The work of Chilean playwright/director Manuela Infante transcends the seemingly unmovable rules of dramaturgy and theatre. In the years since she made her debut with the incendiary Prat, which some claimed humanized Chilean naval hero Arturo Prat too much, she has created pieces about Jesus Christ, a Spanish soldier gone Latin American revolutionary, and a multigenerational family drama seen through the lens of speculative realism. In Estado vegetal, which she’s bringing to the Baryshnikov Arts Center (May 2-3) she turns towards the world of plants, vegetables and the nonhuman. I spoke to her about the philosophical concepts behind her work, her views on what makes an ideal audience, and the idea of feminist theatre.
In English and Spanish, someone in a clinical vegetative state is treated as someone with no life. However in Estado vegetal you focus on the life of plants and the nonhuman. How did trying to disprove the notion of plants as not being alive, influence the creation of the show?
The idea of Estado vegetal was to offer a critical look at how we humans think about what a vegetative state is. Clinically someone in a vegetative state is someone who has no conscience. While recent scientific studies have discussed “vegetable conscience,” meaning conscience isn’t exclusively human heritage. The title of the play also plays with the idea of a state, a political construction that could be shaped after vegetable structures, rather than animal structures.
At the center of the play there’s an event which we don’t tell chronologically, because the intention is to imitate the vegetable world through the play. This isn’t a play about plants, but a vegetable play. We made theatrical elements resemble the vegetable world, working from a branched dramaturgy. There are narrative events, but they’re not told in linear order, rather through the idea of what they would look like through a “vegetable dramaturgy”.
Being aware of this, what do you think we should call the clinical vegetative state?
I’m not sure, my work never had much to do with the clinical state. I don’t want to give away any spoilers, but in the play we meet someone who’s in a vegetative state and there are many questions that arise from that. The play is based on questions asked by philosopher Michael Marder who asks us to think about the vegetable inside each and everyone of us.
Genetically, plants are our ancestors, so something that seems so foreign to us is actually part of our genetic makeup. I’m playing with the idea that someone left in a vegetative state is in the transition of animal to vegetable. To be honest I didn’t do much research on clinical vegetative state, so I wouldn’t be able to rename it. I’m more interested in exploring how true is it that there are lines that divide the: mineral, animal and vegetable kingdoms.
You made me think of Agnès Varda exploring the world in a potato costume. What do you think humans could learn from plants?
The fundamental lesson is that human beings are not the center, or the standard by which we measure everything else. When I started working with the non-human in theatre the first thing I tried to do was speak for them, I quickly realized my intention was naive, because you can’t speak for others, especially when you’re trying to defend their agency. The methodology that arose from that was that we used laws of the vegetable world, like branching, multiplicity, and phototropy, to revisit our discipline. I believe the same exercise can be applied to any field.
For example, plants can’t run and escape predators, so they have what’s called a modular structure meaning that in every module they have ears, eyes etc. Rather than having a central government, they have governments in each leaf and root. So plants make collective decisions that also happen to be individual. We worked with plant neurologist Stefano Mancuso who suggests that we can apply those examples to restructure theatre, politics, and technology. To see what we can imitate from plants rather than speak for them.
Breaking away from the idea of dramatic unity and thinking about dramatic branching, also opens up theatre turning it into something much more interesting. I firmly believe plants can be a model for any discipline: music, literature, technology. We should allow ourselves to imitate these othernesses.
This makes me think of many spiritual philosophies that suggest we’re all parts of one structure.
That’s a strong belief in many trends of new materialism, which borrows ideas from ancient thinkers who believed there was a common potential divided in all these different manifestations. Recent thinkers have started commenting on how the division between the human and nonhuman, is owed to the concept of “humanity” being a recent invention. Something that first appeared during the Illustration. An invention that has helped enforce exclusion and oppression, because many barbaric acts have been committed in the name of humanity. There are many beings thought to be less than human, during the colonial era, and even today, distinctions are still made between civilization and barbarism.
Your process is similar to the scientific method. After finishing Estado vegetal for instance, did you find that you had proved the theory you set out with, or do you revisit your work and conduct experiments to achieve different results?
For me a play is an investigation that exceeds one production. In this case I’ve been investigating the nonhuman since my previous two plays, and I will continue investigating it in my next two works. My first play about the nonhuman dealt with objects, I discovered I was trying to manipulate the objects onstage to do what I wanted, which contradicted the idea of giving them a voice. That led me to change my approach and rather than putting these other beings onstage, I started imitating how they functioned. Each play therefore illuminates the next. They’re stages with discoveries and non-discoveries.
You have mentioned that your work is received differently in Asia and Eastern countries, than it is America and the West. In his latest film Jean-Luc Godard says something along the lines of how everyone in the East is a philosopher because they allow themselves times to meditate rather than react. Is this relatable to the way in which your work is perceived in places like South Korea?
Even those East/West differentiations we make are much more complex than that. The East is equally invaded by capitalism and its demands. So we create fetishizations of what’s Eastern, which sometimes they also exploit. I was in Kyoto for several months last year, where I was conducting research on rocks. I’m fascinated by Eastern aesthetics because audiences and artists there often sit in front of a piece and never expect instant satisfaction. They don’t feel the need to extract sense or knowledge from what’s in front of them.
I believe plays should have opaque moments, things we can only contemplate rather than understand. It shouldn’t be so easy to extract things from art. We sit down to see a play and we want to consume it. Japanese theatre tends to be more opaque, it explores the sound of language for instance, rather than its meaning. Eastern audiences are more willing to sit and contemplate, while Western audiences are in constant search of meaning.
This is something that comes across in criticism. American theatre and its criticism seek to serve as a chronicle of time and place. They give themselves the role of historian, while your work gives itself the role of a philosopher.
I didn’t study philosophy, but I’ve always been a fan of studying existentialist problems. What is reality? What is otherness? What is nature? I’m also a musician, which is one of the most abstract spaces in art. Theatre to me isn’t a place where we figure out history or politics, rather it resembles music. Nietzsche said it better: catharsis emerges from music. I like linking existentialist ideas, which could perfectly fit into academia, and asking these questions in sensorial, abstract spaces.
I don’t really think we can “talk about things,” which is a posthumanist belief. Humans can’t understand everything, it’s a very anthropocentric, arrogant belief. I like thinking of a theatre that understand we will never fully know everything about the subjects we explore, rather we’re dancing around them.
Have you ever deconstructed famous plays using your method?
Up until recently I was only working with my own texts, because I write as I research and rehearse. But I’ve started working with works by others, it’s interesting to suggest a text full of humanity can be seen through a nonhuman lens. I haven’t done it much, because the contrast would be quite strong.
I would’ve loved to see your adaptation of Idomeneo, which starred Paulina García. Are you planning on touring with that production as well?
Idomeneo is a perfect example of what we were talking about before, it was Paulina who first brought the play to me. My adaptation turned the work into a hybrid between a play and a concert, going back to Nietzsche’s idea of tragedy stemming from music. I would love to bring Idomeneo to the United States, it would be fantastic, but we don’t have any plans for it as of now.
Was Idomeneo the opera you mentioned you were working on last year?
It was a step in that direction. I grew up as a musician and I always loved philosophy, so theatre was the place where I could bring them together. For a very long time I was in a band and also did theatre, now I want to combine them. I’m not interested in doing musical theatre, but in exploring how we can create an experience that’s halfway between a concert and a play. What it’s like to stand at that border. I’m about to go to Singapore where I was commissioned a work based on women’s voices. That project will follow Idomeneo’s path, and maybe that will lead to the opera. Or who knows? Maybe I will never end up with an opera but with a strange hybrid.
Your work challenges audiences in many ways. What does the ideal “active audience” people talk about, look like to you?
I would say my ideal is a passive audience [laughs]. I would like to revert the consumerism audiences associate with theatre. So a passive audience would be more patient as they deal with spaces they can’t solve or understand. The ideal audience is a concert audience. Audiences in the festival scene for instance are always in search of reflections.
I liked audiences in Japan, they sleep through half the play, and watch the other half. They face the play in a different way. I can’t help but think of Robert Wilson’s Einstein of the Beach, which made it so impossible to make sense of what was happening onstage that you had to enter a more passive space. A space that’s also more humble. I like this idea we came up with though, I like a passive audience.
The creative team in Estado vegetal is formed entirely by women. In America we often see “feminist plays” directed by men or featuring all-male creatives. What do you think of as feminist theatre?
Feminist theatre has more to do with how we change embedded structures. Thinking of nonhuman theatre is feminist theatre. Going beyond what Ursula Le Guin referred to as the “hunter structure,” where male characters go hunting, kill an animal and come back. Le Guin asks what would a “gatherer theatre” be like? I propose a vegetable theatre, or a mineral theatre. Those are feminist exercises because they break patriarchal structures.
I was recently caught in the midst of some controversy in Chile because I criticized theatre that called itself feminist, but was directed by a man. I’m also a screenwriter and selling women is popular right now. Movies and television market women constantly.
Criticism has been complicit in maintaining these structures. I often tell younger critics that I dream of the day when a review arrives in the shape of a cookie, rather than a text.
Your work is inviting us to see things differently, but it’s critics who write about it using these patriarchal methods. What would you like to invite critics to do when they approach your work?
I have seen efforts to write about Estado vegetal doing something similar to what I do: imitate the vegetable world. There was a review in Le Soir where the critic wrote using many vegetable metaphors. It’s a first step. We should take a look at these beings and see how they can effect our disciplines. It would be beautiful if critics could write in a vegetable way about Estado vegetal. That would be my biggest triumph. What does writing in a vegetable way mean? That’s up to each of you.
Estado vegetal runs at the Baryshnikov Arts Center from May 2-3. For more information and tickets visit: https://bacnyc.org/performances/performance/manuela-infante