The Importance of Being Ernesto

Does Mario Ernesto Sanchez ever sleep? During the 1994-95 theater season, the Cuban-born producing artistic director of Teatro Avante and the International Hispanic Theatre Festival (IHTF) presented two full-length dramas and three short plays at El Carrusel Theatre in Coral Gables, as well as traveling to the Festival de Teatro de Molina in Spain with another show he directed. Additionally, he wrote, directed, and produced Matecumbe, the play that will open this year's IHTF tonight (Thursday), premiering it to 68 different schools every weekday morning over a period of three weeks in May. He organized the eighteen-day IHTF (June 1-18), which features eleven international performing arts companies, the program's educational component -- including a conference on the differences among North American Hispanic communities -- and the first ever festival foray to New York City. And in the middle of this all, until a few days ago, Sanchez was in Colombia filming a television miniseries of Joseph Conrad's Nostromo, starring Albert Finney and Claudia Cardinale. Forget whether or not this guy ever sleeps. Has he been cloned?

If Sanchez feels any anxiety about juggling so many roles, he doesn't betray it during an interview. Instead, an almost giddy satisfaction and a slight tinge of amazement mark his mood. "In a world where art and cultural events are downgraded and are at the bottom of the barrel when it comes to grants," he observes, "we deserve a pat on the back for celebrating our tenth year."

Formed in 1984 under the name Actuando en Conjunto (Acting Together), the predecessor to today's festival featured works from a consortium of local nonprofit companies presenting Spanish-language plays. In 1987 the festival came under the aegis of Sanchez's Teatro Avante, as it expanded to present Hispanic plays performed in English. Over the next three years, an artistic selection panel honed the process of eliciting quality work, with the fest growing to include first national companies and then international ones; by 1990 the IHTF had established itself as an international cultural event. Today it not only showcases prominent music, theater, and dance artists from the U.S., Latin America, and Europe, it sponsors workshops, lectures, and conferences, drawing an audience of scholars, playwrights, critics, and other performing arts professionals from around the world to Miami. And now the IHTF will make its first leap beyond the borders of our city in what Sanchez terms "a logical extension" to New York.

Olga Garay agrees. "The festival has grown tremendously in terms of artistic quality and prominence in the global field of Hispanic theater," notes the director of cultural affairs at Miami-Dade Community College's Wolfson campus, who also serves as artistic director of the Cultura del Lobo visual and performing arts series. "It's become an event people wait for in Miami, like the Film Festival or the Book Fair. Entering its second decade, it's a great time for it to expand to New York, particularly to fill in the gap left by Papp." Garay has collaborated with the IHTF since its early incarnation as Acting Together. Where Sanchez's strength lies in traditional theater, Garay's interests tend toward the newer idioms of the avant-garde, with her influence helping to diversify festival programming in recent seasons. This year, for example, Cultura del Lobo co-presents Argentine choreographer Mabel Dai Chee Chang, who will perform her dance works De los huesos de pajaro and El instante ceniza, no diamante.

The "gap left by Papp" mentioned by Garay refers to the demise of the much-lauded Festival Latino, started in 1976 by Argentine director Oscar Ciccione and Salvadoran Cecilia Vega, and sponsored by Joseph Papp and the New York Shakespeare Festival from 1984 until Papp's death in 1991. Focusing on theater that addressed current political and social issues, Festival Latino encouraged the artistic voices of Latin American immigrants and provided an annual locus for developing work in the national Hispanic theater community. While New York currently hosts such theaters as INTAR, Repertorio Espa*ol, Pregones, and the Puerto Rican Traveling Theatre, and cities such as Chicago and Los Angeles are also home to theaters promoting Hispanic culture, nothing comparable to Festival Latino has stepped in to take its place.

Sanchez took measures to fill the void, despite the fact that the IHTF is infused with an international -- as opposed to an immigrant A flavor. He selected five of the best companies that had appeared in Miami over the past nine years, then made arrangements with INTAR, on 42nd Street in Manhattan, to host a ten-day extension of IHTF, from June 22 through July 1. Companies from Argentina, Brazil, Uruguay, Peru, and Spain will play the Big Apple after opening in Miami.

Undeniably, New York exposure stands to enhance Miami's role as a center for Hispanic performing arts. Ironically, however, while playing Theater Row (the name of the stretch of 42nd Street that INTAR calls home) may bring the IHTF wider acclaim, Sanchez still hasn't tapped a major audience here at home A the English-speaking theater-going public. Despite IHTF's efforts to present bilingual productions and Hispanic plays in English, Sanchez feels English-speaking audiences have not cross-pollinated with Spanish speakers; as a result, they're missing out on appreciating the festival and Hispanic theater in general.

"In this country, language becomes a big hassle," Sanchez frankly asserts. "My audiences may go to shows at Area or New Theatre, but it doesn't work the other way around. New Theatre and Area audiences are afraid they won't understand the production if they don't understand the language. But good theater is good theater, and you don't need to understand the language to understand that."

While it's true that opera lovers may enjoy hours of theatrical spectacle without comprehending a word of Italian, German, or French, it's a bit of a stretch to expect an audience to extract much from language-based drama presented in a foreign tongue they don't understand. And while New Theatre artistic director Rafael de Acha acknowledges Sanchez as a "pioneer" and the IHTF as "something magnificent, a real asset to the community," he notes that "an ongoing concern for all of us in theater is getting audiences." Yet MDCC's Garay echoes Sanchez's sentiments. "I've had the opportunity to go to international festivals from Brazil to Granada [Spain]," she explains. "It's absolutely common for audience members who don't speak the language to see theater in other languages, and I mean Russian or Swedish, not just Spanish or English. There's a desire to see the way artists in different parts of the world function. And usually comprehensive synopses are provided."

Sanchez offers this example of how his initial optimism about audiences has turned realistic over time: "About ten years ago, I had a brilliant idea for integration. We did an ethnic theater festival -- one Jewish drama, one black, one Hispanic, all one-acts -- for three consecutive years. It didn't work. I tried presenting in Little Havana -- no Anglos or blacks would come. At the Museum of Science -- no blacks. Downtown -- no Anglos." The idea is still an inspired one, and the city, after all, has become more conscious of itself as an artistic center since that time. Would Sanchez consider trying it again? "Not without funding," he replies without hesitation.

In ten years, Sanchez has taken a local theater fest and built it into a world-class event right in our own back yard. This year's offerings include two English-language productions (Marisol, Casting), as well as music, dance, puppetry, and the cinematic festival opener, Matecumbe, all of which translate well to a variety of audiences. Theater lovers of all persuasions should take advantage and go.


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