The Bolivian actor, who starred in the critically acclaimed film “Undertow,” talks to Entremares Magazine about the art of play, his fears, joys and aversions, and the woman who plunged him into the theater world.
by Suan Pineda
Para leer la entrevista en Español, hacer click aquí
For being the preeminent contemporary actor of Bolivia, Cristian Mercado doesn’t like to call attention to himself. Mercado, who became known internationally for his starring role in the award-winning film “Undertow” and in Steven Soderbergh’s “Che: Part Two,” rarely keeps a photo of himself or even copies of his movies. “In that sense, I’m pretty messy,” he says with a chuckle when asked for press photos. Despite this messiness in self-promotion, Mercado juggles adroitly a prolific career in theater, film and music — and even founded a nonprofit that nurtures burgeoning theater artists in La Paz.
The 38-year-old Mercado, who has been immersed in the theater world for more than half his life, is perhaps the most salient representative of a generation of theater artists who are ushering in “interesting times” for the South American country’s theater scene. A “graduate” of the groundbreaking and internationally acclaimed theater company Teatro de los Andes, Mercado has played an active part in developing initiatives, collectives and companies that are changing the theater landscape in Bolivia, from both sides of the curtain. On one side, the nonprofit El Desnivel fosters emerging talent by producing new plays and offering workshops aimed at professionalizing the theater craft, from writing to acting to staging to promotion. On the other side, these efforts are molding the taste and theatergoing experience by creating and foregrounding alternative spaces for Bolivian-authored plays and cultivating and expanding the audience base.
For Mercado, who was born in the midst of one of the most politically tumultuous times in modern Bolivia plagued with dictatorships and military coups, and who has witnessed the rise of and eventual disenchantment with Evo Morales’ government, the principal role of an artist is to question. This inquiring eye toward societal conventions, systems of power and postmodern foreboding is a constant in his work as an actor (leading a gay-themed movie amid times of a heated gay-marriage debate), director (setting “The Birds” of Aristophanes within the context of contemporary Bolivian politics) and musician (he fronts an alternative rock band called Reverso). His goal, simply, is “to shake people’s foundations a bit,” he says.
Beyond this, however, Mercado’s allure as an artist lies in his apparent contradictions: He abhors plays with a message and yet submerges himself into pieces with a high political charge; he “hates” the military and yet labors to find a humanizing factor when playing a general in the film “Blackthorn”; he co-authored and directed a play that sets the spotlight on the role of actors, but his theater views deplore the glorification of the artist.
These, as we’ll see in this interview, are not contradictions but the nuanced shades of a restless and pragmatic artist who keeps his feet firmly on the ground.
Entremares Magazine (EM): Let’s begin with a question that sets the tone for this interview on acting and art, which in many instances imply a leap, a journey to new and perhaps unknown spaces. During the filming of “Undertow” in which you play a fisherman, how was your encounter as a Bolivian with the sea?
Cristian Mercado (CM): My encounter with the sea was marvelous. I love the sea, like all Bolivians do (laughs) … perhaps a bit more because the sea has almost become a sort of poetic image. The sea, from the time we are children, has been a fantastic and mythic thing. I’m grateful for what I do, that each job is an opportunity to discover a universe that I would have never thought I could know. [For example] I didn’t know how to scuba-dive, let alone how to fish, but when you’re doing auditions (laughs), and I imagine every actor does the same thing, you say yes to anything. “Do you scuba-dive?” “Yes, yes, no problem.” That has been an incredible aspect of “Undertow”: To live by the sea for almost three months is a gift for someone like me who lives in the mountains.
EM: The usual and clichéd question for any actor: When did you know you wanted to act?
CM: The truth is I had never thought I would be an actor. In the first place, because when I started, 20 years ago, there were no theater schools in La Paz, which is the biggest city [in Bolivia]. Now, there are three.
After I graduated from high school, much like every middle-class citizen and perhaps also driven by social inertia, I went to college. What was offered then were conventional careers. And I had no idea what I wanted to do with my life. I studied a bit of economics, and then psychology… thinking perhaps that psychology had something to do with theater (laughs)…
«By accident I went to a theater workshop at the university. It was a very amateurish workshop. The truth is that I went because a professor missed class and a very attractive classmate (laughs) asked me: “Want to join me at a theater workshop?” And I said: “Yes.” I went to the workshop more because of her than because of my interest in theater (laughs)»
And by accident I went to a theater workshop at the university. It was a very amateurish workshop. The truth is that I went because a professor missed class and a very attractive classmate (laughs) asked me: “Want to join me at a theater workshop?” And I said: “Yes.” I went to the workshop more because of her than because of my interest in theater (laughs). But I went, and from that day on I’ve never stopped. I was also lucky to have classmates who got hooked and so we started working together. When the workshop could no longer meet our needs, we decided to go off on our own.
[Then] it was very difficult to even find theater books. With luck we found a book by [Constantin] Stanislavski and something of [Jerzy] Grotowski. We did the exercises somewhat blindly. We got together [to rehearse] in parks. We got together in an abandoned house. It was a disaster. I don’t know what we were doing. But, we just read the instructions in the books and started jumping like crazy.
But we had a lot of enthusiasm. So, we started to stage plays. We didn’t have a director; we were total hippies (laughs). We started to travel in Bolivia, in sort of rock ‘n’ roll tours. We would arrive at a city, stay there for two or three weeks and start looking for places to stage our plays: in schools, colleges, bars, wherever.
[Then] we were invited to a theater festival in Chile. Obviously, we didn’t get paid a dime. We were all housed in a school… it was like the Woodstock of theater (laughs). There I met a great Chilean director, Héctor Noguera. He invited me out to eat and asked me: “Do you want to do theater?” I said: “Yes, I do.” “Do you study theater?” “No, there are no schools,” I told him. “Does your theater group have a director?” “No, we don’t.” “Do you have a playwright?” “No, we write everything.” Then he tells me: “Come with me, I want to start a theater company.” And that was the moment when I said, “OK!” I talked to my peers and told them that director Noguera had invited me to be part of his group and they said, “Go!” Then, I dropped a class in college, then two, three, telling myself: “I’ll take it next semester.”
And then, suddenly, without noticing, I was doing nothing but theater, 24/7. That’s when I said, “Well, this is what I want to do.” I left everything. And, afterwards, it was the usual: I clashed with my parents and even with my classmates and friends. They said, “But, what are you gonna do? How are you gonna live?”
And then, suddenly, without noticing, I was doing nothing but theater, 24/7. That’s when I said, “Well, this is what I want to do.” I left everything. And, afterwards, it was the usual: I clashed with my parents and even with my classmates and friends. They said, “But, what are you gonna do? How are you gonna live?” Because, I tell you, at the time the concept of acting as a profession didn’t exist. In the past decade this notion has changed a bit. And people would always ask me: “What do you do?” And I would reply: “I do theater.” “Ah,” they would say, “but what do you really do?” “No, I do theater” (laughs). The truth is that I risked everything; I left everything. And today I’m still doing theater because I have no choice, I don’t know how to do anything else (laughs). It has been 20 years.
EM: You said you have found some commonalities between acting and economics and psychology. Do you find any affinities between these fields?
CM: No. I meant that acting has the same to do with psychology as acting has to do with economics, which is nothing. Because I do not approach my work from the psychological route, I would say that economics has more to do with acting because to a certain degree it’s an interpretation of the world. Economics is a way of reading the world, of reading your context and your society, and it is perhaps more useful than psychology because it places you within a social group. Psychology makes matters more difficult and complicated and at the end leaves you more confused.
EM: During an acting workshop you led in Perú, you said that you considered “the stage as the protagonist in theater, and not the actor as it is commonly believed. The actor is someone who invades, injures, breathes life into and transforms this space.” What is the relationship between the actor and the stage, and the displacements of one within the other?
CM: It was a two- or three-day workshop. So, I said to myself, what can be learned in this period of time? Not much, I think. I’ve noticed that theater workshops are deceiving because you get excited and motivated, but in the end you don’t learn much. So, my goal was to make the students question themselves and to shake their foundations a bit.
Conventionally, the actor has been conceived as the center of the theater universe. I questioned this notion. I truly consider the stage as the protagonist in theater. The stage is to theater what silence is to music. It’s the intervention of sound and its relationship with silence that make music, rhythm, melody, harmony. The actor breathes life into this space, he wounds it, widens it, molds it, transforms it. It is in this relation where the quote-unquote theater magic is created.
Conventionally, the actor has been conceived as the center of the theater universe. I questioned this notion. I truly consider the stage as the protagonist in theater. The stage is to theater what silence is to music. It’s the intervention of sound and its relationship with silence that make music, rhythm, melody, harmony. The actor breathes life into this space, he wounds it, widens it, molds it, transforms it. It is in this relation where the quote-unquote theater magic is created. The actor always wants to do everything, wants to communicate everything, and there’s a lot that you can convey beyond the script and dialogue.
That is, if you articulate a text in the center of the stage, and then you say the same text in the corner, or in the back, to the left, or the foreground… the text is resignified by the position of the actor. The same happens in film. You have a foreground and you see an actor doing something and then the frame starts to open … and the actor is doing the same thing. Or, for example, you have a dolly, a camera that turns 360 degrees while the actor is saying something… that conveys a different meaning. It is this possibility of narration, of saying something beyond what you say, that I wanted to teach at the workshop.
EM: You defy the paradigm of Western theater, which favors the active over the passive. And the stage, within this paradigm, can be interpreted as passive.
Indeed. For many years I worked at Teatro de los Andes, which I consider my school. It’s a very important theater company in Bolivia founded and led for many years by César Brie, who trained at Eugenio Barba’s Odin Teatret. Their approach was based on adapting the principles of the theater of the East and then applying them to the Western context. In the East, space is imperative. So my approach comes from that basis and attempts to shatter the tradition of Western theater a bit.
EM: You spent more than five years in the groundbreaking Teatro de los Andes. The company’s approach to theater, among other things, is to mix Western theater techniques with Andean elements. It also has a social and political bent. How has the Teatro de los Andes influenced your artistic philosophy and methodology?
At Teatro de los Andes, I learned how to politically place myself against and within my work and my society
CM: Teatro de los Andes has become my school in the sense that it is a wonderful group that teaches you about work ethics, which is something that you can rarely learn at a traditional school, beyond technique and methodology. At Teatro de los Andes, I learned how to politically place myself against and within my work and my society. I also learned about discipline. The company is incredibly disciplined. During the years I was there, it was almost monastic: 10, 12 hours of work, every day, from 7 in the morning till 7 at night. Those were incredible years in which I was able to work with wonderful people.
EM: Teatro de los Andes is based in a small town in central Bolivia. The artists live in a sort of commune in a hacienda with vegetable gardens. Tell me about a typical day there.
CM: At seven in the morning, we woke up and headed to the theater hall for three hours of physical training. From 10 to 10:30, we had breakfast, and from 10:30 to 1 we did vocal training, worked on music. The bell rang at 1 for lunch until 3. At 3 we returned to the theater hall till 7 at night. During the evening, training was focused on improvisation, staging, image creation. That was from Monday through Friday. And on Saturday mornings we did housework and worked on our vegetable garden. That was our routine from Monday to Saturday for about six months. And then we toured for six more months. They were killer, exhausting tours.
EM: You are an empirical actor. What do you think of art and acting schools?
Creativity is a muscle: if you exercise it, it grows; if you don’t, it atrophies. And schools don’t nurture creativity. How do you learn to act? Getting onstage, getting tomatoes thrown at you, getting bad reviews, and little by little you get better.
CM: I don’t believe in art schools because they don’t teach you about acting (laughs). Creativity is a muscle: if you exercise it, it grows; if you don’t, it atrophies. And schools don’t nurture creativity. How do you learn to act? Getting onstage, getting tomatoes thrown at you, getting bad reviews, and little by little you get better. That’s how you learn.
And, obviously, in school you learn what not to do. But nobody teaches you what to do. Today I read a new play I’m working on, this morning I reread it. And it’s like 15, 20 years ago: I have no idea on how to start, I’m shit-scared, I don’t know which direction to take. This is something that no one is going to teach you. In this sense, I think that acting is a craft. It’s like making a table. You can ace a design class but making a table is not easy. It’s something that you learn with practice. The first one you make may turn out a bit crooked and the next one too, but you’ll learn how to perfect it.
EM: Two years ago you started a nonprofit organization called El Desnivel, which focuses on research and training in the fields of theater and audiovisual arts. You said once that you started this organization so burgeoning actors won’t suffer like you did.
CM: Well, I want to correct something: I have never suffered (laughs). Sometimes the lack of resources strengthens your ingenuity, your possibilities. While there’s a lack of governmental support for theater, I think it’s a blessing because we can do whatever we please and we have absolute freedom to say, sing, scream and protest against whatever we want to.
On one hand, [this lack of support] is wonderful because it gauges your passion, your need to say something. I’ve seen that in other countries when there are no funds nothing is done. Seventy percent of the plays I’ve done in my life I’ve done them without a dime, without private or governmental support. It’s always been self-financed, by the actors, because you believe in what you do.
The people who work in theater in Bolivia are Quixotic, crazy and passionate. No one gets into theater to make money or to become famous. These are tests this place imposes on you to measure who you are and what you want.
The people who work in theater in Bolivia are Quixotic, crazy and passionate. No one gets into theater to make money or to become famous. These are tests this place imposes on you to measure who you are and what you want.
When I was younger, it was difficult to find theater books. There was no Internet, either. It was also hard to find a fully equipped theater hall, with lighting, sound system, the bare minimum. I used to be part of a theater group and we didn’t have a place to rehearse. So we used to go to a soccer field at an hour when the construction workers and mechanics who worked half a block away used to play. We used to play against them for the right to use the field. If we won, we could rehearse there. If we lost, we had to wait until they finished playing and see if there was time left to rehearse (laughs).
El Desnivel, in the context of this experience, has emerged as a place where firstly I can do my work. I’m not going to say that I’ve done it for others or that I’m a savior. It is a place where I can rehearse, create and work with my band. It is also a gathering place where everybody’s proposals can come together and [where we] can provide help during such a complicated process.
We offer training and resources that I would have liked to have had when I started acting, such as some funds to produce a play, some guidance in playwriting, staging, lighting, acting. Also, there are not many places where you can stage a play besides the official spaces. So I have created a space where people can work and amass an audience. In this sense, I think we are establishing an important model in the city’s arts scene.
EM: Is El Desnivel the first space of its kind in La Paz or have there been other alternative spaces for theater in the city?
CM: There have been a couple of sparks that haven’t lasted long. [El Desnivel] is sort of the spearhead in the city. We are the ones with the highest number of projects, with the most diverse projects. We have a full schedule. For example, we have implemented the concept of seasons. Before, a play was staged once from Friday to Sunday, and again three months later. Now, we are able to have a play run for four months, something that didn’t use to happen and which has helped build our audience.
La Paz is a mid-size, small city. When a play has four or five showings, the audience is the same, the same people who go to the film festival or the jazz festival, that intellectual circle who loves art and culture and the environment. What we have achieved, after 12 or 15 showings, is that when you look at the audience you can’t spot a friend or a relative — they are strangers who have come by word of mouth.
EM: Has theater been more of an elite art form in Bolivia? If so, has this changed with the emergence of alternative spaces such as El Desnivel?
CM: Yes. However, there are different circles. There is kind of a popular theater, which stages plays with a more uncouth tone. I don’t mean to belittle it. But, they are more superfluous, with flimsy content, and yet they are sold out. Their audience is different from that of El Desnivel.
I think that during the dictatorship in the ’70s, people’s desire and need to express themselves grew with the repression. But when the regime fell, the enemy vanished, and suddenly there wasn’t anybody to fight against, to protest against. There was a period of absolute silence until the advent of the Teatro de los Andes …
But El Desnivel is reaching a growing number of people, of young people. The theater scene has changed a lot over the years. There have been a couple of sparks, such as the theater company Nuevos Horizontes in the ’70s, and Teatro Runa in the ’70s and ’80s, which focused on rural theater, that have been very interesting and important. However, at the same time, there have been periods of absolute silence. For example, in the ’80s when the dictatorship ended, people just fell silent. I think that during the dictatorship in the ’70s, people’s desire and need to express themselves grew with the repression. But when the regime fell, the enemy vanished, and suddenly there wasn’t anybody to fight against, to protest against. There was a period of absolute silence until the advent of the Teatro de los Andes, which marked a milestone in the theater scene. And that was my generation. The people who are working in theater today have been completely influenced by Teatro de los Andes.
EM: El Desnivel directs a project called “Camino hacia nuestro teatro” (“The path toward our theater”) that aims to help fledgling theater companies in Bolivia. What does “our theater” mean in this context? Is there an attempt to forge a Bolivian theater per se?
CM: What is Bolivian theater? It is difficult to define this and reach an agreement over this. A nation’s theater is defined by the playwrights and is hard to establish. For example, there’s a very clear Buenos Aires dramaturgy, which has a lot of personality. When you see one of their plays you know that it’s part of a whole movement. Likewise, there’s a German dramaturgy and a contemporary French dramaturgy. But, for example, Chile’s theater production is very prolific, but you can’t really call it Chilean theater. In order to produce a national theater you need a movement, a lot of effort.
With “Camino hacia nuestro teatro,” we try to foster and strengthen our own projects. That is, we work as producers, in the way music producers would be, such as Brian Eno, who is not going to impose his taste or style but who is going to provide a wider perspective, who is going to question the group and help them refine their identity, which they have but may be a bit diffuse. We help them with what our experience allows us. We study all the proposals and select the groups that we think have their own personality and have something to say. Then we help them perfect it; we give them a little push.
The artists of my generation, for example, just recently have begun to find their own voices in theater, which derives in a certain aesthetic and rhythm. And this is what we do with this project: We support our own talent. We don’t aspire to make this a sort of national project, or a Bolivian project. I don’t even know what Bolivian means. It would be absurd to aspire to something like that.
EM:Another project in El Desnivel called “Yo Voces” aims to fight violence through art (plays, soap operas, etc.) in Chasquipampa, a neighborhood where the crime rate is extremely high. What’s the role of theater and art in social change?
I personally abhor the type of theater that wants to send a message because it’s very pretentious. Who am I to tell you what to do? It’s like me standing in a podium — I, the superstar; I, the superartist, the artist as a superhuman being, an immortal being. I don’t like that. I prefer a more horizontal relationship with the audience, or me standing at the bottom and having the audience above.
CM: Wow, what a complex question. I was just in a meeting with them… I hate sending a message through my work (laughs). I think people ought to question more than give answers. I hate plays that attempt to send a message and try to change the world. I think it’s impossible. I personally abhor the type of theater that wants to send a message because it’s very pretentious. Who am I to tell you what to do? It’s like me standing in a podium — I, the superstar; I, the superartist, the artist as a superhuman being, an immortal being. I don’t like that. I prefer a more horizontal relationship with the audience, or me standing at the bottom and having the audience above. These are the types of theater that I most like because your positioning in respect to the audience is a political relationship.
However, this vision is a bit contradictory with this project (laughs). With “Yo Voces,” we simply try to question certain things. We were working in a specific area where the level of violence is astounding. I’m not interested in doing NGO work or in telling people what is good or bad. I simply want to listen to them, question them and make them question themselves. We don’t make plays to show them how it’s done. They make their own plays, their own creations. What we do in this project is provide them with the tools so they can express themselves through a soap opera, a theater play, building websites, writing blogs. We try to give them the tools so they can question, can denounce, or not denounce. We try to give them opportunities… to get them out of the gangs.
EM: Is theater political, and is there politics in theater?
CM: Theater is political by nature. What I detest is to do politics through theater. For example, one of the aspects in which I have clashed with Teatro de los Andes is, who are you to say something is right or something is wrong? I am nobody.
… theater forces you to make political decisions. If you need four, 10 or 20 actors, if you want to stage your play in certain venues, if you need 70 lights and other types of equipment. It is a political decision because it forces you to stage your play in certain venues that have a certain audience. So, who are you working for, to whom is your play directed?
On the other hand, theater forces you to make political decisions. If you need four, 10 or 20 actors, if you want to stage your play in certain venues, if you need 70 lights and other types of equipment. It is a political decision because it forces you to stage your play in certain venues that have a certain audience. So, who are you working for, to whom is your play directed?
In that sense theater is very political. If I’m going to do a play that doesn’t require lights, sound system, that just needs a black cloth, a tree or nothing, this is a play that you can stage anywhere. This means that it can reach more people, other kinds of people, other social sectors.
I did a play that didn’t require much. The idea was to circulate it. We have staged it in jails, mines, etc. But also, I work regularly with a director, Eduardo Calla, whose work is more intellectual, stilted, perhaps, which is directed toward a reduced group of people. Some have deemed the director and his work as elitist. But it’s fine: He knows what he wants to do, where he wants to go and who his audience is. It’s OK to have intelligent work. But also, recently I did the narration for “Peter and the Wolf” with the Bolivian Symphony, which was a wonderful experience. But, who goes to the symphony? Old ladies with fur coats.
EM: In terms of an artist’s social responsibility, do you see a difference between a Latin American artist and, say, a U.S. artist?
CM: I think American cinema is going through a very dark period, because 9/11 happened and the attacks never reached the silver screen. Well, they recently did one film on the Twin Towers, but it has been 10 years after the fact. That is, during this period, if you see movies — with the exception of independent films — as a way to know a place, 9/11 never happened. I think people were in a bubble, in the moon, I don’t know where.
Where I have seen the Americans can express themselves is in TV shows. There you can see how the attacks have affected them. Americans question themselves more in TV shows, which are a bit more committed, a bit more risky.
EM: In which shows have you noticed this?
CM: In all of them. In “House,” in the many “CSIs,” you can get a sense of what ordinary people are asking, disliking. But when you see the movies, you say to yourself: “Fuck, this is another planet!” (laughs). You don’t get to know an American through movies.
EM: And in Latin America’s artistic output, how do you view social responsibility?
In Latin America, there’s a tradition of political theater, of engaged theater, but I wouldn’t venture to say there’s a higher level of social commitment. Also, I think it is easy to find more works that pretend to be committed, that pose as such. By which I mean that it’s easy to adopt a position and say you are committed to fight for a cause, but I don’t know to what degree this is actually true.
CM: In Latin America, there’s a tradition of political theater, of engaged theater, but I wouldn’t venture to say there’s a higher level of social commitment. Also, I think it is easy to find more works that pretend to be committed, that pose as such. By which I mean that it’s easy to adopt a position and say you are committed to fight for a cause, but I don’t know to what degree this is actually true.
However, I do think that people in Latin America tend to question themselves a bit more. In this respect, for example, the lack of resources forces you to be more awake. But I don’t know if this is a rule or a pretext to say that there’s more social commitment in the arts here.
[In Bolivia], for example, our history of dictatorships has had an obvious impact, and has mobilized a whole generation of artists, youth, creators. When you have a visible enemy, it is easy to know whom to fight, where to point your weapon. When this enemy disappears, it becomes difficult. And I think that the enemy is always within us.
A friend wrote a thesis in which she found that theater’s most prolific period was during the ’70s, during the dictatorship [of Hugo Banzer Suárez] in which you couldn’t write, say, scream or do anything. Then the dictatorship fell and people didn’t do anything. In the ’90s there was this directionless Generation X: There were no leaders, people were apathetic, nihilists, staring at their belly buttons. But it’s a cycle. Like in the U.S. there was a Bush era, imperialism — a clear enemy — and then he’s no longer the president and you’re left wondering, who are we going to throw stones at? Now Obama is in power, he’s black, has African roots. This shakes our foundations. And then we need to start over, and reinvent and personify who we are going to clash with.
EM: Has there been an artistic current that has emerged in opposition, or in conjunction with the Evo Morales era?
CM: No. Right now, theater is undergoing a moment of maturity… it has been 15, 20 years that we’ve been working and just right now we are starting to see our proposals and projects mature.
… I think the role of the artist is to question any system of power, whoever is in power, because otherwise you become the king’s jester, no matter who the king is. I think you have to bust the balls of whoever is in power. Our place as artists is to protest, question, disturb.
When Evo Morales became president, all the artists — and this is a bit cliché because all artists have a leftist bent — supported the government. Obviously, I did too. But I think that was detrimental, because I think the role of the artist is to question any system of power, whoever is in power, because otherwise you become the king’s jester, no matter who the king is. I think you have to bust the balls of whoever is in power. Our place as artists is to protest, question, disturb.
If everybody sides with the government, that’s harmful. If artists don’t place themselves in opposition to the government, they are lulled to sleep, they don’t have anything to say, they become useless. And that happened: When Evo Morales took power, all the artists sided with him and whoever questioned that was immediately deemed a reactionary, a racist. However, now, luckily, people are starting to wake up, to question themselves. To question oneself … this is good for everyone, for the government, for the left, for the right, for the center, for every side. This is happening and this is an interesting moment.
EM: Have you seen this type of questioning in the “Camino hacia nuestro teatro” projects?
CM: Yes, absolutely. Two years ago one of the projects was to stage “The Birds” of Aristophanes. This is exactly what happens with the Bolivian government and with all governments. “The Birds” tells the story of two men who, tired of the corruption of the gods of the Olympus, decide to search for a better world, a perfect world. They hear that the birds have a perfect country: They are anarchists, they don’t have currency, they are free. So the men say, “Let’s go there! We are tired of this place!” They go there and convince the birds to found a perfect country. The birds grant power to the men, who initially arrive with good intentions. But, what happens? Power corrupts them, blinds them. And the men become like the gods of the Olympus. And the cycle continues. The play ends with the two men hearing about a perfect world and da-da-da and the cycle begins again.
It’s been interesting because this play is completely anti-establishment; it’s a critique of Evo Morales. And yet we were able to take the play on tour with governmental funds (laughs). They [the government] have no idea of what’s going on, so they are financing this play’s nationwide tour.
It’s been interesting because this play is completely anti-establishment; it’s a critique of Evo Morales. And yet we were able to take the play on tour with governmental funds (laughs). They [the government] have no idea of what’s going on, so they are financing this play’s nationwide tour. It’s interesting what’s happening now: Artists are questioning themselves and our systems of power.
EM: Your roles as Miguel in “Undertow” and Inti Peredo in “Che: Guerrilla” have launched you into the international arena. What do you seek in film that you cannot find in theater?
CM: I love the intimacy of film. The level of subtlety that you can reach with film. And also its capacity to reach a large number of people. Theater is not an art form that reaches massive audiences, to do so would be an endless task. Films take you to unsuspected places. For example, after doing “Undertow” [the film was released in 2010] I still receive two, three emails daily from people in faraway places who tell me how the movie has affected them. They are people from Kazakhstan, Indonesia, Austria, Norway, Korea, wow! I’m amazed by a film’s ability and power to cross borders, to reach places I’ve never imagined I could reach.
EM: “Undertow” won the World Cinematic Audience Award in Sundance. In your work you display a great awareness of the role of the audience. How do you view the audience in the making of an art piece?
CM: I will talk about two sides. On one hand, it’s a bit clichéd: I owe myself to the public. The first thing I do when I start working on a play, music, in a film, is to place myself in the position of the spectator. The audience grants meaning to what I do. To do theater you need an actor, a space and someone to watch and hear you. If you are not aware of this audience, if you are not conscious of the effect and consequences of your work, it’s a dangerous and deceiving endeavor. If you don’t place yourself on the side of the audience, it’s like masturbating.
The audience grants meaning to what I do. To do theater you need an actor, a space and someone to watch and hear you. If you are not aware of this audience, if you are not conscious of the effect and consequences of your work, it’s a dangerous and deceiving endeavor. If you don’t place yourself on the side of the audience, it’s like masturbating.
So the first thing I do when I start a play is identify my need and to whom this need is directed. Who is this play for? Is it for young people, old people, is it for a working-class audience, or a social elite, is it directed toward a certain gender? It’s important for me to ask these questions because I direct a lot of plays.
On the other hand, to counteract what I’ve just said, I won’t say that I work for the people, for the audience. I started doing theater out of a selfish need, a personal need, because theater gave me such immense pleasure. In a sense, it’s a quite hedonistic side; it’s a personal journey, it’s a path toward knowledge. I use [theater] to know myself, for my own good.
So it’s a play between these two sides. At the beginning it started as something selfish, but as years go by and you start looking beyond your belly button and your nose, you begin to realize that there’s someone who gives meaning to what you do, and can even transform it. And it’s a game. I think that you have to keep these two sides in sight. If not, if you’re doing it only for personal reasons, you better leave it. Or, if you’re doing it only to make the audience happy, then it’s somehow superfluous, and you should also quit.
EM: In this journey toward self-knowledge through theater and film, have your ever encountered something that has scared you or traumatized you?
I believe that all characters are contained within a person. One is Hamlet, one is Othello, is King Lear, is Macbeth, one is everyone. To search for these characters within oneself is not easy because one has a distinct idea of oneself. And in this journey this idea is not what you thought it was or what others had perceived it to be. Sometimes it’s painful, sometimes it’s shocking …
CM: Of course! Me! (laughs). I don’t believe that you can talk about something that you don’t know. You cannot be someone that you are not. I believe that all characters are contained within a person. One is Hamlet, one is Othello, is King Lear, is Macbeth, one is everyone. To search for these characters within oneself is not easy because one has a distinct idea of oneself. And in this journey this idea is not what you thought it was or what others had perceived it to be. Sometimes it’s painful, sometimes it’s shocking, but nonetheless interesting and enriching. If each character forces you to know yourself a bit more, to look into yourself, sometimes it’s not easy.
EM: It’s almost as if you were in therapy.
CM: Yes, partly. I’m not the kind of actor who transforms himself into the character. The way I approach a character is: This is me playing this character. And, plus, one needs to learn how to stop, otherwise you’ll go crazy. These past two weeks I have done five different plays, so if I were submerged and lost in each character, I would have gone insane.
What I most enjoy is the creative process: the months of rehearsals, of research, of preparation. This is the phase when you experience all these things until you discover the place [of the character] and the things that help you reach this place during each performance. This is the most interesting process, this is where you live emotionally to the fullest.
I enjoy what I do, but enjoyment doesn’t necessarily imply goodness or beauty. I recently did a play called “Mátame, por favor” [“Kill me, please”] in which I play a psychopathic rapist. It’s very dense and after each performance I end up as if I had snorted a line of cocaine. I end up in a very dark place. However, I enjoy playing this character; not that I like him, but a journey toward the space of this character is an enjoyment.
But sometimes it’s difficult, there are lots of nerves and stress. And I love when the play ends its run. Pheww, what a relief, to get out of the dressing room and say bye.
EM: As an actor, what’s the biggest risk you have taken?
CM: Like every actor — I cannot imagine an actor who’s going to respond differently — in each work I try to seek the highest risk possible, in every play, in every film. For example, the most common question I was asked about “Undertow” by phony journalists was: “So how was it to film sex scenes with a man bleh, bleh, bleh.” Ahhh, I fell asleep before they finished asking the question because I’d been asked that a thousand times… [Filming sex scenes with a man] wasn’t a risk for me, I have no issues with this topic. Nor with other risks, which are more superfluous, such as horseback riding, jumping from a cliff or scuba-diving.
There are risks that are more internal and more difficult, that hit a nerve within you. So you try to search there. For me, “Undertow” is a love story, it’s about a person who loves two people at the same time. To come to terms with that, to be aware of that, which is something we have all experienced, is a risk.
In the film “Blackthorn,” for example, I play a general and I hate the military. How to find a humanizing factor within the confines of a simplified character and the two clichéd lines I say in the movie? That’s where you find the challenge: To avoid going to a comfortable place, to an easy place.
EM: Within your career, music has occupied an important place. You lead an alternative rock band called Reverso, which plays a style of music that you have branded “rock teatriento” (“theatric” rock). What does it mean?
CM: That term doesn’t mean much (laughs). We employ “teatriento” [which uses the root of the word teatro] because most of the band members work in theater. So when we started playing, the people who were going to see us were the same who came to our plays. Also, we had a musical concept that differed a bit from the rest of the bands in Bolivia, who are greatly influenced by the powerful Argentine rock — of which I am a fan. But our sound was different, perhaps because of our theater background, the theater aesthetics that we have used for years. Our sound was different and hard to categorize. So when people asked me: So what type of music do you play? It’s a bit complicated to answer. We do rock, but what’s rock? Rock is such an enormous term. We don’t do Latin rock, we don’t do indie, we like blues but we’re not a blues band either. So finally we decided to call it “rock teatriento”. The word doesn’t exist, but oh, well.
In theater I don’t like to just do and focus on one thing or one type of character — I like to play. Likewise, in Reverso we play with different styles: We play with being rappers, bluesmen, which gives us a lot of freedom. “Teatriento” is a term we use to not get boxed into a style.
EM: Yes, after all, styles and genres have been created as a marketing tool.
CM: A market inevitably conditions you. If you sign with a record label, the company will force a style on you and will assign you a producer. They need to assign you a style because they need to sell your music. And people need to know what they are buying. Here, as with theater, we don’t have any kind of monetary support —luckily (laughs). This allows us to have a very serene, natural and organic process. There’s no hurry in getting anywhere.
We are currently recording our fifth album and we’re taking a lot of time, like we’ve never done before. For the first time, we are working with a music producer, who is helping us see what we can’t see and helping us refine our concept. But, we are not looking for a producer who is going to make us sound a certain way. A lot of bands do that: They want to sound like Coldplay and Radiohead so they get Radiohead’s producer who is going to make them sound like Radiohead. We want to find our own sound, our own musical path.
EM: Music is another platform for expression. What can you say in this platform that you can’t in theater and film?
CM: Through music I can express more personal, intimate and abstract things. Reverso means the other side. In the beginning, Reverso was a space where I can take a break from theater, from the actors and from this whole world. It was where I could breathe. Now, Reverso is gradually taking more space and has claimed a place as important as theater’s. I invest a lot of time in doing music. There are moments in which I spend more time doing music than theater or film, even though I don’t support myself through music. I write 95 percent of the music and lyrics, so it’s something very, very mine.
And then, I have a band… After many years of working in a group setting at Teatro de los Andes, I didn’t want to know about groups anymore. I was fed up! But now, without noticing, I have returned to the group dynamic with Reverso. [Our dynamic] is exactly the same as Teatro de los Andes: We have to set up rules, principles. It’s like a big family: We argue, we have to learn how to reach an agreement, learn how to concede. But these processes help you grow. We have been together for five years. That’s something. One of the aspects of the bands that transcend, that I admire, like the Rolling Stones, Radiohead, is that they have spent 20 years tolerating each other. That says a lot about the people and that translates into the music. Thanks to theater, I have learned how to work in a team, how to carry a group dynamic and keep it moving. That requires a lot of energy.
EM: When will the fifth album be released?
CM: There’s an intention to release it in August or September. But I don’t have any kind of pressure. I want the album to take the time it needs. Making an album is a complex process and, unlike theater plays, albums are left for posterity.
Eighty percent of the music I have done I cannot listen to. When I listen to it, I start trembling and become feverish because I don’t like it, I feel like some things were not achieved, that other things shouldn’t have been done this or that way. Nonetheless, you have to learn to stop. When something is done, it’s done. But I can’t listen to some of my songs anymore (laughs).
Eighty percent of the music I have done I cannot listen to. When I listen to it, I start trembling and become feverish because I don’t like it, I feel like some things were not achieved, that other things shouldn’t have been done this or that way. Nonetheless, you have to learn to stop. When something is done, it’s done. But I can’t listen to some of my songs anymore (laughs). I hope this doesn’t happen with this album. I don’t want to have any doubts about it.
EM: An irreverent question to conclude this interview: Of the roles you have played in theater and film, which qualities of each character would you choose to assemble a if not perfect at least interesting being?
CM: Eighty percent of the characters I have played have been villains (laughs). Playing a villain is much more fun; being good is more boring, perhaps more difficult. You have a very wide range when playing a villain. Well, [I would choose] Miguel’s courage. I think I’m a daring person just for the fact that being an actor here is kind of a kamikaze task. But characters like Miguel or Inti Peredo… it’s such a pleasure playing them. I would love to be like them in my daily life. The rest of the characters I have played have been villains, so I would rather rid my daily life of some of their traits (laughs).
This interview has been translated from the Spanish, and condensed and edited for style and punctuation, but not for content.