Civil Society, Headlines, Human Rights, Latin America & the Caribbean

THEATRE-CHILE: Enter Salvation, Stage Right

Daniela Estrada

SANTIAGO, Jan 16 2007 (IPS) - Among the profusion of plays on offer in the Chilean capital in the new year is a festival of moving dramas in which the actors are convicts and slum-dwellers, who are trying to escape marginalisation by going on the stage.

The first festival of art, testimonial theatre and rehabilitation, “Soul Scenes” (“Escenarios del Alma”), opened on Jan. 4 and has a cast of over 100, none of whom are professional actors.

The festival was organised by the Cultural Corporation of Artists for Rehabilitation and Social Reinsertion through Art (COARTRE), headed by actress Jacqueline Roumeau, and financed by the regional government of Santiago, the capital of this South American country of 15.6 million people.

Until Jan. 10 the plays were performed free of charge in a small theatre in one of the subway stations in Santiago. Then the production moved to the headquarters of Telefónica, a Spanish transnational corporation.

One of the five plays in the festival, which has had great success with audiences, is “Chilean People’s Stories”, which is nothing other than a string of tales, some funny and others sad, about ordinary people, with as many needs as dreams.

The drama of domestic violence and drug addiction mixes with passion for football and the cult of the Virgin Mary. A range of other issues crop up as well, such as unemployment, crime, infidelity, corruption and the victims of the late general Augusto Pinochet’s dictatorship (1973-1990).

The performers attend the Community Mental Health Centre (COSAM) in the shanty- town of Puente Alto in southeast Santiago. Among them is a young man who stutters, whose character kills 10 people standing in the same tedious queue: a crude image of modern-day loss of control of the kind reflected in the U.S. film “Falling Down”.

“People of all ages, who come from therapeutic communities, (drug and alcohol) rehabilitation centres and juvenile detention centres, as well as ex-convicts are acting in the festival plays,” Roumeau, the executive president of COARTRE which was founded in 2001, told IPS.

Roumeau began working with inmates at a women’s prison in the northern region of Antofagasta in 1998. There she produced “Pabellón II – Rematadas” with a cast of former drug traffickers, which has been performed in several of the country’s prisons.

In 2001 she produced and directed the popular play “Colina 1: Tierra de Nadie”, (“Colina 1: No Man’s Land”), performed by convicts in one of the two prisons in the municipality of Colina, in north Santiago.

COARTRE organised the first Festival of Prison Theatre in 2002 and held a workshop in the women’s prison of Londrina, in the southern Brazilian state of Paraná. The following year, “Colina 1: No Man’s Land” was presented at the International Theatre Festival in Paraná, as well as in three prisons in Argentina.

Today, the amateur actors and actresses in both plays are free, and have taken their place in society. Some work at COARTRE, and others at private companies that support the work of this not-for-profit corporation.

Roumeau explained that the plays were created by an unprecedented methodology called Testimonial Prison Theatre, which has five phases: knowledge, collective creation, play-writing, staging, and production and publicity.

“When I began to work with the testimonies of the jailed women in Antofagasta, I realised that it was a methodology that was useful therapeutically, to raise people’s self-esteem,” she commented.

“We worked with their dreams, sorrows, joys of the past, present and future. There is a journey that can sometimes take one to the aspects of life one has locked away, and then there’s a catharsis,” said Roumeau, for whom the plays are not only good social work but have artistic value.

The same process was applied to create the plays in the “Soul Scenes” festival. But unlike their initial work, which sought to rehabilitate prisoners, COARTRE’s present goal is to start prevention work among high-risk groups.

“El pueblo de la alegría” (“The Joyful Village”), “Knock Out”, “Trato familiar” (“Treated Like One of the Family”), “El Chile de allá atrás” (“That Chile Back There”), and “Alma de padre, ojos de niño” (“A Father’s Soul, a Boy’s Eyes”), are the titles of some of the other plays in this summer festival. Each of them was born out of the testimonies of people who come from eight municipalities in Chile.

About “Knock Out”, staged by the municipal cultural centre in El Monte, which is nearly 50 kilometres southwest of the centre of the capital, Roumeau said “The people of El Monte feel a long way away from Santiago; they talk about how difficult it is to get work, and their transportation problems.” In “That Chile Back There” the actors are young offenders committed to facilities belonging to the government’s National Juvenile Service (SENAME), and they will be guarded by police during their participation in the festival.

One of the actors in “Colina 1: No Man’s Land”, David Ibarra, 31, told IPS that theatre had helped him “to wake up, open my mental channels, become reconciled with myself and with society, to look for meaning in life.”

Ibarra was imprisoned in Colina for five years and a day, for a crime he didn’t want to describe, and it was there that he joined the theatre group organised by COARTRE. When he was released he joined the Corporation and he now works in the production department. In his view, the initiative led by Roumeau deserves the most fervent support and dedication.

COARTRE is financed by participating in competitive projects and by carrying out training courses. For one year only, in 2005, it received a state subsidy. A continuation of such funding could increase the number of vulnerable people rehabilitated through art.

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