Matías Umpierrez has built a profile in Argentina with his experimental, “neo-technological” works that combine the theatrical and audio-visual. His twin goals -- to transcend genres while continuously engaging his audience in a dynamic conversation – make him the ideal protégé for the unique, transdisciplinary director Robert Lepage, whose highly original works defy classification. Lepage says of the year they are now beginning: “We call it mentorship, but actually it is a dialogue.” Regretting never having had a mentor, Lepage approaches it with generosity and an open mind: “I hope that the protégé will understand that his opinion is as important as ours.”
Matías Umpierrez is a native of Argentina, now living in Spain. He works all over the world, though his spiritual home remains Buenos Aires where his career began. Umpierrez acts, he writes, he directs – his work crosses disciplines and confounds definitions. He talks to Robert Cushman about how he approaches his work, and what he has discovered as the Rolex protégé of Robert Lepage, a multi-talented theatrical innovator whose work, originating in Quebec, Canada, is internationally acclaimed.
Working with Robert Lepage – what has it meant to you?
Robert is used to rehearsing a show for several years; he’ll rehearse for a week, then leave the project for three months, then come back to it. I had the idea that great artists would work for three months on a project, then for months on another, and that’s generally how the industry works. I admire that Robert is able to work professionally and artistically, and collaborate on such a diverse range of projects, all at the same time. This has reinforced my own idea that I can work on several projects simultaneously.
How do you define yourself as an artist?
Robert and I are both multi-disciplinary artists, both actors, both theatre directors, we both direct audio-visual projects, like film projects, and in my case I also work in visual arts. We don’t define ourselves by one discipline. Theatre is the place I start my journey. My work has always had a reflection of theatre but it’s not the theatre. It doesn’t look like theatre. But maybe it is.
Some of your work you list as theatre, some as video, and you’ve directed an opera. Distancia is defined as a visual theatre piece, Teatro Solo as an intervention, Landscape as a video and also as a short play. Do you see a clear distinction between the different kinds of work?
Firstly, I think of where the pieces are being executed. Distancia is a spiritual pondering of theatre. It is a play that happens in real time. The audience is in a theatre and the actors are being streamed live from different platforms – and then there’s a live orchestra within the structure. All the others have something related to performance or site-specific interventions. In Landscape it’s a question I had about the relations inherent in theatre itself but I thought I could answer my own question by making it a film rather than a theatre piece.
What is that question?
Most of my work is founded on the oral tradition, which is almost like a first spark of the light of the theatre tradition. So I was thinking what happens when a tragedy concludes and there are no more speeches? And what happens when a character has to elaborate all that has happened in the tragedy, without any words but following that ritualistic form? Landscape is my way of answering that question, because I thought I couldn’t answer it in a theatrical way.
How does the audience receive Teatro Solo? Is it like Distancia where they are all sitting in the same space, or are they watching it at home?
Teatro Solo takes one audience member out of the theatre environment and makes that person the sole witness of the experience. The most important aspect of Teatro Solo is how you, the one audience member, make a connection to the oral tradition with the actor who is there with you and then, how the audience member can continue that tradition by repeating what he or she has experienced.
So, in the moment of performance, only that one audience member is to see it?
The way Teatro Solo works, there are five pieces, five individual stories that happen simultaneously. In one day, five people see it in different locations and there are eight shows per location. So, 40 people see the show per day. In Spain, where it was done last, it was seen by more than 120 people over a week, or 2000 at the end of the season.
I work in a system that I call “global”, so I research every city before I go there. I also work with an entire cast and crew from each city. So, each political and social reality is affected by the location I’ve chosen and the people I work with.
You have said that, contrary to popular belief, South America is not all the same. What is particularly different about Argentina, about Buenos Aires, and what effect has it had on you and your work?
It gives you the force to do art and to produce art, no matter what the circumstance, political or economical. And it defies. It’s very Argentinean to be up front and to have valour and to fight. In the independent sector of theatre in Argentina, there are more than 1,000 shows being produced a year. And that’s not because there’s an industry – it’s because there are people wanting to say something. And there's no one who can stop culture, or the movement.