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Paraguay, emerging from silence

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 part.
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 the theatre.
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 of theatre.

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 for something.

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 the world.
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