For 27 years, director and actor Mario Ernesto Sánchez has carried on a love affair with Spanish-language theater from all over the world. Each summer he invites South Florida to share his passion as he showcases companies from near and far at Miami’s International Hispanic Theatre Festival, a celebration of the playwrights, actors, directors and designers who create theater en español – and sometimes in English.
This year’s gathering, which begins Thursday with Miguel Piñero’s intense play Short Eyes from the Los Angeles-based Urban Theatre Movement, will run through July 29. After paying tribute to the theater of Spain, Colombia, Mexico and Chile during the past four festivals, Sánchez has declared this one a celebration of Latino theater in the United States. Two companies from Los Angeles, two from New York and three from Miami will present plays, along with companies from Mexico, Argentina, Ecuador and Spain. Of the U.S. troupes, just one (New York’s Zerocompañía) is doing its play in Spanish without English translation. The others are performing in English, doing bilingual work or utilizing supertitles.
It’s all part of Sánchez’s dream of spreading the love.
“This year’s festival is really inclusive,” he says. “We have productions in English, Spanish, Spanish with English supertitles, non-verbal shows. Since 1995, I’ve been wanting to attract the non-Spanish speaker.”
Still, Sanchez knows that theater lovers who don’t understand Spanish remain skittish about sampling the festival’s works. His company, Teatro Avante, will close out the festival with Gilda Santana’s adaption of Cuban playwright Virgilio Piñera’s El no ( No), in Spanish with English supertitles. Avante has been using supertitles for years, with limited success.
“People are afraid of not understanding. It’s a cultural thing. They find it very difficult to see things that are not in English,” Sánchez says. “When I travel abroad, when I go to festivals in Costa Rica, in Chile, the audiences just don’t care. They’ll go to see a play in Russian. They have full houses.”
As an evaluator for the National Endowment for the Arts, Sánchez visited theaters all over the United States and got to know the major players in Latino theater. Some companies couldn’t participate because of date conflicts or because the productions that interested Sánchez had closed, their actors already involved in other projects. He invited Urban Theatre Movement to bring Short Eyes, Piñero’s violent 1974 play about an imprisoned child molester, and asked L.A.’s Latino Theater Company to present its production of Evelina Fernández’s Solitude, a piece inspired by Octavio Paz’s The Labyrinth of Solitude , because, he says, “I like to invite things that have quality and that have been proven successful.”
Fernández and her director-husband, José Luis Valenzuela, launched their company the same year the International Hispanic Theatre Festival began. The Mexican-American actress-playwright began creating Solitude four years ago after reading Paz’s obituary. She started with a series of improvisations and experimentation by the company, then wrote monologues, then developed her script. Incorporating an onstage cellist and lots of movement, Solitude focuses on a man who left home and heritage behind to become a success. His mother’s death draws him back to reconnect with his past on a particularly significant day.