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Colectivo Sustento – Chile


Thanks to Nikki Mailer for contributing this guest post.

Reflections on an International Collaboration with Colectivo Sustento in Chile with Nikki Mailer and Mary O’Neill; two community theatre workers from the UK. The collective was founded in September 2012 in Santiago-Chile, they are a multidisciplinary collective of arts-workers and activists who use theatre and community gardening as tools for social change. Their work takes place in the local community where the garden is located, in prison and juvenile detention.


In January 2014, after taking part in one of the longest running community theatre festivals in Santiago called Entepola, I returned to Chile remembering the richness and depth I experienced and it came flooding back. Was it nostalgia? Mary and I had to return.

Every year people fill the Pudahuel amphitheatre on the periphery of Santiago where Entepola takes place, to watch theatre groups from all over Latin America. Many performances were political about the effects of dictatorships, colonisation, violence, indigenous rights, gender issues amongst others. Latin America has a history of western colonisation and huge inequalities. I felt personally people’s commitment to politics which in some way has been diluted in the UK due to being from a richer and more privileged country, despite our problems and inequality. Do we have the same culture of using theatre as a form of resistance?

Entepola Festival 2014 (1)

Colectivo Sustento at Entepola Festival 2014


One of the groups we met at the festival was Colectivo Sustento who brought their prison theatre group “Fénix & Ilusiones” (Phoenix and Illusions). The group were able to leave the prison for one evening and suddenly be in front of an audience of 3000 people. It was such a memorable moment especially when the whole audience stood up to clap as a genuine response to it being a great thought provoking piece of theatre. When the audience were told they were actors from Colina prison it added even more weight to the meaning of the performance. They were not prisoners playing prisoners on stage but instead human beings exploring different societal issues.

After leaving in 2014, I felt a pull in the way you do when living in another part of the world and leaving a piece of yourself behind. I was moved and even more motivated to do theatre and connect with people in a way that is so special to me. I felt like I was part of a movement of wonderful people who want to create change. It happens here in the UK but I take more notice when out of my comfort zone. Yet there are differences, like the rhythm of life in Latin America where time feels less restrictive. It shapes the work you create. I am reminded of how things can happen more spontaneously and without the same rules, same regulations and paperwork! That is why I was so fascinated by Colectivo Sustento – a theatre group and community garden, part of which takes place at the home of Penny, one of the founders of the collective.

Work day to build a water irrigation filter (1)      Colina 1 prison mask workshop (1)

I loved people knocking on the door requesting eggs, people coming round to help build a water irrigation filter, with former members of the prison theatre group making Penny’s home a place of support and sanctuary, other members helping with the allotment or coming round to create theatre. A constant project is the one inside the prison (Fénix & Ilusiones) which happens twice a week, with some new and some more long-term participants creating theatre together trying to find a way to have a voice and talk about what matters to them, beyond the prison walls. Not focused on being prisoners but focussed on the world they live in. When I was there the group was devising a play about gender violence. I felt the strength of this theme being explored with only men. A subject sadly so relevant today but more commonly explored with and by women. We ended our final sessions by using masks Mary and I had made with the men to explore power and vulnerability which naturally linked to their play. The group talked about the need to talk about relevant issues other than from ‘within’ prison. We talked about the necessity to take a good look at gender violence as they all have mothers, girlfriends and sisters and want to illuminate these problems to different audiences. I was also told that there is a saying in Chile, ‘if he loves you, he hits you.’

There was, of course, a huge sense of play and so much laughter in the workshop space and it felt like playing games was a necessity or a form of resistance against the prison system. The group challenge themselves and welcomed us outsiders speaking broken Spanish, with open arms. The warmth of Chilean culture I felt was sprinkled everywhere, even inside a prison. I hear many times the talk of Entepola festival and the chance to perform in front of an audience of 3000. The older members talk passionately about theatre and what it means to them. There is a precious bond no matter how lasting or momentary it might be. Whether theatre is transformative the work of Colectivo Sustento does not make these assumptions or grand statements. I have a voice in my head that says we should not romanticize as theatre workers, we are not saviours, sometimes our projects do not go to plan, at times we fail. But we carry on because we believe in the work.

Colina 1 Prison reflection (1) Group photo at Colina 1 prison (1) Colina 1 Prison mask workshop (1)

(Colectivo Sustento – mask work in prisons)


Staying in Penny’s beautiful home meant that Mary and I could immerse ourselves and think deeply about theatre. Why theatre? What drives us forward?

Creating theatre in Santiago is a different struggle than in the UK. Many community theatre workers in England are affected by the cuts. The idea that you can make a living from the work is a real privilege in Chile. Most people in Santiago have other work and focus on making the work happen with little or no money. If more theatre workers become more affected by the austerity imposed by our government we will have to choose to continue and sustain projects ourselves, because we believe in the work. Right now in the UK it feels as though we are part of a social movement and it will be interesting to see how this defines us.

What comes through in places like Chile is that working for free makes the desire to create theatre even stronger, as a way of life rather than a way to earn a living. A form of sustenance that feeds the soul.

I thought throughout about the link between theatre and community gardening. I spoke with Penny outside her home where there is silverbeet growing on the street with a sign saying ‘Enjoy the fruits of nature, before they spoil. Pick the silverbeet’ I asked Penny what does Colectivo Sustento mean to her and she said ‘Colectivo Sustento is a consolidation of 40 years of working in community theatre, just by putting the front garden you start a conversation with the local people because they stop and look and they read the sign and take bits of silverbeet and it starts a conversation in the community and that is what community theatre is to me, trying to start a conversation. That we can create community, we do not have to live separately and things like the garden provoke that conversation, as does theatre.



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