The bridge to Buenos Aires theater


By Harry Newman

Towards the end of the 1990s, a new generation of theater artists began to emerge in Buenos Aires. Mainly in their mid- to late-20s, these writers, directors and actors — and more commonly writer-director-actors — had come of age under democracy and had not been directly affected by the years of dictatorship that preceded it. These circumstances brought about a surge of creative activity and a previously unseen range in subject matter and styles that has made the Argentine capital one of the most vibrant theater cities in the world.

Now, plays by four of the leading figures of this new theater — Daniel Veronese, Rafael Spregelburd, Federico Leon, and Lola Arias — are being performed for the first time in New York this month at Performance Space 122. The performances are the culmination of “Buenos Aires in Translation” (BAiT), an extraordinary creative exchange between Argentinean and American artists, conceived and organized by Shoshana Polanco, a theater artist and producer originally from Buenos Aires. Developed over nearly two years, BAiT paired these writers with four young, New York-based theater directors and companies and shepherded their collaboration on the English-language premieres of the plays.

“If we brought four plays in Spanish with Argentinean casts,” Polanco said during a break opening week, “they’d be here for a week or two and then gone. And that’s it. This way, we’re building a bridge between artists of two cities [who] hopefully will work with each other again.”

For much of the time, that bridge was just Polanco. The writers agreed to participate before any directors were involved. The directors committed before there were translations. The translator committed out of love for the plays. They all simply trusted Polanco. “At the very beginning, no one knew each other,” she acknowledged. “I was the only one who everyone knew. And I didn’t know what was going to happen.”

The playwrights, who only direct their own work in Buenos Aires, were also concerned. “We were afraid,” said Lola Arias, the youngest of the group, at a meeting with the writers at P.S. 122 before dress rehearsals last week. “None of us are used to giving our plays to other people… We were like, ‘Oh, but what are they going to do, who are they?’”

The artists got to meet each other finally in May when BAiT brought the writers to New York for a week of workshops with the companies. It was a chance for the directors and actors and writers to actually work together and come a bit closer creatively, culturally, and personally. For the playwrights, most of whom had never been in New York, the experience was an eye-opener.

“I was very surprised,” said Rafael Spregelburd, who as author of 30 plays is one of the most well-known and prolific of the new Buenos Aires playwrights. “I was really very, very, very prejudiced against American theater… If it hadn’t been for this, I probably would never have come to New York and seen that there are a lot of people working in conditions we could never have imagined.”

All four plays are extremely different. Though they are all generally experimental in form and approach, the plays range from the anatomized soap opera of “Women Dreamt Horses” by Daniel Veronese to Federico Leon’s poetic meditation on mental and emotional disability (“Ex Antwone”) to Lola Arias’s post-apocalyptic vision of survival (“A Kingdom, A Country or A Wasteland in the Snow” to Rafael Spregelburd’s serio-comic riff on horror films (“Panic”).

“As a group we have few things in common, the four of us,” Spregelburd elaborated. “If people try to [look] for common lines, say, what is the new generation thinking about in Argentina, they will be totally lost.”

But that diversity is the point of BAiT and reflects the diversity of theater as it exists in Buenos Aires today. “It’s very easy to pin down and put labels on things,” Polanco added. “So, Argentina is tango and soccer — and “De La Guarda” for New Yorkers who go to the theater. I hope that theatergoers don’t come [to BAiT] with any of those expectations and come with an open mind as if they were going to any other plays.”

Meanwhile, even before these productions have closed, Polanco has started building the bridge in reverse. She’s already been collecting plays to read for NYeT, “Nueva York en Traduccion” — work by New York writers to be premiered in Spanish by companies in Buenos Aires that she hopes to get going in 2007.