Spanish Professor Explores Contemporary Latin American Performances
While on research leave in South America, Gail Bulman, associate professor of Spanish in the College of Arts and Sciences, delved deeply into the performances of Latin American theater, its history, artists and live presentations.
Her latest research explores how Latin American theater can not only entertain but inform and enlighten audience members about their shared culture through the performance’s interpretations of the modern world.
“This research forms the backbone of my latest book project, which examines the ways in which visual elements of contemporary performances in Latin America impact spectators emotionally and how that affective pull can shape spectators’ understanding, not only of the plays but of the societies in which they live,” says Bulman, who is now writing a manuscript for a new book.
Bulman, who is in the Department of Languages, Literatures, and Linguistics, spent two months in Argentina, Chile and Peru, exploring theater archives; uncovering and working with written and visual materials; interviewing playwrights, directors and actors; and analyzing 50 performances, including multimedia art installations, independent productions or government-sponsored classical performances.
Returning to campus in August, Bulman feels “fully enriched” by her research experience and time writing.
01What was the research you were doing in South America?
In Santiago, Chile, I did research in the archives at the Escuela de Teatro in the Facultad de Artes at the Pontificia Universidad Católica de Chile. There, I studied digitized recordings of some of the performances included in my book. While in Santiago, I also attended live performances by the Chilean theater groups that form the heart of my newest book project: Teatro La María, Teatro Niño Proletario, Tryo Teatro Banda and Mario, Luiggi y sus fantasmas.
One of the most fascinating plays I saw was a completely silent production called “Manual de Carroña,” in which the performers donned elaborate animal masks and costumes and used gestures to portray the animal-like nature deep within humans as well as citizens’ blind adherence to rigid social norms even when they are not in society’s best interest.
I also gave a research talk on Chilean playwright Benjamín Galemiri during the Congreso Chile Transatlántico held at the Pontificia Universidad Católica de Chile.
I traveled to Peru twice during my leave. In November 2016, I attended various performances, including a rehearsal of the latest piece, “Discurso de promoción” (“Promotion(al) Speech”), by the internationally acclaimed theater group Yuyachkani (http://yuyachkani.org). The play is a brilliant, multimedia commentary on education, history, politics, globalization and violence.
I also interviewed playwrights Eduardo Adrianzén and Diego La Hoz and presented my research at two conferences in Lima: in November at the II Congreso Internacional de Estudios Teatrales, on Peruvian playwrights Eduardo Adrianzén and Mario Vargas Llosa, and in April at the Latin American Studies Association Conference on a 2016 installation by Argentine creative artist, Lola Arias, a work that I had had the opportunity to see in Buenos Aires.
In Buenos Aires, I conducted research at CELCIT (Centro Latino Americano de Creación e Investigación Teatral) and at GETEA (Grupo de Estudios Teatrales Argentinos e Iberoamericanos). I also attended the annual GETEA conference. In addition, I saw performances by some of the most world-renowned Argentine playwrights and directors and interviewed several of them.
A highlight of my research in Buenos Aires was the opportunity to study “Doble de riesgo” (“Stunt Double”), a three-month interactive multi-media installation temporarily embedded in the Parque de la memoria (Remembrance Park), alongside the archives documenting Argentina’s Dirty War and the Monument to the Victims of State Terrorism.
Since my return, I have written two articles for publication based on that exhibition and it will also form part of a chapter in my book.
02What were you examining while you were there?
During each performance I attend, I take detailed notes about staging and the use of visual elements, which include the positions and movements of actors’ bodies, poses, gestures, costumes, objects or technically produced, multi-media images on stage. Each play foregrounds different types of visual elements.
Analyzing archives to study and research performances, reread the scripts and juxtapose a play to others, allows me to think more deeply about how images work in a given performance and what messages images may produce.
A playwright and/or director’s manipulation of the visual allows spectators to form emotional connections to what they see and urges viewers to engage more fully with the play, its socio-political and historical context, and its moral or social implications.
03How did you decide to pursue this research?
I’ve always been interested in theater. I performed roles in several plays during high school (“Fiddler on the Roof,” “Brigadoon,” “Carousel”) and early in my career. As a Ph.D. student, I was introduced to and fascinated by the plays of Argentine Griselda Gambaro and her work set my investigative path in motion. My earliest published articles analyze violence, memory and history in some of Gambaro’s 1970s and 1980s plays.
The first time I participated in the GETEA conference in August 1999 was a turning point for me. At that international academic event, I was able to collaborate with phenomenal scholars of Argentine and Latin American theater, such as Professors Emeriti Osvaldo Pellettieri (Universidad de Buenos Aires) and George Woodyard (University of Kansas), both now deceased, and Professors Sharon Magnarelli (Quinnipiac) and Jean Graham-Jones (CUNY); engage with and learn from playwrights, directors and actors; experience a plethora of Argentine performances; and gain access to massive theater archives. Latin American theater became my focus area from that time forward.
My first book probed the relationship between theater and intertextuality in Argentina, Cuba, Mexico and Venezuela. It examined how some new plays dialogue with or incorporate previous texts—past plays, novels, poetry or music—to bring forth a new meaning in a contemporary context. While that project focused on theater texts as literature, i.e., examining the scripts or published versions of plays, my new book project highlights the visual and emotional elements of staged, live performances in Latin America.
04What does your new book project explore?
My new manuscript starts from the premise that, in every performance, the visual, in the form of many different types of images, is deliberately scripted and foregrounded. Each performed image contains a message in its own right but it also connects with the whole performance, as well as with each individual spectator, with the collective audience and with the culture and history from which it emerges.
Roland Barthes, among others, has theorized that every image contains not only what is within and alongside it, but also what is beyond it, the culture and history from which it emerges. By examining the visual elements in a performance, present time and space automatically connect to both a past and a future.
Moreover, as Maaike Bleeker notes, any study of image and the visual always implies questionings about “looking”: Who is looking? From where? Why? How? For what reasons?
Thus, spectators need to be aware of what they see and how they see it. Looking at and evaluating an image on stage bonds the self to others, to history, to other cultures and to Culture.