By Milena Grass Kleiner, Andrés Kalawski, Cristián Opazo, and Alexei Vergara


Theatre Factories for a New Country

At the end of 2012, the Pontifical Catholic University of Chile (UC) established the first Chilean PhD program in Theatre Studies. In March of 2013, this program welcomed its first intake of PhD students in the context of a broader interdisciplinary initiative that also brings together music and visual arts. The fact that Chilean theatre-makers and artists have been trained for more than seventy-five years in specialized academic departments embedded in the university system led to this new graduate program offering both practice-led and theoretical models for students’ research projects.1 Our essay explores the leading role that this graduate program and its institutional background plays in nurturing a new context for artistic practice and research in the local cultural landscape. And, as Marvin Carlson might put it, today this landscape is haunted by hopes and fears, anxieties and misunderstandings (96) induced both by history and by the establishment of two new ministries as part of the Chilean government: the Ministry of Cultures, Arts and Heritage (2017), and the Ministry of Science, Technology, Knowledge, and Innovation (2018). When the country’s elite increasingly promotes the creative industriesdiscourse replacing the arts and humanities as autonomous disciplines with an end in themselves, what role could a PhD program in theatre studies play? What clashes could there be between the public policies generated by these ministries and the Chilean tradition developed by university theatre companies embedded in university departments? Or, following Shannon Jackson’s argument in Professing Performance, how can we honor our history? (40). With the following piece we wish to articulate these questions further.

A Nation Is Born (and Theatre Has a Role to Play)

To understand the role universities have played as artistic agents in Chilean history, let us look back before we move forward. In 1818, the Chilean founding father, Bernardo O’Higgins, commissioned the first theatre production ever performed in the recently established Chilean republic. According to national mythology, the opening night of this play celebrated two events: the proclamation of Chilean independence from the Spanish Crown and—above all—O’Higgins’ birthday. At around the same time, Fray Camilo Henríquez, editor of the first Chilean newspaper—La Aurora de Chile [Chile’s Dawn], established in 1812—published Camila o la patriota de Sud-América [Camilla or the South-American Patriot (1818)], a play which expressed Henríquez’s liberal ideas and his own understanding of the theatre as a political tool. Whether or not we believe in these mythologies, both anecdotes illuminate the location of theatre in modern Chile: at that time, politicians and public intellectuals perceived the notion of culture as an essential element for the growth of the republic. In the eighteenth century, Spanish authorities in Chile transformed the theatre into “the most defended public entertainment, encouraged by the rulers and Enlightenment philosophers” (Grass, Hausdorf, and Nicholls n.p.). Then, “theatre seemed an efficient means for civilizing and educating citizens” (Viqueira 53, qtd. in Grass, Hausdorf, and Nicholls n.p.; our translation).

The collaboration between the nation-state and the theatre scene remained active during the first decades of the twentieth century. In 1910, to celebrate the centenary of national independence, president Pedro Montt ordered the publication of an edited volume of Chilean plays (Anthology of Chilean Theatre: 1810–1910). Additionally, Adolfo Urzúa—a dentist, playwright and pioneer of the local entertainment industry—invented an innovative educational strategy: a model for the study of rhetoric which was to become very influential in Chile. Inspired in dramatic training skills, Urzúa imagined his model as a vehicle to the propagation of civic values in the public sphere, such as, for instance, in state schools (Kalawski n.p.).

The Origins: A Conservatoire within a University?

In the 1930s, several Chilean universities—de Chile, Católica, and Concepción, among others—saw the birth of many amateur theatre companies, mostly influenced by European troupes that toured Latin America after escaping from geopolitical catastrophes, such as great civil and world wars. Spanish Civil War refugees had a remarkable impact on Chilean theatre: following Alejandro Casona, Spanish refugees expanded the idea of a theatre involved with popular culture and political activism. Simultaneously, the social-democrat government led by Frente Popular (1938–41) saw in the work of universities an instrument to contribute to the development and modernization of the nation-state. Thus in this historical moment, from the late 1930s onwards, the abovementioned universities started a process of institutionalization of the amateur theatre companies that had formed within their institutional frameworks. According to the universities’ “plan,” these now-professionalized troupes could accomplish, better than anyone, one critical mission, namely to spread the seeds of a new political horizon in the form of theatrical performances. And it is not unfounded to say that those theatrical seeds flourished twenty years later within the work and reforms carried out by the left-wing governments of the 1960s and ’70s, known as Revolución en Libertad [Revolution in Freedom] or Unidad Popular [Popular Unity].2 Consequently, from this perspective, the companies Teatro Experimental (established in 1941) at Universidad de Chile and Teatro de Ensayo (established in 1943) at Pontificia Universidad Católica de Chile, which were most active in the late 1950s and ’60s, must be considered genuine laboratories or factories where theatre students and scholars carefully crafted sophisticated embodied allegories of the country they dreamt about. The goal was at once to promote reforms and ideals among the people of all social spheres and start debates about them among the elites. Many of the plays created in this period were highly popular and critically acclaimed (Kalawski, Opazo, and Grass 170).3

The best example of a production in this period is the premiere of play called La Pérgola de las Flores [The Flower Pergola] by Isidora Aguirre (playwright) and Francisco Flores del Campo (musician). Shaped as a Broadway musical with Brecht-inspired texts, the play portrays a mobilization led by women florists from Santiago’s flower market. The florists—supported by a college student federation—manage to stop the construction of a new street that could destroy the market. At every level, La Pérgola de las Flores embodied the allegory we just mentioned: on the one hand, the playwright and the musician have different political viewpoints (the former was very conservative; the latter, an active communist); on the other hand, the plot represents an alliance of two different federations (women florists and college students). Together, conservatives and communists, workers and college students can change the cartography of the modern city.

Chilean Dictatorship, Always a Turning Point

As years passed by, the university-based academies became official theatre schools within their institutions: theatre companies Experimental and Ensayo soon became proper theatre departments (1949 and 1945, respectively).4 And this model of theatre laboratories was quickly replicated in other institutions located across the country: universities of Concepción (1945), Técnica del Estado (1958), and Antofagasta (1962).

However, the dream slowly faded away. This social project was crushed down on September 11, 1973, when a civic-military coup overthrew the presidency of Salvador Allende, the first socialist president ever elected. The leftist project was replaced with a dictatorship, and a neoliberal model was put in place by the young Chilean economists, known as Chicago Boys, who had studied with Milton Friedman in Chicago and were based at the Universidad Católica de Chile. The educational paradigm described above suffered the consequences of political turmoil in many different ways. From a political point of view, universities were infiltrated by loyalists; senior managers were designated by the military Government; professors and students were investigated, detained, tortured, imprisoned exiled and killed; censorship and self-censorship were imposed. Private universities were given green light in the 1980s and the business of higher education was established, growing to become one of the most expensive university systems in the world. After the military coup, Pinochet’s regime—supported by the United States in the context of the Cold War—imposed a neoliberal system through what Naomi Klein called “shock doctrine” (59). Hence, during the dictatorship period, Chilean university campuses—like many other civic spaces—were turned in to scenarios of cruel performances and brutal dismantlement: libraries were burned down, theatre repertories censored. In the name of the free market, state violence destroyed the seeds of the country many Chileans were hoping for (Opazo 2014, 46–48).5

While in the past universities had functioned under a paradigm that considered it the keystone for transmitting democratic values and granting social mobility, after the coup, higher education became an individual investment towards a better salary: trading degrees with the promise of better jobs. When the democratic vote was restored, and Patricio Aylwin was elected president in 1990, bringing the dictatorship period to an end, there was no provision for free higher education in the country.

A New Century, a New Institutional Paradigm: New Challenges?

Because the Chilean higher education ecosystem is based on lengthy and expensive mono-disciplinary five-year BA programs, graduate studies in the field of arts offer limited possibilities. As things stand, we only have two graduate programs in this field in the country: a PhD in Art Theory at Universidad de Chile (established in 2001), and the interdisciplinary PhD in Arts at UC (established in 2012), which offers pathways in theoretical research or as practice-based research in theatre, visual arts, and music.

In Chile, there are three circumstances that might explain the slow path of development for graduate programs in the field of arts. On the one hand, there are more than twenty theatre schools which offer undergraduate programs in performing arts in our country, but they are mostly shaped as conservatoires that train actors to serve a fragile industry—until today, these theatre schools follow the university model installed in the 1940s. On the other hand, in Chile, local cultural industries depend on government grants. Surprisingly, even big institutions such as the National Museum of Fine Arts need to apply for public funds. As celebrated theatre designer Ramón López has remarked, “the market is too small and does not generate enough income to grow or to be influential” (qtd. in Grass, Hausdorf, and Nicholls n.p.). Independent companies have to compete for a few grants against other small troupes and public institutions. Even well-established companies, after obtaining funds, have to raise further money by organizing parties or music gigs in venues such as underground clubs to make ends meet.

Last but not least, the public role of universities has changed due to the influence of the neoliberal free market economy. In the 1940s, universities and their theatres were genuine factories where actors and playwrights outlined the cultural geography of the new nation. Today—as Bill Reading states—in a post-national world, universities are not useful to the global flows of capitalism (121). Consequently, for those public national universities that still remained, theatre companies became expensive and obsolete organizations. Is it possible to re-start the development of research projects from this rotten state of affairs?

In 2018, two new ministries were created in Chile: the Ministry of Cultures, Arts and Heritage––stemming from the Council of the Arts and Culture––and the Ministry of Science, Technology, Knowledge, and Innovation, offering a different landscape for the development of the arts. In the last few months, the creation of these new government departments has sparked a debate on the role that arts and humanities will play in the new configuration of public administration. The people in charge of the new Ministry of Science—Carolina Torrealba and Andrés Couve—have emphasized the importance of cross-fertilization among different disciplines to make a distinctive improvement in the state of local research (qtd. in Sepúlveda and Yañez paras. 5–6). Furthermore, they have underlined the role of the arts in the development of creative industries. However, after their encouraging statements, legislators went on to use the terms “arts and humanities” as simple rhetorical resources to prove the broad and inclusive nature of their approach. If we look at the documents that serve as the conceptual basis of the new institutional paradigm, our disciplines have become shallow accessories in a pragmatic discourse. Let us quote a paragraph from the report A Shared Dream for Chile’s Future, from a study commissioned by former President Michelle Bachelet in 2015:

Hence, it is important to create a culture of innovation and opening spaces in which communication among different areas of knowledge, such as social sciences, humanities, arts, natural science, agricultural science, medical science, and engineering and technology can address the complex problems and issues which the country faces through a multidisciplinary and collaborative approach.

(34; our translation)

Despite this strong statement, in the following pages of the report, the words arts and humanities are completely absent from the list of “national priorities”––but arts and humanities were included in the jurisdiction of the Ministry of Science at the end of a long legislative debate, almost as an afterthought. Hence, there are two broad opinions regarding the inclusion of arts and humanities within said ministry. Some may think that arts and humanities have been summoned simply to legitimize a political discourse, which otherwise would have turned out shallow and petty. Others may feel, with the same level of suspicion, that these disciplines are being co-opted by the new ministry so as to coerce them into the shadow of the so-called “creative economies” discourse (Howkins 82).

No matter which of these alternatives proves to be right, the fact is that artists and scholars are facing a rare chance to participate in a foundational moment. We face two alternatives. The first is to force the new institutional framework to answer questions such as: What does the government need from art education? What type of art departments do they envisage? Do they expect world-class conservatories or general programs developing skills demanded by the so-called “creative industries”? These questions expose the fact that the location of arts and humanities is always determined by geopolitical processes. In 2010, Chile joined the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), which gathers countries committed to liberal democracy and the free market. In the sphere of higher education, the OECD promotes a specific kind of research aiming at fostering economic development (R&D). Its “Guidelines for Collecting and Reporting Data on Research and Experimental Development” are summarized in a handbook entitled Frascati Manual. In its foreword, this handbook states: “[t]oday’s R&D statistics are the result of the systematic development of surveys based on the Frascati Manual and are now part of the statistical system of the OECD member countries” (Opazo, “El lugar,” 4). The Frascati Manual covers three types of research activities––basic research, applied research, and experimental development––however, it emphasizes that “[a]rtistic performance is normally excluded from R&D. Artistic performances fail the novelty test of R&D as they are looking for a new expression, rather than for new knowledge. Also, the reproducibility criterion (how to transfer the additional knowledge potentially produced) is not met” (65).

Fig. 1. Trewa, written and directed by Paula González Seguel, Teatro UC (2019), is the result of a research project where Mapuche communities worked together with an interdisciplinary group of theatre artists and anthropologists, among other researchers from the Interdisciplinary Centre of Interdisciplinary Indigenous Research at UP.
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Fig. 1.

Trewa, written and directed by Paula González Seguel, Teatro UC (2019), is the result of a research project where Mapuche communities worked together with an interdisciplinary group of theatre artists and anthropologists, among other researchers from the Interdisciplinary Centre of Interdisciplinary Indigenous Research at UP.

(Source: © Office of Communications, Theatre UC.)


In light of this paradox, recently, scholars teaching on the PhD program in Arts at UC started an endowed research project named Millennium Nucleus on Art, Performativity, and Activism (NMAPA). Through NMAPA, we are leading a collective effort to answer a question that honours our tradition: What can theatre studies do today in the public sphere? Our hypothesis states that by analysing how citizenship is performed in the public space today we could understand the new strategies of social organization necessary to mass participation, the re-signification of traditional tropes of individual and collective identity, and the efficacy-entertainment dyad of symbolic and aesthetic resources to promote social change. The understanding of creative processes and aesthetic devices used both in social manifestations and artistic works will then serve the design of various activities focused on embodied practices that will strengthen the new Chilean state school plan for citizenship development. Looking for synergies, we are also working with the theatre at our university—Theatre UC. Nowadays, our theatre offers a series of plays resulting from research projects started with local communities (fig. 1). One such play is Trewa. Estado—Nación o el espectro de la traición (Trewa. State—nation or the spectre of treason). The play, written and directed by Paula González Seguel explores the conflict between the Chilean state and the Mapuche people in southern Chile. Framed as documentary theatre, the play uses research from CIIR (Centro de Estudios Interculturales e Indígenas) and uses the voice of an anthropologist explaining the framework of her research combined with live music. Thus the play is not only based on research––using it as a tool for gaining insight on a topic––but it also showcases the research process and its importance.

The historical timeline that we traced in this essay shows how Chilean theatre has always been construed as a space for social and political activism, from Independence until today. In this history, the dictatorship era was the darkest hour. Pinochet’s regime attempted to destroy the understanding of theatre as the place where a new country could be imagined. We believe theatre can still be the factory for the design of a broader political horizon.



1. In tune with the universitas tradition, the curricula includes not only acting, voice, and movement, but also theatre history and theory, and general courses to be chosen among other disciplines (Vergara 72). This was a case of aiming for holistic professionals, but starting from the embodied disciplines traditionally at the edge of academia and moving toward the center.

2. Revolution in Freedom and Popular Unity are the colloquial names usually employed to refer to the left-wing governments of Eduardo Frei (1964–70) and Salvador Allende (1970–73)—the latter, member of the Socialist Party; the former of the Christian Democracy. The political reforms carried out during both periods—the land reform (1962–73) and the nationalization of copper mines (1971), among others—were cruelly dismantled by Pinochet’s regime.

3. As Piña points out, between 1946 and 1950 many of the founders of both university academies (Agustín Siré, Roberto Parada and María Maluenda, Domingo Tessier and Bélgica Castro, Pedro Orthous and Fernando Debesa, Pedro de la Barra, Pedro Mortheiru, Eugenio Dittborn, María Asunción Requena) traveled abroad, especially to London, but also to France and New York, looking for artistic and educational models that would foster the development of modern Chilean theatre (402).

4. According to Gabriela Roepke—one of the founder members of Teatro de Ensayo—each of these academies had different goals: while the University of Chile fostered the development of a national playwriting, Pontificia Universidad Católica de Chile was more focused on actor training.

5. In the following years, most university theatre companies were forced to close. Despite this hostile landscape, theatre companies Experimental and Ensayo continued to offer a wide array of productions featuring Western classics. For example, Shakespeare’s Hamlet and Calderón de la Barca’s La vida es sueño (Life is a Dream) were frequently staged and viewed by Chilean intellectuals as allegories of authoritarianism.


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