GUSTAVO OTT´S DRAMATIC COCKTAILS (Volver
Autor: Bárbara Mujica, Americas Magazine. Junio de 2005
(Published in AMERICAS MAGAZINE, June 2005)
So just what does a Molotov cocktail have to do with love, a vegetarian, and conditioned reflexes? In one way or another they all appear in the work of the ingenious Venezuelan playwright Gustavo Ott, whose plays have been produced all over Latin America, as well as in the United States and Europe. The winner of numerous prizesincluding the 1998 Tirso de Molina and the 2003 Lopéz Aranda among many othersOtt has 25 plays available in Spanish and 11 in other languages. He began writing when he was still a student. He studied Law at Universidad Católica Andrés Bello, but changed to Communications in his third year, at the same university. He earned a bachelors degree in 1991, with specialization in Audiovisual Communications. His senior thesis was a play, Pavlov, which deals with the media and violence as a conditioned reflex. On his professional education, Ott says: I studied playwriting in London, and for free, since I worked there as a waiter at the National Theatre, and had professors like Harold Pinter, what luck. In Caracas, I also had excellent teachers: Rodolfo Santana and José Ignacio Cabrujas. Then, at the University of Iowa, I took part in the International Writing Program. The rest Ive always learned from books, which everyone knows teach more than life. Even though, maybe for convenience or compassion, we like to think its just the opposite.
Otts subjects are very wide ranging. He says his latest obsession is God: Ive noticed that he sneaks in on me through any little crack. Maybe its that part about being omnipotent, omnipresent and all, but he really is butting into everything I do. He is also interested in the subject of friendship, the uses of power, prejudices, guilt, and that everyday fascism that we all exercise so shamelessly. He notes that even within a single play there are multiple subjects. Tu ternura Molotov and Dos amores y un bicho are the plays that mark the beginning of this new era of concern with this cocktail of subjects in a single play, within a form which overrides the content. In this regard, Im one of those who thinks of the subject first. I explore it carefully, maybe more than the characters, situations, or forms. If theres one thing I really pay attention to its the subject and the story. Ive learned to hide them and bring them out through metaphor. Now I try to say everything obliquely through metaphors, turn situations into poetry.
One characteristic of Otts theater is the surprise ending: I work a lot on the last pages. In them I see the chance to allow ourselves excesses, to present new riddles, to dare to transform everything. Thats Coetzee, of course. But in my case, I hold off until the last pages for the climax, the dramatic secret, character development, defining the metaphor. The only thing I dont put in the in the last pages is the end. He adds by way of explanation: The last pages arent the final moments, instead theyre all the moments at once. From moments to memory and from memory to landscapes and even ideas that in some cases arent even theatrical or couldnt be. Maybe because the last pages of a play are the last pages of man. Not of life, but of lives, the many lives of man, those lives that run out but never end. The tension in the last pages of a love, a calling, a friendship. But also the last pages of decency or violence, the last pages of randomness. In short, I find the whole metaphor in the last pages of a country.
Ott insists that he belongs to no school of theater: I have many schools, because I write many plays in different genres and styles. Sometimes I write comedies, sometimes I work in psychological realism like the Americans, other times I explore expressionism, epic theater, the absurd, and a lot of Borges, particularly in my predilection for form. Ive also mixed genres and written expressionist comedy, psychological absurd, expressionist realism, you see. I always like to be someone else when I write and I almost always try to create something in just the opposite way of what I did the time before. My school, of course, is Italo Calvino, always trying to be someone else, trying to make the style unrecognizable, making them think that you arent you but everyone else.
On style, Ott says: I try to have many styles, to write like some guy who isnt me. Ive always been suspicious of myself. I dont like myself much, so I pretend to be other people. Id like to have more artistic postures, a more literary life, a stormier personality. But the truth is Im methodical, boring, and I try to like the things everyone else does: TV, baseball, whatever. When I wrote poetry and short stories I disguised myself as Cortázar, Quiroga, Barnes and then I wasnt like everyone else, but I wasnt like me either. Then, when I started writing seriously, I set aside my Kafkian plays (Passport, Onda Media) to be a comedy writer, inspired by Jardiel Poncela (thats why the second scene in Divorciadas, evangélicas y vegetarianas takes place in a movie theater, as a wink to Poncelas Eloísa). In 80 dientes, 4 metros y 200 kilos I tried to become three different writers, with different tools, languages, ways of putting together plays, and even worldviews. Remember, I learned from Borges, so the idea of being someone else and the labyrinths of identity have a strong pull for me. I create instead in micro-poetics, each work is a style and a distinct aesthetic and you can contradict yourself and remake yourself all you want. I dont control my plays; I dont think that much of myself. I like for my plays to take control, to tell me what they want, to turn me into a faithful secretary who writes down whatever they wish, without saying a word.
In addition to writing, Ott directs plays, a calling that has brought him great satisfaction, he says, although it is draining. He notes that the productions of Pavlov, Comegato, Fotomatón, Miss and especially, Dos amores y un bicho were particularly difficult. He elucidates: I hated them during the entire process, but one week before opening night, I always congratulate myself on making the decision to suffer so much with them. Ive enjoyed directing, actually. He loves touring, which has taken him from Japan to Rumania, over every continent, making me feel more like the baggage than a passenger. But travel is poetry, that is, memory. Ott has only recently discovered the pleasures of pedagogy, but he likes teaching, maybe because I do it with passion and because my references are almost always to literature instead of theater. Theres nothing like seeing the surprise on a students face when you say just the opposite of what he expects.
Ott has read widely and recognizes his debt to other authors: Pinter had an influence not only on my writings, but on my perception of art and even my dedication to literature. It was a personal influence, although he might never have noticed I was in his classes. But I noticed him and there was a time I caught myself imitating him, how he walked, how he talked; I repeated the things he said like they were my ideas. Ive always had a special relationship with Borges works. Borges helped me through the detours of my literary youth; he reminded me that I could hide behind all the portraits of myself that I wanted to make. And finally, David Mamet. To go from Pinter to Mamet was inevitable. And if Pinter marked what we can call my ethical and personal growth, Mamet was the one who showed me the delights, the torment, the genius, of technique. I memorized his plays, I translated them into Spanish when nobody had heard of them, and by translating them I learned his tricks, his daring, his totally new contributions. Action language, rhythm, slang. My first plays are strongly influenced by his theater.
Now I prefer novelists and poets to playwrights. I cant get away from authors like Coetzee, Jelinek, DeLillo, the Chilean writers Bolaños and Lemebel, and especially the English playwrights Merber and Philip Ridley. And of course, American playwrights, from Kushner to McNally. American playwriting is the most important for me; its like Florence during the Renaissance. Theyre all there: Rafael, Leonardo, Bernini
Ott says that when he sits down to write a play, he doesnt have certain actors in mind, or even certain scenery or a theatrical space, even though he has a company and works in a theater that produces all his plays. He says: Ive never thought about a special actor to play anything I write, maybe because I take the subject more seriously than the characters. Sometimes I say the opposite, to be polite, but between us, I confess sometimes I dont even think about the scene. Some directors have pointed that out to me, almost angrily, because they say Ive forgotten the limitations of space and tossed aside stage directions. That always brings to mind a scene that Chilean Marco Antonio de la Parra told me that started: Act I-Scene I: a herd of buffaloes enters the stage. They are followed by a runaway train. Under the buffaloes hooves a boy cries. Pause. Well, that to me, is todays theater. If you want the buffaloes and the train, there you go. But I see metaphors in the situation, metaphors of subject, poetry in the drama a la T. S. Elliot.
Regarding the situation of theater in Venezuela, Ott says: In the 90s we said that the coming generation had stopped reading and that this would be noticeable in the work of the writers of 2000. We werent wrong. Theres a lot of talent, but little capacity for work and the influences are still wrong. And that is crucial, because a whole culture can go down the toilet with the wrong influence. It happened to French theater and particularly to todays Spanish theater. Venezuelan writers, because of their lack of access to information and maybe because of a certain carelessness, have had to content themselves with the influence of festival theater, which is just a style, and sometimes an unfortunate one, because that theater sometimes has no season, and is produced like paintings at an exposition, art for museums, with an artificial life span. The other influence on our theater, the best one, is movies. So our authors write with the little bit they can glean from the movies they can see and that, tragically, is clear, very clear. Nevertheless, I have to say that our theater schools are still educating excellent people; we have a more than outstanding group of actors, and most of the good ones work in theater and not TV. Thats good, of course.
In directing were more or less polished, with talented people directing plays, but unable to mark not a production, but a life, with the signature of an auteur. Audiences surprisingly continue to support their theater and if you look at the quality of education in our country and add to that the percentage of dropouts, its nothing less than amazing that our audiences are mostly young people. Its a miracle, something maybe the church can explain, but not me. How is it that there is an audience for theater in a society that overall is uneducated and disinterested? I swear I dont know.
As far as institutions go, this is a time of readjustment where they are redefiningyet again!everyones role. A redefinition of a redefinition that sounds like an off-key refrain, a bureaucrats whim, Kafka-Dilbert management. But the reality of our theater is always the hell of the day to day: few can earn a living at it, Caracas has no more than ten theaters, there is no season in the provinces, there is no support mechanism for Venezuelan playwriting, support that Argentineans, Mexicans, Chileans, and Brazilians, for example, do have. And when a Venezuelan does make it out, this is who he meets, who he competes with, always arousing pity. As we usually do, we give the Venezuelan theater 10 years before it disappears. And it doesnt. It never does. And thats because its also quite hardheaded and that helps and is appreciated.
But the theater is in danger not only in Venezuela, but in many parts of Latin America. In a talk he gave at Georgetown University last year, Ott said that the theater was on the verge of a nervous breakdown. Now he explains why: Sometimes it seems like it cant talk to itself, that it disdains its audience and very particularly everything that has to do with the lower classes. Merrily we disdain our people and we impose our perceptions as creators repressively, pompously, pontificating on what should and should not be done. Its the Latin American school, a very unhappy school for any creator, because it lives by maxims, it lives by general laws, it burns to place the secrets of art in a bottle for only the intellectual or political elite to drink. In short, theater is made for theater people, art for artists, creators end up being our audience, and the worst part is we say it with pride.
And its a shame that its like that, because today its easier than before. The rules arent all that important and its imagination that counts, poetry, the ability to move others. Latin American theater is the worst school because essentially its hypocritical. On the stage it rages against the abuses of power, but creators are despotic in their dealings with other creators and even with their audiences. It accuses the government of social insensitivity, but it is a theater that seems to exist solely to please artists. It attacks the idea of a single school of thought, yet this is precisely what it imposes. More than a nervous breakdown, our theater is moving into manic-depressive schizophrenia. Today, in theater, the worst influence is precisely the one that comes in Spanish.
The press can also be a problem, although it can also motivate a writer. Critics sometimes confuse the audience and sometimes they overlook the playwright, but bad press can lead to something good: In this profession, there is no success, like there is for example for novelists. We playwrights arent important, and its a good thing we arent, because the truth is you waste a lot of time on those things. You waste time and thought, because theres nothing like success to turn us into idiots. Flattery always makes me a little stupid; I almost never know what to say and I just keep repeating thank you, thank you like a dummy. On the other hand, failure, criticism make my mind more alert and my intelligence, my readings, my convictions, grow deeper, more important, more necessary. Success allows you to repeat yourself, failure demands changes. And thats what I like: to change as Im writing. A good author knows how to tell the difference in the press between what is basically publicity and what is his art. And publicity is where we put almost everything irrelevant: success, politics, awards, academics, and so on.
As always, Ott is full of projects for the future: Little by little Im changing my style again. Im on the trail of a new epic work that, like Larsens Dogville, can tell a story in several genres. Im still on God, but now Im thinking more about the people who want or need to be rescued, from a catastrophe or abandonment, from a precipice or a love, from themselves, from others, from everyone. Finally, to be rescued from God, from literature, and rescued from the theater itself. And in the rescue, losing everything. Except a couple of short words that I still dont know.