Theater as Necessity

The 29th International Hispanic Theater Festival of Miami

“Theater is a necessity, not a luxury” emerged in my mind as a theme of the twenty-ninth International Hispanic Theater Festival of Miami (HITF) presented by Teatro Avante, directed by Mario Ernesto Sánchez and dedicated to Argentina, with an educational component curated by Dr. Beatriz Rizk. The thought was echoed by Sánchez several times during the three week event, which boasts fourteen performances from six countries, of which twelve were performed in Spanish. The event is housed in six different venues, including the prestigious Adrienne Arsht Center for the Arts, and the Miami-Dade Auditorium, the Koubek Center and Teatro Prometeo (both at Miami-Dade College). Teatro Prometeo was founded by the legendary Cuban actor/director Teresa Maria Rojas, incubator of local talent such as Nilo Cruz.  

When I shared my thematic observation, Sánchez responded:

Theater is essential, necessary, in various countries such as Spain, Argentina, Chile, Colombia, and other Spanish-speaking places. Good theater is essential because, besides entertaining, it provokes emotions, explores, expands, denounces and inspires… And because it also educates, reveals humanizes, confronts  and nourishes. This kind of theater awakens sentiments that make us human.

This notes a difference between the way in which Latin American Theater and American theater are perceived and consumed within their respective hemispheres. Latin American theater, much of which is unknown in the United States, has a long and rich tradition which looks towards Europe instead of the United States for its artistic pedigree. The theater-going tradition in Latin America coexists across economic lines, meaning that theater-going is not only reserved for the middle or upper classes that can afford an expensive ticket. In places where Augusto Boal’s Theater of the Oppressed have taken roots (in Cuba, Colombia, Mexico, Peru, Brazil, for instance) street and grass-roots theater, such as that of the Mayan women’s collective, FOMMA, in Highlands Chiapas, Mexico, offer viable opportunities for communities to perform and communities to view on stage their own often-ignored experiences. Latin Americans exposed to such trends bring a wider breadth of theater-going experiences than we are used to in the U.S. Latin American theater does not terminate at some artificial geographic border; Hispanic (Spanish-language dominant) and Latina/o (English-language dominant) works are transnationally cross-fed in content, form, and affect in a south to north axis.

 

The theater-going tradition in Latin America coexists across economic lines, meaning that theater-going is not only reserved for the middle or upper classes that can afford an expensive ticket.

 

The notion that one creates work out of artistic drive can be generally understood. However, to fully apprehend the Latin American counterpart, we need to move further out into society and into the power of articulating life through shared social spaces. Theater as a space of convivio, (literally meaning “living with”)—of sharing or coexisting with one another in space and time—is a notion highlighted in the theoretical writings of Jorge Dubatti, the eminent Argentinean theater critic, and guest speaker at the HITF. As a site of convivio, echoing the notion of the Latina/o Theatre Commons’ upcoming 2014 Latina/o Encuentro (Encounter) and convening in Los Angeles, festivals like HITF are endeavors which require enormous organization, financing, and curatorial expertise. They are also places of coming together, of creating cohesion and casting a radar-like net into the pulse of the state of theater. Beatriz Rizk, organizer of the educational component and co-curator of HITF, commented:

Mario Ernesto Sánchez and I travel throughout Latin America and Spain looking at national and international events to find works we are interested in bringing to the Miami community. Not everything that is successful in other places can be so here... Miami is a multi-cultural city, where Spanish-speaking commercial theater is more prominent and well-supported than in other US Latina/o enclaves. Our audiences are used to going to the theater, which means that we not only need to offer themes with which they can identify, but also that are of high artistic value.   

The Hispanic community greatly supports Spanish-language theater in Miami—this is nationally an under-recognized fact. I saw a similar trend in Dallas during the 2013 Latino Cultural Center’s One Act Play Festival. The Spanish-language shows had as much audience support as the English-only or bilingual plays. And, while I could have easily written this essay in only Spanish (the language of the HITF), I opted for an English version as an intentional strategy to create connection between us all.

Two actors on stage
International Hispanic Theater Festival of Miami (HITF)
Photo by Angles Torres. 

The works at this year’s festival were as diverse in content and topics as one could imagine. HITF reflected a growing trend of musicals on world stages in Latin American and Asian markets (particularly in Chinese, Korean and Singaporean). This trend was marked during a terrific panel of emerging scholars at the July 2014 Association for Theater in Higher Education conference. In Miami, the Argentinean production of Calígula, The Musical (yes, that Calígula) directed by Pepe Cibrián Campoy (a major figure in Argentina’s growing musical theater scene) and composer/artistic producer Angel Mahler opened the festival. This rich commentary on the excess of absolute power was not for the morally squeamish. Calígula, The Musical’s leanings toward the mega-musical (and its potential for financial success) points to what some have identified as the only unique U.S. theatrical form: the musical.

Three actors on stage
International Hispanic Theater Festival of Miami (HITF)
Photo by Angles Torres. 

Side by side with mega musicals, the baroque seems to be making a comeback. Another musical theater piece, also from Argentina, Bromas y lamentos (Jests and Laments), written and directed by Marcelo Lombardero, showcases the 16th century transitional works from the late Renaissance period of Claudio Monteverdi and that of  17th century Venetian baroque composer, Francesco Cavalli. Unlike most musicals, this musical-opera hybrid production was set as a cabaret, with the audience seated at tables (with a complimentary bottle of Argentinean wine, courtesy of the consulate) and the performers mingled with the audience, traditional costumes replaced by contemporary street clothes, with all of the action live streamed on stage via a CCTV monitor. Supporting a growing trend of either creating musicals by Latin American theater and/or having Latin American themes in operatic or musical theater was the Fort Worth Opera April 2014 production of the life of 17th century Mexican nun, Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz, entitled With Blood, With Ink, by Daniel Crozier and Peter M. Krask.

Two actors on stage
International Hispanic Theater Festival of Miami (HITF)
Photo by Angles Torres. 

From Mexico City, Teatro de Babel’s poignant ARIZONA by Spanish author Juan Carlos Rubio, directed by the also Spanish Ignacio García creates a startling look at the Minute Men vigilance mentality of the US-Mexico border vis a vis protagonists George and Margaret. George and Margaret play a happy American couple in deliberate parallel to Fred Astaire and Debbie Reynolds in the Hollywood musical Singing in the Rain, but with a morbid, xenophobic twist. 

Two actors on stage
International Hispanic Theater Festival of Miami (HITF)
Photo by Angles Torres. 

El loco y la camisa (The Madman and the Shirt) written and directed by Nelson Valente with the Banfield Teatro Ensamble, from Lomas de Zamora, Argentina, offered commentary on the falseness of family relations and brought the house to a standing ovation. This devised parlor piece showcased the ensemble’s talents as realistic actors trapped in the madness of a dysfunctional family and its own Dostoyevsky-like, truth-telling young man.

Echoing Caligula’s commentary of the perils of absolute power, El panfleto del rey y su lacayo (The Pamphlet of the King and His Lackey) by Cuberto López, directed by Angélica Rogel of Cacumen Teatro in Mexico City provided a scathing synopsis of the struggles of power between an incumbent and an aspiring tyrant.           

Two actors on stage
International Hispanic Theater Festival of Miami (HITF)
Photo by Angles Torres. 

Other notable experiences included Teatro Prometro’s staging of Maria Irene Fornés’s The Conduct of Life directed by Joann Maria Yarrow. Teatro Prometeo incubates Spanish-language actors. The piece, like Calígula, highlighted the toxicity of absolute power—this time through the lens of women as casualties of war due to their gender susceptibility.

A highly enthusiastic audience demanded full productions of two rich comedic readings, Volvió una noche (She Returned One Night) by Eduardo Rovner, and Patricia Suárez’s, Querido San Antonio (Dear St. Anthony); both directed by Beatriz Rizk, who also teaches at Prometeo. Teatro Avante’s Difficult Years, by Argentinean Roberto Cossa and directed by Mario Ernesto Sánchez spoke to hypocrisy and discrimination in a modern grotestque style (the grotesco criollo, or creole grotesque is a unique Argentinean satirical comedic style which emerged in the early 19th century).

The educational component of the festival included talk-backs after each opening, and a two-day conference with leading scholars in the field of Latin American theater and performance. HITF’s keynote speaker was Argentina’s Pepe Cibrián, one of Argentina’s leading producer of musical theater on a grand scale and the brilliant Jorge Dubatti, the leading theater theoretician of contemporary Argentinean (and by extension Latin American) theater. The HITF also honored the legendary and pivotal Eduardo “Tato” Pavlovsky, a psychiatrist turned playwright whose works on the human psyche as it relates to cruelty span several decades.

Interested in the HITF? Read more about festival guidelines and how to participate by visiting the Teatro Avante page.

 

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