Bombarding the Imagination: Argentina’s Panorama Sur 2014

The author with Natalie Driemeyer (dramaturg, Germany), Veronica Bujeiro (playwright, Mexico) and Sebastian Illera (playwright, Colombia)

The author (far right) with (from left) Natalie Driemeyer (dramaturg, Germany), Veronica Bujeiro (playwright, Mexico) and Sebastian Illera (playwright, Colombia)

Buenos Aires is Latin America’s theatre capital. Theatre permeates the city, from commercial houses on the Avenida Corrientes to the city-wide network of municipal theatres to the hundreds of independent theatres hiding behind closed doors on quiet residential streets. Even tiny indie productions get multiple press reviews, and non-artist Argentines avidly attend performances and take acting classes. But until five years ago, according to Panorama Sur co-founder Cynthia Edul, other Latin American and Spanish-speaking theatre artists lacked organized opportunities to develop their craft by immersing themselves in this artistic epicenter. “I was teaching theatre to US students who had come to Buenos Aires from NYU and the University of Georgia,” Edul told me. “I thought, where are all the Latin Americans?”

So Edul—a playwright, theatre artist, curator, and educator—teamed up with her former professor, the noted Argentine playwright Alejandro Tantanian, to create Panorama Sur: International Platform for the Performing Arts. Panorama is a Spanish-language playwrights’ workshop/performance festival/arts-based encounter with a panoramic aesthetic perspective and a broad vision for the future of theatre in Latin America. Unusually for Buenos Aires, where the municipal government is the city’s biggest arts producer, Panorama is a nonprofit enterprise that receives both public and private support.

I am a Portland, Oregon-based theatre and performance curator (I produce contemporary international theatre projects here), and, thanks to a grant from my local arts council, I was welcomed to join in as an observer for Panorama’s fifth edition in July and August 2014. I’m the second US-based Culturebot contributor to write about Panorama Sur—the first was my friend and colleague, the New York-based playwright/director Julián Mesri (whose post from 2012 can be found here). Julián and I share an affinity with Argentina that spans from the familial to the artistic.

In three short weeks, Panorama Sur created a vibrant hive of activity that included the following components. The festival:

  • Convened 20 playwrights from eight Latin American countries plus Spain for three weeks of workshops and performance immersion, bringing together emerging and established playwrights from Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil, Chile, Colombia, Costa Rica, Cuba, Mexico, Spain, and Uruguay;
  • Commissioned two new works by Argentine artists: Pruebas by playwright/director Matías Feldman and his company and Ciencia y fricción by choreographer Luis Garay;
  • Presented 6 Master Classes in which major Argentine theatre artists reflected on their own bodies of work, including seminal director and teacher Ricardo Bartís, contemporary documentary theatre artist Vivi Tellas, Grotowski-inspired regional director Aldo El-Jatib of Rosario, and many others;
  • Presented two touring productions: French-Lebanese sound artist Tarek Atoui and the multi-national dance-based piece (M)imosa, part of US choreographe r Trajal Harrel’s Twenty Looks… project;
  • And organized field trips for the visiting playwrights to attend performances of seven theatre productions in spaces around the city, in most cases welcoming their playwrights into their daytime classes for debriefing afterwards.

The nucleus of the entire project is the playwrights’ group. The playwrights spend five mornings a week in clinic, analyzing the performances they’ve just seen with Edul and receiving constructive feedback on their new works in development from their peers and from Tantanian. Almost every night, they are seeing performance or hearing artists’ reflections on their bodies of work. Whether or not they finish their plays, as Tantanian explained to me in our post-Panorama interview, Panorama uses the creative process as an activating force. The encounter’s structure is geared to add to the creative process a series of unforgettable group experiences through which indelible bonds are forged between the artists—bonds which might someday become collaborations. “We do have regional collaborations among institutions in Latin America,” Tantanian said, “but we don’t have as many among artists.” With five classes of alumni graduated as of 2014, Panorama is sowing a peer-to-peer, Spanish-language, regional artist network—something that will only expand as more playwrights participate in Panorama (and its multiple offshoots).

Beyond this closed-door nucleus, Panorama Sur also has a great deal to offer to Buenos Aires’ immense theatre audience. Tantanian reflected to me that by 2014 the festival had finally “consolidated” its public identity, establishing a space for itself within the cultural ecology of Buenos Aires. In this fifth year, Panorama Sur 2014 was understood by the press (“now they know it’s not Tantanian’s Theatre School,” he joked to me); it had been eagerly anticipated by the general public, with tickets for festival presentations selling out quickly; and it had been valued as a prestigious artistic development opportunity by artists from throughout the region, with playwright applications far outnumbering the available workshop slots. “If we didn’t do it next year,” Tantanian mused, “we’d be missed.”

From a curatorial standpoint, I was struck by the fluidity with which Panorama embraced a range of aesthetic approaches. Included under the Panorama banner were playwright-driven text-based narrative plays with an intact fourth wall (“the classical way of doing things,” Edul explained), actor- and director-driven creations, immersive experiments (I literally sat thigh to thigh next to an actor in a cramped real apartment bathroom as she peed on the toilet, for example); and non-narrative hybrid performance forms. Some of these variations are standard in Buenos Aires theatre, Tantanian reminded me: most Argentine theatre artists take on multiple roles in the same production, with the most common combination being that of playwright and director. But Panorama’s eclectic program, including postmodern dance, sound art, and other forms, expanded the palette well beyond drama. As curators, Tantanian and Edul emphasized to me that they want to provide the visiting playwrights with artistic stimulation from across the aesthetic spectrum: during their period of intense creation, Tantanian told me, “we want to bombard their imaginations.”

I was lucky to be bombarded, too. Together with a visiting German dramaturg, I sat in on some of the playwrights’ workshops and attended all the festival’s master classes and performances. I’m still savoring many memories from the performance menu, including three standout works we attended that were playing at local independent theatres:

  • Spam by Rafael Spregelburd. This “spoken opera” by one of Argentina’s leading experimental dramatists was a thrillingly audacious, two and a half hour romp through the dizzy consciousness of a man who loses his memory after happily falling for an internet spam plea. The author/performer, accompanied by his sole collaborator, a real-time sound artist, staggers through one newly mysterious context after another, skipping between what seem like randomly assorted days on a calendar. He barely remembers liquidating his cash savings and “helping” an unknown internet damsel in a far-off land. He’s selling foul-mouthed dollies on the street. He’s getting advice from a scuba driver. He’s trying to piece together what’s left of his life so he can understand why a pretty but antagonistic graduate student keeps bugging him about her thesis. Ah, yes, he’s a linguistics professor. At the post-performance interview with Panorama, Spregelburd shared his creative process with the group, observing, “It is a privilege to write for the theatre in Buenos Aires. There is always an audience for anything.” In Spam, this celebrated playwright pushed his audience to new frontiers.
  • Viejo, solo y puto (Old, Alone, and Gay [insert derogatory term here]) by Sergio Boris. Reading about this play in advance, I had no idea what to expect—a pair of brothers hanging out together in a pharmacy? The rusty old pharmacy, with its randomly stacked boxes of outdated medicines, turned out to be a painfully precise evocation of Argentina’s social and economic decay. Its rows and rows of creaky metal shelves created an impossible labyrinth (with some clever hiding places tucked in) that constantly challenged the play’s five extraordinary male actors. The play’s premise—two likeable but unsavory manly men are camping out in the back of the pharmacy in the company of two transvestite prostitutes; a seemingly less deviant real pharmacist in a legitimate white coat walks in; ultimately, he’s the most unsavory of them all—holds our rapt attention throughout this high-octane, low-action play. The many tensions and anxieties present onstage (internal, sexual, familial, professional), running on overdrive when the play begins, ratchet up painfully throughout until bacchanalia gives way to depression.
  • Fauna by Romina Paula. We took in this tonal piece by one Argentine theatre’s strongest young female voices, Romina Paula. As in most Argentine theatre, the playwright also directed. Four actors presided on a rustic set evocative of the vast Argentina pampas: a filmmaker, his actress muse, and the eccentric adult children of a late authoress known for having cross-dressed in order to legitimize herself among a group of male writers decades earlier. The filmmaker and actress need the daughter and son’s cooperation to make their film about the authoress, but the bold daughter and the quirky son challenge and upend their investigation. Attraction builds in multiple directions, and the film hasn’t been completed by the play’s end. At her visit to the Panorama playwrights’ group, Paula explained the literary inspirations embedded in the piece, including Agatha Christie and Flannery O’Connor.

Keep an eye out for these works on tour—both Spam and Fauna were European commissions and have already played on the continent, while Viejo, solo, y puto is in its fourth season in Buenos Aires.

Through these and other produced, presented, and commissioned works, I witnessed the work of prominent Argentine and international artists who are making, sharing, and touring contemporary work today. Through Panorama’s Master Classes, I heard from veteran artists with codified methodologies and practical wisdom. And, in the writers’ group, I met the next generation of Latin American playwrights—writers like Abel González Melo (Cuba, living in Spain), a published playwright whose work has been produced in the US; Camila Le-Bert (Chile), who produces a women playwrights’ festival in Chile; Adrián Pascoe (Mexican, living in Argentina), who creates documentary theatre with found objects and real-life subjects; and Paola Oña (Bolivia), who honed her craft with Bolivia’s legendary Teatro de los Andes, among many others. Theatre and performance of all generations and variations showed itself to be alive and well at Panorama Sur—and in Buenos Aires, and Latin America—thanks to the dedicated artists, visionary organizers, and support and good will that bring them together.

Playwrights’ seminar applications (in Spanish), as well as bios and artist statements of Panorama Sur 2014 participating writers, should be posted on Panorama Sur’s web site (in Spanish and in slightly more outdated English) in the next few months.

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