By John Thomason
By Benjy Caplan
By Artburst Miami
By Carlos Suarez De Jesus
By Daniel Reskin
Big is sometimes better. For instance South Florida has become home to the largest Hispanic theater festival in the United States, which this year will host thirteen companies from seven other countries (Brazil, Chile, Dominican Republic, Ecuador, Nicaragua, Slovenia, and Spain). Almost all of the companies have been presenting theater on an international level for over ten years and are recipients of major international awards for excellence in theater.
But when it comes to culture, size and superlatives don't tell the entire story. Take Calle Ocho, the nation's largest Hispanic street fair. After trudging through a Calle Ocho littered with coconut shells and El Presidente bottles, munching on an arepa, and wrapping oneself in a Puerto Rican or Colombian flag, any self-respecting culture lover is tempted to ask, Y que? Is that all there is? Well, no. That's not all there is. Now in its seventeenth year, the International Hispanic Theatre Festival could easily be considered one of South Florida's best-kept cultural secrets, but for the fact that we are the only ones keeping it so. The rest of the world has caught on.
Only two years ago Mario Ernesto Sanchez, artistic director of Teatro Avante and of the festival, joked with New Times, "Imagine that. We're taking culture to New York." A year later Sanchez, with his small staff, modest budget, and immeasurable passion for theater, made good on his promise. Produced by Arts International in association with Teatro Avante and 42nd Street Inc., five of the companies from the 2001 Hispanic festival in Miami traveled to New York and performed for sold-out audiences.
A review of the festival landed on the front page of the arts section of the New York Times. Apparently the only complaint from the Big Apple was that they wanted more. Critics from the Times and Village Voice lamented the festival's brevity. "This is a festival that should return every year and stay longer," wrote critic D.J.R. Bruckner of the Times. He added: "It is a reminder of the deep traditions and long history of Latin American drama."
Did we need a reminder here in Miami? Evidently so. After seventeen years, Sanchez still laments the lack of participation from South Florida audiences, Anglo and Hispanic alike: "Sometimes opening night feels like I'm having a birthday party. It's my mother, my aunt, my second cousin, and so on." Never mind that the festival played to packed audiences in New York. Perhaps it's this disparity that has helped fuel Sanchez's vision to take his show on the road. His dream is to produce a festival circuit beginning in South Florida and moving on to New York, Puerto Rico, Chicago, Los Angeles, and Albuquerque. "We spend so much time, effort, and money to bring companies from so far away. It's a waste not to share this world-class theater with other cities."
In fact some of his dream cities have already jumped aboard, using the festival to enhance their own audience-development and outreach projects. This year mini-versions of the festival will extend to Los Angeles and Albuquerque. "I had heard about the festival for a few years, but when I read the reviews in the New York Times, I gave Mario Ernesto a call to see about bringing the festival to L.A.," explains Martin Kagan, managing director of the 1200-seat Ford Amphitheater in Hollywood Hills. "Mario has done an incredible job ... finding the best in international Latino theater, and it's our hope to capitalize on his knowledge and expertise," adds Kagan. In addition to L.A., Albuquerque has plans to participate annually. Sanchez has also received confirmation for next year from Atlanta and New York, with San Antonio in the works.
One of the festival's long-time objectives has been to make it accessible for old and young, Hispanic and non-Hispanic audiences alike. Unlike American theater, which is dialogue-driven and largely realist, Latin-American theater constructs its symbolism from movement, physicality, and gesture, thereby making it very comprehensible to non-Spanish speakers. To make it even easier, this year five plays will be accompanied by opera-style supertitles in English, as well as two dance companies and three works for children.
Sanchez also has chosen to bring a contemporary adaptation of Federico Garcia Lorca's La Casa de Bernarda Alba in English with Spanish supertitles. For those who find language in general an aesthetic nuisance, the Slovenian company Mladinsko Theatre, which has played all over Europe and Latin America to critical acclaim, will make its American debut at this year's festival with Silence Silence Silence, a play without speech, sound, or music that explores the possibility of silence as a method of communication when words lose their magic power.
All of this "outreach," however, could be wasted on apathetic South Floridians. No one minds "crossing over" when it comes to "Living La Vida Loca" or translating the Lebanese roots of Shakira's guttural cries and glittery gyrations. And this is not just a pop-culture phenomenon -- 40 percent of festival attendees in New York were non-Hispanic.
How can it be that we have difficulty filling the seats of the largest and most accomplished Hispanic theater festival in the nation, but we sell out in other cities? Yes, there are the theories about how beaches and sunny weather distract us from the life of the mind, but let's instead issue a challenge: South Floridians, get out of your cars, put your cell phones on mute, and trust your own eyes, ears, and heart for a few hours. Unlike IMAX, the Internet, and cellular headsets, theater is live and alive. The International Hispanic Theatre Festival will be sensual, visionary, and humorous, something those around us already know -- and we need to find out.