At PuSh Festival, fiction meets reality on Cineastas’ stacked stage

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      The first time Argentine innovator Mariano Pensotti showed his work in Vancouver, it was spread through the streets and storefronts of Gastown. Using projected subtitles and actors who included a man crawling on the ground by an overturned motorcycle, the site-specific La Marea told simultaneous stories of love, pain, and longing in the city. In Sometimes I think, I can see you, he had writers type out the imagined tales of anonymous passersby, with the words projected on big screens at the central library and Vancouver Art Gallery.

      The latest work by the artist, who has been invited to the PuSh International Performing Arts Festival more times than anyone else, is a theatre piece that stacks two giant sets on top of one another, like a horizontally split screen. On the lower set, we watch the real lives of four film directors, and on the upper one, vibrantly lit, live “film” scenes that they have shot.

      For all of this work, Pensotti is inspired by a range of art forms—from film to literature to visual art—but there is one strong influence that ties him closely to Vancouver: photo-conceptualists like Jeff Wall, Stan Douglas, and Ken Lum.

      “I was really interested in this concept of staged reality. I think that really was my starting point for La Marea: to try to create something like that [through theatre],” the director says from his home in the Argentine capital. “You cannot think of two more different cities than Vancouver and Buenos Aires, but it’s amazing how you can be connected between these experiences.”

      “Staged reality” is one way of describing Pensotti’s work, but the effect is more epic than the concept might originally sound: for La Marea, he closed off an entire block of historic Water Street and filled it with living, breathing art; for the 2015 PuSh, he’s bringing a set of several tonnes here as part of a North American tour.

      Cineastas began, the genre-jumping artist reveals, as a documentary project to interview filmmakers involved in Buenos Aires’s booming movie industry. “It’s remarkable how many films are made here and how much variety there is. They really reflect a city in the eyes of a filmmaker,” says Pensotti. “There has been a democratization of different classes of people to make movies. The mix of technology has changed but there has also been a strong contribution from the state in funding movies. There’s also been a generational change: people from other fields that are making movies, coming from theatre or literature.”

      As Pensotti became more and more interested in the way filmmakers’ lives shape their fictions, and the way their fictions influence their real lives, he started to turn to theatre as a better way to depict his themes. The ingenious creation of the “split-screen” stage came later, over the creative team’s lengthy, months-long process.

      “The split screen was always in our minds but we didn’t really know how to use it on-stage. We failed a lot in the process,” he says with a laugh. “One thing I like the most about our system is that we have six or seven months before the premiere, and that has a huge effect on the whole group. We’re not funded by the state; we’re an independent company. And we’ve found this is the only way to produce something we feel is meaningful. Every time I do a play, I’m always conscious it is going to be a part of my life for a long time.”

      The resulting work finds the actors rushing seamlessly from the lower stage to the upper one, telling stories that draw details from the initial interviews Pensotti did. The British Theatre Guide called it “a tour de force in which fiction and reality converge”; in his curatorial statement for PuSh this year, artistic director Norman Armour said Cineastas is “theatrical bravado at its most liberating.…At the end of it all, your brain and heart will be left short of breath.”

      As for Pensotti, he still evades categorization, as fans who have caught his wildly visual shows know. Theatre, lighting design, installation art, and film are all woven into his work, and photo-conceptualism still drives his desire to stage real lives. But in the end, the Argentine genius uses another analogy: “I tend to see the process as if I were writing a big novel rather than just developing a stage performance.”

      Cineastas is at SFU Woodward’s in the Goldcorp Centre for the Arts from February 5 to 7 as part of the PuSh International Performing Arts Festival.

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