The Expat: Lian Walden

Lian Walden
Born: New York City, USA
Age: 24
Profession: Theatre director
Education: Political science and theatre at Yale
Just read: The Pale King by David Foster Wallace
Last film: Submarine
Gadget: My espresso machine

How long have you been in Buenos Aires?play I’m directing opened, was my second anniversary.

How did you arrive in Argentina?
I guess I had some romantic idea about Buenos Aires. I won a fellowship to go to Barcelona and research street theatre, so I spent a summer there and a lot of the street artists were Argentine. That pushed me in the direction as I studied theatre and political science and that’s an introspection I‘ve always been attracted to. Street theatre, public space, it’s all very political and that all added to the idea I had about Buenos Aires. The city has a history of street theatre and community theatre and there are a lot of political and theatrical responses to the Dirty War so all of those things made it a good place for me to come to.
When I graduated, I applied for another scholarship and proposed a programme for adolescents at a cultural centre in Barracas — and that’s what brought me here.

Are you still working on that project?
No, as it was only meant to last for a year. The cultural centre in Barracas was located under the railway tracks — a train would go past every 15 minutes, and the whole foundation of the building would shake.
The idea was to give the kids a mini theatre experience, and many had never done theatre. A lot came from the Villa 21, a few people from the J.T. Borda psychiatric hospital nearby and I had students aged eight to 40.

What was your first impression of Buenos Aires?
I came here following a month in Colombia, where I’d been to a couple of theatre festivals. I think I had gotten used to another exchange rate, and although I’m normally really vigilant about getting ripped off in a foreign country, I totally got ripped off by my taxi driver. I thought I‘d take one from outside the airport and he charged me 400 pesos. I was sitting there, and someone had already told me it should cost US$15 to get to Microcentro where I was staying. I was thinking, that is not US$15, is my maths wrong? When I got off the plane, it was six in the morning and I was disoriented.
So, I’m getting ripped off, realize I’m getting ripped off although we’d agreed on a price and because I had started arguing about the price, the driver invented something about how cars couldn’t go down Talcahuano. He left me several blocks away, telling me I’d be able to find the place. I had all my luggage, I was in the centre at rush hour and all I could think was “why do people think this is a beautiful city? This is the ugliest, most horrible place I’ve ever been to!” That was my first impression, but it got better.

Where did you live?
I stayed with a friend of my brother who runs an NGO and is based out of an apartment style loft. He had a tiny back room I stayed in while I was getting my feet on the ground. I then rented a room in Almagro for a month, was in Palermo for a bit, then San Telmo, and now I live in Belgrano. I’ve been hopping around!

Which barrio have you most enjoyed living in?
I loved my apartment in Palermo as it was a nice studio and was the first time I was living alone in the big city. I loved San Telmo for the neighbourhood and it was a beautiful apartment, but I feel most at home now in Belgrano.

Why did you stay on?
I’d always thought I’d be here for “a year and then we’ll see.” If anything, I’d have travelled more around the continent. But it took a long time to get the project going, a lot longer than I’d expected, so I felt I’d just got things going around the eight-month mark. I’d figured out where to hold the project, how I’m doing it and working with all the kids in a rough neighbourhood. It felt like I finally knew people in theatre and had friends, but it took a long time.
That was the time is when I met Ben, the playwright of the play I’m currently directing at La Tertulia and so I thought I’d take on that, and stay longer. Plus, I was unrealistic about when the project would finish, as it ended up taking a year.

Why did it take so long?
The cultural centre I was supposed to work at suspended all its activities as it didn’t have any resources. Well, nowhere has any resources and the whole point of my project is that it doesn’t require any money, we can do it in the street, and show kids who have nothing that they can do theatre and play around, or use trash to build a set. There was a lot of bureaucracy, it was hard to track people down, and I couldn’t get access to the communities I wanted to work in.

Did you put on a production?
It didn’t culminate in anything official like that, although I’d like to have done so, as one of the biggest challenges was just getting constant attendance from people. New students would come one week, love it, then never show up again. Or they’d come for six weeks and then disappear.
I learned to use smaller goals, for example, improvisations we’d already worked on. That was easier for teenagers from their kind of background to look ahead two weeks.

What was the most rewarding aspect of that experience?
Seeing individual progress in kids. Perhaps a 12-year-old who was really shy, who I’d see as a challenge, would be the one writing scripts. Classes were originally held once a week, which I wanted to up to twice, but the kids wanted them three times! Bearing in mind they weren’t really into extracurricular activities, in general that was great that they had fun.

Did you have any lost-in-translation moments in the workshops?
I had quite a good grasp but it was challenging as everything was improvised. In English, listening to someone babbling away I can pick up on the one thing and get them to work with it. I was following the Spanish so much it was hard to pick a gem and think ahead about what I could do. I definitely felt I wasn’t as capable as I could be as a leader.

How did directing Intruders come about?
I’d met Ben through mutual friends and he passed it to me to read. I loved it and he asked if I’d be interested in directing it. Originally we were going to do a reading, but it opened last weekend. In the US, we would have done a workshop production, which is still a full production on the understanding it’s a work in progress. You don’t really do that here — it might be a work in progress, but it’s up and you open it. That’s exciting.
It’s the only English-language play, as far as I’m aware, on stage at the moment in Buenos Aires.

Are there any plans to put it on in Spanish?
We translated it with the cast, who are bilingual Argentine, Argentine-American and Dominican actors. I thought it would be exciting for them to find their own words for their characters in their native tongue. That was a huge challenge, as the text is very rich and the play is about that, rather than the action per se. How do you translate the acronym “MILF”, for example? Do you come up with the Argentine equivalent? Do we consider this to be an American play, or a porteño play so it can resonate more with an Argentine audience? These issues all came up with translation.

How did you translate MILF?
We cut it!

What do you do in your spare time?
Although my life has become the play, one stable thing I do is capoeira every Friday. I’m really into that world. My communities have also shifted radically in two years and through the social work I was doing, I met a lot of different people. One day I’d be at the cultural centre, where a man lived with his eight children. I’d help them with their English homework, they gave me lice, which was nice! The next day I might have dinner with a diplomat and an Italian film director in Recoleta complete with a butler! In the States I was stuck in my social class and my culture and so my first year showed a huge range of Buenos Aires.

A way with words
Intruders is written by US playwright and author Benjamin Kunkel who is based in Buenos Aires, and according to its young director Lian Walden, is the only English-language play on stage in Buenos Aires City at the moment (see review in yesterday’s Herald).
In a country where arts and theatre receive little, if any, funding, for either community or more professional enterprises, the fact that she has managed to bring this new work to stage is impressive. But for a tenacious Yale graduate specializing in making something out of nothing, perhaps the hurdles to put on a play in Buenos Aires are a lot simpler to scale than those involved with running an Argentine community theatre workshop.
It’s also interesting there is an audience for such a production. As Walden says, the first night, which was last Saturday, “opened to a mix of expats, family members from the Argentine cast members and a few reviewers. It had a great buzz and we’re now in a position to tweak and improve on it after some feedback.”
Of course, the numbers of foreigners and expats living here are continually on the up with more arrivals than departures, and if they aren’t snapping up tickets to such an event, they are certainly inclined to make it happen themselves, as Walden has done. This is highly representative of the entrepreneurial spirit many foreigners find in themselves when faced with challenges distinct from their homeland.
Of course, this collaboration isn’t the only English-language one going on around the city. The Suburban Players, a theatre group which has been very active in the northern suburbs for many years and features a mainly Anglo-Argentine cast, produces plays in English several times a year. Member Rosemary Morton says the group is planning a play reading on October 14 at its San Isidro base and will stage The Club in the latter half of that month.
The British Arts Centre has also staged productions in English although it is more likely to put on a work in Spanish with English subtitles at the Microcentro-based venue.
In the meantime, Walden’s future in Buenos Aires depends on the success of her Argentine directing début. Having worked frantically for several months to open in September in order to get a run before Christmas when the city essentially shuts down for two months, she says: “It depends on what happens after the summer and whether or not we can move into another theatre. I feel a lot more established and know a lot more people with whom I want to collaborate. That said, my travel bug is very strong right now!”

First published in the Buenos Aires Herald on September 25, 2011.
Photo by Mariano Fuchila.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *