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The Words I Choose

Stages of Resistance
Raymi Ortuste Quiroga, his hand lifted to just under his chin.

This piece is part of a blog salon, curated by Caridad Svich, called "Stages of Resistance." The series welcomes reflections on themes related to making work for live performance in political and aesthetic resistance to forms and systems that oppress human rights and censor or severely limit freedom of expression. We are in increasingly hostile, volatile times around the world, and this salon hopes to serve as a space for considered, thoughtful, polemical articulations of practice and theory on the subject of resistance, the multiple meanings of political art, and the ways in which progressive, wholistic cultural change may be instigated through artworks. Stay tuned for more!

As an immigrant to the UK from the poorest country in South America, it took me a long time to circle back to a root-story that needed reclaiming.

I have seen first-hand third world hunger and poverty in Bolivia. Have lived it in the flesh.

Have carried the burdens of shame and the feelings of inferiority. The self-censorship that comes from an inherited belief our voice doesn’t matter because we don’t have the clout to matter on a global scale.

I have lived the shame of being born gay in a macho, Catholic/Evangelical/Pachamama... religiously confused Bolivia.

Have lived the oppression post immigration; the injustices and indignity of seeking asylum in a place that doesn’t really want you.

As an artist, I look for action in stories. Whether it’s about reclaiming mine or voicing unvoiced ones from the fringes of society.

I left Bolivia in 1998. Last time I visited was in June 2007 before starting an Acting degree in London later that academic year. The memory that hits me hardest is one of a small family; single mom, two kids (boy and girl) begging for leftovers at a restaurant. At the end of my family’s meal the children, who couldn’t be more than 10, approached us and begged for the food on our plates. I hadn’t eaten because having lived in London for the past 10 years I’d gone from Famished to Fat during that time and by 2007 I had the luxury of an eating disorder, but my family did and happily handed the food. As we left the restaurant we saw the little family sat on the sidewalk, eating their broken meal (…typing that made me want to die).

I’m still haunted by that memory and by my inability to do anything significant to make it better. Their struggle juxtaposed with my anorexia and the reality that I would hop back on a plane to clean London life is now a story screaming to be told. Maybe that’s material for a new play… But the fact that I didn’t think about it – possibly at all – during the three years I trained to become an actor, troubles me. The truth is my personal reality at the time and the need for worthiness as a Working-British-Actor was all I was really concerned with. That felt like life or death.

Today, I think about the same inequality made worse in the last 10 years. And the fact that more children around the world are at risk of starvation, displacement, sex trafficking, and homelessness.

The initiative to start a theater company that promotes empathy across borders and tells stories that need to be heard, came out of a need that is bigger than me. Once the hangover of drama school gave way to this sense of duty, probably born out of similar personal experiences, I was moved by theater that rises above borders, builds bridges, and translates into action. And if it doesn’t change the world, at least it tempts us with an atmosphere for change.

This type of work is in direct conflict with a consumeristic, musical-infested London.

The industry itself is its own oppressive system.

As theater makers in the current climate we are faced with a fundamental act of resistance. In an industry where the vertical struggle for commercial success, fame, and awards threatens to trump the simpler heart of our craft – that which makes our medium one of the most powerful temples for empathy and community –  to go against the grain is a revolutionary act.

A showbiz culture thriving in a more general culture of scarcity, division, and fear creates the perfect breeding ground for judgement, comparison, competition, and probably worst of all, cynicism (difficult to write this without imagining the cynical stares that might accompany some of the words I’m choosing and have yet to choose...) But revolution is the word I choose.

When the present moment is so often sacrificed for self-serving shoving, to soften into the experience of the now and be fully present with another human lifts our craft to ground breaking territory. On a daily basis we are called to resist a culture that does away with our communities for the sake of perfectionism and a hero’s climb to the top. To make it not about individuals but about the whole we are in is a necessary endeavour. Theater is the best medium for that. Owning our stories, owning our truth, and meeting others from a place of authenticity can quickly become an unstoppable, contagious movement. Like Grotowski’s vision of a Poor Theatre, this exists as a challenge every single time. The spectator is confronted with an act of courage and this in turn can be a call to action.

In the UK, a frequent obstacle to freedom of expression and artistic authenticity is this unchallenged conformity:

The illusion that everything is a dress rehearsal; for the true purpose of theater is to serve as a springboard to fame and TV.

In this journey, praise, reviews, critics, and awards are the driving factors. The other human becomes redundant, the sense of mutuality is abolished from our stages and if the play isn’t stimulating our senses, all that exists are individuals hustling to be liked on the platform.

Artists coming together in service of something greater than themselves and extending this sense of community to the whole auditorium is a rare thing. Professionals working together to lift one important whole, is in my opinion more like a spiritual calling, that speaks to our common humanity, bypasses judgement, and makes way for love and compassion. Those are the words I choose.

When I was growing up, my Christian parents believed disciplining their children through corporal punishment was one way to secure passage through the pearly gates. That on the day of judgment, God would descend from the heavens and demand to know why they withheld the rod.

Our Dad in particular, loved us so diligently that he hardly ever spared the rod/belt/stick/rubber hose/flip-flop/baby’s pram. With divine approval, violence was often justified and almost craved - it became an outlet for an unfit family leader who wrestled with addiction and the macho mentality shared by many Latino males, “Callate o te callo a patadas!” (Shut it or I shut it by kicking it!).

Out of all the punishments though, one was the most infuriating; the most humiliating if not physically painful – although it did sting like hell… The one where you had to stand in a corner, face the wall and put your hands up. Trust me, 20 minutes with your arms like that and you pray for the rubber hose to whip you in the ass instead. The impulse to resist and defy this too-often unfair punishment was always present in my belly. Bubbling underneath like a tiny river or rage. I daydreamed about choosing resistance over obedience, imagined lowering my arms, shouting something and walking away with dignity. After all, these were MY arms. This was my mouth. And these my feet.

One day I was brave enough to follow that impulse to the point of action. After holding the pose for about 10 minutes, I turned around, looked him in the face and lowered my arms in what I can only describe as the biggest physical FUCK YOU of the 90’s; and with every step down those stairs, fully committing to each stomp, I made a triumphant decent back to my bedroom.

Yes, there were consequences.

A similar impulse now drives a desire to challenge both personal and institutional systemic boundaries that keep our art locked in a corner with the hands up. Looking pretty, but inactive. Gathering lactic acid in places we didn’t even know existed and killing vital muscles with a silent complacency.

For me, resisting these systems is a daily struggle. To defy the boundaries that keep us small, afraid, and disconnected is a form of activism. To choose courage over comfort is a disorderly act. Here and now, choosing authenticity in this blog asks that I take ownership of many imperfect stories. With discomfort from sentence to sentence, think I just typed myself into a war cry.