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It is our very own Manuel Ortiz who is the director and author of the play "American Dream" which is showing at Teatro Latea until Sept 24th. The following is a conversation between Manuel and Maria P. Vila, a Chilean artist who designed the set. 

Maria: Where did you get the idea for the play?


Manuel: I wrote the first version, Sueño Americano in 2009 in Chile. I remember that there were a couple of things in my mind that somehow came together to create the world of the play. I was interested in the idea of lucid dreams and oneironauts (dream astronauts), the ones who explore the universe of a dream. I was also interested in designing a play that creates a reality and then destroys it to create the next one and so on. Finally, as always Hamlet was on my mind, so I thought about what if I run into my dad in a dream, what would that look like? That was the first scene/dream I wrote. Then, “Life is a Dream” came into the picture and the prompt or main question became clear, what if Segismundo was trapped in a tiny apartment in a city in the XXI century? What would be the dreams and nightmares that haunt him?

Manuel: What struck you about the text that made you want to work on this project?

Maria: When you sent me your text my first thought was "Miercale, this has lots of pages, many characters, pure and hard dialogue, a traditional dramaturgical structure .... I hope my friend doesn't go off the deep end" And it didn't, on the contrary! I think it is a text that progressively advances in a very solid way. The treatment of the theme is clever. Without abandoning the weight of its content, it suggests a dramatic action that, when framed in a dreamlike context, relieves its own existential load while strengthening it from the irony. And as a Chilean migrant artist in the U.S. I felt my story was very much interpreted. That political commitment sold me and I signed onto the project.

And as I was telling you some time ago, perhaps because of my reading comprehension difficulties, I have developed a system of reading in images. So, when I approach a text, I am not left with the content, but with the visual symbols. In the case of “American Dream”, it was the door that invited me to enter, because it struck me as an extremely tactile, simple and poetic element. Then, the tiny size of the apartment suggested to me a super clear spatial context, and then I started to see shadows projecting on the floor of that small apartment in NYC and I fell in love with what could happen, and I said: I want to do this live installation! 

Maria: What has it meant for your personal processes to see this story, which I guess is your own story, externalized in a text that, in addition, takes on the dimension of a play? 

Manuel: It’s not my own story, but it’s really close, jajaja. In the first version, I think the story was further from my story; I actually took a couple of close friends as inspiration. But when I rewrote it in 2021 in the middle of the pandemic, the prompt was closer to home, what if Segismundo was a Latin, queer, immigrant, trapped in a tiny apartment in New York city in the XXI century, what would be the dreams and nightmares that haunt him? Still, there is a lot of fiction in the play, and also I tried to create open spaces while directing to allow different interpretations. For this, it was crucial to work with Rachel Shuey as co-director to have a different perspective on the play. Ultimately, I think I always work somehow from my own experiences. I also do a lot of Documentary Theater, so I don’t mind being close to the material; I think I kind of need it.

Maria: In relation to the first version in Chile and this second version in NYC. As a director, what are the main changes and challenges you feel the play must go through when presented in these two very different contexts? 

Manuel: By now, I think that Sueño Americano and American Dream are two completely different creatures. But also, they both are rooted in Chilean political history, and I think that was the challenge in terms of storytelling, because in Chile everyone knows the history but in New York you have to give enough information for the play to make sense.  Also, the concept of the American dream in Chile is way different than here in NYC, so the symbolism is unique, and the references you use to talk with the actors are different. 

Manuel: How was your process of conceiving the space?

Maria: I did a first reading and wrote a list of the elements that remained in my head. For me, the transcendental symbols that appear in the first reading are the key elements, those that I have to fight for when the ego gets involved and wants to eliminate them. The first reading is unprejudiced, not seeking, but discovering! Therefore, all the findings that appear are raw material, pure truth. From my first reading, as I said before, what stayed with me was the door, the tower of Segismundo, a fire escape, the chaos, and the light, because this is a city of light.  Then I elaborated the visual construction, balancing the elements that the directors wanted on stage with those that for me were essential: my findings. 

Manuel: What was the difference between the creation of this space and the creation of the spaces you build for your installations?

Maria: Theatrical design for me is a dream. It is a living installation where a dramatic event occurs. And my installation work has a lot to do with theater. I don't create an installation to be contemplated by the spectators but to be inhabited by the participants. This characteristic derives from my connection with the notion of coexistence, which you get in the theater between the audience and performers. 
Creating a space for the scenic event to unfold requires an understanding of the drama that will take place there, and since you know the text, you can include directed and limited symbolic “games”. You define the space, you create the context.  On the contrary, in the creation of my installations, the symbolic game emerges from uncertainty since it is only determined in relation to the audience and the specific space where it is exhibited. The context determines the result, and you cannot control it at all. The only thing I know when I’m presenting an installation, is that I need to offer a reason for people to get actively involved in the alchemy to create the dramatic situation, whatever it may be.

Maria: The play was rehearsed in 2 weeks, when in Chile plays are rehearsed over at least 3 months. How do you inhabit this situation of temporality in relation to the creative process?  What are the pros and cons you see in this? 

Manuel: It wasn’t as stressful as I thought it would be. This is my third show in the States, so I was more at ease with the whole time-crunch situation, though I’m still getting over the cultural shock of the American model of theater production, not that in Chile we are doing great, because clearly we aren’t. Nevertheless, I think the big con of this model is that the director doesn't have any time to experiment, to try new things, there is little room for mistakes, and that is the worst thing for a creative process. It’s kind of efficient, sure, but it’s hard to create when you’re trying to be efficient. 

Maria: About the choice of language. Why did you decide to have the actors speak all the time in English? What possibilities do you see in this city to make plays only for a Spanish-speaking audience?

Manuel: On one hand it was a way to challenge myself and see if I was capable of writing a play in English. On the other hand, I’m aware of the market in this city, meaning that if you write in English there are many more possibilities to grow. However, there are a few theaters that work with Spanish plays and they do a wonderful job.  I want to keep writing and directing in English, and also, I’m one hundred percent sure that I’ll keep writing and directing in Spanish as well.

Manuel: What was it like to work in theater again?

Maria: For some time now, I have been re-encountering the idea of theater. I suppose that being more sedentary than before, the possibility of getting into the tempo of theater seems more feasible, but it is also because the stage is a field that allows me to unite all my practices and I am eager to experiment in relation to that. Coming back was invigorating because I was a bit rusty in practice, yet I felt that the language had not abandoned me. I had a professor in drama school who kept parroting the phrase "the theater abandons you". I think this return to the theater showed me that this is not so.

Manuel: What are your future projects?

Maria: I'm going to start a residency process through a Mercury Store program called Directing Lab. It's a great program because there are 6 directors who are offered space and actors to EXPERIMENT (it seems like a dream) but also there are meetings in which they share and discuss the progress and that has an academic character that I need at this time. To speak again with the language of theater, to think again about creation from the present, through the body of another (actor), to get back into the construction mechanisms of the scenic, etc. I am very excited because I will be able to re-oil the gears as a director and also challenge all the practice I have done in recent years and marrying it with this new context.

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Ph Joseph Cochran

Ph Joseph Cochran

Ph Joseph Cochran

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