Carmen spoke at the Literary Managers and Dramaturgs of the Americas 2013 Conference held in Vancouver at Simon Fraser University. In the most recent issue of Review, the LMDA publication, her keynote address published. To read Review, click here. Otherwise, enjoy her keynote address below
A Keynote Address
by Carmen Aguirre
Simon Fraser University, Vancouver, B.C.
June 27, 2013
When I was eighteen years old I had the most searing theatrical experience of my life. It happened in Lima, Peru, during the civil war there. It was May 1986, and I had just joined the Chilean resistance that was fighting Pinochet’s right-wing dictatorship.
Now if you joined the underground outside of Chile, like I did, you did so in Lima, where you would get your orders. But first you had to take the oath.
The oath said that I would give my life to the resistance, that I agreed to be executed by the resistance if I broke under torture and gave my comrades away, and that I would always follow orders no matter what. Security was of the utmost importance; people fell all the time: Pinochet’s dictatorship was considered one of the most “secure” in the world (in other words, the secret police were everywhere), and the Peruvian secret police worked with Pinochet as well. So one must never ever do anything stupid.
Stupid things included, but were not limited to, going to the theatre. It was okay to go to a mainstream performance of say, Mary Poppins, because the probability of the secret police going to Mary Poppins to look for dissidents was quite low. But to attend a performance that could have been considered in any way alternative was absolutely, strictly prohibited. The cops, the military, the secret police, were more likely to show up at an alternative performance and sniff around for possible subversives. And if you happened to be there, and if they happened to discover who you were, you’d be dead if you were lucky. Most likely you’d be tortured to the point of no return.
The day after I took the oath, while I was walking around downtown Lima sobbing uncontrollably under my mirrored sunglasses due to being gripped by a state of chronic grief and terror, my first husband, who had also joined the resistance, pointed out a scribbled sign on a telephone pole. In between my heaving and sobbing I managed to read the scribbled, haphazard sign. It was advertising a play. The play was to start after curfew, which was in and of itself illegal, and hence beyond “alternative,” and the scribbled note said “Come if you dare.”
So, being young and stupid, my first husband and I broke all the rules of the oath we’d taken a mere 24 hours earlier, and we dared to go to the play.
We arrived just before curfew at the allotted location. There were a couple of dozen other people there, of all ages, and mixed social classes. We all nodded at each other and then stared at the ground as Lima prepared for curfew: last stragglers running home, packed buses speeding down the street, the first military helicopters. I sobbed quietly, the terror never subsiding, until a First Nations man in bare feet and white pants came out and gestured to enter the building, which looked like a school of sorts. We followed him in single file, with a mix of excitement and doom, because no one knew whether this was some kind of set-up and we were all heading to our tragic, basically self-inflicted deaths, or whether it really was a play.
We were taken to a classroom, where the chairs had been arranged in a circle. We all sat down and the man disappeared. As time passed, the sounds of curfew became more prominent. Now, curfew is mostly just silence, except for the intermittent sounds of helicopters, military vehicles, a bomb exploding here and there, and the odd shot ringing through the night. These sounds became our walk-in music, as it were. We all grew even more terrified (that was obvious), chiding ourselves that we’d all been stupid enough to take on the dare. I wondered if there were secret police members in the audience. A fresh stream of tears gushed from my eyes. Mercilessly. Unrevolutionarily.
All of a sudden a guitar played and a man came in, a troubadour of sorts, also in bare feet and white pants. He sang a beautiful song with no lyrics, just haunting sounds. He was followed by a woman, (barefeet, white attire), and two other men, dressed the same, the last one being the man who’d let us in.
For the next two non-stop hours these four performers told us the history of Peru from the time of the Spanish Conquest until that very moment in time: May 1986, the civil war. They told the story with their bodies. No text was spoken. Sounds emitted from their mouths, but not a single word. They created image upon image upon image and a soundscape with their voices and breath periodically punctuated by the sounds of curfew. The images were of genocide, rape, slavery, starvation, and, ultimately, resistance: a celebration of life; the history of that country from the point of view of the oppressed-slash-freedom fighters.
They finished their play by dancing a cumbia as they sang the only text: “We may be fucked, but we’re fucking happy.” More tears flowed. For the rest of the night, we all stayed in that classroom, chatting, sleeping, laughing, until curfew was lifted at six in the morning.
That play, and the circumstances in which I saw it, is seared in my brain to this day. In that moment, in which for all intents and purposes I was having a nervous breakdown, I was willing to break all the rules and risk it all to have a story told to me. And it paid off: the play gave me the inspiration to continue, contextualized once more why I had chosen to join a movement that sought to liberate my continent from the very oppression depicted in the play, and it gave me joy in a time of great terror. It expanded my tiny universe of paranoia and let in the light. Basically, it took me out of myself and reminded me to not take myself so seriously, that, ultimately, the story was much larger than my own personal narrative, that I had put myself in a terrifying situation, that I had risked it all, in order to serve a larger story in which I was a mere player. And that that was worth doing.
By the time I came back to Canada to go to theatre school in order to learn the skills to tell the stories of my community, the Latino community in exile, stories that are rarely if ever seen on Canadian stages, I thought I knew everything there was to know about risk and terror and failure, because the revolution we had been fighting for had been lost.
Innocently, arrogantly, I thought that I would not have to experience risk, terror, and failure again. Because I thought that the artistry behind good storytelling was about pretending convincingly. I had yet to learn that a well-told story is most effective when there is no pretension at all, that a story moves us to the core when the storyteller unmasks herself and seeks the truth in every moment, and that truth-seeking is by its very nature risk-taking, and that risk-taking often leads to failure, and that all of this can be terrifying.
And so when I remembered those Lima curfew-players, it dawned on me that the risk they took was two-fold: yes, they were taking a political risk by performing their play after curfew to an audience that may have included the enemy, but they were also taking an emotional risk by opening their hearts to a bunch of strangers that may have included the enemy. This dual responsibility was so great that letting us down was not an option. They contextualized their story personally, socially, politically, and historically, and thus reminded us that we mattered, that our communities mattered. And in sharing a piece of art that was engaging in content and form, they made themselves vulnerable emotionally and artistically. There was no pretending. They told their truth, they risked failure. As the military seized the night, they risked it all by being present in every moment, by opening their hearts and minds. And that is why we transformed from a paranoid audience of individual stories into a courageous community with a larger story in common.
I had risked it all to hear a story, and the reason the risk paid off was because those highly-skilled storytellers were able to articulate my own defining story, conjuring meaning out of raw experience. They took us into the dark and transcended the pain, they created symbols that the entire room owned, reminding us that our stories matter. They let us know they were committed in every sense of the word to social and artistic transformation.
That was a key point in my learning: the re-definition of risk. And so now, whenever I tell a story, if I’m not afraid on some level, I know I must be doing something wrong. I learned to risk vulnerability after developing a hard, necessary shell under Pinochet’s Chile, I learned that the terror of risking vulnerability in front of strangers in order to seek the truth in every moment was equal to the terror I felt in the resistance. I learned that many times, when we are telling a story on the stage, we fail. We get it wrong. I learned that the definition of a successful artist is simply someone who insists on doing their work, in spite of, or because of, the risk, the terror, the failure: the public humiliation.
Pablo Milanes, the internationally renowned Cuban singer-songwriter, has said that he pities the artist who does not risk himself or his art. When I started to learn the art of storytelling, I was able to see exactly what he meant: those curfew players put themselves on the line in every sense of the word. I strive to do the same, and, to this day, nothing moves me more than a piece of art that risks it all.