Clockwise from top left: Tatiana Lucia Gantt, Kim Winnubst, and Candice Cogburn

The Power of Memory

Teatro Dallas Artistic Director Sorany Gutierrez on Guillermo Calderón's play Villa, opening the company's 30th season.

published Wednesday, October 16, 2019

Photo: Courtesy
Chilean playwright Guillermo Calderón



DallasTeatro Dallas’ 30th season is entitled “Memory, Space, Architecture,” and appropriately kicks off with the regional premiere of Villa, written by Chilean playwright Guillermo Calderón. Villa is the story about reclaiming your country. The story takes place in the room with three women charged with deciding the future of the Villa Grimaldi, an infamous detention camp of the 1970s Augusto Pinochet dictatorship in Chile.

Calderón is an acclaimed South American playwright/director whose works have been performed in more than 20 countries and has won numerous prizes in Latin America. Many of Calderón’s works are intertwined with politics. The audiences are often asked to grapple with troubling issues such as torture, as well as to contemplate these issues with dark and sarcastic humor, all in a single performance. In the case of Villa, in one of the scenes, one of the woman suggests including a dog in the memorial installation, and is concerned that animal-rights protesters will be upset: “But if the dog said, ‘Marxism-Leninism is the cornerstone of philosophy, long live Lenin, Engels, and Karl Marx,’ I promise you, I promise you half of those protestors would say, ‘Well, the dog made a choice, I’ve no need to be defending anti-system dogs.’” The idea seems ridiculous and yet comical at the same time.

Villa Grimaldi is located in the suburbs of Santiago, Chile. This remote location allowed General Pinochet’s secret police to carry out its dirty work without interference from national observers or international human rights organizations. In the early years of the dictatorship, from 1973-1978, they installed dozens of concentration camps throughout Chile. An estimated 30,000 prisoners were tortured, disappeared or killed during this grim period in Chile’s history. Approximately 5,000 prisoners were reported to have been detained at Villa Grimaldi. Nearly 20 of these prisoners died and another 226 disappeared. After Pinochet's rule, and during Chile’s transition to democracy, Villa Grimaldi concentration camp was one of the few locations to be transformed into a memorial in remembrance of the history of torture and disappearance.

Calderón Villa places three women, all 33 years old and all unusually named Alejandra, with the task of answering the question: “What to do with the villa that has been destroyed? Should it be rebuilt, or should it be redone as a museum?” Throughout the play we slowly learn that it was a detention center where women were tortured, raped and murdered, and the women are tasked to complete secret ballots in an effort to select a method of memorialization. The process breaks down when one of the Alejandras ruins her ballot. No one will confess to doing so, and the frustrated Alejandras debate about democracy, memory, and justice. Perhaps the Alejandras represent the same faces of our humanity — dark, forgiving and remorseful.

Gutierrez, who is from Colombia, asked Jorge and Andrea Correa, who are from Chile and lived through this dark period, to meet with the actresses of Villa. The Correas shared their experiences and the historical significance of this period, and the performers had the opportunity to asked them questions. Gutierrez felt that this meeting would allow for a more respectful telling of the story, that it would connect the actors to the real-life story, and that it would sensitize the actors to the subject matter. After the Oct. 17 preview performance, Teatro Dallas patrons will have an opportunity to meet Jorge and Andrea Correa who will talk about their experience and the history of this period.

TheaterJones chatted with Teatro Dallas’ Artistic Director, Sorany Gutierrez about the work.


Photo: Roberto Galindo
Clockwise from top left: Tatiana Lucia Gantt, Kim Winnubst, and Candice Cogburn

TheaterJones: Tell me about this play, Villa.

Sorany Gutierrez: Villa is the regional premiere of a story that explores the challenges faced by three women as they are faced with the remodel of Villa Grimaldi, the main torture and extermination center of the Pinochet regime in Chile. The characters must decide how to address memory. Do they rebuild the house demolished by the military? Or build a modern museum? The debate reflects contemporary difficulties that for human rights organizations that defend the memory of survivors.

We decided to produce Villa because this play is not only about “Villa Grimaldi” in Chile, but about those places where many people have been tortured and killed, where they have been incarcerated for their resistance or ideology that oppose those in power. These three characters are the representation of painful memories, they are the product of violence and injustice. But, despite that, they are not talking about revenge or resentment, they are facing inhumanity, barbarism and finding different ways to deal with trauma. Honoring memory serves future generations, allows us to be reminded of the past and not repeat the same mistakes. Hopefully, it also serves our present and helps question what memories and legacies we are creating.


Why did you select this play for your 30th season?

We wanted to construct a curated season around a theme. In this case, it is memory and how it is attached to real spaces, as well as the significance of erasure of place and memory, and Villa fits perfectly with this topic.


Villa is concerned with the ethics of memorialization and it also touches on questions of trauma and memory. How will you convey these ideas on stage?

Villa is about memory. It’s not only about the memory in terms of history, but how people deal with those memories, especially bad memories. In the play the three women can also be the three voices of one person, or they can be three different characters. These three voices have a different point of view about how to deal with these bad memories. The memory is creating something that it may not be as bad as it was, like something that is more beautiful or something that is very true that brings back the memories, or something that should be presented the way that it was…terrible.

We want to convey the idea that the best way we can deal with bad memories, with trauma, is to feel it, but everyone has a different way to feel those memories. One of the characters says that if you want to cry, you can cry…if you want to laugh, you can laugh. There is not one way to feel it; it’s a memory. Everyone can feel what they want to feel, imagine or remember. It is not something good or bad. Of course, in this story these are bad memories, but you have the opportunity to change that image. You have the opportunity to think about revenge if you want to, or you have the opportunity to change, like something beautiful…to create something beautiful. I think we are creating…we are pointing to that idea. It’s in the script, but we are trying to present it with our set, with our lighting, with the music. Sometimes if you have these memories you can talk about that with others, it's better just to say it, and to feel it, and to express it. In the end, it is this idea of being together as a pueblo, as a people, as a community, as a common memory instead of being alone.


Do audiences have to be knowledgeable about Chilean history and politics to understand the play or is it about those memories or trauma?

The play is about a specific place in Chile, that is Villa Grimaldi. But it is not necessary for you to know the history of this specific place because this place is a representation of many places around the world…where people have been tortured or have been killed, have been incarcerated because they think different…because they are not on the same position of the government or because they are not acting as they're supposed to be acting. It is not because they are doing something wrong, it is because they are against the power. Villa Grimaldi is a specific place in Chile, a specific story that maybe is not relatable to the people of the U.S. but, it is a representation of many places. It can be Germany [during WWII], it can be right now the border of the U.S. It’s the idea of place where many people have been tortured, incarcerated, killed because the political position and abuse of power. It is not necessary that you know the history of Chile. You will be able to understand it perfectly.


What can we learn about the storyline in today’s political climate?

It is this idea of not taking revenge, or having a particular position, or thinking about having a specific position on the left side, because they [the story] are talking about that, but it's about being aware of the memories that we are creating right now. Knowing the story, the history, events, it is supposed to be a way to change that. The reality is that we are repeating the same mistakes every time. The idea is just to somehow forgive, learn, and not repeat that. We want to bring the idea of the memories we are creating right now. Memory is something is in the past, but in this present we are also creating the past that is going to be in thirty years. Probably the memories that these kids in the [border] camps are going to have in thirty years are going to be probably the same of the three characters that we are talking about in our play, that they lived twenty years ago in Chile.

I want the audience to think about that. I want to bring this idea of our reality and realize that it's not different from what happened in those days and bring the idea of there are many things that we can do. Learning about those events should be a good way to understand our present and think about how we can change this can we prevent these bad memories. How can we have different ways to deal with the differences? How can we deal with the power? How can we deal and fight as humans, as a community, as minorities, with that power? It’s a good representation of our present climate. We can change the memory…we can do something good or we can do something very bad. That is the question, what memories are we creating?


Do you think the three women in the play are placed in the shoes of the oppressors because they have a choice and now have the power? 

They have been selected as a committee to decide what to do with these memories, what to do with the place itself to create a representation of that memory. But also, they're playing with the idea of power. The three of them are in a position that they don't know if they want to support the survivors, the memories, or if they have to support the other side because they are giving them money to do it.

They don't know what to do with the money. Even if they bring that idea of remembering the bad stuff, they have a lot of money to do something with that space. Of course, they are playing with the idea of power and that's something that the playwright is brilliant because he's playing with  this idea of power… it is not only one idea…he's bringing the trauma, he's bringing the political position, he's bringing the ideas about space, about money. It's a very interesting way to look at it.


Photo: Courtesy
Sorany Gutierrez

The play also deals with eternal question of how you avenge, seek revenge or not seek revenge and forgiveness. Do you become the person in power and now the oppressor?

Actually, yes. One of the three characters is in the position that the only way that we can change these memories is to forget what happened. The other one is saying, no, we need to do something…we are now in the position to seek revenge. We have to do something about that. The other one is saying that we just have to make the other people feel like us. They're exploring the three options. They are playing with this idea…forgiveness, revenge or just taking the position of the officer. There are repeating the story


The playwright weaves a lot of humor into this play. Do you think the humor is meant to be as a learning tool or as a touch of lightness to contrast the heavy subject matter?

I feel it is a protest. It’s dark humor. It’s sarcastic. You are going to laugh because it’s super strong…and you will feel like it’s okay. That the subject matter may be true. I mean, even uncomfortable. You are laughing because it’s true...that is what he [the playwright] wants in the end. It's bringing these ideas of laughing and saying, okay, yeah, it was right, but now I [one of the characters] can laugh about it because they cannot have a boyfriend because he's not able to deal with that trauma. It's something funny because of the way that they present it. But, if you think about the reality that is terrible, but in the end, you have to laugh about it because this is reality.

It’s life…it is something that is not black or white. You have many colors in between…it’s that kind of humor. It's not something that is comic, but you're going to laugh because of the way that he's bringing those words. He's bringing those stories. He's bringing those reactions. He's bringing the conflict. It's funny because you see these three women fighting for something that they don't have to fight about. They don't have to do it, but it's the human condition. You have to defend your idea…you have to fight for what you want. And, then in the end, they are laughing about themselves. Now why are we fighting about this? I mean it's that kind of humor. Isn't that a community?


When I read the script, I felt that by naming the three women the same name he is talking about us as humans…that we are those three people…we have the power to do a lot of mean things, bad things, awful things to each other. We have the power to forgive and we have the power to move on, to remember history or to even survive trauma.

That is the idea that they are all one person. It's very interesting…It's funny. You're going to laugh; you're going to cry with the same trauma. You don’t have to be sad all the time. You can laugh about your tragedy. It's a way of healing. It's a way of expressing those bad memories, and its reality. It is also the idea that I have the power to change it. I have the power to deal with that trauma in whatever way I want.

Finally, I would love for the audience to come see the play and listen carefully about what they're saying, and not worry about the names of a specific place in South America, with specific people…that there was something terrible…but more about the idea of places that we are creating right now. Those memories that we are creating. The invitation is open…if the audiences want to know more about the real history and how they survived this period in the Chilean dictatorship, please come and listen to Jorge and Andrea Correa who are from Chile, on Oct. 17 after the show, to learn and ask questions.


» The performances of Villa will be at the Latino Cultural Center, 2600 Live Oak Street, in Dallas, TX, from October 17- November 2, 2019. Teatro Dallas’ season will continue at the Latino Cultural Center, Jan. 25, 2019 through Feb. 8, 2020, with the 18th International Festival. The festival will explore the themes of space and the body with a festival of performances. The season resumes March 26-April 11, 2020 with Cement City, written by Bernardo Mazon Daher, and also directed by Sorany Gutierrez. On June 20, 2020, Tlali: When We Were Earth, written by Omar Padilla, and directed by Sorany Gutierrez, will complete the season. 


» Gina Weber is a PhD candidate in the Doctor of Liberal Studies program, Arts Management, at Southern Methodist University. She is a consultant working to improve the management and efficiency of art organizations. Gina volunteers for several local theaters, as well as at the Dallas Holocaust and Human Rights Museum, RAICES, and for Human Rights Initiative of North Texas. She previously worked at the U.S. EPA managing environmental programs, conducting international diplomacy, and the effective allocation of a multi-million-dollar budget addressing environmental and public health issues along the U.S.-Mexico border. Thanks For Reading

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The Power of Memory
Teatro Dallas Artistic Director Sorany Gutierrez on Guillermo Calderón's play Villa, opening the company's 30th season.
by Gina Weber

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