Baryshnikov Arts Center
Jan 13, 2017
Before the first stumble-through of her work-in-progress, Manuela Infante pulls a chair to the center of the room, and asks actress Marcela Salinas and lighting designer Rocío Hernández to join her.
The three women and their producer Carmina Infante have been in residency here in the BAC’s Studio 4B for two weeks, and were six days away from their final showing. Sitting aside, I watch Infante calmly recite to her collaborators the piece’s order of events, adding reminders about particular blocking or transitions. Salinas, sitting on a table, follows along in her script, nodding as Infante talks and interrupting with occasional questions. Hernández interjects every now and then from her seat on the floor. I notice that the dark green of Salinas’s sweatshirt perfectly matches the green color of the large plant next to which she sits. Only after seeing the piece did I wonder if the plant had been a part of the meeting, too.
While it is perhaps extreme to suspect greenery of artistic collaboration, Aparato Radical [Radical Apparatus] indeed encourages us to consider a theater—and world—in which plants have as much agency as humans. It is Infante’s most recent work to challenge anthropocentrism, which has been her prime artistic interest since 2010. Although she initially became known for writing and staging bold re-interpretations of historical figures and narratives, Infante works in phases, investigating a central topic or concern over the course of several productions before moving to another. In her last four plays, Infante and her company Teatro de Chile have in various ways questioned modern man’s superiority and autonomy. Now, she imagines a scenario in which plants decide to reclaim their kingdom.
If you’re interested in contemporary philosophy, these ideas may ring a bell. Such source material has always motivated Infante’s theater—for Aparato Radical, she and her collaborators drew heavily on the work of plant philosophers Michael Marder and Stefano Mancuso. Infante has often declared that she uses theater in service of philosophical inquiry: in order to build fictions, she dissects the construction of reality itself. While Chilean theater has a long, ongoing history of directly political theater, Infante’s theater is better described as ontological. Moreover, as her career has gone on, her work reveals growing investment in what she calls the “contemplative dimension” of theater. She celebrates art’s resistance to utility or consumption; rather than clarifying what is unclear, she says, it should make mysterious what is mundane.
The rehearsal I visited, however, had no air of enigma or high scholarship. Everyone wore loungewear; no one wore shoes. The group had an air of comfortable familiarity: Infante has worked on recent shows with both Salinas and Hernández, and longtime producer Carmina, also present, is her younger sister and Teatro de Chile’s archivist. Infante tends to collaborate over long periods: Teatro de Chile, which just disbanded recently, had been together since 2001. Her extended creative processes for each show, which involve intense group research and devising, also necessarily bring her fellow artists close.
Aparato Radical is no different in its long development process. Before the run-through, Infante tells me that the group had already done much work on Aparato Radical in Chile and have planned for three other work-in-progress showings before the June 2017 premiere. While they had already created the show’s characters before coming to BAC, here they co-wrote the texts and integrated a looper pedal into the staging, in order to live record and replay sound onstage. (Infante, a musician, also designs and operates the sound for her shows.) They also worked on the interaction between Salinas and the lighting, and Infante has been grateful for the excellent tech equipment BAC has provided, given the importance of sound and light to the piece. For Infante, an artist whose process is rigorous and lengthy, the opportunity to concentrate fully on the project, with excellent staff support, has been invaluable. The cultural offerings of New York City itself, she notes, have also been a constant source of inspiration.
The stumble-through begins. Salinas takes off her green sweatshirt, as if distinguishing herself from several plants in the room. Yet in the opening sequence, as “Only Fools Rush In” plays, Salinas seems to become a flower, following with her body and gaze the moving wash of light as if seeking out the sun. Over the course of the one-woman show, she would transform many times, into various characters somehow connected to a teenager’s motorcycle crash against a huge tree. The dramaturgy itself is arboreal: the individuals’ stories branch out from the central “trunk” that is the accident and then from one tale to another. Even within each character, Salinas, thanks to the looper pedal, can have multiple voices, mirroring the philosophical concept that a single plant contains multitudes. Despite the non-anthropomorphic theme, the actress’s performance nonetheless confirms the power of human presence.
But Aparato Radical is not just about whether humans or plants matter more. Since we are humans, we are naturally anthropocentric. Yet Infante suggests that we still might benefit from better understanding plants: “If we accept that plants have other ways of thinking, feeling, communicating, defending themselves, other ways of being intelligent, other forms of consciousness and survival, maybe we can see how to transform our own notions of what it is to think, to feel, to communicate, and to be conscious.” This may sound like a daunting task, but Infante has always been able to translate such weighty, intricate ideas into accessible, visceral theater experiences that reveal the world anew. You don’t need to be able to talk to your Christmas tree, but you may now look at it as something other than seasonal decor—maybe even something you can learn from.
Alexandra Ripp is a DFA candidate in Dramaturgy and Dramatic Criticism at the Yale School of Drama, where she is completing her dissertation on contemporary Chilean theater and politics. She has published writing in Performing Arts Journal, Theater Journal, and Theater, in which her translation of and introduction to Manuela Infante’s Zoo is forthcoming. She has translated plays by Chilean theater artists Guillermo Calderón, Trinidad González, and Teatrocinema to subtitle their U.S. tours. She is the former Ideas Program Manager at the International Festival of Arts and Ideas in New Haven, CT.