As part of the AFAA's "Tintas
frescas" programme, Rémi De Vos led two
writing workshops, one in Peru for two weeks in September
2003, and another in Paraguay from mid-March to late
April 1998. He decided to share his experiences from
the longer stay, in the Paraguayan capital of Asunción,
which he had a greater sense of perspective about
due to the time elapsed.
Here is what the playwright had to say about the country
and his work there.
This project -a human and artistic adventure-
was developed in close collaboration with
Laurent Vacher, a director of my generation who staged
Yasmina Reza's Conversations après un enterrement
in Paraguay in March 1997.
As men of the theatre, we wanted to kindle a desire
for free speech in a country where culture has always
been considered an enemy by those in power, and has
often paid for it in blood.
The project was structured around several key moments:
first, a writing workshop which I led. Subsequently,
the writers in the workshop gave their texts to the
actors to work on, under Laurent's and my direction.
Lastly, there was a public presentation of our work
with staged readings
At the same time, I was
writing a play during the length of my stay.
The writing workshop
The workshop took place from mid-March to late April
1998 in Manzana della Rivera, a cultural centre which
had just been renovated, while we waited tensely for
the elections in near constant fear of a coup d'état.
About ten participants -playwrights, poets, story-tellers
and actors- had answered the ad and seemed determined
to take part in the workshop every day. I realised
later on just how great a sacrifice this was on their
In Paraguay, a Parisian playwright is perceived as
a kind of walking library, living in the most beautiful
city in the world, eating exquisite food, spending
his time at fashion shows and inventing heavenly fragrances.
To make matters worse, I had taken part in writing
a play (André le Magnifique) nominated
for several Molière awards at the very start
of the workshop. The participants found out about
this and watched the ceremony on Argentine television.
This did nothing to tone down the first impression.
What could be more natural than to watch such a ceremony
with a mixture of fascination and incredulity when
there is nothing here? I can still hear the silence
that followed my response to a question concerning
the average number of plays on the boards in Paris.
There are no structures for the theatre in Paraguay.
It is inconceivable to make your living from it, whether
you're a director, an actor or a technician. Everyone
has another job (if they're lucky) which enables them
to get by.
Teachers, architects or taxi drivers, they work in
the theatre when the chance arises. It arises very
rarely. The chances of mounting a production -always
private- are extremely rare, and plays have very short
runs. There is no real audience -for lack of money
and education. Only a small minority is involved in
This state of affairs means quite simply that there
is no contemporary playwriting in Paraguay. How could
it be otherwise? How could you set off on such an
adventure when there is no feedback, no encouragement
of any kind, and no hope of ever seeing your play
staged? There are no publications on the theatre,
only disparate information about culture, and hardly
any contact with the outside world. Paraguay is an
island. I realised during my stay that one never writes
alone. Writing requires fertile ground, being able
to read other writers' work, confronting your own
writing with other people's, getting advice, encouragement,
and all sorts of emulation just to keep going.
We talked a lot. My method of working was simple.
During the sessions we talked freely about writing,
I tried to answer technical questions and then proposed
specific exercises for them to do as "homework".
I spent the evenings translating them, and the texts
were read the next day. I told them what I thought
didn't work and -in my view- why this worked and that
didn't. And we discussed it.
Paradoxically, my relatively basic Spanish forced
me to go directly to the essence. Sometimes after
a moment of silent concentration I would give short,
concise advice or indications which sounded like little
aphorisms. They would then wrote these phrases down
religiously in their notebooks, which always surprised
me because it was actually a weakness that was perceived
as a strength. But it enabled me to understand an
important aspect of the writing workshop. In speaking
about complicated things, it is better to speak simply.
The work of mental assimilation happens naturally.
Brevity forces the listener to develop his own thoughts.
Often, a question asked is really just a way of formulating
an answer. The trainer's job is to facilitate an awareness
of the potential each person has inside.
As the sessions progressed, I gave them more and more
complex exercises. I asked for texts in which what
was at stake wasn't named, in a place that was guessed
at through secondary information, and staging characters
with different motivations. I used this formula throughout
the workshop. Pleasure being an essential component
in writing, I tried to develop its playful side. I
asked everyone to write monologues, which were freer
but had to involve aspects of life in Paraguay. The
texts were reworked according to my instructions until
the playwright and I reached what we considered a
sufficiently satisfying result.
I wanted to have plays come out of the workshop that
would express truly personal visions of the world.
My fear when working this way is that I will get back
texts that are rehashes of speeches heard on television,
vague products of mainstream thinking, more or less
conscious spin-off from the dominant discourse. I
also have to be wary of texts that try to anticipate
the trainer's supposed expectations. In the case of
Paraguay, the problem could have been much more acute.
I feared the worst -from quaint visions tinged with
exoticism to violent and deliberately provocative
plays designed to show the "representative from
the country of human rights" that they had more
than their share of liberté chérie,
thank you very much. I didn't want the plays to be
directly political. It took a while for them to accept
the idea that a text's strength resided in how it
was written, not in the violence of its discourse.
That the theatre is a place for a kind of writing
that speaks to the emotions rather than a place to
expose conflicting ideas.
Plays in my bags
One thing that never ceased to surprise me was how
the participants in the workshop felt about my coming
Paraguay. In a way, my presence there gave them permission
to write. The prolonged presence of a French playwright
made it legitimate for them. I realised how important
the project was. It was a major responsibility: not
to disappoint them, and to meet their expectations.
Many of them were young, and few wrote on a regular
basis. For instance, I wasn't too keen on the idea
of delivering diplomas at the end of the workshop,
which they all seemed to think was extremely important.
It was too formal for me, too much like presenting
medals. But I needed to grasp that this public ceremony,
in which certain personalities were to take part,
was perceived as a validation of the work produced
and was quite necessary.
The work progressed, and I was able to expose them
to certain contemporary French plays translated into
Spanish. I had brought some plays with me (and so
had Laurent). We read in particular several long passages
from different plays by Koltès. Le Retour
au désert fascinated them because it involved
the military. They were captivated by the scene with
the black paratrooper, and the one with Édouard's
suicide where he flies through the air. But it was
the writing that especially held their attention.
How could anyone write like that -so detached, elegant
and beautiful, yet so concrete and confident? They
couldn't believe that his father was in the military.
Luckily, the cultural services at the embassy lent
me a book on Koltès ("Koltès. Combat
avec la scène", Théâtre
d'aujourd'hui, no5). The French Embassy is one
of the few places where documents on the theatre can
be found. I translated passages as we went along,
explaining what was in the photographs, talking about
Chéreau's stagings of his plays as well as
I could. I left them the plays. They're in good hands.
Talking about Koltès to these men and women
of the theatre who had never heard of him was a very
moving experience for me.The writing workshop kept
extending into other areas besides writing. We talked
about everything with total freedom. Its success was
due to a great extent to the warmth and trust that
developed between us as the workshop progressed. They
wanted to write because these daily sessions were
always full of laughter, emotions and real questions
which we delighted in sharing.
As planned, Laurent worked on the texts while we were
conducting the writing workshop. The texts were performed
a few days before the elections. The symbolic impact
of our undertaking was all the stronger for it. We
were exercising our right to free speech, and the
public was listening. Those were two fine evenings
Tuned in to the country
During my stay I was fortunate to develop links with
some of the country's artists. Some real friendships
emerged, in particular with Agustin Nunez. This playwright,
director, actor, teacher at the sole acting school
in the country, an untiring seeker of new forms, and
a willing traveller, seems to be carrying the entire
Paraguayan theatre on his shoulders. Exiled during
the dictatorship, he came back to Paraguay as soon
as the conditions enabled him to, in other words when
his life was no longer threatened. His working conditions
are at the extreme limit of what is possible, but
he works miracles (they being the normal condition
for creating here). He is the only person trying to
stage contemporary plays, under conditions which compel
admiration. He put all his energy into the success
of our project, with the fury of someone with nothing
to gain. He was the driving force behind the writing
workshop, and indeed wrote some fascinating texts,
fixed all sorts of technical problems, and lastly
was of great help to me in trying to understand his
country. His contribution didn't stop at the end of
the performances, because some of the plays are being
performed every Saturday night at El Estudio, an alternative
venue in Asunción which he has just created.
They continue to have great success.
It was with great pleasure that we were able to tell
him that he was invited to the Festival de la Mousson
d'été, where his plays were performed,
with financial support from the embassy. This recognition
of his work is quite wonderful for him.
I was taken in by the country's charms. I'm now quite
familiar with Asunción, the capital. I've walked
all around the town, during the day and at night.
It doesn't reveal itself straight off. It takes time
to discover its special beauty. In the daytime it's
a noisy, dynamic city with street hawkers and vendors
selling fritters, chipas, and Jerba Maté
herbs, colourful buses charging down the streets,
and horses trotting amongst the cars. The nights are
silent and hot, a fantastical territory with its multitude
of prostitutes pacing the sidewalks of the city centre
-very young girls who are often quite beautiful, extraordinary
transvestites, and seductive boys. I spent time walking
around La Chacarita, the huge shantytown on the banks
of the Rio Paraguay. It drew me in like a magnet.
It is a rather dangerous place, especially at night,
but some of the young people from the workshop were
protected by the local bosses, so I was able to walk
around quite freely.
Although Paraguayans are generally warm and welcoming,
they are not very outgoing and seem to have a kind
of nostalgia for some lost paradise. This isn't where
you'll find the proverbial South American exuberance.
The popular music is made up of sad sentimental ballads
accompanied by the guitar and harp. But it's a young
country, both in terms of the extraordinary changes
it has seen over the past ten years (its undeniable,
very recent opening onto the outside world), and through
the young age of its population: 70 % of Paraguayans
are under 35, and 50 % are under 25. Much is to be
expected from these joyful and enthusiastic youths,
who seem less gripped by fear than their elders. And
this impression of a new country appearing to emerge
(with difficulty) from its long lethargy -a country
where everything remains to be done, in particular
in the area of culture, as graduate studies were quite
simply forbidden under Stroessner- is what gave such
special value to this exchange. It was a strange feeling
for a Frenchman to be in a country where culture as
we know it is treated so lightly. Writers, painters,
musicians and filmmakers can be counted on the fingers
of one hand in Paraguay, and they have trouble getting
work. In spite of this, the country is rapidly changing.
It is going through a transition period that will
transform it in just a few years. It's quite extraordinary
to witness such an upheaval and to watch it happening
virtually in front of you. Despite the paradox of
the latest elections, the Paraguayans are hungry for
change. I could feel their constant, intense desire
for things to open up, for culture, for knowledge,
as well as my own incredible sense of being useful
Writing and travelling
I never stopped writing throughout my stay. I knew
nothing of Latin America. And I still don't, because
Paraguay is such a different place. But an intimate
relationship developed between this country and me.
The writing grant enabled me to approach the country
long enough to create some deep ties. It's rare to
be able to devote several months to tuning into a
country, rare to have that kind of financial luxury.
Discovering Paraguay has been a wonderful opportunity
for my work. My plays always try to show human behaviour
in a problematic social context. They are usually
comedies, but I always strive -more or less successfully-
to raise issues about people in their social environment.
For this reason, Paraguay was also a fantastic observatory.
I haven't even begun to measure the effects of this
trip on my work. The trip has changed my way of seeing
In conclusion I would like to extend warm thanks to
Daniel Lefort and Jean-François Guéganno,
respectively cultural attaché and director
of the Alliance française, who helped me in
every way possible during my stay in Paraguay. I felt
their attentive presence throughout the entire project,
and they took an active part in its success.
A book of the plays written during the workshop has
been published with financial support from the embassy.
This is a very important document, both as recognition
of these constantly evolving playwrights -which is
so necessary here- and in order for the exchange between
our two countries to take shape more concretely.
I began writing a play in Paraguay entitled Vidal
Zarate, the story of a thief from La Chacarita.
A film was made about our experience, mainly during
rehearsals. It gives a good idea of what took place.
I translated the texts from the workshop and chose
a certain number of them. They opened the Festival
de la Mousson d'été in 1998, devoted
to Latin America that year. The rare writings coming
from Paraguay were given a forum on that occasion.
Episodic visits from theatre people are not enough
to create the kind of long-term dynamics required
to foster a nascent writing style specific to a country
such as Paraguay. The fruits of such an experience
can only mature with time.
Rémi De Vos