If a tree created a stage play featuring human characters, what would it look like? That is the playful and subversive challenge launched by the Chilean artist Manuela Infante.
What if a tree created a stage play featuring human characters? What would a plant tell us about our world? About human interactions? About power? That is the philosophical and subversive challenge posed by the fascinating Manuela Infante, a prolific Chilean artist making her FTA début.
The only thing left that can tell the story of an accident on a stormy night is a plant. With a handful of characters, all admirably played by Marcela Salinas, the tale takes shape, rising upward and branching out like a weeping willow. Not just humans and other animals can think, communicate, feel emotions, but plants as well. But what is a plant conscious of? What does it think about? How does it imagine time? Space? A fiction for our time composed by a marvellously unconventional imagination.
Produced by Teatro a Mil Foundation
Directed by Manuela Infante
Dramaturgy Manuela Infante + Marcela Salinas
Performed by Marcela Salinas
Set, Costume and Lighting Design Rocío Hernández
Props Design Ignacia Pizarro
Voice Pol del Sur
Production Manager Carmina Infante
Translated in English by Bruce Gibbons + Alex Ripp + British Council Chile
Co-produced by NAVE, Center for Creations and Residencies (Santiago)
Presented in association with Théâtre ESPACE GO
Written by Paul Lefebvre
Translated by Neil Kroetsch
Premiered at NAVE – Teatro a Mil Foundation, Santiago, on June 1, 2017
Manuela Infante (Santiago)
Born in 1980 in Santiago, Chile, the dramaturge, director and musician Manuela Infante studied theatre at the University of Chile, and cultural analysis at the University of Amsterdam.
For the past two decades she has been one of the leading lights in Chilean theatre, and has gained national and international renown.
In 2001 with former theatre school comrades, she founded the ironically named Teatro de Chile and served as its artistic director. Its first presentation, Prat, a retelling of the life of Chilean national hero Arturo Prat, created controversy with its feminist, postcolonial approach, using deliberately burlesque humour to call into question the logocentric nature of power. Plays such as Juana (Joan of Arc, 2003), Rey Planta (2006, a king of Nepal and the notion of invisible power) and Cristo (the life of Jesus, 2008) followed in that vein.
Nourished by the thinking of philosophers like Jacques Derrida, Donna Haraway, Jean Baudrillard, Jane Bennett, Michael Marder, Rosi Braidotti, Michael Taussig, Jean-Luc Nancy and Gilles Lipovetsky, Manuela Infante and her company portrayed philosophical essays in theatrical form.
In works such as Don’t Feed the Humans (presented at Hebbel am Uffer in Berlin, 2012) and Zoo (2013), she probed the commodification of humanity. In the final Teatro de Chile presentation Realismo (2016), she challenged the idea of humanity as the only measure for everything. Working now as an independent artist, she continues to question our anthropocentric worldview.
For the past twenty years your stage works have defied expectations. How would you describe your approach? What is the driving force behind your work?
My main interests before I focused on theatre were, and still are, music and philosophy. Initially I never thought that theatre would allow me to explore both those fields. I read a lot of philosophy; it’s where I find inspiration, which I don’t find in stories or fiction. But with an academic approach to philosophy, there is no room for mystery.
Theatre is an art that embraces the complexity of the world, mysteries included. I like theatre for its complexity.
It is a form that can embody basic philosophical questions: What is reality? What is history? What is humanity? Through these questions, theatre allows us to probe mystery, to reach for the limit of what we can comprehend and acknowledge too that which we cannot comprehend. it touches mystery. It allows me to dance around things I can’t quite put my finger on.
A stage play is a way of experiencing the world on a small scale.
The themes in my work over the past twenty years are history, a postcolonial approach, feminism and the decentering of discourse and recognition of the non-human. All that is also nourished by the current political situation in Chile where the country, victim of extreme neoliberalism, has exploded. There is tremendous tension, but there’s a certain beauty in it.
Theatre for me is a device for thinking musically, not only with the intellect but also with the body.
You have stated that Estado vegetal was not a play about plants, but a plant-like play.
Seven or eight years ago I felt that mere criticism and a cynical worldview had become somewhat sterile politically. I believe we need to start practicing new political and economic models, and my work with the non-human affords such explorations in the theatrical arena.
My first problem was: What right do I have to speak for someone – or something- else, even if it has no voice? How do I avoid imposing my own human voice on the non-human? I decided to reverse my approach.
Instead of investing objects or plants with the power of speech, why not let them lay seige to me?
The non-human – animal, but also vegetal life and minerals – is organized by all sorts of surprising structures, providing us with millions of extraordinary models. The distributed organization of tasks in plants offers an alternative model of organization and governance that can help us redefine relationships, communities or, for that matter, the structure of a theatre project.
Generally speaking, in the theatre the lighting serves the actors and follows them. In Estado vegetal, on the contrary, it is the actor who goes toward the light, imitating phototropism, the growth or movement of plants toward light.
Using the specific features of plants – or of rocks – to rethink the world seemed to me to be more politically pertinent than theatre based on a traditional critical approach. It is not a play arguing in favour of a healthier ecology, or that makes demands on behalf of plants. It simply tries to imitate plants, to find that which is vegetal in us, and how that can help us imagine being other.
How did you create this performance?
We are a small group of women. We began by sharing books and articles we had read. Our task was provoked and nourished by the writings of the philosopher Michael Marder, who states that to recognize a valid « other » in plants is to also recognize the vegetal « other » within us, that human thinking is altered by its encounter with the vegetal world.
In fact, human beings are partly made of plant genomes. It is a matter of rediscovering our roots. We also worked with the botanist Stefano Mancuso, a pioneer in the field of vegetal neurology, an area of research that has shown that plants are cognitive (therefore intelligent) organisms that can « communicate » among themselves.
How is a plant organized? How does a tree behave? What about them can we reproduce or imitate? With my co-author, the actress Marcela Salinas, we worked by means of improvisations, a stream of consciousness that engages the body and speech. It is a very slow process, spread out over some months.
The really piece took shape when we began working on the concept of embranchment, a basic fundamental in plants, so that one character leads to another, thereby creating new ways of telling the story. That is a necessary step, because the Western critical approach is drawing to an end. In that respect, our work is akin to a feminist way of thinking.
The writer Ursula Le Guin noted that dominant traditional narratives came from hunters and stories of the hunt. What about gatherers, harvesters? That said, what would vegetal or post-human narratives be like?