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/ARTS WEEKLY/ THEATRE-CHILE: Transvestites Trade Streets for Footlights

Gustavo González

SANTIAGO, Oct 28 2003 (IPS) - The "First Transgender Theatre Company" in Chile has become a reality, providing an opportunity for its members to make a living in the arts of the stage instead of the sex industry, often the only means of subsistence in a society that discriminates against sexual minorities.

Cecilia, Anais Tiare, Juana Iris and La Negra are the four transvestites who play the female roles in "De remolienda", to premiere in January at the Carlos Cariola Theatre in Santiago.

It will be the first season for this unique troupe, which made its public debut in June, performing before an audience of 1,000 on International Day for the Rights of Sexual Minorities, in an event organised by the municipality of Cerro Navia, in northern Santiago.

Since then, the group has continued to work with professor and theatre director Luis Galán, preparing for the "sneak preview" this month at the Carlos Cariola Theatre, a venue provided free of charge by the Chilean Theatre Artists Society.

Such is the outcome of an idea that Evelyn Reyes, director of a health clinic, proposed one day to Juana Iris Rubio, president of TravesNavia, an organisation of transvestites in Cerro Navia.

TravesNavia is a not-for-profit group that defends the rights of sexual minorities and organises cultural activities, as well as holding workshops on HIV/AIDS prevention for transvestites who engage in prostitution.

The Movement for Homosexual Integration and Liberation (MOVILH) has joined forces with the group, helping hire director Galán and Mauricio Roa, Pablo Suárez and Adolfo Sáez, professional actors who will play the male roles in "De remolienda".

The play is an adaptation of "La remolienda", by Alejandro Sieveking, which marked a turning point in Chilean theatre when it was first staged in 1964 by then-novice director Víctor Jara, the singer-songwriter assassinated by the dictatorship’s forces after the Sep. 11, 1973 military coup.

In a conversation with IPS, Galán explained that his motivation for taking part in this initiative at first was money. "I was hired to give acting classes and to direct. But at the end of that project there was something more. A bond was established with ‘the girls’ through their devotion to acting and their enthusiasm."

"I fell in love with this job when I invited them to Sala Arenas (a theatre in Santiago) to see a play of mine. For them, it was the first time in their lives that they saw real theatre. They were fascinated and they projected that feeling," he added.

The theatre professor is excited about his experience with the "First Transgender Theatre Company", even though in working with the new actors he had to start from scratch.

"I am pleased with the results in terms of education, and even more so with the artistic quality. There are some rough spots, but that is normal, because training an actor takes at least four years, and then one never stops learning."

"After six months, we have been able to get them going. They have natural acting talent. Inhibition is not a problem for ‘the girls’ precisely because of the kind of life they have had to lead. Usually the hardest thing to do with a new actor is to overcome inhibition," said Galán.

In contrast with the fluidity achieved on the artistic side, the troupe’s institutional side has been difficult, says MOVILH president Rolando Jiménez, blaming it on discrimination against sexual minorities.

MOVILH, seen as the "political arm" of the movement of gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender Chileans, initially contacted the Gabriela Mistral Cultural Centre, linked to the Christian Democrat Party, in search of a theatre to stage the preview of the play.

"I spoke with the centre’s executive director, Ana María Ortiz, who thought the idea was interesting. She even gave me a date for when the theatre wasn’t already reserved and said she would take our request to the board," Jiménez said.

"But a few days later they said the theatre was booked. That was the official explanation that Ms. Ortiz gave us. The board obligated her to lie to us," said the activist.

"The Gabriela Mistral Centre defines itself as a humanist and Christian cultural corporation, but their attitude was neither humanist or Christian," he commented.

"The creation of this theatre company is an experience that attempts to boost the quality of life of people who traditionally have been rejected and discriminated against by a large portion of society. ‘The girls’ want to turn this into a skill so that they can leave the sex industry," explained Jiménez.

For the homosexual rights movement, art is a powerful tool for communication and social insertion, he said. On Gay Pride Day last year, a performance in Santiago’s Plaza de Armas of "Fragmentos", based on poems written by gays and lesbians, left an audience of 4,000 speechless.

Jiménez recalls the impact of that event, and says it laid the groundwork so that something like the transvestite theatre company could exist.

The true test comes in January, when the troupe will begin the theatre season as professionals. Galán is confident that they will be successful enough to extend the performances beyond the four weeks scheduled so far.

"We are hooked for the long haul. We dared create the company and now we have to continue on as long as possible. At some point we will get sick of ‘De remolienda’. So then we will just have to stage a different play," said the director.

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