Biodrama is biographical theater. It’s live action documentary celebrating living people and the theatrical aspects of their everyday lives. The movement took off in Argentina in the early 2000s, propelled by director Vivi Tellas, who visits the University of Oklahoma this week, by invitation of the Department of Modern Languages, Literature and Linguistics. Tellas taught last semester at Princeton’s Spanish language department, a seminar exploring the dramas of contemporary life and transforming them into live performance. We spoke with her and Julie Ward, a specialist in 21st century Latin American theater, about Tellas’ creative process and works, leading up to a public presentation she’ll give this Thursday afternoon on campus.
Tellas transitioned from visual arts to collaborative, dramatic work in the late 1970s, during a repressive military dictatorship that disappeared thousands of her peers. She has tested the boundaries of theater from the start, but her current trajectory took shape during her appointment as director of the main municipal theater in Buenos Aires. After a major success in 2002 staging Federico García Lorcas’ La casa de Bernarda Albas, Tellas began to experiment and research. She wanted her work to benefit the city and its people. She credits her friend, contemporary documentary playwright Stefan Kaegi as influential in her decision to begin working with non-professional actors. Biographical theater became her means to give back to Argentines.
“In Argentina it's very difficult— the years of dictatorship, and I insist on this because it's very difficult— desaparecidos, people being killed, tortured and you just can't get over it yet. It’s like you know the value of your life and your experience was very . . . like you weren't worth anything,” Tellas explains. “So my project on Biodrama is also putting a light on that. Your experience has value and it's unique. Your experience is what you have and nobody can take that away, so how can we do some poetic theater work with that.”
Tellas now specializes in finding theater outside of theater. The Archives Project is a series where she guides non-professional actors through a process of exploration, remembering, and research to form scripts and productions that tell their stories. Tellas says it’s often an emotional process, and lies and fiction mix with reality when it comes to biography.
Her first documentary piece starred her mother and aunt, and was performed in 2002 in her private studio, for friends and friends of friends only. The piece is aptly named “Mi mamá y mi tía/ My Mom and My Aunt” and is the first of what has become the Archives Project.
“It was the first piece I was doing in this way and I really didn't know what I was doing. So it was really research and experimental in that way, that I didn't know where I was going to finish, or where was the final or the goal of this work. So I had to have an assistant that reminded me that we were working and it wasn't only, you know, like a family reunion or something. Everything was like crying and laughing and very intense, and very emotionally intense, and also I didn't know if that would be interesting for an audience,” Tellas said.
The show was soon covered by a widely distributed newspaper and became a big hit. Documentary theater was groundbreaking work at that time.
“I was a little bit on stage with "Mi mamá y mi tía" because I also felt like I couldn't leave these two crazy Jewish ladies by themselves and, I don't know, like laugh. I had to protect them. It was a little bit like, this is where I come from and I can stand up for them. So it was a lot like I am helping them and being part. Like, you know, being there for them. But then in the other plays, I'm not there. I'm just the director and I'm not on stage. I just felt a need to be close to my mother and my aunt,” Tellas said. “I never, never make my performers look ridiculous because they are not actors. They are doing something they don't know how to do, so I always take care of that, like they can really do well at what they're doing, and also have fun and be serious and deep. But yeah, I protect them a lot.”
The second documentary piece was an homage to philosophers she met attending a series of discussions at the University of Buenos Aires. They became “Trés filósofos con bigote/ Three Philosophers with Mustache”. It explores the relationship between thought life and action. The unique personalities and relationships between the three philosophers translate on stage into the natural dialogue, wisdom and humor that conventional drama attempts to capture.
“Escuela de conducción/ Driving School” explores the relationship between people and cars. The actors are instructors from a driving school she attended. Like many folks from large metropolitan areas, Tellas does not especially like cars. She says not knowing a subject matter often inspires her research and collaboration, but so does her intense curiosity about people and their relationships.
“I didn't know anything about cars or philosophy, and then they don't know anything about theater, so we are like even. I think it's a good way to be together in that experience.”
Curiosity about the relationship between Argentine avant garde film director Eduardo Cozarinsky and the doctor that saved his life became “Cozarinsky y su médico/ Cozarinsky and His Doctor”. A text of that play will soon be published. Because Tellas’ documentary pieces are created by a collaborative, evolving, living process, and directed by the woman who calls forth their telling, preparing the text for publication has proven complicated for the director.
“So they are asking me for the text, and I always wonder about these texts that are biographical, between fiction and reality. They come up as we work, because it's not a written text— the text is being written while we rehearse or make the research. And it's so strong to see them perform because they're not actors, and it's very unstable and fragile, but then I always think of if it's interesting to read these texts, without seeing this experience,” Tellas said. “I see it really as an experience to be there, because its really strange to be an audience of these pieces. You feel like it's really hard to get to the end, like everything is going to collapse. It's really, really risky.”
Thursday afternoon, Tellas will describe and illustrate a performance created for the 2010 Eñe Festival in Montevideo, Uruguay. She wanted to explore trance as performance, and worked with an Umbanda practitioner. The priestess acted as a medium, twirling in her traditional manner, to connect Tellas with her father, who passed away when she was just two years old. Tellas wrote a script of questions to ask her father, which she says she would have never done without this performance. The emotionally intense text became a powerful take away from the experience.
"'Mi padre vive en una estrella/ My Father Lives on a Star'— I called it that because when my father died my mother would always tell me that he was the first star to come up in the sky. So when I was little I would always look up at the sky and wait for my father to come out,” Tellas said.
She will read the script from "Mi padre vive en una estrella", show photos, and discuss the process of the performance this Thursday, April 16 at 4:30 p.m.
Central Oklahoma is a happening place to be, with lots to do, see, hear and experience, but only 168 hours each week. We help you make the most of them, by previewing meaningful arts events. Check our calendar for more entertainment options, educational and outdoors activities, and volunteer opportunities. You may submit your own events to the calendar for possible listing and announcement. OneSix8 returns next week.
KGOU relies on voluntary contributions from readers and listeners to further its mission of public service with arts and culture reporting for Oklahoma and beyond. To contribute to our efforts, make your donation online, or contact our Membership department.
FULL INTERVIEW TRANSCRIPT
JULIE WARD, INTERVIEWER:
I'm Julie Ward. I'm an assistant professor of Spanish in the Modern Languages, Literature and Linguistics Department. I specialize in 20th and 21st century Latin American Literature with a focus on theater.
I was interested in autobiographical performance in Latin American theater, and one of my professors at the University of California Berkeley told me that in Buenos Aires there was a series of biodramas that I needed to look into and that's when I first found out about Vivi's work. I found some excerpts and interviews in an edited volume by Carol Martin, and then I got in contact with her and went to Buenos Aires and got to attend a workshop which was really eye-opening and incredible.
This is Vivi Tellas. She is a renowned Argentine theater director and curator. She's been the director of the municipal theater complex in Buenos Aires and has also produced and directed many of her own shows. Most recently she's been working with real stories or real live Argentines in what is called Biodrama, and she's here to tell us more about that.
So Vivi, how did you get your start in theatre?
Thank you for this invitation. I'm really happy to be here at Oklahoma University. Well, I've done that question to myself so many times that I don't really quite know the answer, but I have different answers during my life. One of them,the latest answer is that I am very curious about people and I also studied visual arts, so first I was a visual artist. Sorry about my strange accent English. I was raised a little bit, I did my primary school in California so I just have this English but just from primary school but then I developed it in my work and everything, so.
So first I studied visual arts and then went into theater. In Argentina when I was studying visual arts, it was the dictatorship so it was really very difficult to be with other people and it was scary and we were all teenagers, and we were, you know, getting started in our careers [majors] and everything and it was very difficult, because nothing was really allowed and it was scary. So, I felt when I was studying visual arts, I started feeling too lonely, and then I said, okay, we have to get together more and I think that came up as a form of theater, you know, to be with others and to have projects in common. You know, that really social art. I said okay, I'm just gonna leave visual arts for when I'm really old and can't move or something like that. Part of my work is strong visual also field that I developed and I like that very much. So that's one of the answers, I'm curious about people, I like to be with others, I like to create with others. And then my last project is really about curiosity, you know biodrama.
WARD: So tell us, what exactly is biodrama? How do you define it and how did you come up with the concept?
TELLAS: It's trying to stage biographies. It's just simple, the bio is from biography and the drama is from theater, just put together. I created this concept for one of the city theaters, and I was directing. I was invited to take charge, to direct this theater, so I said how can I experiment and research theater. There was no theater that had that, like a research center. There was no theater that had that, like a research center, and so started thinking about what could be interesting for the city, and for me, of course, and so I just started thinking about the experience, the biography as something of real value of living people. Because you know mostly biographies are from dead people. So I said okay, how can we work with somebody who is alive and has a story. And so I would invite directors first as a curator, and they could do their work. But most of them would work with actors and based on a real story from somebody who was living in Argentina and was alive.
But then it all really evolved and developed really interesting and I invited Stefan Kaegi from Rimini-Protokoll. He's really a super-genius from contemporary art theater. So we worked together on a piece and I was really inspired by his work. He was working with non-professional actors. At that time my first piece in documentary theater was "My Mom and My Aunt/ Mi mamá y mi tía", and was with my real mother and my aunt and we worked on the family story. So that was my first. That was 2002-2003. It was a long time ago now.
WARD: And what was that like, to work with your mother and your aunt? Do they have any acting experience?
TELLAS: They're not actors, and no, no, no. It was really difficult and I call it my psychotic experience because it was the first piece I was doing in this way and I really didn't know what I was doing. So, it was really research and experimental in that way. I didn't know where I was going to finish, or where was the final, or the goal of this work. So, I had to have also an assistant that reminded me that we were working and it wasn't only, you know, getting like a family reunion or something. And everything was like crying and laughing and very intense and very emotionally intense and also I didn't know if that would be interesting for an audience. That was the question: will this be interesting for other people?
WARD: What kind of people attended the play when you finally did produce it?
TELLAS: We did it in my studio, in my working place. Like really in a very secret and private [place], because I didn't know if I could take that to a theater. And even less, I didn't know if I could sell tickets to see my family. I felt really strange about that and I didn't know how to handle it. And so we did this-- you could get invited to see the performance in my studio, so the first audience were guests, and friends and friends of friends and then it got bigger and bigger. There was this big article, they were on the cover of a suplemento, the cultural section of an important newspaper.
So, everybody wanted to come. And it was, well, the audience got bigger and there was a waiting list and it was really always full of people. Some theater people would come with their families to see the piece. That was really an interesting time for me because I was just discovering something so new, so unknown for me. And I think for the city also. I mean, that was 2002. I mean, now it's more all over a little bit, the documentary work and everything. But at that time it was uh . . . And also I found really different between me and the work Stefan Kaegi was doing, he's more like a journalist, his approach to theater. I love what he does really, and I admire him, and he's a friend. But my work is looking for theatricality, because I have to. I feel that's my field, I look for theater outside of theater, that's my research.
WARD: And where did you go from there? Where did you find theater?
TELLAS: Well, I didn't know if that would go on. So I was feeling like I was starting over with theater. You know, I'd done "La casa de Bernarda Alba" from García Lorca, [The House of Berndarda Alba], and this was a big production in the main city theater-- the biggest stage, I mean everything was like "the theatre". The actresses were the most interesting, everything was like that. I worked with Guillermo Kuitca who was a visual artist, very very well known, and everything was beautiful and perfect. To my surprise, it was a big success and so when that ended I felt like theater was over for me or something like that and I was just, you know, looking for another start. So I started like that in my new work.
So I went to this philosophy group, very legendary philosophy group in Buenos Aires. So at the end of that I was thinking how can I give back to this group. I'm not a philosophy person, but I was there learning. And so I did another piece with three philosophy professors from the University of Buenos Aires, and that was called "Three Philosophers with Mustache". And we take a look at the mustache through that story, and there's a lot of mustache in philosophy. So, it was on biography and philosophy, these two mixed. That was my second documentary piece.
I was getting to know better about this work I was doing and it was also very . . . they would tell me, "Oh, Vivi, you are a philosopher", and I found out I could be cómo un cameleón [like a chameleon]. I could be with them and be part and make the theater piece a little bit from there. You know my curiosity is very intense.
WARD: So when you are directing your mother and your aunt in "Mí mamá y mi tía", you are reminding them of questions, asking from the wings during the presentation of the play. How do you participate with "The Three Philosophers"? Do you blend in in the actual staging or just in the process of creation?
TELLAS: Yes, I was a little bit on stage with "Mí mamá y mi tía" because I also felt like I couldn't leave these two crazy Jewish ladies by themselves and you know, i don't know, like laugh. I had to protect them. It was a little bit like, this is where I come from and I can stand up for them. So it was a lot like I am helping them and being part. Like, you know, being there for them. But then in the other plays, I'm not there. I'm just the director and I'm not on stage. I just felt really a need to be close to my mother and my aunt. And also it was my first. . . I was just looking, my feeling was, I can't leave them alone. And it's always like I never, never make my performers look ridiculous. Because you can think of that lik they are not actors. And so they are doing something they don't know how to do. So I always take care of that, like they can really do well what they're doing and also have fun and be serious and deep. But yeah, I protect them a lot. But then in my other plays, in the other pieces I'm not there visible on stage.
WARD: What about "Cozarinsky and His Doctor"? Can you tell us about working with the stars of that play and what that was like?
TELLAS: Eduardo Cozarinski he's a writer and a filmmaker. He's from like the first wave of avant garde in the 60s in Buenos Aires. Then he left and was living in Paris. I met him when he was starting to come back to Buenos Aires. I was so fascinated by these people who are disappearing. He's so, tiene mucho formación. He's very prepared, the way that he talks and everything. It's so fascinating. And then he told me the story of his friend, the doctor that has saved his life. I wanted to do a portrait on stage with Cozarinsky. I said, I want to meet your doctor. And when I met the doctor, I said i want to work with both of you. And so I did this proposal "Cozarinsky and His Doctor", and they're both on stage.
I wanted to research the idea of what is the relationship with somebody that saves your life, and they're friends, and they shared also being film fans. So that was really intense to do. And now, I was telling you before, it's gonna get published in Cuba, so they were asking me for a text, and I always wonder if these texts that are biographical, between fiction and reality. They come up as we work, because it's not a written text, the text is being written while we rehearse or make the research. So I always think of this. It's so strong to see them perform because they're not actors, and it's very unstable and fragile. But then I always think of if it's interesting to read these texts without seeing this experience. I see it really as an experience to be there because its really strange to be an audience of these pieces. You feel like it's really hard to get to the end, like everything is going to collapse. It's really risky. It's really, really risky. So I'm curious about, and I went a lot over the text and I had it read from other people who did not see the play, and well, they found it interesting, so we'll see what happens.
WARD: Tell us more about using non-actors. What is the effect? It's fragile and it's risky. What do audience members tell you about it, and what is it like to work with people. How do you get them on stage?
TELLAS: There's a lot of questions there. Well, one. . . I can say, let's start at how do I get them there. I always first take part of some experience that I find theatrical. Like I would go to the philosophy seminar, this group, and I would find a lot of theater there, like all of the examples of philosophy would sound to me like little pieces of theater, so I could start thinking about theater. Then I took driving lessons. I went to this driving school, and when I got there I found it was like a fake city. So then again it was all very theatrical and I did a piece with the instructors from the driving school on their biography and how cars, you know like, how do we live with cars. I mostly hate cars. So, I researched on that.
So, at first I'm part of this world and I am like a beginner. I don't know anything about it. And then I invite them. I have a card that says I am a theater director, like a professional theater director. So I give them my card, and then I ask them that I would like to make a theater piece with them. And it's strange, I mean, how do they accept? That's strange always for me. I think people want something new to happen in their lives, or maybe they fantasize sometimes, too. And it really changes peoples' lives a lot when they do the experience. And because I was in this no-knowing first, like I didn't know anything about the car or philosophy, and then they don't know anything about theater. And so we are like even.I think it's a good way to be together in that experience
And then working with them, of course it's very different each case, each piece, where I put myself in the relationship with them, and umm. . . Yeah, when we get to the biography, it's always very emotional and I try to find theater in biography. That means maybe there's fiction, or there's lies, or there's a big change of destiny. As drama, we look for change. So, I try to look into that in biography, and it's really surprising how much drama there is, of course in everybody's life. But when you start looking into that, it's so meaningful to see and find out. And the person at first doesn't look at it as something important, so I have to build more of a scene to look at those parts.
Well, I worked with two rabbis in New York for the PS 122 Festival, it's also avant garde theater. I made a casting for rabbis, and I worked with two rabbis. And also because I am Jewish, but I haven't had an education, so I was really curious about the staging of the rabbis. I'm always looking for stages and scenes, so I found that was really interesting for me. So we did this "Rabbi/ Rabbino" piece, and then I did this remake in Sao Paulo with a rabbi and his son. Those two were really strange because I found that rabbis are more directors than performers, so everybody was a director. It was interesting to see.
WARD: So you've talked some about what it's like to direct other people, but with one performance, you put yourself in the center of the stage. That's "Mi padre vive en una estrella". Could you tell us a little bit about that performance?
TELLAS: Yeah, in the research about documentary and theater outside theater, I also started to think about trance, to be entranced, in a trance. I found that very theatrical. I was invited for this festival in literature, so I made a proposal and I wanted to work with a professional medium, and I would ask her to connect with my father that died when I was two years old. So I wrote a text that was questions to my father. And it's called that, "My Father Lives on a Star", because when my father died my mother would always tell me that he was the first star to come up in the sky. So when I was little I would always look up at the sky and wait for my father to come out. And so I just named it that way.
We did the performance twice on stage. And I would be with, or I met the medium, she was from Umbanda. I went to her house. She has a temple. She has a lot of costumes because she would dress up as an African queen. And this text, the most surprising thing for me was that when I wrote the text, that was my connection. I would never imagine before that these questions. I would never dare to think questions to my father. So that was amazing for me and that was the connection I did. And I would think well, the medium has her techniques on stage, and she would do part of the show. She would be spinning and then she would talk to me in Portuguese. It was really strong and these things. . . I'm a really provocative artist, this was never seen in public. She would never go public, and these people do not do things for audience. So this was in Montevideo, Uruguay, a festival called Eñe, it's from Spain. It was shocking for people also to make this public, to see how it works. So now here, with your invitation I will show a little bit of how that was done, documents and photographs of the moment I met the medium and I will read the text that is for me very intense and emotional.
WARD: What made the medium decide to go public with you?
TELLAS: I don't know. I think with all the people I work, they find they trust me in some way. I think I'm trustable.
TELLAS: Yeah. They bond with me, they have a lot of intimacy, they feel like I listen. Really, that's really what my job is a lot about, listening carefully. And well, she got paid as a professional. This was absolutely new to her, but she felt like she could be part of an art festival, and she felt comfortable. I really don't know. I always ask that question about how somebody says to me, I want to do a theater piece. I don't know, maybe it's something new. I think everybody, this is something I think about, everybody likes to be looked at, at one point, and chosen. You know, if somebody says like, "I want to do a theater piece with you", you know, it's like being chosen.
In Argentina it's very difficult and the years of dictatorship, I insist on this because it's very difficult. Desaparecidos, people being killed, tortured and you just can't get over it yet. And it's like you can't, it's not, you know the value of your life and your experience was very . . . like you weren't worth anything. So my project on biodrama is also putting a light on that. Your experience has value and it's unique. Your experience is what you have and nobody can take that away. So how can we do some poetic theater work with that.
WARD: Wow. It's incredible work. It's very valuable work, on a personal level and on an artistic level. We look very much forward to the presentation of the process and the text of "Mi padre vive en una estrella". That's this Thursday at 4:30 p.m., here at OU in George Lynn Cross Hall, Room 143. Thank you so much Vivi for sharing your time and your amazing work with us.
TELLAS: Oh, thank you Julie for this invitation. I came all the way from Argentina to Oklahoma, very, very happy.
Copyright © 2015 KGOU Radio. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to KGOU Radio. This transcript is provided for personal, noncommercial use only. Any other use requires KGOU's prior permission.
KGOU transcripts are created on a rush deadline by our staff, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of KGOU's programming is the audio.