In the middle of Guillermo Calderón’s “micro-documentary,” The Return of the Dragon, he states: “We don’t know to what reality we are returning, in theater.”
For him and his creative collaborators in Chile, a revolution that began in 2019 was interrupted by the pandemic. In 2019, they had staged a piece of theater called Dragón. Dragón ended up being quite prescient about the fomenting issues that eventually exploded into the 2019 revolution.
But today, there is nothing but uncertainty about how they go forward. They are even further removed from theater spaces, audiences, and a public square of protest. The pandemic and their government’s response to it is a new kind of class warfare and violence being exacted upon them.
While it is a different situation, I could not help but think about this question for the American theater.
What reality are WE returning to? Born from the George Floyd protests, the American theater has had its own revolution while theater doors have been shut. There has been organizing, specific demands, and some measurable changes implemented in a few select theaters.
But there has also been a dull hum of “same old same old” that seems to get louder as the vaccines rollout and some theater doors begin to open. How much structural change can we expect from institutions so entrenched in their ways? Will the pandemic lead to new visions or simply be an excuse used to fall into past patterns because of the past year of economic struggles?
For Calderón, he is chipping away at a larger question of creativity and creation in the face of political oppression.
This short documentary, giving context to the situation in Chile and this theater company’s endeavors of the past few years, functions as a point of reflection for these artists and perhaps an explanation of this creative purgatory they are in. Filmed during the pandemic in 2020, the documentary’s arc starts from a show they made before Dragón called Mateluna.
It was created to proclaim the innocence of Jorge Mateluna and to fight to get him out of prison. Mateluna was a guerilla with the paramilitary arm of the Communist Party, FPMR, which tried to overthrow Pinochet. He had spent 14 years in prison. But Mateluna was free when Calderón consulted with him for his play Escuela. Then suddenly, Mateluna was thrown into prison again for a bank robbery. He has proclaimed his innocence.
The show was meant to bring attention to Mateluna’s plight and engage the audience into action. But the Supreme Court of Chile upheld the verdict against Mateluna and he remains incarcerated.
The theater company’s “failure” to get Mateluna out of prison left the collaborators to grapple with their purpose and focus. From this, their new show Dragón was born. In it, a group of artists meet to discuss their next installation and performance. It was inspired by, not only the Mateluna case and their play, but also the country’s tension over immigration, racialized police violence, fascism in nearby Brazil which they worried would spread to Chile, deep societal inequity, and crumbling faith in corrupt institutions.
Then their country exploded…only to have the pandemic sap the revolution of some of its power.
How do you make effective political art when you cannot even gather together?
It made me think about a Turkish theater group I met in 2014 who were trying to make work in the aftermath of the Erdoğan’s violent crackdown in Turkey. We talked about the Gezi Park/Taksim Square protests they had attended and the violence they witnessed.
They bought a space and were building a theater from the ground up. I was struck by how important it was to have a physical space to gather. But bringing a group of likeminded people together around ideas that challenge the status quo was exactly what had been so dangerous to the government.
And as I walked back to my hotel in Istanbul, I passed through Taksim Square. There was a police presence there, but you would not know what had gone on in that spot unless you had read about it. The government was certainly not erecting monuments to it. It was all meant to disappear. I realized how easy it was to erase dissent if you had enough power to do so.
It brought me back to Calderón’s footage in the film which focuses so often on street graffiti in Chile. If there cannot be people in the street, organized protest, or theater, maybe these spray-painted messages of revolt, rebellion, and resistance can survive. He has at least preserved them on film.
But governments have other ways to quell these voices. Calderón explains that the Chilean government’s response to the pandemic was not to institute a lockdown or quarantine. Instead, the poorest and most vulnerable were still forced to go to work every day and risk being infected. If the protests were in part about societal inequity, here the government was using that inequity against the people. If you let the virus attack the working class, you don’t have to do so yourself. What a cruel and violent way to weaken political opposition.
As a short film, The Return of the Dragon is heavily explanatory (but frankly I needed the context and then some). It feels interstitial. But what doesn’t right now? We are all in this strange pause–even if we are working and making work–because live performance in a shared space remains at a distance.
But what the next phase of theater looks like depends on artists engaging in this kind of introspection. All these successes, failures, opportunities, and setbacks are churning within them waiting to be unleashed. For Calderón, there’s no just going about making a show like before. It’s not like it was at all.
I have been ambivalent about what I want from theater when it returns. But I am absolutely sure I want Calderón and company to show me their vision of it.
Note: on both nights, there will be a live post-film discussion over Zoom with Calderón and Jennifer Thompson, lecturer in the Theatre Arts and Latin American and Latinx Studies Programs at the University of Pennsylvania.