Take (more than) Five
The Argentine Production Model
The first time I met Agustina Muñoz in Buenos Aires, she just barely managed to squeeze me into her packed schedule. Apologizing for the short time she was able to meet up, she told me she was starting a very intense rehearsal process for a new play that was going up as part of a festival at the Centro Cultural Ricardo Rojas. “It's going to be really short,” she said. “We only have three months to rehearse.”
This was my introduction to the Argentine model of theatremaking on the independent circuit, in which a year of rehearsal is normal and three months is rushed. While long rehearsal periods are common across Latin America, I’m focusing on Argentina because of my familiarity with the model there. Where, in the States, many productions close seven weeks after the first read, successful shows in Buenos Aires measure their run in years. After living in Argentina for nearly a year, I have begun to wonder why we in American theatre do what we do how we do it.
I decided to write this article not as a research piece about Argentine theatre (although it is based in what I learned in Buenos Aires), but as a provocation: what should the lifespan of a play be? How much time should we get to make it, and how long could it run? What if we explode our rules about how plays are made?
Imagine having a year of rehearsal and the hope of a five-year run. Imagine meeting one to three times a week to explore a classic text, or creating a new play and having months to hone it in the rehearsal room. In Buenos Aires, it is common practice for people to start working on a show so far in advance that it's not possible to lock down a venue or a precise opening date. Time is considered a paramount necessity in the process of making a play—not just time to learn the play, but time to understand it. Rehearsals are not every day, the time between them is valued as part of the process. From rewrites to physical exploration, the work is expected to be slow and extensive. A play is not an out-of-town visitor crashing on your couch for a month, it is a housemate and a companion.
The pace doesn't pick up once performances start. On the independent circuit (think Off- and Off-Off-Broadway) shows generally play once a week, twice at most. A minimum run is usually one month, a standard run is three months. Any show with a minimal amount of success will extend, and it is common to bring a show back for a second, third, or seventh season. Because performances only happen once a week, actors are often involved in multiple projects. By chance, I would see an actress in three different shows one weekend, and then run into her at a rehearsal space the following week. If an actor gets cast in a show on Corrientes—the equivalent of Broadway—it is common practice for performance times of other projects to accommodate their schedule rather than replacing them. If an actor gets a one-off or short gig (a commercial, an international tour), the show is canceled that week. It will be back the next. It will run for six, or twelve, or thirty-seven more. Artists have lives outside of the plays they do. Whether in rehearsal and in performance, they have time to focus on other projects, on another job, on raising a family.
The time the artists spend with a play is clearly apparent on Buenos Aires stages. Performances are grounded and high-quality, no matter the level of production. Pilar Gamboa and Esteban Bigliardi's work in El tiempo todo entero (All of the Whole Time) would be stunning on Broadway or the West End, and I saw it in a converted warehouse with plastic chairs in a sketchy neighborhood. It wasn't until I'd seen thirty-odd plays that an actor made me cringe (and even then, the rest of the cast was excellent).
Even people who don't consider themselves regular theatregoers know about performances happening on the independent circuit, and successful shows generally sell out each week.
The length of the run also means that publicity functions differently. With a longer run, it is easier to get reviewers to a piece, and productions depend on word of mouth as a key part of any publicity campaign. Surprisingly, the latter works quite well. Even people who don't consider themselves regular theatregoers know about performances happening on the independent circuit, and successful shows generally sell out each week. Playwright Pedro Gundesen was taken aback when I told him that a standard run in the independent theatre in the United States is four weeks. “But the fourth weekend is just when people are starting to hear about a show!” he said. “How do you fill your houses?”
Well, often, we don't.
Of course, several economic and cultural factors allow the Argentine system to function. Production costs are generally very low. Performers often sign on to a project expecting to get paid only a portion of box office takings after the production has made its money back, thus not seeing a penny until after the show opens. Theatres will have up to three different plays performing a night, so rent is very cheap, and there is a government subsidy that often covers the cost of space. With sometimes less than an hour turnaround between shows, sets are often minimal (and usually flimsy). It is expected that a director will invest their own money in a production and chances are they will make it back. The cost of tickets is not prohibitively high, usually sitting between $8-$12, less than the cost of a cheap dinner out. Even tickets to commercial theatre are generally in the ballpark of $30.
Culturally, two main differences from the United States contribute to the success of this model: the fact that people of all ages regularly go to the theatre and the fact that people don't move. Buenos Aires is a city of nightlife, people go out and do things—take dance classes, grab a drink with friends, go to a movie, go to a concert, or go to the theatre—several nights a week. During the economic crisis of 2001, when the Argentine government defaulted on its national debt and froze the bank accounts of all citizens, people still went to the theatre. Rafael Spregelburd (a renowned writer, director, and performer), tells the story of cash-strapped audiences arriving at the theatre with vegetables to barter for tickets. For the most part, people born in Buenos Aires stay in Buenos Aires, often living in the same neighborhood for their entire life. Actors are not constantly “moving to New York” or heading off on tour; if you live in the city, you stay in the city. Thus, it is possible to have a show return year after year without replacing cast members.
Of course, the Argentine system has flaws; without the concreteness of a paycheck, a contract, or a fixed schedule, projects have a tendency to evaporate before seeing a stage (Beatriz Catani, speaking at a master class at the Museo de Arte Latinoamericano de Buenos Aires, mused about a piece that she and the cast had been rehearsing for seven years: “Maybe it will never open.”) The long rehearsal processes can be stifling instead of inspiring, and productions fall through because the group finds itself unable to work together. That said, I believe it is an interesting thought experiment to imagine living in that world for a moment: how would our work change? What could we do differently, or better?
Success as an artist in Argentine theatre is not defined by whether or not one makes one's living entirely through the theatre. A handful of people on the commercial circuit, and some with packed touring schedules in Europe, are able to support themselves through their creative work; otherwise, artists have other jobs, from teaching to marketing to production. Success is instead measured in the multi-year run of one's work, in favorable reviews and prizes garnered, and in relationships with collaborators. An artist's expected return from a project may include some economic recompense, but that is not the main rationale for making work. For Luis Biasotto, codirector of Grupo Krapp (an acclaimed performance group which has toured the United States, Europe, and Latin America), the value of an artist's time is not tied to money: “Each artist has different reasons for committing to a process, but we view our time as a form of noneconomic capital. Spending time with other artists has cultural and social value outside of the small amount we may get paid, and time spent with the work satisfies our artistic desire.” Fulfilling this desire motivates participation in the work. Time spent in exploration and development of an artist's particular piece of a play—whether as director, actor, writer, or any combination of the three—is not wasted, however small the stipend. The goal is to create a fully developed product the artist will be proud to present.
Here, even our model of making work for free is built around a schedule developed for paid work. Three weeks of rehearsal, five days of tech, four weekends of performance, How many shows have we all done this way, for free or next-to-nothing? As a performer, writer, and director, many times I have wished for more hours in the rehearsal room to explore the work instead of having to accept the first solution we find to the particular problems of a play. We do not have the money to pay ourselves by the hour, and yet we stick to a schedule built to protect wage-labor. We drive our artistic development according to a schedule focused on economic concerns that do not actually apply to our situation. If we are going to work for almost free anyway, why not take the time necessary to do our best?
As a performer, writer, and director, many times I have wished for more hours in the rehearsal room to explore the work instead of having to accept the first solution we find to the particular problems of a play.
I believe by breaking out of this system we can be more ambitious in our work, ambitious about the nuance we achieve and the depths that we plumb. With more time, how complex could our new plays be? How deeply could we explore our classic texts, and how carefully could we craft our performances? And who knows, maybe if our audiences had more time to talk about our shows, our houses might not be so empty.
Of course, it would be impossible to import the Argentine model. With rental houses set up to book by the week, trying to perform on the Argentine schedule would be difficult. It might take an audience time to get used to the idea that a performance was only happening once a week, although the success of the Neo-Futurist's Too Much Light Makes the Baby Go Blind (which originally performed once a week) suggests that if the show is worth it, people can learn. The mobility of actors in regional and countrywide hubs (Chicago, Los Angeles, New York...) does provide other constraints on the time we take to make work.
The biggest impediment to change, though, is a belief that the possibilities of the theatre we make can be exhausted in such a short period. Should a Neil Simon play warrant a year of our attention? Wouldn't you get bored rewriting that new kitchen-sink drama for eight months? Does failing to capture Mercutio's relationship with Romeo after three weeks in the rehearsal room mean we are “unprofessional”? I believe this system constrains the work we are able to do, and stunts our creativity.
So, what if? What if there were a middle ground between the chaotic, sprawling processes of Buenos Aires and our tightly scheduled productions? What if a small theatre started booking performances once a week? What if a company decided to spend a year with The Tempest? What if audiences were seeing performances rooted in long-term muscle memory instead of adrenaline? What if we accept the fact that most of us do not make enough money from theatre to reckon our time in dollars, and let that free us to claim a different way of working?