In his fifteen-year career, Mariano Pensotti has become a staple of contemporary Latin American theater, and he contradicts the persistent belief that it is an emerging art form. Now foremost a playwright and director of live theater, Pensotti received his formal education primarily in visual arts and cinema. Introduced to theater only later in his formative years through experimenting with acting, his many productions represent the breadth and depth of many influences. Working often simultaneously as playwright and director, Pensotti interchanges techniques, combines audio and visual elements, and often blends genres, melding dance, theater, literature, music, and above all cinema into his works. Cineastas is no exception. A tribute to film on stage, it follows the lives of four filmmakers in the process of creating their own films, and explores the passage of time, the influence of fiction on reality, the (fictional) portrayal of a city — in this case Buenos Aires — through (fictional) characters, and the contrasts between the ephemeral and the permanent. All of this is represented on a complex two-level set designed by Mariana Tirantte, one portraying the lives of the filmmakers and the other the films they are producing, allowing for interaction between the two. This literally and figuratively multilayered production debuted in 2013 and will be performed at the Walker this week as part of Out There 2015.
Likely a reflection of his multifaceted education, much of Pensotti’s approach to creating work is based on experimentation and combination. In an interview with Julia Elena Sagaseta in 2010, he explains the approach to creating some of his earlier works by “searching, trying, succeeding in some things and failing in others… a process of creation very much connected in actually doing. I come from a generation very influenced by the ‘punk’ and ‘do it yourself’ spirit, and my formal education rather fell to the wayside. For me, it was always very important to do many things” (translation mine). One need merely head to Pensotti’s website, where poetic descriptions outline the many productions on his resume, to see what he’s referring to: Night at the Waterfalls (2003) includes video projections on performers’ bodies so “the same body is used for two juxtaposed forms of the same character”; Dirty (2007/2009), a “strange musical about masculine anguish” blends dance, theater, literature and music; Interiors (2007) takes place within a real building set up with fictional situations in separate rooms, wherein the theater is “a film set in which the spectator is the camera”; and Disco (2007), set in a disco with transparent walls in which playwrights write short texts in live response to particular music being played, while video projections portray the playwrights and the actors within the disco.
Integrating film or video in theater is not a new concept — early 20th century playwrights including Bertolt Brecht were already experimenting with film on the stage — but what is unique is Pensotti’s combination of these forms. In an essay for the journal territorio teatral, Liliana B. López writes:
“The film on stage opens up ‘a space within the space.’ It functions as a metaimage that interacts with the scene in multiple ways. Though this may be the most common and direct way to incorporate the use of both mediums, it is not the only way. [The Past is a Grotesque Animal (2010/2011)] is unique because of the multiplicity of modes and perspectives with which it establishes the intersection between theater and cinema…it offers a provocative opportunity to explore the possible relationships between both languages [theater and film] in many ways, including quotes, the thematic relations, construction of imaginaries, visual content, and as a language whose grammar is appropriate for the scene.” (translation mine).
Pensotti’s last visit to the Walker was in 2012 with Grotesque Animal, which formed part of Out There 2012: Global Visionaries. Based on the song of the same name by Of Montreal, The Past is a Grotesque Animal focuses on the parallels between city and individual, and on the interplay between fictions and specific narratives. Voiceovers narrate the past, and as Pensotti notes on his website, these “could give sense to the scattered fragments of a film that is lost forever. The past is like a strange animal which should be invented and trapped following blurred traces.” The use of cinematic elements, while not always including the use of video outright, has become a signature of Pensotti’s craft.
In his most recent work, Pensotti makes similar use of these techniques, which become even more relevant given its title, Cineastas (“Filmmakers”). The piece uses no video, but the visual language and other elements of the production itself are reminiscent of cinematographic representation. Cineastas and The Past is a Grotesque Animal bear some resemblance to one another, and though Pensotti has produced a few works since The Past is a Grotesque Animal, it is rather fitting that these two productions will have visited the Walker consecutively. As in Grotesque Animal, the physical set in Cineastas is an important feature of the cinematic quality. The two-level Cineastas set creates the classic “split screen” used in cinema, while Grotesque’s rotating set offers glimpses into scenes of characters’ lives, and as Pensotti describes, presents “brief moments acted in real time and cinematographically.” Cineastas, like The Past is a Grotesque Animal, also uses voiceover to add yet another layer to the narrative, and its content deals with the passage of time and the relationship between the ephemeral and the long-lasting. However, unlike some of his other productions, in Cineastas Pensotti refrains from making reference to specific films or filmmakers, and though he interviewed several filmmakers while researching for this work, they remain anonymous and the final work remains completely fictional. Nonetheless, he manages to, as Under the Radar director Meiyin Wang puts it, “draw from the world of film and fill the stage with that combination of epic intimacy, using just his actors and his staging.”
Full of parallels (literal and figurative), Cineastas explores the contrast between the ephemeral (theater, life) and long-lasting (film, art); between fiction (the films being created by the filmmakers) and narrative (the filmmakers’ lives); and between the individual and society (Pensotti, deeply rooted in the culture of his home city of Buenos Aires is preoccupied with its portrayal and the relationship between city and individual and the fictions that arise from the mutual influence). As Jackie Fletcher writes in a review, Cineastas is “multi-layered, cleverly using theatrical devices in new combinations, but it remains deeply human, based on the work of actors who present us with people one could sit next to on the bus.” This emphasis on the sheer experience of being a human is what makes all of Pensotti’s work accessible. Interested in the passage of time and its representation, he leaves us asking questions like those posed on his website:
Are our lives actually the vehicles through which works of art become eternal, making us repeat the things that we’ve seen in them hundreds of times before? Do our fictions reflect the world, or is the world a distorted projection of our fictions? How do life and day-to-day experiences influence fiction, and above all, in which way has fiction then been the starting point from which our lives are constructed?
Perhaps, as Pensotti quotes Ingmar Bergman, “it is only the ephemeral that lasts.”
Cineastas will be performed at the Walker Thursday–Saturday, January 22–24, in Spanish with English surtitles.