A rainbow of outrageous and worn-out costumes, bodies swinging across the streets with acrobatic movements, and the uproar of music created by the combination of voices laughing, chanting and even reproducing animal sounds—these are vivid memories of my childhood I hold onto tightly. I was born and raised in Ecuador, and even though I didn’t start doing theatre in earnest until I came to North America, throughout my childhood and youth, street theatre was one of the most accessible ways to bring audiences to appreciate and admire the power of the theatrical arts—and, I must say, a very entertaining one.
What I didn’t understand at the time was that Ecuadorian street theatre derived from the fierce physical theatre developed by the first Ecuadorian experimental theatre groups in the ’60s. These ensembles, which aimed to break away from the classical Spanish theatre that had previously dominated the culture, were once well received by Ecuadorian audiences, especially in Quito, the capital. But in recent years there has been a downward trend in the presentation of this highly theatrical work. What happened?
In the early 1960s, Ecuador went through a series of leaders who were at odds with the U.S. In 1963, when a junta seized power and suspended civil liberties, “Los Tzanticos”—a group of poets, playwrights and actors—started a theatre movement that used a “combative language” in open opposition to both the old Spanish theatre tradition and the new dictatorship. A year later, in 1964, Fabio Pacchioni arrived in Ecuador as a theatre specialist sent by UNESCO to lead an acting workshop at Casa de la Cultura Ecuatoriana. He immediately connected with “Los Tzanzicos,” and from that point on, Ecuadorian theatre became politically charged and more socially relevant.
This artistic revolt opened the space for independent theatre companies to bloom. Ecuadorian dramaturgs like José Martínez Queirolo and Ernesto Albán Gómez started writing plays with a national narrative. Multidisciplinary and collaborative works were brought to the stage of the Teatro Nacional Sucre. Companies even started collaborating with foreign theatre groups, including Colombia’s Teatro La Candelaria. Political exiles, mostly Chilean and Argentine, also joined the local theatre scene, including Aristides Vargas, founding artistic director of Quito’s influential Teatro Malayerba. Site-specific theatre became more popular, which is how, in the 1980s, family-friendly street theatre became my introduction to live performance.
But in the past few years, the National Theatre has had seasons featuring international theatre companies, with ticket prices that have made it nearly impossible for the middle class to attend performances. And while some independent companies have remained, including Teatro Malayerba, they haven’t been able to present continuous seasons given a decline in attendance.
I spoke to Victor Hugo Gallegos, former founding and artistic director of the experimental Teatro Estudio de Quito, and current artistic director of Ballet Nacional Integrado. He has observed the trends, and told me, “We have to reshape our theatre and give a bigger role to audiences in it. We need to make the audiences feel needed—make them feel that it’s their need to be part of the theatre.”
Three Ecuadorian theatre artists—César Salazar, Maria Josefina Viteri and Gabriela Ponce—are attempting to do just that. Much like their experimental forebears, these artists’ latest projects have taken theatre outside conventional spaces and into new spaces where audiences can engage more directly.
Salazar’s Parapluie Café Teatro allows audiences to have a direct interaction with performers while enjoying food and drinks, and it’s exactly what Quito was lacking—I can only think of one other smaller venue like it, but it doesn’t come with the technical facilities of Parapluie Café Teatro. The concept of a new space as fully equipped as a conventional theatre but not as formal as the established Quitenian theatres has proven attractive for audiences willing to invest their money not only in a performance but also in a pleasurable night out.
Cesar trained as an actor at Teatro Malayerba, but always felt attracted to musical theatre and wanted to explore the possibility of producing shows of Broadway quality in an intimate venue. On a visit to New York City, he saw Dave Malloy’s immersive Tolstoy adaptation, Natasha, Pierre and the Great Comet of 1812, and felt it was a perfect fit for his venue. The production last September proved to be a great success, bringing audiences hungry for new theatrical experiences into Parapluie Café Teatro.
Two other former trainees of Teatro Malayerba, María Josefina Viteri and Gabriela Ponce, are also drawing new audiences by defying convention. After respectively obtaining MFAs in acting and directing, Vitera and Ponce cofounded Colectivo Mitómana, which unites artists from different disciplines.
“What’s most challenging but is very attractive to us is collective creation—there’s always a negotiation process, a conflict, a new discovery, a new a-ha moment,” Ponce says. Adds Viteri, “I believe that collective creation allows me to become more humane: It allows me to find a neutral territory where I can play and construct things with other artists, while learning to deal with and overcome the difficulties that collaborative work entails.”
Working with visual artists and designers, Viteri and Ponce create an art installation that serves as the performance space while informing the dramaturgy of the play. Their latest site-specific project, Esas Putas Asesinas, which ran in February, is an adaptation of Roberto Bolaño’s book of stories Putas Asesinas, about the complex relationship between violence and desire. In an abandoned house in Quito, they created an installation representing the palace of the story’s female character as well as the cage of her incarcerated lover. Audiences circulated around the house as they followed the characters’ actions and narrations. This site-specific project was awarded the SECU Grant for Artistic Creation (2014), supporting Ponce’s vision of “offering audiences an experience that will oblige them to leave their comfort zone and confront a non-conventional theatrical space. They will need to become active participants and to make decisions about which actor or path to follow. It will be a different and risky experience for both the insiders and the outsiders.”
Change is coming slowly but surely to Ecuador. The efforts of these three artists to bring in new audiences is not just admirable; it’s necessary. En gustos y colores no opinan los doctores. As the Spanish proverb says, there’s no arguing with tastes. I acknowledge that my own personal artistic aesthetic leads me to attend performances that allow me to interact with the performers and take me out of my comfort zone. But it’s not just my taste, or that of these three artists or Gallegos, that leads me to say that if we want to bring new audiences into Ecuadorian theatre, we need to create theatrical experiences that break away from conventional theatre.
Like the street theatre that first entranced me as a child, today’s theatremakers are creating work in which the audience is invited, even required, to participate. As I think back to those street performances, I realize: Who else was going to help out with the noise and commotion, if not me? Who else was going to jump and dance alongside the performers, if not me? Those street theatre performances needed me—or at least, I felt I was needed. All theatre should make audiences feel that.
Salomé Egas is a dance-theatre artist born and raised in Quito, Ecuador. She now works in New York City at LFX Dancers and as a freelance translator.