Alcoholic muses in a poetry workshop
A poetry revolution or a revolution through poetry. Is there a formula to attain it? And if there is, could it be taught at a poetry workshop? Can poetry be taught at all? These questions and many others are proposed in Absentha, the latest play by La Fronda company (Flía and previously, with Ciro Zorzoli as director, of Ars Higiénica and Living, último paisaje), and named after absinthe, the forbidden alcoholic drink traditionally associated with the poètes maudits and painters such as Van Gogh or Picasso. The piece was written by talented playwright Alejandro Acobino (also author of plays such as Continente viril or Rodando), and is based upon a plot hypothesis developed by the company on an idea by Rodolfo Demarco, one of the actors – a creative process that speaks of the kind of collective work they stand for.
Ana Sánchez, director of the play and member of La Fronda, told the Herald that “we usually work with our own texts, generated during rehearsal and improvisation. But this time we felt like working with a previously written piece, though not a classic like Shakespeare or something. So, based on the premise of a poetry workshop suggested by Rodolfo Demarco, the company began to think of plotlines and characters, and then we called Acobino to write the play. He would send scenes which we start to rehearse straight away, even rotating characters to enrich them from each actor’s perspective.”
Indeed, Acobino wrote an excellent piece, incisive, funny and clever at once, and always unpredictable. As Sánchez comments, “like any writer, he attended writing workshops, so he understood perfectly well our idea and took it one step further.”
Absentha takes place in the classroom of a municipal school, where one of these typical courses offered by Buenos Aires City Government is held. In this case, it is a poetry workshop. The teacher is Lato, an ineffable man (played by Fernando Migueles): it is hard to tel lwhether he is a failure, a cheat or an intelligent character, but there is no question he’s an an alcoholic. Across from his desk are the students who attend this men-only class: Mamu, “the poet of the simple things” (Rodolfo Demarco), the “neo-gothic” Aitor (José Mehrez) and the lover of rhymes, Gapo (Germán Rodríguez), three very different persons who share an adoration for their teacher and a total lack of talent for poetry (the scenes where they read what they write for the workshop are absolutely hilarious, thanks to the ridiculous or absurd poems created by Acobino and the actors’ great performances). The three mediocre writers follow every indication given by Lato like articles of faith, until one day he shows the utter despise he really feels for them and humiliates them. That is when they decide to assert their worth and confront him the following lesson. That will be the day their teacher brings an inspirational bottle of absinthe that will change their lives (or at least that is what they think for some time). In a sort of conspiratorial plan that reminds us of Roberto Arlt’s universes and which involves many poems made up of invectives, they will presumably revolutionize Buenos Aires’ poetry scene.
Although the play revolves around the world of men (written by a male playwright and performed by an all-male cast), it was directed by a female director, Ana Sánchez, assisted by another woman, Florencia Sacchi. Sánchez highlights the fact that they were “two women looking at four men and standing on a text also written by a man. Even though we didn’t want to make a genre-biased work, it was inevitable for our female perspective to appear. Some lines seemed very strong from our point of view, but not from theirs.
But it was good to leave our filters aside. So it turned out to be interesting from both sides.” She smiles as she points out that “anyway, the piece deals with the topic of submitting to someone, in this case the poetry teacher. And eventually they did obey my directions.”
Sánchez explains that “absinthe came up from the very first moment because of the whole universe associated with it: the poètes maudits, the bohemian life and the stimulus for creativity. The character who brings it into the play, Lato, is very complex: he knows about poetry but he has been defeated, he is the kind of guy that had his artistic moment yet ended up teaching and is sick and tired of his students and their mediocrity. In some way he symbolizes the failure in the life of an artist, though he intends to redeem himself by trying to become the avant-garde”.
Buenos Aires is a city full of workshops of all kinds and not the whole company has had experience with them. Sánchez thinks this is the source of their need to portray a phenomenon that many viewers will also identify with. “It is not easy to be an artist: the difficulties of choosing the right path, how to earn a living, whether to consider working as a teacher. All these topics were exaggerated to get this funny nightmare”, she says.
Absentha deals with the standardization of artistic resources brought about by the proliferation of workshops, as well as competitive attitudes that arise during the lessons. However, Sánchez underlines that it is not a pessimistic play. “We just needed to exorcize’ these topics”. And indeed they do, through a sharp and critical observation evident in the text, the performances and the direction.
The play seems to focus on the artists of the past as the real avant-garde. Sánchez points out that “we are descendants of the Parakultural movement, where it seemed that art was going to be a different thing. Today we are living a time of transition when we don’t know very well where we are going. We don’t know if today the breaking points come from art; what we do know is that what is really difficult is to keep up a company, when having a group of artists working together and trying to get a long-lasting support from it seems to go against the grain. Today there is much more interest in individual success”.
Absentha revolves around profound artistic matters that go beyond the hilarious as well as sordid story of a group of so-called poets trying to start a sort of “revolution” out of a workshop and a plot involving the art of the invective. Through its particular characters and their bizarre interactions and humour, the play very eloquently questions what provocative or “avant- garde” art would be like now, what figures are today’s references or milestones for aspiring artists, which are the best sources of inspiration, and whteher art can really be taught by means of lessons and recipes.
La Fronda’s production, in Sánchez’ words, invites artists “to stand in a different place and use a different focus to find new ways, since trying to produce the same effects with the same tools used in the past doesn’t seem to be the right choice today.”