December 10, 2013
Mauricio Kartún, theatre directorTuesday, August 27, 2013
‘As a consumer good, theatre is doomed to failure'
San Martín, Buenos Aires Province, 1946
Profession: playwright, theatre director, drama teacher
Breakthrough: Chau, Misterix (1980)
Awards: Konex 1994, Fondo Nacional de las Artes 1997, ACE de Oro 2010
Biopic: Kartún, el año de Salomé (2012), by Monica Salerno and Hugo Crexell
Mauricio Kartún is one of Argentina’s leading playwrights and theatre directors, and his outstanding career spans more than four decades. A prestigious drama and writing teacher, his alumni include Rafael Spregelburd and Daniel Veronese, who went on to spearhead the avant-garde scene in Argentine theatre. Kartún’s prolific output ranges from naturalist to symbolic and allegorical, rooted in social drama and history.
Is a dramatist’s work a profession or a craft?
In the understanding that art has a paradoxical nature, the dramatist’s work may be considered a craft provided it’s coupled with creativity. Craftsmanship is essential, it’s the process of learning whereby the body undergoes physical training. Journalism is a craft, as is carpentry, for example. A craft may be defined as the capacity for spontaneous reaction. When somebody learns a trade, it’s the craft, not the person themselves who react to a certain stimulus. Craftsmanship alone is not enough to create art. The challenge posed by art is creating something new, and craftsmanship (or the repetition of certain mechanisms) does not suffice to create something new. A puzzling paradox of art is that artists must create new tools for every new creation. Therefore, the certainty and self-assurance provided by craftsmanship gets you nowhere in the process of creation. This is why creation takes longer than craftsmanship. Of course, some people content themselves with craftsmanship, and thus they forge serialized material, not art.
Are we talking disposable commodities here?
At best, because consumption, in artistic terms, requires variety. Audiences, mainly theatre audiences, know exactly what they’re looking for — a stage play’s virtuous circle, the primeval capacity to create something different on a stage, a process that’s been going on for 2,400 years. When devised as a consumer good, a theatre piece, a theatrical narrative is doomed to failure. However, there are commercial areas in which this strategy does function, the best example being television. It is not time pressure or aesthetic search that prompts television’s need for something fast and serialized. In extreme cases, television will even mistrust new products for fear audiences will not like them. This is when television resorts to repetition, to proven formulas, drawing pleasure from repetition. This is craftsmanship. In the field of theatre this is impossible.
Why did you choose drama instead of another profession?
I’m fascinated by the possibility of tackling a new work which I never know if I’ll be able to finish, because completion is not a given in the area of artistic production, unless the product is completed through craftsmanship rather than creativity. This is a fascinating challenge, playwrights and artists are spurred ahead by this urge to carry things to completion.
Would you consider a different line of work?
I do not dismiss the possibility of developing a different craft or art. In fact, I’ve been doing it for the last 11 years. Over the last decade, apart from writing, I have started, at a slow pace, to become a director. I think I still haven’t fully managed it, because it’s not a spontaneous reaction, I still think as a dramatist, even during rehearsals. At some point, I hope, I will master double command: thinking as an author and as a director.
I have also tried narrative, but the challenge of completing a novel demands no less than a year, some times two, and this is when the need to create a new stage play comes up. Sometimes I tell myself, “This year I will not write or direct theatre,” but then an external force (or an internal drive) pushes me to abandon the decision. But I never question myself about this, I just go with the flow. Some theatre projects demand, say, three years, and I let myself get carried away, I believe in the creative process of going with the flow of things.
I recently heard a well-known dramatist say that he found it very difficult to direct his own plays, that he found it easier to direct other playwrights’ work. Is this your case?
There’s an old dictum which, in my younger years, I adopted as a universal truth: an author can never be the best director of his own work. I would repeat this dictum indefinitely without giving much thought to it. I had a first-hand example with my own students. They would pay no heed to me, they would do as they pleased, and they did it well! In the early 90s, when Rafael Spregelburd and so many other playwright-directors staged their own works, it was very powerful. Of course, when I started to direct my own plays, I started to hear other voices, such as good old (Carlos) Gorostiza’s, an emblematic playwright who always directed his own plays and, occasionally, someone else’s, such as Roberto Cossa’s La nona, a remarkable production, indeed.
What role do dramatists play in today’s world? What do they have to tell their audiences?
As an example, the cultural resistance theatre of the early 80s (when the 1976-1983 military dictatorship was on its last legs) was marked by a sense of urgency. As regards artistic creativity, it was instantaneous, fleeting, if you will. It was all about transmitting ideas, information, ideology, sometimes a communiqué. The theatre was just a medium like any other.
Is it a case of a play in search of an author, or the other way round?
Following Karl Marx, we agreed that art not only creates an object for the subject, but also a subject for the object. That is, art not only creates a play for audiences (what I’ve been doing for a long time now), but also an audience for a play. In my case, there is a huge difference between my early output and my later works. My early works were intended as a medium, and there was no concern for viewers other than passive recipients. As time went by, I started to consider the poetics of drama writing, I tried to produce more challenging pieces. Why not write something that viewers necessarily found easy to decode, why not create works that challenged their intellect, why not create a subject for the object, I asked myself.
Which is the greatest, the most pleasurable experience for a playwright-director?
One of the biggest rewards is finding out that the audience is always there, and that it is perfectly capable of enjoying stage plays with a literary edge to them, sometimes at odds with conventional theatre. This kind of audience has incorporated the necessary mechanisms to enjoy this type of unconventional theatre, even if, sometimes, they need to see the same play more than once. The more traditional kind of theatre tries to give viewers food for thought, unconventional theatre tries to alter and challenge their minds.