Mariano Pensotti

Novel Lives

Conversation with Argentine playwright and director Mariano Pensotti

by Rossella Menna

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In your biography, I read that you trained as a film director. Why did you switch to the theatre?

Theatre, much more than cinema, gave me the possibility to move freely between visual arts, video, literature. It was a more appropriate terrain for my type of storytelling.

What stories did you want to tell?

I saw so many stories floating around me. Every thing, person, every little detail my eye fell on made me think, made me fantasise. At a certain point, with all these ideas, I had to do something with them – to try to frame the moments, the images, the impressions. I don’t know how to relate to the world in any other way; I react to every experience I have by already imagining it as a story to be staged.

Seeing oneself live is typical of writers.

I actually feel a bit like a 19th-century novelist…

What do you mean?

You know Balzac, Stendhal, Tolstoy? Those novels of nineteenth-century training that recounted an era through invented stories of fictional characters? The life of those figures let us glimpse social and political tensions and feelings; they told a wider reality than the one in the foreground, but without didacticism.

What is this longed-for “reality” to you? What does it correspond to? To the story presented in the books? To politics? To the life of those previous? To those who control the world? To current events reported by the media? Or rather to ambitions, foreshadowing and aspirations – that is, to the living potential of each of us?

Reality is all of these things at once. The real is always, inevitably, a construction of us and the things around us, what we do in relation to a given situation. And that’s what interests me: what makes us what we are? How do we get to be the exact way we are and not some other way? However, what interests me more than anything else is to wonder about the extent to which that which for some reason we go so far as to call ‘reality’ is transformable.

Every author prefers a certain type of character, in relation to a given piece of the world which he observes more carefully. Pirandello claimed that it was the characters themselves who knocked on the door of his studio to ask to be written about. Which figures knock on yours most often?

I love characters who want to be someone else. In all of my plays, there are men and women who are convinced that they could improve themselves if only they could leave to go elsewhere from where they find themselves. The tension between who they are and who they would like to become is almost always the source of the conflicts on which I base the stories I tell.

Are they destined for success or failure?

For some it ends well, for some it does not, while for others it is not so clear. For me, the important thing is that they keep moving, that they are crossed by a utopian spirit. The same applies to society: whether or not we succeed in achieving a certain goal of change, it is essential that we always keep the image of a potentially better “us” alive.

What about the pervasive ideology of “no alternatives”?

It’s an ideology I don’t have faith in. I am sure that an alternative to the current capitalist system exists and, sooner or later, we will find it.

Where does all this faith come from?

I grew up in Argentina at the end of the seventies, during the military dictatorship. My childhood was marked on one side by these facts, and on the other by the enormous artistic unrest that I saw growing around me. Every human era has been marked by blood and conflict, and still we have continued to invent other possible stories.

To give us courage, to be able to think of the future as something reasonable. Maybe that’s why, in a historic moment of widespread distrust of an alternative to the present, fiction appears to us sometimes as purely evasive and not very “political”?

We are convinced that we are living in the worst moment in human history, but you only have to look back to realise that this is not true. Things have changed, we are not the same as we were a millennium or a century ago. Even though I am very pessimistic about the political and social situation, I am at the same time profoundly optimistic about the possibility of the human being bringing everything into discussion, to invent another world for itself. Our “imagining” is not irrelevant.

Your latest project is a cinematic “format” dedicated to theatre audiences, in the sense that it reconstructs some moments in the life of a group of spectators in the twenty-four hours following the viewing of a show. How did this idea come about?

There are two versions of the film, one made in Athens (The Audience) and one in Buenos Aires (El Público): cities with a different history but equally battered by the economic crisis, austerity measures, internal political corruption, and strong external pressures. Seen up close, however, each one reveals completely original characteristics. When I started working in Greece on a new site-specific production, I discovered that there is a widespread outdoor cinema system in Athens. They are extremely ordinary, popular places where even young people meet naturally to see films. To what extent does the viewing of a work mark our lives? Can it really change it? Can the audience really become the protagonist of what they see? I’ve wondered about that in relation to our theatre creation.

In the first scene, we see a group of people sitting in the audience at the beginning and end of a show we know nothing about.

Each micro-story told in the two films is a kind of short film dedicated to a spectator caught at a precise moment in the day after he saw the show; the stories are varied, some are more ordinary, others less so, but all revolve around the moment in which the protagonist talks to someone else about the play he saw and tells it from his point of view. From the different stories, the real audience (the one watching the film) can reconstruct the overall plot of the show, realising how much each spectator memorised certain passages more than others, and among other things in their own way.

Are these true stories?

No, they’re made up and shot with actresses and actors. Precisely because of their strictly personal nature, the stories told somehow end up returning a living fresco of the city, its social and political situation. I write fiction, I’ve never done documentary theatre, but I do a lot of research in the field, I try to intercept the spirit of a place. For the Athenian version, I was joined by a Greek writer.

How come the film shot in Athens hasn’t been shown in Greece yet?

The work was born in 2019 by commission of the Onassis Foundation, which asked me to focus mainly on Exarchia, a very particular, anarchic, alternative district of Athens. The idea was to present the film at a festival designed entirely in that neighbourhood. As the political elections approached, clashes with the police began to multiply in Exarchia, so the Foundation considered that area too dangerous for the public and cancelled the festival and, consequently, the screening of The Audience.

One of the short stories in the Greek version tells of a man who leads an apparently ordinary life, with a job, a wife, children. The vision of the play the night before and the random finding of a note that takes him back to his youth characterised by anarchist ideals seem to put his serenity into crisis. It is as if, having witnessed the story of a woman who, while risking her life, saved many people during the Nazi occupation, the theatre experience had somehow rekindled in him the need to do something more decisive.

Or, vice versa, had plunged him into a tragic nostalgia for something that no longer exists. I think that theatre can awaken dormant parts within us, or make us notice things around us that we hadn’t given weight to before, but what happens afterwards is a mystery. In the case of the character you mentioned, we find ourselves facing a person who suddenly remembers his youth and the revolutionary feeling that characterised it. So, your interpretation is valid, but it is also true that this man will not find that feeling identical to what it was, because the past does not return. A work of art can truly release hidden feelings, but sometimes it reveals our limits at the same time. I really like this bittersweet condition.

Speaking of actors: how do you see the acting profession?

My approach is very traditional. I have established relationships with a dozen Argentinean actors. They are all professionals well trained to play characters, with great technique, able to intervene creatively during rehearsals. This last aspect is fundamental because the text I put in their hands almost always resembles a collection of short stories, stories with a great literary content. The first problem is, therefore, to find a theatricality to what I have written and to do so you need actors with many resources available to them. Then, of course, there are exceptions. In films, for example, non-professionals are also involved. But, again, those are exceptions.

The use of puppets in Arde brillante en los bosques de la noche is an even more notable exception.

In that case, the use of puppets as doubles of the interpreters was dictated by the dramaturgy. The show was about the political and artistic resonances of the Russian Revolution in the contemporary world. Inspired by the figure of Alexandra Kollontai, a Soviet feminist whose texts deal with very topical issues related to the freedom of bodies and the way in which society shapes identity, I wrote a series of stories that contained other stories (as in a kind of matryoshka) to show the extent to which each life can influence others by generating change. The puppets, manipulated by actresses and actors, served to make the question of who controls whom even more explicit, and therefore the use of bodies (especially those of women) as a battleground in the exercising of power.

Are there artists, works, or books from which you draw particular inspiration?

I go to the cinema a lot, especially to see Nouvelle Vague (New Wave) films, but the language that influences me the most is certainly that of the visual arts, in particular that of conceptual art. Maybe because it helps me to focus on the ideas inside the sea of stories in which I move.