Theater / Film

Hispanic Theater Companies Converge On Miami For International Festival

Posted By Michelle F. Solomon
July 9, 2019 at 10:06 AM

When what is now the International Hispanic Theater Festival of Miami started in 1986, festival director Mario Ernesto Sánchez says it was a way for local companies to “improve and enhance Hispanic theater in the city.” The founder and producing artistic director of Teatro Avante in Little Havana had the full support of the other theaters. Plus, the Miami-Dade County Department of Cultural Affairs was onboard. The festival producers also won a grant from the Florida Department of State Division of Cultural Affairs.

“We received, I believe, $7,500,” Sánchez recalls. 

But there was one problem. “At that time, the anti-bilingual ordinance was in effect in Miami-Dade County, which meant that you could not use public funding for anything presented in a language other than English.” Voters approved the ordinance in a 1980 referendum that declared English the official language of the local government.

Sánchez and his colleagues found a way around it. “Although the plays were all in Spanish,” he says, “we used the money to advertise the festival in English.”

The festival went national in 1988 after it received a grant from the Ford Foundation. The following year, it added “international” to its moniker with monies from the Rockefeller Foundation, Sánchez says.  

Now in its 34th year, the International Hispanic Theater Festival of Miami, opening Thursday, July 11, includes seven productions selected from Argentina, Chile, Spain and the United States — Sánchez’s theater company represents the U.S. The event spans three weeks, with performances at the Adrienne Arsht Center’s Carnival Studio Theatre, Miami-Dade County Auditorium’s On.Stage Black Box Theatre and Key Biscayne Community Center.

There is no theme, Sánchez stresses. “We’ve never had one. We’re not a festival of new works or classics,” he says. “Its mission is to preserve our Hispanic culture in the United States through theater and educational programs.” 

Sánchez makes it clear that given the current political climate, with people divided over issues such as President Trump’s immigration policies, he isn’t interested in presenting a festival rife with statements. “What I want to do is get people interested in theater, and controversy won’t achieve that,” he says. 

Eusebio Calonge’s “La Extinta Poética” (“Extinct Poetics”) opens International Hispanic Theater Festival of Miami July 11 at the Arsht Center. Photo courtesy Bruno Rascao.

In its first year, however, the festival experienced some political controversy. Sánchez recalls that Miami’s New Theatre planned to present Cuban-American playwright Dolores Prida’s play “Coser y Cantar” (“To Sew and Sing”) at the Museum of Science. Outspoken Cubans living in Miami denounced the festival because of Prida’s political past. In 1978, Prida had joined more than 100 exiles who visited Cuba to open a dialogue with the government of Fidel Castro. She was reviled as “pro Castro.” So, instead of a full production, a reading of the play was held at Miami-Dade College. “There was a police presence there, and we were frisked at the door. It was all very entertaining,” Sánchez says with a laugh.

More than three decades later, he says the festival has a singular purpose: “What we are here to do is just present the best Hispanic theater from different countries who are creating great work.”

Any professional company can submit to be in the festival, Sánchez says, but he prefers to see the plays before he commits to their inclusion. He attends play and performing-arts festivals throughout the year, including the Santiago a Mil International Theater Festival in Chile and the Buenos Aires International Theatre Festival in Argentina, along with others in Mexico, Colombia and wherever he might see a good play. 

“It isn’t about selecting what I like,” he says. “It’s what I believe Miami needs and deserves to see.” 

The presentations are in Spanish, though two of the plays this year will have English supertitles. Sánchez says even non-Spanish speakers can enjoy those that are staged without translation.

He mentions the festival’s opener, Eusebio Calonge’s “La Extinta Poética” (“Extinct Poetics”), by Nueve de Nueve Teatro of Zaragoza, Spain. “It is very visual, so with a little bit of enthusiasm, interest and imagination, anyone can watch a performance in a foreign language,” he says. 

Carmen Barrantes, an actress and co-founder of Nueve de Nueve, says, “This is a play that flows through the soul, and that’s an international language.” The play’s plot has been described as “a punch to a consumerist society that needs, at the same time, pills to tranquilize as well as pills to stimulate, and drugs of television as well as unloading adrenaline with sports.” 

Sánchez says that the festival is, yes, about showing great theater, but it’s also about cultural exchange. “Everyone wants to get invited to Miami. The companies want to come here and perform,” he says. “It is an opportunity for these actors, many of whom have never been to the United States.”

Barrantes says it is an honor for her theater to be selected to open a festival that has such a “permanent tradition in Miami.” “La Extinta Poética” was discovered for the festival while being presented at MAPAS, an international performing-arts festival in the Canary Islands. 

“It was there that Mayte de la Torre, project coordinator of Centro Cultural Español de Cooperación Iberoamericana [CCEMiami], saw the play,” Barrantes says. “Since then, we have been working very hard to make this possible. It is also the first time we will be performing to audiences in the United States. We are very excited about that.”

The International Hispanic Theater Festival of Miami takes place July 11-28 at the Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Arts, Miami-Dade County Auditorium’s On.Stage Black Box Theatre and the Key Biscayne Community Center. For the festival’s lineup and ticket prices, go to TeatroAvante.org. 

Top photo: “La Extinta Poética” (“Extinct Poetics”) is from Nueve de Nueve Teatro of Zaragoza, Spain. Photo courtesy Bruno Rascao.

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