On my first day at Teatro Colonial, a historic, independent theatre in the heart of Buenos Aires, I was given the grand tour: la sala, an auditorium with capacity 100 (not measured nor limited by the number of seats), la oficina, a desk with two telephones and an extremely retro-looking computer, and el vestuario, a backstage corridor with a wardrobe, a bed-turned-sofa, and various instruments required for the making of mate, Argentina’s choice brew.
I was then shown how to dar sala, or open house: I had to remove the splintering, nail-ridden planks of wood barred across the back of the doors, and place them carefully on the floor, ‘out of the way’. It was explained that this was a very important procedure, because health and safety laws are very ‘strict’ in Argentina.
The physical poverty is integral to independent theatre here. Originating from a Marxist-inspired tradition of a theatre for the people, by the people, it retains a place as a means to explore political and social problems when alternatives have been disrupted or destroyed.
The actors have no formal training and the profession is not one of particular prestige. As one of them explains, ‘Es gente que hace, no gente que piensa’ (They are people who do, not people who think). Considerably more farcical, the atmosphere both onstage and in the audience is always one of high energy, lots of noise, colour and movement. Think of the original Shakespearean theatre, with its blue-collar cast and mosh-pit style audience and you might begin to get the picture.
The plays serve as a popular, accessible means for everyday citizens to examine social problems. Roberto Cossa’s famous play La Nona (The Grandmother, 1972) still plays frequently. It works as a caricature of the archetypal Argentine family: a great deal of love, affection and conflict, set, crucially, against a background of inescapable poverty.
Compare this with the English tradition of theatre as primarily a pastime of the middle and upper classes, not just in terms of being able to afford the luxury, but of having the educational background to engage with the texts.
This idea of removing the intellectual fuss from the theatrical process is refreshingly liberating, particularly coming from a background in the world of Oxford drama, where we competitively cram excess theory into the dramatic action. Here is have a new and potentially enlightening perspective: that the main requirement for good theatre is energy and fun, leaving pretensions of ego and intellect at the stage door.