Covid-19 in Chile: Chronicle of the massive contagion that left two dead and affected almost all the actors in a Chilean theater company | Culture


Presentation of 'Orquesta para Señoritas', at the Teatro Oriente in Santiago de Chile.
Presentation of ‘Orquesta para Señoritas’, at the Teatro Oriente in Santiago de Chile.Patricio Melo / COURTESY

When last December the Chilean theater director Álvaro Viguera (Valparaíso, 1979) received an invitation to direct an ambitious play at the Oriente Theater, one of the most important in Santiago, he did not hesitate to accept. The cases of contagion by covid-19 had been reduced, the Government had declared a step 4 After reopening, shopping malls and restaurants were open. The theaters desperately needed a break. The productions returned, but the representation of Orchestra for Young Ladies, by the French playwright Jean Anouilh, left two dead in the company and almost all the actors were infected.

“If you can’t open a theater, why a beach full of people?” Asks Viguera, in this interview by Zoom, with the Chilean capital once again in quarantine. Due to the pandemic, in 2020 the performing arts were “badly hit” and had been left without work “from the electric, to the stage or the dressing room,” says Viguera. The rooms that depended largely on the box office were practically bankrupt. Some theaters had returned to the presence and he himself performed at the end of the year in a two-week season in Gladys, in the Municipal Theater of Las Condes, another of the greats of the capital.

“It was not so strange in this context to push him forward. We saw that there was a possibility of returning, a light, and we started ”, analyzes Viguera, one of the most important directors of the Chilean scene. The Oriente Theater celebrated its 85 years with its first major theatrical production and the chosen work was Orchestra for Young Ladies, by the French playwright Jean Anouilh. The team was luxurious, with some of the best Chilean artists united in the same project: the actors Luis Gnecco and Tomás Vidiella; the composer Miguel Farías; or the set designer Pablo Nuñez, among others. For the beautiful and intricate wigs that the ladies of Anouilh would wear, the theater hired Araya, one of the most renowned hairdressers in the country. “More than fear, there was a lot of enthusiasm and a lot of desire,” recalls Viguera. And the public was anxious: “In three days the entire season was sold.”

But last week, and after being hospitalized for almost a month for Covid-19, Araya, the 78-year-old stylist, died in a clinic in Santiago. The previous month, Tomás Vidiella, the renowned 83-year-old actor who had founded several iconic theaters in the country, died for the same reason. After the first three performances at the end of February almost all the actors were infected. Gnecco (known for acting in films like Neruda Y No, by Pablo Larraín) also spent days in the hospital. “It was very painful, because everything had flowed well, from the beginning of December when we began rehearsals until we premiered,” says the director of the play, who was one of those who did not become infected. “And the bug got in. It was bad luck ”.

From left to right, actor Luis Gnecco, director Álvaro Viguera and actor Tomás Vidiella.
From left to right, actor Luis Gnecco, director Álvaro Viguera and actor Tomás Vidiella.Sol deCaso / COURTESY

Entertainment media and some actors looked guilty. “We were very hit by public opinion, which was very sensational and very disrespectful, like some of our colleagues,” he says, referring to social networks. As in ancient Greek theater, at the heart of the debate was whether the tragic fate could have been avoided. “To be looking for culprits seems really absurd to me,” says Viguera. The play team has preferred to remain silent before the media in recent weeks, but the director agreed to speak with El PAÍS on behalf of the group about how the pandemic hurt the Chilean theater. “I feel that this can help us, as a country, to close, giving our point of view,” says the director.

Question. What protocols were taken to avoid contagion in the Oriente Theater?

Answer. We follow all the protocols, we take care of ourselves. We rehearse with masks and always with the awareness that there were older people in the team, because there were only two young people in the cast, and me. If a theater room was opened, there was a certain amount of audience, which was very little: around 70 people in a room that can fit 700. The theater had special lights that are operated to clean the environment, plus the shot temperature, plus the mask … All the things that seem to work and that are indicated in the protocols. Also in the tests PCRs tests were carried out. Maybe that’s why there was also a calm, because we felt that someone told us ‘hey, these are the protocols’, and we followed it and everything was going well. It worked, and it worked until the 90th minute. I mean, it was like when you’re playing a soccer game and they score you in the 90th minute.

P. Have you tried to reconstruct how the virus entered the stage in the first few shows?

R. It is impossible to know, because it was a large team: a makeup team, the theater team, the sound team and the actors who had other jobs as well. Unfortunately, on stage the actors are there without masks and they have to have a close relationship. I couldn’t say how it happened, but of course, we just started when the wave came.

The new wave of coronavirus slowly began to appear in Santiago at the end of February after the summer holidays and, given the health context, Viguera had decided that instead of a long season there would only be three functions on the first weekend and six ( two per day) in the second. “Tomás was very excited and said: we are the success of the season, and he laughed,” says the director about his friend’s emotion before the premiere, on February 26. But on Tuesday, March 2, after the first three performances, another of the actors, Cristián Campos, announced that his PCR test had come out positive. The six performances in March were immediately canceled.

P. It has been said that the actor Cristián Campos was the one who could bring the virus to the theater.

R. Yes, and that analysis is a bit absurd. If you got the first positive PCR, it does not mean that someone else did not have Covid before or after. He had the first PCR done on Monday, because he was recording on TV, and it comes out positive, but that does not imply that he went. Later on the team appear other positives, so it could well be that someone has brought the bug, not him. He tests positive first, because he was the first to have a PCR done on the equipment. It seemed unfair to Campos, and described by many colleagues, who have looked at all this with a desire to appear or teach from a very curious moral. They forget that when artists become fundamentalists they are very dangerous.

P. How did things develop after that first positive PCR?

R. It was like a bucket of cold water. Because deep down, if they tell you that, you say ‘kick it, we scrub, because it would be very rare for someone else not to be infected’. We all quickly do a PCR, and some come out positive and some come out negative and, after a week, those that come out negative come out positive. It starts to play out like a domino effect. Among those positives comes Tomás Vidiella, who even before the result was looking for a replacement for Campos. In fact, I had to call Tomás and tell him that he had tested positive. Just like when I had called him to summon him to the work and he was happy, I also had to tell him by phone that it was positive. He was very shocked, but also calm. Tomás was always a very calm person, and he took things at a distance. He was not someone to panic at all. He was surprised and well, then what happened happened. It started something very dramatic on an emotional level.

P. How has this time been for the team?

R. It has been absolutely of union, very beautiful. I have a WhatsApp with the entire cast, the artistic team, and we have only focused on supporting each other. From worried about how each one is, that we all get out of this and that all those who were sick would heal. We realized that it was a very rare disease, we were counting the symptoms. There was very strong support, and that was very important. And it was basically because of the work. We felt that we were opening a space for the theater, we were an arrowhead. That they do not come and say now ‘this should not have been done’. After a year, already in phase 4 [la fase que permitió la reapertura], the theater was dying and the intention was to be able to return with the theater. If it happened to me again, I would do it again. If we were in phase 4, and they told me ‘there is an opportunity with all the protocols’, I would do it again. I have no regrets.

P. What would have been a constructive debate on this experience?

R. When you hear voices saying ‘the theater is over’, or ‘this is no more’, I find it very unfortunate. I want the theater to return and return as soon as possible. We have to think about how we are going to do it and not be pointing the finger at us, because deep down we went to climb a mountain and came back with the wounded, we came back with the fallen, we came back with the dead. Then what do we do? Don’t we ever climb the mountain again? That can not be. I’m going to upload it again. The union is very beaten, but it must work together, with respect, because something like this could happen to anyone. And so many colleagues who have written to support me have told me this.

Francisco Medina (back), Gonzalo Muñoz-Lerner (at the piano) and Luis Gnecco (right), during the performance of the play.
Francisco Medina (back), Gonzalo Muñoz-Lerner (at the piano) and Luis Gnecco (right), during the performance of the play.Patricio Melo / COURTESY

Although Chile remains under strict confinement, Viguera is already working on new plays for when the country’s theater can be reactivated. He recalls a conversation with Tomás Vidiella in an interview he did months before the play, and in which the 83-year-old actor was asked what he wanted for Chilean theater in the midst of the tragedy of the pandemic. “That we start over, is my wish. That we start over as soon as possible, before people forget about us, ”Vidiella said at the time. “The theater is made for love.” For love, or not to be forgotten, Viguera will be ready for the next play.

“I think this allows us to understand the fragility of the theater. Understand how fragile it is for all sides, from an artistic, to the most practical and work environment. We have to fine-tune what we are going to do for the future. Digital theater is fine, but we all know, when we go to bed with our pillow, that this is not theater, and that theater is in theaters, with the public ”, says the director.

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