For Mario Ernesto Sánchez, this month’s International Hispanic Theatre Festival is No. 28 — and counting. A blend of idealistic Don Quixote and persuasive pragmatist, the founder of Miami’s Teatro Avante is the guy who, with the help of a small staff and myriad sponsors, makes the region’s premier Spanish-language theater festival happen each year. And despite the predictable challenges of running an international festival, he says he has no end game in mind.
“I don’t see myself retiring very soon,” Sánchez says. “We always do a utopian budget, around $500,000 [in funds and in-kind donations], then we readjust to make things come out even. We haven’t really felt the economic crash because it’s been bad all along — it’s a struggle, but it hasn’t gotten worse. I want to at least get to the 30th festival, at least to 2015.”
Sánchez’s colleague, Teatro Prometeo artistic director Joann María Yarrow, isn’t surprised at his tenacity. But she thinks his achievement and continued passion are pretty remarkable in the fast-paced, ever-evolving world of South Florida arts.
“One of the things you have to admire here is anyone who has done anything for over 20 years and continues to believe that it’s important,” she says. “The festival this year has four different venues, which is amazing. In our preliminary meetings, we told Mario Ernesto, ‘You’re insane!’ And he has also brought in musicians, an artist, a photographer, an amazing exhibition of set and costume designs. ... It’s a whole cultural experience. He doesn’t allow anyone to complain that there’s no culture in Miami.”
Beginning Thursday and running through July 28, the festival continues its recent tradition of honoring a different country each year. This year’s event shines a spotlight on the theater of Peru, though the festival’s 15 productions come from not just Peru but also Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Colombia, Mexico, Spain, Uruguay and the United States. The productions are in Spanish, though Teatro Avante and Prometeo provide English supertitles.
The opening production, José María Arguedas’ Los ríos profundos ( Deep Rivers) by the avant garde Lima-based Cuatrotablas, examines the effect of the intermixing of races in Peru. For Teatro Avante, Sánchez is directing a production of Peruvian Nobel Prize winner Mario Vargas Llosa’s Al pie del Támesis ( On the Banks of the Thames). This year’s lifetime achievement award winner, who will be honored after Thursday’s opening night performance of Los ríos profundos, is Peruvian actor, director, playwright and educator Ernesto Ráez Mendiola. Other nods to Peru are exhibitions of the photographs of Asela Torres and the paintings of José Torres Böhl, and the free screening of director Bruno Ortiz León’s film Rehenes ( Hostages), a 2010 movie about the lengthy hostage crisis and occupation of the Japanese ambassador’s residence in Lima by members of the terrorist group MRTA ( Movimiento Revolucionario Túpac Amaru).
The festival’s lineup is eclectic — many styles of theater, an adults-only play and a kid-friendly one, plus Baroque music and jazz concerts — and, says Sánchez, the program is full of award-winning productions.
“I’m very proud and happy about the program. It’s the best of the crop from each country,” he says. “The play that closes the festival, Siglo de Oro, siglo de ahora ( Golden Age, Our Age) won Spain’s equivalent of the Tony Award. The one from Argentina, Marica ( Fag), is also an award-winning show. That reaffirms our choices. Bringing 15 productions from nine countries is a lot, but when I see something good, something I think Miami should see, I try to bring it.”
Three of the visiting theater artists — Ítalo Gallardo Betancourt of Chile’s Compañía de Teatro la Laura Palmer, Nidia Telles of Uruguay’s Compañía Nidia Telles-Alejandro Martínez and Olga Margallo of Spain’s Uroc Teatro — emailed glimpses into their productions, the state of theater in their home countries and their feelings about bringing work to Miami.
Telles says that her award-winning company’s play El país de las maravillas ( Wonderland), written and directed by Omar Varela, is a play about a woman waiting for her son to return to Montevideo from school in New York. He wants to come home and stay there; she dreams of a new life in the United States. The play, laced with humor, is about immigration.
“People have the vital hope to find a better fate elsewhere,” Telles observes. “We go looking for wonderland, and it gets farther and farther [away].”
Director-playwright Betancourt, who describes theater in Chile as “traditional and conservative,” says his nontraditional festival play Juan Cristóbal, casi al llegar a Zapadores ( Juan Crist óbal, Very Close to Zapadores), is a docudrama about his two grandmothers, who were neighbors for nearly 40 years. The work flows from his multidisciplinary group’s focus on creating its own stage language, a language influenced by the power of film.
“This particular work explores a journey into the lives of these two ladies, a trip that is very representative of Chilean culture,” Betancourt notes. “In that sense, it will be interesting to see how it interacts with a completely different culture. ... Perhaps the large number of Latin American people who reside in Miami may find certain connections.”
The Uroc production La madre pasota y cosas nuestras de nosotros mismos ( The Drop-Out Mom and Our Things That Are Our Very Own) is, director Margallo says, “a crazy surreal metatheater [piece] merging the famous Dario Fo monologue La madre pasota and our reinterpretation of that same play through the prism of failure and decay. ... It’s a play about joy and optimism when you have no reason at all to be optimistic and happy. It’s really a merging of theater and life, where you cannot distinguish what’s what anymore.”
The play, co-written by and starring well-known Spanish actors Juan Margallo and Petra Martínez (the director’s parents), is one part of a move by Uroc into more international touring.
“Performing abroad is what theater is about,” Margallo says. “Connecting sensibilities from different continents is our mission.”
Yarrow of the Miami Dade College-based Prometeo, which will be celebrating its 40th anniversary in October, is co-directing her company’s festival production Cyrano mí o ( My Cyrano). Written by Iliana Prieto and Cristina Rebull, the piece is a six-actor take on Cyrano de Bergerac, told by the heroine Roxanne as a memory play and performed by the graduating members of Prometeo’s Spanish-language conservatory program. Once Yarrow’s opening-weekend play is over, the director will see as much of the festival work as she can, taking inspiration from her fellow artists.
She also knows that inspiration goes both ways.
“There’s a real buzz about what’s happening in Miami. We do Hispanic theater in a much more international way. People come with ideas and different aesthetics. We don’t do theater from the point of view of people who have assimilated,” she says.
As for Sánchez, he is gratified that the festival’s growing reputation at home has a normally last-minute audience buying more tickets in advance. The predictable problems — “human beings, airfares, hotels, sickness, egos, the technical aspects of the shows,” he says — he can handle. Besides, the aggravation fades away once the festival gets going.
“It’s very rewarding. You feel you’re doing something good that people appreciate,” Sánchez says.