Mario Ernesto Sánchez is a man who wears many artistic hats: actor, director, producer, artistic director, designer, playwright, TV-and-movie bad guy. Just now, he is overseeing the 30th edition of Miami’s International Hispanic Theatre Festival, which is entering its final weekend. He’s also acting in Teatro Avante’s production of Alguna cosita que alivie el sufrir (A Little Something to Ease the Pain), René R. Alomá’s play about the conflicts within an extended Cuban family. He directed the show, too, and designed the lights.
Sánchez, 68, has forged dual career paths since founding Teatro Avante in 1979. On the one hand, he’s been a man of the theater: running his company, serving on arts panels from the local to international level, leading Miami’s festival for three decades, taking Avante productions to festivals in Europe, Central America and South America. On the other hand, he has appeared in dozens of movies and TV shows, including Miami Vice (both the movie and the series), Burn Notice, Proof of Life and The Truman Show.
His own life has had plenty of drama, too. Born in the Cuban town of San Antonio de las Vegas about an hour outside Havana, he started acting in kindergarten.
“I didn’t know if they put me in the shows because my aunt was the district school superintendent,” Sánchez said, “but my parents didn’t want me to become an actor. They didn’t want me to have what they imagined would be a life of late nights, drugs and sex.”
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When Fidel Castro and his revolution happened, life changed in myriad ways for Sánchez. At 15, he came to the United States without his family, one focused teenager among the more than 14,000 Cuban kids who were resettled under Operation Pedro Pan.
“I thought, ‘Oh, now I can become an actor, and I can smoke.’ I did both,” he said, laughing.
Relocated by the program from Miami to frosty Helena, Montana, Sánchez appeared in a high school production of The Music Man, even though he didn’t know English and didn’t sing.
“The teacher allowed me to walk across the stage while a song was going on. I was sure I’d get a Tony Award,” he said.
Returning to Miami in 1968, he auditioned for a company doing zarzuelas, got cast in the chorus (he could dance, if not sing as impressively), and that was that.
He studied theater at Florida International University, graduating with honors, and remembers that his final assignment was to direct a production of Anastasia. In the cast was a student named Andy Garcia.
“He was very disciplined,” Sánchez remembers. “He asked me, ‘How am I doing? How does a Russian walk?’ His focus set him apart from the others.”
Sánchez appeared in a string of Spanish-language versions of well-known plays, including A Streetcar Named Desire, Butterflies Are Free, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, Picnic and more. He launched Teatro Avante with a production of Bernard Slade’s Tribute in Spanish, in part because the theater that mattered to him wasn’t being done much in Miami.
“When I arrived, there was a lot of political satire and vaudeville. I had to open my own company,” he said.
All these years later, Sánchez, Teatro Avante and the International Hispanic Theatre Festival are still going strong.
If you go
What: XXX International Hispanic Theatre Festival.
When: Through July 26.
Cost: $30-$34, depending on venue ($5 per ticket discount for seniors, students, theatergoers with disabilities).
Information: 305-445-8877 or teatroavante.com; 305-949-6722 or arshtcenter.org.; 305-237-3262 or prometeotheatre.com; 305-547-5414 or miamidadecountyauditorium.org; 305-436-2916 or abactingstudio.com.
Carnival Studio Theater in the Ziff Ballet Opera House, Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Arts, 1300 Biscayne Blvd., Miami (Carnival).
On.Stage Black Box Theatre, Miami-Dade County Auditorium, 2901 W. Flagler St., Miami (On Stage).
Miami Dade College Koubek Theater, 2705 SW Third St., Miami (Koubek).
Adriana Barraza Black Box, 3100 NW 72nd Ave., Suite 127, Miami (AB Black Box).
‘Alguna cosita que alivie el sufrir’ (‘A Little Something to Ease the Pain’) by Teatro Avante of Miami; 8:30 p.m. Thursday-Saturday, 5 p.m. Sunday, Carnival (Spanish with English supertitles).
‘Príncipe Azul’ (‘Prince Charming’) by Adriana Barraza Black Box and Nobarte of Miami; 8:30 p.m. Thursday-Friday, AB Black Box (Spanish).
‘Escriba su nombre aquí’ (‘Write Your Name Here’) by Curartoymitad Teatro of Madrid, Spain; 8:30 p.m. Friday-Saturday, 5 p.m. Sunday, On Stage (Spanish with English supertitles).
‘Ex — que revienten los actores’ (‘Ex — To Hell With the Actors’) by Complot of Montevideo, Uruguay; 8:30 p.m. Friday-Saturday, 5 p.m. Sunday, Koubek (Spanish with English supertitles).