Uruguay's Young Shakespeare
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because in some places, the theater scene competes with the bar scene.
By Shannon Sims
It’s a pleasant afternoon in Montevideo, Uruguay, and I’m riding in the backseat of a van with the mayor’s security detail. Curious, they ask me about my next interview, and I casually mention he’s a playwright. “Is it Calderón?” a giant man in a suit asks. “He’s the Montevideo star in that world!” the driver shouts from the front. They’re impressed. In a taxi the next morning, a similar conversation takes place. “My wife and I have seen a few of his plays,” the driver says. “We’ll definitely see his next one.”
The people want more from Gabriel Calderón — which is a bit bizarre; when have you last heard of a city clamoring for a playwright? But with edgy plays like My Little Doll (Mi Muñequita), which delves into a dysfunctional family and incest, and characters like a woman sporting a black pleather minidress and rabbit mask, the 32-year-old Calderón has taken Montevideo, and much of Latin America, by storm. His shows — dark dramas or comedies — have audiences packing the theaters, and the print versions have become sought-after books. One of his works was nominated for Best Play in Uruguay, and he’s even worked in the government’s Ministry of Culture. Last year, theaters across Montevideo hosted the “Calderón Cycle,” a revue of his roaringly successful decade as a playwright.
It wasn’t until the urging of friends that he wrote a play — a comedy, “just for fun.” It ended up sweeping the awards at a theater competition.
Calderón is benefiting from a moment in Montevideo that has the city enamored by playwrights. William Acree, an associate professor at Washington University in St. Louis and an expert on Uruguayan theater, notes that even with the range of entertainment options available these days, including YouTube and you-name-it, “the theater remains a mainstay of cultural life for Uruguayans, from the wealthiest to the economically challenged.” Here, the theater experience is social; after a show, people take to restaurants to discuss it over a bottle of Uruguayan Tannat. “On any given night, you might go to a bar,” Calderón tells us. “Or you might go to the theater.”
On this given night, the taxi drops me at the steps of the Teatro Solís, a hulking, classical building. It’s one of Latin America’s premier theater venues. And if you’re imagining stole-embellished, tuxed-up crowds of rich white folk packing the place, think again. Montevideo’s theater scene is strikingly democratic. The National Theater Company’s performances, which take place at the Teatro Solís, are among the most affordable shows around, Acree says.
A new generation of theater buffs has grown up with Calderón, literally, working side by side for the past decade as stagehands and directors, set on pushing the limits of what theater is and should be. As I wait for him at a coffee shop, Calderón bounds down the alley, green-eyed and black-bearded, with a smiling baby strapped to his chest, the adorable third wheel for our interview. His wife, an actress, shows up a bit later to take over caregiving. For a guy who typically deals with themes of sexual violence and rotten family dynamics, there sure seems to be a lot of glowing smiles and coos going around tonight.
But it’s just the next chapter for Calderón as he forges a life as an unlikely playwright. Born into a middle-class family in the center of town, he first went to school for engineering since, Calderón says, his reading scores were quite low. It wasn’t until the urging of friends that he wrote a play — a comedy, “just for fun,” he adds. It ended up sweeping the awards at a theater competition for youth, which shocked him as much as anyone. He kept writing plays, always for fun, but he was dogged by a persistent sense of being an “impostor” when he was writing: “I didn’t believe in my skills for many years.”
Calderón thinks this self-doubt, which may have paralyzed other creative minds, actually drove him to improve. At the same time, in 2001, Uruguay sank into an economic crisis. Lawyers became taxi drivers. Money wasn’t easy no matter the profession, so, liberated from the financial part, he turned to playwriting full time. His career took off — but he didn’t begin introducing himself as a playwright until about two years ago.
His best plays have had a contradictory tendency to drive some viewers away. There are the long, intense scenes of dialogue; the lack of a feel-good ending. And some see his porno-referencing work as sensationalistic, a grotesque burlesque. And these plays, chock-full of such potential land mines, are hardly easy for directors to stage. Especially because, as Calderón says, unlike book reading or Netflix binge-watching, with theater, the viewer is “not the owner of the timing,” which means they might get angry or bored, or want to quit watching, all of which are fine with him. To Calderón, that’s what makes the theater magic — “it’s a real experience.”
As we part ways, large crowds have already gathered across the street, around the steps of Teatro Solís, and there’s a buzz in the air. But I’ve got to run off to my next interview, at a restaurant across town. As I settle in and tell my companion about my last subject, Mr. Calderón, the waiter refilling my water overhears. “You interviewed Gabriel Calderón? When’s his next play?”