At 11 o’clock on a misty night, a small crowd gathers in a semi-seedy suburban neighborhood in Bogotá. The only business in sight is an empanada joint, selling its product at 2,000 pesos apiece. The group forms in front of a rundown house, nondescript except for a bright red banner reading “XIV Festival Iberoamericano de Teatro de Bogotá.” Tonight, this abandoned home will be one of the 29 theatres presenting work in the 14th Iberoamerican Theatre Festival.
The festival takes over the city every two years. This April 4–20, theatre companies from 26 countries flocked to Bogotá to present their work for Colombian and international audiences. While the global focus is key to the event’s success, approximately half of the presenting companies come from Colombia, and of those companies, about 90 percent come from the host city itself.
“At this moment, we are living in what I call a theatrical spring. Everything is blooming,” declares Anamarta de Pizarro, who has been the festival’s executive director since 2010. She worked closely with Fanny Mikey, the festival’s founder and something of the patron saint of Colombian theatre. “When Fanny began the festival, she dreamt of a festival in a city with no tradition of performing arts,” explains de Pizarro, whose attention-getting style incorporates electric blue hair and purple lipstick to match her nail polish. “There was a lack of Colombian playwrights and Colombian drama—but now, there are a lot of young people coming out of university, and they are writing their own work.”
That work is having a strong impact. Take 28-year-old Victor Quesada, a Colombian playwright and director who had two productions in this year’s festival. (He also helped curate the event’s international offerings.) Apesta, a site-specific piece about immigration, took place in the aforementioned house, and Quesada’s Voz (Voice), a dark comedy performed in a more conventional venue, explored the ethics of killing—euthanasia, suicide, abortion, etc.
“Nobody talks about these topics, so it’s good to put them in front of the people,” says Quesada of the issues he dramatizes. “Something happens when people come to these plays, because they’re about very political topics. So, for me, it’s important to make something happen inside these people.”
But Quesada’s plays are not political in the way Colombian theatre used to be. While he and a growing cohort of young writer/directors tackle politically charged, hot-button issues, they’re not aiming to make outright partisan statements or to forge movements, as has been the tradition in some quarters in the past. “They care about the country, but in a different way,” says de Pizarro. “These young people have a very urban and direct language. They don’t have an agenda. They just look at what’s going on in the country, and they feel very sorry about some of it, and they show that in their work.”
Many of these young artists’ works are site-specific. Like Quesada, playwright/director Jorge Hugo Marín has two productions in the festival, both of which take place in houses commandeered as theatre spaces. Marín focuses on the Colombian family—his first work, Morir de Amor (Dying of Love), explores an impoverished household, and his newer play, Matando El Tiempo (Killing Time), is about the messed-up grievances of the upper class. “The family is important because it’s a reflection of what’s happening in the country,” Marín posits, with the help of translation from his producer, Wilson L. García.
Marín’s company, La Maldita Vanidad, works primarily with a tight-knit ensemble of actors, and though Marín would not call the work “devised” per se, he concedes that the actors’ input as well as the configuration of the space helps construct the narrative. He calls this process “colaboración creativo,” or creative collaboration.
The festival co-produced Matando El Tiempo, as well as Voz, with Quesada’s company Exilia2 Teatro, and Los Incontados: Un Tríptico (The Uncounted: A Tryptych) with Mapa Teatro, a more established, more politically oriented company. “We have to help the people here in Colombia,” de Pizarro says, explaining that the festival—a sprawling, city-wide affair that in past years has been able to accurately bill itself as the world’s largest theatre event—co-produces only with Colombian groups. A nonprofit organization runs the festival itself, and the event receives funding from the government, private sponsors and international organizations as well as from ticket sales. “The companies usually don’t have all the money they need to finish their work, so it’s very important for us to do this.”
There is an air of competition in the community, nevertheless, and inter-company collaboration is essentially nonexistent. Quesada and Marín both say they keep tabs on what other artists are working on, and while some Colombian actors move from company to company, the writer/directors remain exclusively within their own companies.
But that doesn’t mean there aren’t organizations creating new opportunities for young theatremakers. About 10 minutes from the Bogotá city center, Casa E boasts an innovative model for both theatremaking and audience development that is invigorating the city’s artists. The converted house (yes, another one) that Casa E inhabits contains no fewer than 10 spaces—a black box, a cabaret bar, a proscenium (in the backyard), and seven rooms for “micro-teatro.” The latter phenomenon consists of seven 15-minute plays, and every evening during the festival (or Wednesday to Saturday during non-fest times) theatregoers can grab a drink and listen to a musical act in the atrium bar space, then rotate through the micro-plays every half hour. One could see up to six short plays an evening, or just enjoy the party-like atmosphere for the night and take in a play or two. The shows are cheap—about 5,000 pesos, or $2.62, a pop—and the unintimidating entertainment venue is attracting new audiences.
“All kinds of people have come—people that we have never seen at the theatre before, people who are afraid of watching theatre,” reports Manuel Orjuela, the company’s artistic director and another artist of the playwright/director variety. “There was a time in Bogotá where going to the theatre was very intellectual, and the popular theatre was lost. Micro-theatre has reignited that desire to go to the theatre without feeling attacked.”
For the seven plays that comprise a micro-theatre evening, Casa E chooses five writers with whom they have relationships, and then take open submissions for the remaining two slots. The sets of plays focus on a common topic, and every seven weeks, the plays and the topics change, creating opportunities for emerging writers, directors and actors. And the house has a built-in networking model: the bar.
“At the bar, people will always say, ‘Oh, yeah, I have a project!’ And I ask them to write down their names for me,” Orjuela explains. “The bar is very creative in that way. People are not only drinking but also working on new projects.”
While Casa E didn’t create the micro-theatre model—the idea came to them from Spain—the company’s co-founder and co-owner Katrin Nyfeler brought her marketing savvy to the place. With a background in business, Nyfeler fell for the theatre—and, simultaneously, for one of its leading ladies, Alejandra Borrero, a famous Colombian actress who is Nyfeler’s partner in life and in business.
“There are many that are trying to do this, but they’re just trying. Some of them are buying houses like this one,” Nyfeler explains of her theatre multiplex model. “And all of our staff gets so scared, but I say, ‘Don’t get scared! It’s better for everyone if there are many people doing it.’”