didactic purpose. Tres Generales (Three Generals, 1969) puts three presidents of the nineteenth century into contemporary Bolivia, faced with the quotidian problems of the everyday Bolivian citizen, highlighting the social and political problems as seen by the populace. The perspective of the average Bolivian contributed to the use of diverse and colourful everyday language, shying away from the stilted and elevated verse monologues of the preceding century. Guillermo Francovich urged for educational reform in Como los Gansos (Like the Geese, 1957), and the identity of the indigenous people became increasingly important for Bolivian playwrights and audiences alike. Arambaro comments that Greek tragedy is the purest and most intense form of drama, but it is too theatrical for Bolivians, as are the works of Lope de Vega and Calderón de la Barca (whose works are hardly ever performed on the continent). Instead, Bolivians seek a theatre that expresses who they are collectively, what challenges they face, and what problems they must overcome.

And what of its future? Despite weaknesses in funding and state support – no surprise in a country that's slowly lifting its way out of poverty – there is a newfound confidence and desire to explore creatively through the theatre, epitomized by the FITAZ festival. Additionally, Bolivia has a wellspring of indigenous culture that, combined with its tumultuous modern history, gives its creative class a rich vein of experience to mine. Now, with recent improvements in transportation, education, and an incipient but growing middle class, Bolivian theatre has an opportunity to develop in its own way; to produce domestically – and, through collaboration, internationally – a historically unique performance art.

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