What's Happening

Setebos Interviews: Alejandro Delgado

By Cymbeline Anthropocene on Jun 03, 2022 at 09:23 PM in Project News

In this third interview with the cast and crew of Mónica Maffía's Setebos company, Randall Martin speaks with Alejandro Delgado, who created visual, lighting, and video art for Cimbelino en la Patagonia. Here, Alejandro discusses his collaborative methods with Mónica, the difficulty of balancing individual and collective views of environmental issues, and his own physical perspective on the spiritual experiences of nature. 

Cymbeline in the Anthropocene: Hello Alejandro. Thank you for meeting with me today. 

Alejandro Delgado: Thank you for being interested in my work. 

CA: I am. A play is a show as well as a story, after all. 

AD: Yes, it’s a completely different way, what the audience sees and what Mónica sees. I never know what they see!

CA: How long have you known Mónica and worked with her? 

AD: I think it’s something between 15 and 20 years. 

CA: Really? 

AD: Yes. I did a lot of commercial work, a lot of computer animation in the mid-80s. And then I did a lot of VJing [“Visual Jockey”; visual and audio performance creator]. For me it’s an artistic expression, although for many people it’s something you do at a nightclub. But in projects like this, Shakespeare, Marlowe, Lilith, Luna Negra – I thought that was the best collaboration. For me really it was a lot of work because of the length [of opera production time]. What I like to do with Mónica is to be partly the background, where you place the action, and sometimes with symbolic things that the music and the words don’t tell. It’s not just one thing. I’m not just doing the scenography. And one of the things I like is that Mónica gives me almost absolute freedom, and I do what I feel interprets better. And Mónica takes me to these prestigious places. 

CA: Can you tell me a little more about the process? Mónica gives you a script, and then what do you do? 

AD: I read the script and make some indications. And then I ask Mónica what she wants, and then we start with the images [we want to use], abstract or real. Maybe I do some research. In Lilith, for example, every image had some research. I did the pentagrams and the apples and the cells. And then I talk with her. It’s like ping-pong. Usually I deliver everything in just the two or three last days. I make her suffer, I know that! But she trusts me that I will deliver something nice. So that’s the kind of collaboration we have. She gives me a way to express things I cannot express anywhere else. 

CA: It’s great scope for your artistic invention.     

AD: Especially with symbolic things, I like to play with that. 

CA: And when she gave you Cimbelino, how did you think the show would look? 

AD: It was a little chaotic because of my mother [Alejandro lost his mother a few weeks before the show opened]. I used some symbolic ideas from Lilith, and I told Mónica I had some ideas about projecting some designs. Not video, but some VJing. And for me that was perfect. And did a lot of abstract work with lights and visuals. You saw [on the transparent screen projections in front of the dumb-show of the birth of Setebos at the end of the play] I did a lot of intersecting lines. 

CA: Yes, and geometric images. They reminded me of the Nazca lines

AD: Ha ha, yeah, the second path were the Nazca lines that you can recognize. But elsewhere if I hadn’t used some representational images, it would have been too abstract. You needed some more information there. When the baby [Setebos] was born, I just used abstract, flowing lines for the movement of the wind. But then I also took pictures of the moon at a very slow speed, and then I animated them.    

AD: Yes, I connected both the lunar imagery and the Nazca lines to the character [in Cimbelino] el Cóndor [who rescues Setebos from being eaten by the Giant who kills his mother and takes him to the top of El Chaltén mountain to be raised] which Ángeles (Irina Solomonoff) was playing. The associations of Indigenous sky and bird imagery certainly came across. 

CA: I’ll come back to the birth of Setebos in a moment. But I wanted to ask, were there other images or symbols that you thought were important conceptually or environmentally? 

AD: I remember the text, and the text is very rich in that way. I think it’s very important the things the actors say the environmental problems we are having, it’s very from here [gestures to his heart], like the intentional forest fires in the country.  

CA: Yes, Mónica told me the government didn’t send fire-fighting planes to put out the fires?

AD: Yes, there were thousands of people lighting fires. And yet people thought, how can they have fires in Mesopotamia [a region in Argentina] because they have lots of water in the surrounding area. And that’s because they’ve had a drought for many years now. I don’t really get why they do it. Some people say it’s because these places are ecological reserves, and this way they will sell the land after that. 

CA: My first thought was that the fires were being set so that the land could be converted to agribusiness, the way that’s going on in the Brazilian Amazon, with deforestation to turn the forest into farmland. But there’s also the allusion in the play to using chemicals to defoliate and burn trees to reveal mineral veins in the earth. And all these things are happening for profitable extraction, or to create monocultures.  

AD: Yes. I believe we are reaching some kind of limit. I am an optimist in a way. I believe we are reaching the maximum of this kind of stupid behaviour, and maybe we will take a more intelligent path. 

CA: Some of that’s supposed to be part of the cultural work of Cymbeline in the Anthropocene.  

AD: Yes. I also think there is a bit of bullshit sometimes too in some ecological movements, and things that are not very scientific and people just repeat. For instance I was very concerned about plastics in the ocean. But then I read a lot of stuff that said plastics are not the main problem [with the oceans]. There are a lot of problems. Sometimes I think we go too much with things that are big in the media. I’m going a bit deep here by saying this... I can say I’m ok with everything ecological, and I’m a great advocate of recycling and bicycles. My carbon footprint is very small. 

CA: Do you think about that when you are VJing? Do you think about carbon footprints? 

AD: Yeah, of course. You have to save things and recycle things…. But it’s also important not to trivialize. And I don’t want to add to the negativity when I show these things. 

CA: To go back to carbon footprint–you might be interested from a more technical perspective–there’s an organization called the Earth Shakes Alliance. It encourages theatre-makers and other kinds of performances to adopt environmental best practices. Not to become perfect, but to do things better, and be conscious of environmental impacts of productions. I’ll send you the website, and you might be interested in joining. It was started by a group in California, including some theatre-makers who are contributing “Imogen in the Wild” by Shakespeare in Yosemite to Cymbeline in the Anthropocene. They’ve got some impressive theatres who have signed up. 

AD: You know, I was saying this about plastics, but I really care about plastics! Because I’m writing a short story about the garbage islands… 

CA: … in the Pacific?

AD:  … in every ocean they have one. It’s horrible just to think. But they are not doing a lot of damage, relatively. I am more concerned about climate change in the atmosphere, and the killing of fishes. 

CA: Yes, the garbage islands look awful. But there are other things which are invisible and perhaps worse, like poisons in the water, which you can’t see. I think I understand what you’re saying. You can be committed to environmental conservation and reducing greenhouse gases, but that doesn’t mean you simply believe everything you’re told or you see in the media. It’s important to be thoughtful. And it’s also important not to lose a sense of proportion about what’s trivial and the what’s a matter of life and death.

In practical terms, we have to make choices, to triage our impacts and solutions, because we can’t do everything all at once, even though, it’s true, everything is connected environmentally. And particularly to differentiate problems that are less in the hands of individuals and more in the control of industries and nation-states. Recycling paper at home is good in itself and keeps you focused on environmental causes and effects, but it’s not going to reverse climate change. 

A different question: during the rehearsals and the performances, what changed during the course of the production? Your approach, or things in the show? 

AD: We didn’t rehearse in a regular way. I would video a scene, and then watch it at home, and start mixing images and seeing where they would take me. I didn’t have time to evolve with the play [because of my personal circumstances]. In regular, especially commercial productions, you work for weeks just for two or three seconds. This was the opposite. I had to improvise and deliver. 

CA: And the music, it was not very prominent, and it didn’t function diegetically, but seemed more to set emotional moods for individual scenes, is that right? 

AD: Yes, I felt that way also. It’s because they didn’t have scenography. So sound was the way of introducing the audience to ambient locations.  

CA: Yes, you didn’t have the time to include images of El Chaltén, for instance, but did evoke it through natural sounds, birdsong etc, to create an atmosphere of place. The most prominent image was the performance of the birth Setebos through the screen. Can you tell me what you thought about visualizing that scene?   

AD: I divided it [thematically]: peace, chaos, peace, chaos, just like that. So then I have these “holes” to fill – that’s how I approached it – these moments to express this, to express that. And I tried to use visual leitmotifs, like calmness, or chaos with the evil character [the Giant]. I start from direct images and then go “inside” the images for indirect details…. It’s intuitive, and I improvise always.  

CA: Did you design the animal costumes that were used for the birth of Setebos? 

AD: No, they were from another play, Mónica’s previous plays. 

CA: Ah, they were recycled. I thought they were very effective, especially at a far distance upstage, because of the bold shapes. 

AD: Mónica has a lot of things, here and there, because she always has little budget. Mónica is very resourceful! 

CA: Yes, she’s a bricoleuse [Fr. literally, “handywoman”]. She’s somebody who recombines found or saved objects. And that’s like Shakespeare himself, taking pieces of traditional or familiar stories and remixing them to create new plays. Of course all artists do that to varying degrees.   

This is my final question: as you said earlier, this is a very rich script, poetically, in images, and in terms of stories and identities. And for me, as I’ve said to other Setebos members, the overarching meta-story of Dewi’s “island” workshop is a process of an environmental decolonization. His motive is, I’m going to take you back to your forgotten animal origins in nature. What to you was the environmental significance of this play? 

AD: I think all the actors being “possessed” by all these spirits of Setebos and El Chaltén, you know they are not magical spirits. You know they are symbolic, like in ancient times, but it’s also about real feelings. I’m familiar with some Peruvian cultures, and the people, they have these feelings. It’s not about whether you believe it or not, but about sharing these special feelings about a mountain or whatever it may be. It’s not a god, but I understand this and I can share it. That’s what Mónica tried to express, that kind of shared feeling. I am atheist, and I don’t believe in anything spiritual per se, but I am a very spiritual person, and I think there’s a spiritual dimension to the connections to nature that she addresses. 

The myths that she’s invoking, the Indigenous stories, these are a way of communicating in words and images living in relation with the natural life of that environment. This isn’t religion or divinity, it’s a representation of physical connections that some Peruvians, or the Tehuelche, or other cultures have in the ways they interact with their environment. It’s not just intellectual, it’s physically spiritual. For example I was in Cusco… 

CA: … in Peru. Yes, I’ve been there...

AD: And if you remember, the sun is hot as hell, and then it goes behind the mountains [and the temperature changes], and you can understand why they consider the sun a god. It’s so solid. Now he’s there and now he’s not. It’s only natural. And I remember I saw a flock of condors, and one condor was trying to hunt a llama. It was a powerful experience, and non-verbal. That’s what I think Mónica is going after, in some way.  

CA: Yes. Her play is not didactic, it’s more visceral. It’s meant to move people as we watch the actors being moved in diverse ways. The response of spectators will change from person to person, but we’ll think more about relationships with nature, in personal and not just abstract ways. 

AD: Yes, I’m liking that Mónica is taking a risk in talking about the Welsh and Tehuelches, that it’s not simplistic, and not just the same story [of European colonization and genocide]…. That’s why I like to work with Mónica. She always brings something new. 

CA: Absolutely. I think that’s a good point to end on, with Mónica’s brilliance! And your contributions to enhancing it. So thank you very much, Alejandro. It’s been fascinating to hear about your work.  

AD: Thank you for being interested.