Rediscovering Mask Performance in Peru: Gustavo Boada, Maskmaker with Yuyachkani
For over two decades Yuyachkani has been considered not only the most important independent theatre group in Peru, but a leader from the 1970s generation of Latin American theatre groups. Yuyachkani, under the direction of Miguel Rubio, became well known for productions that combined the political theatre aesthetics of Bertolt Brecht, the anthropological theatre approaches of Augusto Boal and Eugenio Barba, and, perhaps most importantly, a rediscovery and reappraisal of the performance aesthetics of Andean culture: the dramatic dances, music, masks, and costumes of its fiestas. Not all Yuyachkani productions use masks or puppets, but the company is characterized by an ability to incorporate them effectively into its work, and an openness to do so wherever they seem to offer a powerful means of communication.
Gustavo Boada has worked as a maskmaker with the group since 1987. I first met him in 1997 in Vermont, at a workshop of the International School of Theater of Latin America and the Caribbean (EITALC) led by Bread and Puppet Theater, and entitled “Paper Maché vs. Neo-Liberalism.” Boada returned to Vermont to work with Bread and Puppet in the summer of 1998, and this interview was held in the Bread and Puppet Museum on 27 July 1998. Teresa Camu provided simultaneous translation.
Could you explain what Yuyachkani is?
The name Yuyachkani is a Quechua word that means “I am thinking, I am remembering.” In other regions, where Quechua is a bit different, it means “I am your memories, I am your thoughts.” Yuyachkani comes from the attitude of young people in the 1970s who had decided to make theatre based on political ideas and the social problems of Peru. This reflection on the problems of the country obliged us to travel a lot to towns very far from the city.
When did the theatre start? [End Page 169]
It started in 1972. Miguel Rubio and Teresa Ralli, only 17 and 20 years old, were part of an experimental theatre group named Yego. And because they witnessed a miners’ strike and the violent way the police took control of the situation, they really felt affected by those problems, and they started to believe that they had to make some kind of theatre. They learned about the existence of political theatre, and this led to the first appearances of Yuyachkani.
In 1973 they had a performance in Allpamina, a mining town. They did a piece called Puño de Cobre (Fist of Copper). The story was based on a strike at a copper mine named Cobrisa. The show talks about how the police killed some of the miners who had gone on strike—there are a lot of stories in Latin America about these kinds of situations. The actors were acting in blue jeans and white T-shirts, and after the performance the miners told them that they really did like the show, but that “next time, don’t forget your costumes.” 1 They thought they had forgotten their costumes, because for the miners—who are very connected with nature, and appreciate colors—for them happiness is color. Mask imagery is very important for them, and dance is an equally important element. They didn’t think any other kind of theatre existed. But Puño de Cobre didn’t use any of these elements. This event made Yuyachkani realize they were making a very different kind of theatre than what the population knew. So they decided they had to figure out not only how to investigate social problems, but also how to investigate traditions, and the significance of each element of those traditions.
Did Yuyachkani begin to use masks after this?
Yes, they did shows in each community they visited, and after the show there would be an exchange: the people from the community performed their dances, and the company learned the music, the songs, and the dance. That’s where they started accumulating masks, from many different places, of many different types and materials, and started to perform with masks. [End Page 170]
Why was this type of mask theatre unknown to Rubio, Ralli, and the other members of Yuyachkani?
The reference points for people involved in theatre at that time were Western: European theatre, Spanish theatre. They didn’t know any other kind of theatre existed, because they were young people, from the city. These traditional Andean performances did not separate theatre from dance and music. They were dance/opera syntheses, like Peking opera, which combines music, acting, dance, acrobatics.
What were the first shows done after this experience you’ve described?
The first was Allpa Rayku , which was based both on the popular fiesta of Andahuaylas and the story of the seizure of lands there by the people of the town. There had been a leftist military revolution in 1968 and a new agrarian reform law in 1969 that promoted land redistribution. The landowners hired armed guards to keep their land, but since these landowners did not have the law on their side, the campesinos fought and took the land.
And that show used a lot of elements of popular culture?
Yes: masks, costumes, colors, the Quechua language.
Did the structure of the show reflect different ideas?
It had the structure of the fiesta, and the fiesta’s arrangement of scenic groups.
Does this also involve calling the presentation a fiesta instead of a theatre piece, a drama? [End Page 171]
Yes. The story begins with a conflict: there is a fiesta, but the fiesta is interrupted because the news arrives that there’s been a revolution and the land can be owned by those who work it. The dramatic conflict is mixed with the structure of the fiesta.
Have all of the shows of Yuyachkani since that moment used masks or other popular theatre forms?
Yes, in this show and those that followed, they started using a lot more musical instruments, and worked with masks.
What was the response to these shows, in Lima or other cities, where people like the actors in Yuyachkani had grown up with European ideas of theatre?
Well, for many years Yuyachkani was doing shows in the provinces. They didn’t have a place to rehearse, and so they always performed in the countryside.
Not for an audience in Lima?
There was an audience in Lima later, generally in the universities, or among immigrant populations of miners or campesinos on the outskirts of the city.
Mask Traditions in Peru
Are there a variety of different types of mask theatre in Peru? I remember a knitted mask was used in Adios Ayacucho; what other different types of mask traditions are there?
At a certain moment in Peru an independent theatre movement grew outside of the commercial and traditional classical theatres. The movement was based, more or less, on the same thinking as Yuyachkani. About 40 groups in the whole country appeared, and they did research in different ways. A group from Cajamarca called Algovipasar, for example, studied the fiestas [End Page 172] in their province and had a particularly regional identity. It’s the same thing that happened with Yuyachkani.
Does Yuyachkani have a connection to any particular cultural identities?
Yes, more with some than with others: with Puño, Cuzco, Huancayo.
Which popular traditions are seen in different masks? For example, if there are masks made of wool in some areas, are there masks of wood in others? Is it similar to Mexico, where different regions have different mask styles?
There are many varieties of masks. For example in Huancayo, the capital of the province of Junin, they make masks of painted screen—they have a Spanish origin. Five minutes from Huancayo there is a town named Mito, which makes masks out of wood. But 20 kilometers further, they make screen masks again. It’s not a question of proximity or distance, but of identity. In higher elevations, where there are a lot of sheep, wool is the only material for making a mask, and that’s why they use it. In some places they use gourds to make masks, in others, animal skin.
Has there been a lot of anthropological or folkloric research into these mask traditions?
In Peru there are a lot of anthropologists researching mask designs as well as their meanings. But their research is only interpretation, because it is not based on what the people think. Moreover, when researchers ask indigenous people or campesinos about the origins of something, a very ancient rejection repeats itself—because the Spaniards came in the same way, asking them if they knew about any “yellow metal,” and the Inca Atahualpa ordered everyone to bury the cities where the gold was. Later, in colonial times, after Tupac Amaru revolted and the Spaniards killed him [in 1781], they prohibited all cults, rituals, and holy objects of the old religious traditions, including traditional costumes, music, and dances. From that moment on there has been a feeling among indigenous people to close off information about the significance of these traditions.
Becoming a Maskmaker in Peru
I wanted to ask you about your personal connection to Yuyachkani, how you came to work with the group, and how you came to be the primary maskmaker in the group.
Before I met Yuyachkani, I was a sculptor. I had a studio with other artists, and one day in 1987 Yuyachkani came to see my work, after they had seen Bread and Puppet in Puerto Rico. They wanted to do a workshop with giant puppets in Villa El Salvador, an urban neighborhood in which the majority of people were immigrants from Ayacucho. And they asked me if I would like the idea of working with giant puppets, giant sculptures. This is how I met them. I worked with them for three months in Villa El Salvador, and then I came back to my studio. I started to study theatre for a year, and then Yuyachkani proposed that I work with them. So I quit my theatre studies and began to make masks.
What was your sculpting like before you started working with Yuyachkani?
Before working with Yuyachkani, I was looking for a form of animated sculpture of image or color. I investigated emptiness, the absence of mass. Not the external form, that is, the one you can touch, but the internal [End Page 173] form. I imagined the public inside a sculpture. It was a search for something, and when Yuyachkani took me on for the workshop, I saw that these huge animated figures suggested a very interesting path to me. That’s why I decided to study a lot of theatre and read.
When you started making giant puppets with Yuyachkani, how did you know what to do?
When you do huge sculptures, you have to think of the armature that that big volume is going to have, and what material can support all that weight. When I knew I was going to use paper, I had to calculate which material could support the paper without weighing too much. We used chicken wire, cutting it and giving it shape, and then we applied the paper. That was the first time. Later I saw that chicken wire was very expensive, so we started to use clay, and the different structural techniques to support clay, and we used paper.
So were you inventing this yourself as you went along?
Pukllay: Playing Theatre as Fiesta
Could you describe a recent production of Yuyachkani which uses masks or puppets, how these objects are used in that production, where they came from, and how you conceived of them and built them?
Our most recent production, which we have been working on for two years [1996–1998], is called Pukllay, which means “let’s play.” It’s a game based on the fiesta we have been going to for five years, in a town called Paucartambo, in the region of Cusco. The fiesta is connected to the worship of the Virgin of Carmen of Paucartambo. In it, there are 20 comparsas, groups of dancers who use the same mask, although the Caporal or Capitán and his Lady use different masks. There are 20 characters, or 20 comparsas, who each have a different significance, and they move around the village, having encounters with each other, wars, and dances. There are some characters, called saq’ras, who only walk on tops of roofs: they’re a kind of devil that comes from the rainbow. It’s taken some time to investigate this tradition, to understand the significance of the choreography, the costumes, and the roles of the characters, because the characters can have one role in the fiesta and another during the religious ritual. In the religious event they have a role relating to the Virgin; but in reality at that moment she represents not simply the Virgin but an ancient Andean god, Mama Pacha, or Mother Earth. It’s difficult to interpret something which, as I explained earlier, people don’t want to explain: the significance of their rituals. While anthropologists create their own interpretation, we create another interpretation of the show, not of its religious or anthropological significance, but of its representational play: the relationships between the characters and the audience, and among the identical characters in the 20 different saq’ras. At the same time, we are also doing research about the masks. We’re not necessarily going to copy the traditional masks, but situate them in a kind of re-creation in a basically different space: a big plaza in Lima.
I saw a videotape of a Yuyachkani performance at night in a big plaza in Lima. Was this the same show?
That was the first attempt at the show. We tried out the materials we had at that moment, but we saw that everything was too low. [End Page 174]
How do you mean?
We didn’t have a lot of height. The audience couldn’t see, so the solution was to build big movable platforms where we could place masked and sitting idols, something like sphinxes.
I believe I saw masks of many different character types: a doctor, maybe a lawyer, and a politician. Is that correct?
All the characters that we perform in this show are from the Paucartambo fiesta. They are characters created by the imaginations of the artisans; it is very probable they have recognized the character they want to satirize in their masks. For example, El Doctorcito (a doctor of law) represents the lawyer who is always using the law to cheat. He performs a ceremony to marry someone from the audience with a man dressed as a woman. After they are married, the bride takes something from her new husband, and the husband chases after her. She goes to the Doctorcito to tell him to fix the situation, and the Doctorcito says to the husband, “You know sir, you just got married, and you have to share everything you have.” The settlement at the end is that the man has to buy a case of beer for the comparsa.
This is what happens in the original fiesta, or in the Yuyachkani performance?
In the fiesta. But these types of situations help us to create other situations.
What are the differences between the situations Yuyachkani creates and the indigenous ones you’ve been looking at?
In the first place, we do the show in Lima, the capital, which is normally not a favorable climate for this tradition. To do it in the most important place in the city, the Plaza Mayor, and to bring together more than 40,000 people, is a very important moment for the people of the city, who will see the old traditions from where they’re from. This is one of the reasons why we do it. [End Page 175]
Are you trying to recreate an old tradition?
No, what we do is a re-creation, but in the Paucartambo fiesta, the principal element of dramatic action is the Virgin of Carmen. We don’t do that. We created two characters: the Caporal de Contradanza (the Chief of the Dance) and the Lady of a Majeño, who are the masters of the fiesta.
What is a Majeño?
Majeño is a powerful, prosperous businessman. A little despotic. And the Lady is his wife. The Caporal de Contradanza is a person who has a lot of land. In Pukllay these characters organize the fiesta for some important people; so we can bring in political characters: a policeman, the mayor, a priest—those are always the main characters.
Pukllay begins with a procession through all the streets. The masters of the fiesta go around the plaza, mount a little platform, and call for the bullfight to begin. It’s a comic or satiric bullfight called Waca Waca. A bull comes out—it has a frame like a hobbyhorse with a small head of a bull—and it chases everybody. The bullfighter trembles, hides himself in his cape, and plays bullfight with the audience. Finally, the bull goes up on the platform and everybody runs away. At this moment the Saq’ras, the devils who come from the rainbow, appear on the roof with fireworks and go to the platform, and a female Saq’ra, the China Saq’ra, is swinging on a swing. They get to the point where the bullfight is going on; and the Chief Saq’ra lassos the bull and pulls him to the ground. Then, while the Chief Saq’ra is occupied with the bull, the rest of the Saq’ras climb up to the China Saq’ra (the wife of the Chief Saq’ra) to grab her and take her away, because the Chief Saq’ra isn’t there. This subversion of order indicates an absence of power. It’s very traditional in the fiestas: to create an absence of power, a dramatic moment where the conflict is very strong and people believe that something could happen, that perhaps some real Saq’ras could come and take her away. But that doesn’t happen because the Chief Saq’ra returns, and there is a ritual battle, a real competition, which is to climb to the top of a pole where there is a bouquet of flowers. The one who gets the flowers gets the China.
Masks and Ritual Performance in the City
This is a very different type of theatre than European theatre. It’s not based on text, character, and plot. When you do this show in Peru, what do you want to say with it?
In the first place, the significance of this type of performance is that it is unsupported, marginal, in an open public space, and you don’t have to pay an admission, so it’s an audience that doesn’t go to theatres. It’s a big project, which we believe will give something back to the people who have nourished our theatremaking, because what we do comes from them, from what we have learned from them.
We have also learned, from anthropological theatre, actor training, the culture of the body, presence, etc. Those are projects in what we consider traditional theatre work, in traditional spaces, but it’s not the only form we value; we also value work in these very big spaces. The thing that doesn’t change is that we need to make a theatre in which people once more feel a connection to their roots. We don’t want to stop using symbols that the people of these communities can recognize.
Are masks central to this? [End Page 176]
Yes, many plastic elements, not only masks, but structures also.
But if these people live in the city of Lima, how can this be part of their past? Aren’t they, as city dwellers, disconnected from it?
Lima is a city that for a long time has had large immigrations from the north, south, and center of the country. This immigration has been a continual, permanent phenomenon for 30 or 40 years. The population is not only “urban.” Very few of the immigrant communities on the outskirts of Lima are actually urban spaces. These neighborhoods, which are generally 20 or 30 minutes from the center of Lima, are where we do shows, in very small performing spaces, so people can identify with their culture, with their identity. If they spend the whole year working, when the fiesta of the patron saint of their old village comes, all the people from that village will want to come together to reproduce their fiesta. This is how they live.
The Contemporary Function of Masks
What do masks do that is different than actors’ theatre, and why do you think that’s valuable, especially in the situation of Peru?
I think the mask is a very ancient element of humanity, going back to the time it was used to hunt animals, because the mask produces a transformation—or the person using the mask thinks that a transformation has taken place. This transformation is dependent on the person’s convictions: a belief that because of the mask you transform into something, you become something else. Many people don’t have that conviction, and when they put on a mask they continue to be the same person. So when they are acting, you can recognize the same person, and the mask doesn’t produce anything. But if that person is convinced he is another person, he can allow his imagination to create actions that are different from those he repeats every day. For me, in principal, [End Page 177] it’s this, but that’s not really a sufficient explanation; it’s pretty lightweight. For me, the mask is an element that initiates an internal process in which the actor mobilizes sensations to produce, in the first place, an idea of a space, and secondly, the actor’s vision of the mask: a special intuitive knowledge of what the mask can and cannot do. But this process is not rational. The mask rejects thought, although not spontaneity and freedom.
I know that there are theatres, like the Japanese, in which improvisation is not permitted, but I come from a tradition of masked performers who improvise, whose role is not always consistent. For example, a Ukuku, a character with a wool mask used in Adios Ayacucho, is a figure who at one point in the fiesta of Q’Ollorriti [a Quechua word meaning “snow star”] is a comedian. However, when he hikes up to the higher elevations as a representative of the community to find a large piece of ice, he carries it on his shoulder and walks back through very dangerous mountain passes to his village. The ice is ritually cast into the earth so that there will be a good harvest that year. Those are two different roles, but Ukuku always has the same character. For us, this is very different from thinking that a character has one type of codified movements. For example, when the mask of a woman in noh theatre leans forward, it means she’s crying. For us it’s very different.
For you it’s more open?
Yes, it’s much more open, more explosive; movements are much faster. But there are also movements of waiting, of silence, of sadness, which can be slow.
When you make masks, it seems to me that you’re aware of various existing mask traditions. I imagine that you utilize those traditions, but do you change them? The reason why I ask is because there’s an issue about using indigenous culture to make modern theatre, that it’s a kind of theft.
Of course, yes. It’s a way of legalizing robbery. But I’ve been making masks for more or less ten years, learning by copying not only masks of Peru but of the commedia dell’arte and Asian theatre. It’s an exercise in the knowledge of forms, not of acquiring a structure.
When I travel—I travel a lot to fiestas—I first get to know the masks. I don’t go to collect masks, but to see what process takes place between the mask and the dancer. I am not very interested in the mask if it is not connected with the dancer. I want to see how the dancer assumes the mask, because the mask has a lot of meaning for a dancer. Those processes are the ones that interest me, more than copying a mask, because the image that the dancer has of himself, of his character, is more important than the mask itself. Because the mask is not, finally, the material form but the corporeal form of the character. That for me is the mask. It’s not only the mask that moves but the whole body.
The Present and Future of Mask Performance
What is the political situation of Yuyachkani, and how does the use of masks affect that? It seems to me, when you were speaking a year ago here, that Yuyachkani has a difficult position between, say, the militant left of Sendero Luminoso [the Maoist Shining Path guerrilla movement], and the right of the government. 2
Because of the process of violence we have had in Peru, the spaces to have different ideas, where one can speak of solidarity, of community, of common strength, to talk sometimes about socialism, communism, have diminished. [End Page 178] A lot of people are afraid to have new friends because of the danger that they could be Senderistas [members of the Shining Path guerrilla movement], or someone from the MRTA [the Tupac Amaru Revolutionary Movement]. During all these years people have become withdrawn, and don’t visit each other. Or if there are visits between friends and their discussions have a political theme, someone could logically believe, because you don’t agree with some things, that you might be a Senderista. This fear of talking about politics and our current situation makes people uninterested; they disappear. And political parties disappear, political leaders disappear, ideas disappear, and new proposals disappear, because no one has the strength to do it. This is the type of dictatorship I was talking about: not a concrete or specific dictatorship, but a structure of dictatorship, an apparatus.
And how does mask theatre relate to that?
In the sense that the mask always alludes to an identity, to a behavior, to an action. A mask never ceases having action, it always suggests something. I think that when theatre groups go out into the streets with big images, they are suggesting roles or attitudes of sadness, anger in the conscience of the spectator. They can express states of mind to the spectator. And the spectators can relate those states of mind to something in their own lives. You can see in the audience someone who feels that such an image is making fun of them. For example, if there’s someone in the audience who looks like [the over-life-sized Bread and Puppet authority figure] Uncle Fatso, who smokes a cigar, and the guy in the audience looks like he’s smoking a cigar too, then logically there’s going to be a reaction. [End Page 179]
You see yourself in the mask.
Do you think there’s a future for masks in the 21st century? Because masks are typically thought of as a very ancient form, and the future often wants to get rid of ancient forms.
No, that’s impossible, because in the history of theatre the great moments of theatrical renaissance are initiated with a return to the mask. Theatre began in Greece with masks, and returned, after the medieval period with the masks of commedia dell’arte, and then also in the 1970s, with puppets, masks, and African and Asian theatre influences. Every time the theatre is drowned, it has always recovered this object. And it’s not something crazy, because the mask is the origin of the theatre.
And the mask is not, for me at least, only an object, but a process through which actor and matter come together to make an image. That’s why there’s a big difference between sculpture and masks. Sculptures are always saying very general things, but the mask always says something that invokes a society, a moment, a problem. Sculpture tries, with many elements, to describe a historical fact, or a feeling, but a mask makes use of relations between eyes, nose, and mouth to express a feeling, not an idea. The human being will interpret his feelings in the face of reality, so when the human being has been touched by a feeling, it’s as if the doors are opened, and his reality can be seen. That is to say, the person becomes sensitive. It’s as if the person was like a suit of armor: when it’s opened, there’s a human inside, with feelings, the ability to feel everything that is going on. That’s why I don’t think that theatre will give up the mask. I think it’s an element of formation for actors. It has many uses. However, it’s also very good that there are people who don’t use masks. There was a time in Peru when all the theatre groups used masks—it was horrible. There were a lot of assassinations, murders of the theatre.
They were using masks badly?
Yes, they were building them wrong and using them badly; they would just put them on their faces. But it’s good that that happened, because right now in Peru the fashion has passed and the people who do use masks are people who have learned how to use them, and for whom it’s taken a lot to learn how to do so.
In the little towns where Yuyachkani first learned about masks, are the old fiestas still vibrant, or are they dying out?
In some places, very few, they are conserving their traditions. But in the majority of towns, the fiestas are not happening anymore. What happened is that in the outskirts of Lima in the immigrant communities they continue the traditions but they’re mixed with elements of urban culture. For example, they don’t play the charango, traditional drums, and flutes, but modern instruments like saxophone and electric guitar instead.
Yes, they use masks, always. In Peru, if there is a masked dance, it will always be performed with masks. It has a meaning, I don’t know what it is, but it would lose that meaning without masks.
1. Yuyachkani director Miguel Rubio describes the moment somewhat differently: “Once, in the mining encampment of Allpamina, after a performance of Puño de Cobre, while we were speaking with the miners, one worker said to us ‘compañeros, your work is very beautiful; too bad that you forgot your masks’” (Yuyachkani 1985: 9).
2. Boada spoke as a panelist in a symposium on “Theatre under Soft Dictatorships in the Americas,” at the 1997 EITALC workshop at the Bread and Puppet Theater in Vermont.
1985 Allpa Rayku: Una Experiencia de Teatro Popular. Lima: Escuelas Campesinas de la CCP (Confederación Campesina del Perú).