Looking towards Latinamerica // Expanding our notions of how theater is made
By Julián Mesri
I have always had a close but complicated relationship with my homeland of Buenos Aires–a place I was lucky to visit almost every year during my childhood, where most of my family resides–and, recently, most of my creative inspiration. It was where I saw my first play at the age of four, right before I left for the United States. The play was an adaptation of Ubu rex by the company El periférico de objetos, led by internationally renowned director Daniel Veronese. The show was at “El parakultural” the hip place for indie theater in the ’80s and early ’90s, where my mother, Susana Cook, would often perform. Theater continued to be in my life, guest-starring as a child in my mom’s downtown theater performances at P.S. 122 and WOW Cafe. And Buenos Aires remained the place where I visited my family, felt at home, but not the place where I went and saw theater.
Over the past couple of years that has changed. I was fortunate enough to begin directing in Spanish with a Van Lier Fellowship at Repertorio Español, and the first piece I chose was by Argentine playwright Rafael Spregelburd. Rafael is one of Argentina’s premier playwrights (though he is also a director and actor with his company El patron Vasquez). I directed his play La estupidez (Stupidity), which is the fourth of a cycle of seven plays revolving around Hieronymous Bosch’s painting of the seven deadly sins. La estupidez is written for a cast of five actors that not only share five interlocking stories and 24 roles (many recurring), but also have to deal with changing those characters within scenes, and many times having two of these different scenes happening at the same time. All the action takes place in motels in Las Vegas, and deals in classic Hollywood stereotypes. Rafael’s work explodes narrative and pop culture into epic plays that are known as much for their lengthy running time (the sixth piece in the set runs over five hours) as they are for their smart humor and philosophical digressions. But Rafael Spregelburd’s work is only one example of a tremendous (and overwhelming) independent theater scene that I have been lucky enough to get to know and be a part of. I first began by shadowing courses at the UBA (University of Buenos Aires) while putting up a small reading of my play, and then this summer by being part of Panorama Sur–a gathering of latinamerican playwrights in Buenos Aires that opened my eyes up to the rest of Latinamerican theater in particular.
The main theater district is known as El abasto, which is located in the neighborhoods of Balvanera and Almagro and before was known as the Tango district, where many of the famous tangueros (such as Carlos Gardel) would spend their time. The name “abasto” comes from the abasto market which was one of the city’s main markets and is now a trendy shopping mall that has spearheaded the area’s gentrification. But the streets between Calle Corrientes and Calle Cordoba (the main avenues) are still dimly lit small two-story tenements or apartments, with broken pavement and little cafes and bars.
And if you blink you’ll miss the theaters, small and right next to those same cafes and bars. In the small 20-block or so radius that makes up the Abasto you have over 50 theaters. But 50 theaters does not equal 50 plays, since each of these theaters runs an average of three to four shows at the same time, sometimes on the same night. Because of this, Buenos Aires is considered the city with the most theaters, and by far the most theatrical performances each night.
Note that the theater I am talking about here would be called teatro independiente (independent theater), not teatro comercial (commercial theater) or teatro del estado (State theater). Commercial theater is where you find the closest thing to Broadway- or even Off-Broadway, since many productions from the United States (Circle Mirror Transformation, August Osage County, Good People) are produced alongside nudity-filled celebrity variety shows (called revistas) and revamps of old classics (Streetcar Named Desire and All my Sons).
Many of the directors for these productions have their start in the independent theater, and many in fact continue to produce shows in the independent theater–since even though commercial theater is where you get the good money, you get the reputation and the clout (and the chance to tour) from producing in independent theater. Commercial shows are considered very expensive to attend, anywhere from 120-300 pesos (or $30-$70). State theater, which we do not have here in the U.S., is based around a few state-run theaters–the Teatro San Martin, which produces classics (usually conservatively) or the great Argentine playwrights of the time; but also there are smaller state theaters, like the Sarmiento, which produce and fund newer more Independent artists.
The independent theater is based around hundreds of theaters that function more like what we would think of as “venues,” with one or two staff members that make most of the creative decisions and one or two people to run box office and/or make you a coffee or pour you a glass of wine. Theaters rarely charge artists rental (the most they ask for is “insurance,” usually a minimum of ten seats each night) and a good number of these theaters are partially subsidized by the state. In order to be subsidized, the theaters must split the box office 70/30 to the artist with no insurance fee (with the higher portion going to the artist). The artists that make work in these theaters usually fund their shows with the bare necessities, collectives or director/writers that usually pool funds to pay for rehearsal space, and use very small budgets to pay for props and sets. Show budgets rarely exceed 1,000 pesos (or roughly three-hundred dollars) and everyone works pro-bono and splits the box office (which is usually enough to grab drinks afterward). Sets are usually minimal in independent theater spaces since the venues run in repertory. Mauricio Kartun’s Salome, a production at one of the most respected independent theaters and before that the state theater, with a pretty gorgeous and intricate set had a budget of about 28,000 pesos (or $7,000).
These venues range anywhere from large cultural centers like Konex or Centro Cultural San Martin, that can be large and fancy community centers, or as small as places like “La carpintería,” which are basically refashioned shop windows and a small little room that functions as a theater. One of the more famous examples is Timbre 4, now a renowned theatre company run by Claudio Tolcachir that has performed here in the United States with Teatro Stage Fest (the company is called “timbre 4“–fourth bell–because the theater was in Claudio’s apartment, and the audience literally had to ring the fourth bell to get into the theatre). Now they’ve expanded the theatre into the former chair factory next door, and have a rotating line-up of shows and even a theater school. Every theater has its charm, and part of the challenge of staging shows, is finding a theater that’s available (most are full).
Runs can range from an average of three months to years and years. The shows usually run in rep and have one or two performances a week. A typical Saturday could have you seeing one show at 7 p.m., having dinner at the cafe adjacent to the theater (many theaters make extra money by hosting or running cafes and restaurants), seeing the 10 o’clock show, and then if you’re feeling up for it seeing a midnight showing as well (me and my friends have attempted this, it can be quite overwhelming and requires lots of cortados–small espressos with a drop of milk). Shows are developed with long rehearsal periods (three months minimum, but usually six months to a year), and are usually never longer than 60-80 minutes. Longer shows (like Rafael Spregelburd’s epics) exist, but are usually anomalies. Even more surprising, most of all of these theaters are full. That is, that there are not only over a hundred shows playing each night, but there are audiences that crave it, and that fill these seats. The people of Buenos Aires, from your taxi driver to the person next in line at the supermarket, consume theater in some way, and it is definitely a part of the city’s culture. The independent theater-going public tends to also make-learn or embrace theater. Perhaps they studied theater at the free University (education in Buenos Aires is free and open to all), or took classes with a playwright or director – you can usually find your favorite playwright or director offering classes, not too expensively.
And what does the independent theater-going public want? My friend Matias Umpierrez, an actor/writer/director who curates the theater for Centro Cultural Ricardo Rojas (allied with the University and the place where most directors make their debut), and fellow participant in Panorama Sur, has told me that rather than a good story or compelling characters, what people are looking for are new theatrical languages. Different modes of expression. Noted theater-academic Jorge Dubatti refers to it as a “density of theater”–a multi-poetics. Rather than finding one way to make theater, every time we go to the theater we want to find a new way of making it, a new way of expressing theatrical language.
To give you an example, I have had the ability to talk in depth with some of Buenos Aires’s most notable theater-makers. Mauricio Kartún, whose work is rarely done outside of Argentina, but is one of Argentina’s most important and established theater-makers, has literally created his own language for his texts. Using a conglomeration of Argentine history, national mythologies, and his own research into the origin and bastardization of words due to our immigrant heritage, he has created verbally dense, symbolic worlds that take classic pieces like Salome, for example, and transport them to the pastures and cow-slaughterhouses of the early 20th century–Buenos Aires’s gilded age.
There are some theatermakers, however, who are not as interested in text. One artist, Ciro Zorsoli, begins his process as a director by investigating all of those things that puts performance in “crisis”. His piece Estado de ira (State of Ire) came out of years of experimenting with situations that would cause the actor to panic or to leave the state of play. The idea of taking a dress rehearsal of Hedda Gabler and replacing the actress at the last minute (as is what happens in Estado de ira) came out of this process and out of an extended residency at a State theater. In Estado de ira, the audience watches giddily as an understudy, brought in to replace the star, is walked through the entirety of Hedda Gabler, using whatever props they can find, throwing her the lines she forgets, and all the problems they run into. The debutante “intern” who gets a moment to shine before being taken away, the fact that one of the actors is gravely ill, the problem when the new Hedda falls in love with one of the line readers. It’s a tremendous (and hilarious) experience that ends with a stripped down, cold, bare Hedda that actually resonates quite a lot with the exhaustion of the true heroine, albeit in a completely accidental fashion.
The newer generation is also creating work, obviously though some of the older generation complain that it is too representational. Exploring dysfunctional families in different ways, people like Maruja Bustamante explode the idea of family through poetic, athletic means. Whether it is staging Hamlet in the sweltering Argentine province of Formosa with a pool that is filled with pink Styrofoam, or creating a set that revolves around a ping pong table and utilizing pig’s masks for a piece to investigate another broken family. Some of these shows–like Paula Marull’s Vuelve (Return), for example, or Cynthia Edul’s a donde van los corazones rotos (where do the broken hearts go)–play like small episodes in the life of a family, content to explore one moment or situation, and rarely running longer than an hour. But then again there are shows like Federico Leon’s Las multitudes (The Multitudes) that utilize a cast of 120 people who run the gamut from children to elders, to tell a simple, heartfelt boy-meets-girl story. All of this is what is going on in just three weeks of theater in Buenos Aires.
This summer, I was lucky enough to be part of a program called Panorama Sur that took us to see these works and meet the artists, that functioned as a meeting of different theatre artists across the Americas, and provided an unprecedented look into how we make work.
Panorama Sur was founded by internationally-renowned Argentine theater director and playwright Alejandro Tantanian with the support of Siemens as a way of bringing together different theatrical voices from all of Latinamerica. My year, the third year of its existence, was the first time that the Goethe Institut was offering scholarships for artists abroad, creating the most diverse pool ever. This also marked the first time the United States would be represented (though I am sort of an Argentine-US hybrid). We were nineteen in total, two Argentines, a Mexican, a Chilean, a Mexican living in Chile, two Colombians, two Uruguayans, two Cubans, a Venezuelan, a Bolivian, a Bolivian living in Argentina, two Peruvians, a Spaniard, and myself. The program was led by Alejandro Tantanian and Cynthia Edul. We would meet with Alejandro three times a week in the form of a playwriting seminar, where we would bring our work (the idea was to work on a project while we were there) and listen to feedback, and comment on each other’s work. The other two days of the week were with Cynthia Edul, where we would discuss the work we were seeing and had the ability to talk with some guest theater artists (such as Ciro Zorsoli and Mauricio Kartún).
Throughout the experience we were going to shows, some of which had been brought by Panorama–including Bruno Beltrao and Richard Maxwell–as well as a flurry of shows that represented Buenos Aires’s diverse theatrical spectrum. The seminar was not a typical playwriting group. Tantanian made it very clear to us that the goal was not to tell people how to write; it was not a class, the goal was to learn how to enter into our partners’ poetics and read work from their artistic perspective, and in that way find ways to make each other’s work better. It made for a fascinating in-group relationship. We would devour theatre outside of our session, devour each other’s theater during them, and then go to the crummy 5 peso Asian buffet next door and, over a bottle of wine and chop suey, talk about the pratfalls of making work, talk about Latinamerican politics (with sometimes hilarious role-playing) and learn more about the challenges and aesthetics of each other’s theatrical worlds. I had heard so many wonderful stories that represent not just Buenos Aires theatre, but all these amazing Latinamerican theater communities, but I will restrict myself to only a few.
Luciana Lagisquet and Alejandro Gayvoronsky are two Uruguayan playwright/directors that belonged to the same playwriting group they formed back in Montevideo, led by one of Uruguay’s top young playwrights, Gabriel Calderón, and also with Luciana’s boyfriend, playwright/director/actor Santiago Sanguinetti. This group came together to write new plays and support each other’s work. They named the group Zucco after a character in one of their favorite playwright’s Bernard Marie Koltés plays They felt that forming this collective was the best way to become good playwrights–learning as well as working together. For example they would choose a playwright each week–one week Ibsen, the next Kane, the next Chekhov, the next Miller–and each would read a play by the playwright then meet over asado (barbecue) and talk about what they had learned, or what techniques they could glean. The theater scene in Montevideo is very small, and is dominated mostly by small, more conservative older audiences, because people haven’t necessarily seen the newer, younger work happening. The goal for Luciana and Alejandro is to open up a new space, or find better ways to bring in audiences. Their work is a mix of highly visceral and absurd situation-comedy with dense socio-political content. In Alejandro’s play Women that he was working on at Panaroma Sur, the lead character is the female principal of a public school under siege by the American military. He shared with us one of the character’s monologues, which talked about how she was living in the school and told to leave the window closed for fear of being raped. She doesn’t leave the window closed and carries on a long affair with one intruder–all this before being blown to pieces by the military. Alejandro’s text Men, which is the sequel to Women, follows a group of soldiers who have kidnapped the president of Uruguay and hidden him in the basement of some women’s home. The work is frenetic, violent, vulgar, and oftentimes very funny. Their goal is to create political (though not pamphlet-y) social engagements with their society, but also to entertain in the process.
My friend Eduardo Calla, from la Paz, Bolivia, has a very different experience making theater in his city, with a very small theater community and even smaller independent theater community. Although Bolivia has been reforming left and right, much of the cultural sector has not experienced those same changes, and is instead overwhelmed with a barrage of Hollywood and commercial work, while the independent theater world is restricted to almost classic work like Teatro de los Andes or Grupo Cultural Yuyachkani, who, as much as they create incredible pieces, in some way have become the sole cultural export of Bolivia. Calla does not make work in indigenous dress or using folk songs, but instead creates claustrophobic mazes of language with heightened absurd characters. The piece that he was working on in Buenos Aires was about a man trapped in a bureaucratic country trying to communicate home, but who was passed from person to person to person, not being able to communicate. The characters become other characters and other characters while the protagonist would lose himself in a maze of words. What you felt most strongly was how language was this incredible barrier to human contact, but at the same time created such a creative liberation. Calla makes work with a small company and has actors, that though they have made it big in Bolivian theater and television, continue to work with him on these pieces.
The final group I want to mention (though by no means the only interesting theater makers, I would direct you to the Panorama Sur website where you can read the bios of all the participating artists), are the two theater makers from Cuba, Agniezka Hernandez-Diaz and Alessandra Santiesteban. Agniezka helps run the international theater festival in Cuba, and Alessandra was once one of her students. Both of them are making work and struggling to make work in a city that supports the arts, but , similar to New York, chooses to support usually only a few key artists, and doesn’t really provide the resources for other artists to grow in the same fashion. So, Agniezka for example, balances raising a child, running a festival and then writing and producing her own work. As we talk about making work over lunch we all agree that in a lot of ways both Cuba and the United States represent extremes, but both end up creating repressive situations to make work. In the United States there is practically little to no governmental support for artists and high fees to produce work independently that those without trust-funds or inroads in MFA programs (which put them into thousands upon thousands of dollars in debt) are often discouraged. In Cuba, there is no graduate school debt, but instead the pressures of balancing work and the arts, and trying to do a lot with very little. Needless to say the theme of prisons enters strongly into these two amazing voices. Agniezka’s piece is set in a women’s prison, using a Foucauldian panopticon where we can see their harsh reality, their violent uprisings, their monologues about their past and their societal network of relationships. Alessandra’s piece does not take place in a prison, but each character is trapped in a situation, whether in a body cast, in a destructive relationship or in a crippling bureaucracy, the poetic language of stale TV shows, cigarettes and coffee, and endless repetitive and powerful invectives against their situations. But what makes their pieces really spectacular is how they’ve able to formulate their own poetic reflections on their situation that is at once honest, powerful and complex.
Each artist in Panorama Sur, more than a culture, or a country or a way of making work, brought out a distinct voice. None of them except for a few considered themselves solely playwrights, as in Buenos Aires, where most people are playwright/directors, pretty much everyone in the program had self-produced their work and/or had their own theater company. Only one of them had an advanced degree or MFA. All of them, however, by the end of the program had created a new work of theater (finished or un-finished). By the end I had written my first piece in Spanish, a play about Gauchos in the United States, fighting deportation and bastardizing the Spanish language with invented vocabularies and the broken up speech of those who speak English poorly – like an American lawyer who had been hired to represent them. All of this taking place in a unique place like Buenos Aires, where there truly is a unique theatrical moment happening. All of this happening with artists that rather than turn their anger and bile towards their own worlds, opened themselves up to understanding them, and in doing so found hope for the theatrical futures inherent in all of our countries; so long as we are willing to enter into this fount of collaboration and revisit models and ways of making work that may be antiquated or may just need some new forms to follow.
Julián J. Mesri is a New York based Argentinean-American director, playwright and composer. His pieces are philosophical laboratories that seek to explore contemporary problems by refracting them through a stylistic and musical lens where the audience is free to enter into a multi-faceted relationship with the work. He is proud to work with a company of actors encompassing both North and South America as well as directing and writing in both English and Spanish. He is currently an Emerging Artist of Color Fellow at New York Theatre Workshop where he is developing a large scale original work based on Gerhart Hauptmann’s The Weavers using a multicultural cast. His production of Fuenteovejuna, by Felix Lope de Vega y Carpio, opens Feb. 1 at Repertorio Español and runs through Mar. 8.