Preview: Four Spanish Language Plays at the Lincoln Center Festival
In the debate over immigration, the arguments tend to reduce the immigrant reality to numbers and jobs. This myopia dehumanizes the millions of immigrants who, as people, offer more to culture than simply a body and an ability to work as a labor force. What most often gets lost in this fray is the creative and intellectual contributions immigrants make to culture. This is something curator Olga Garay hopes to bring to light with Lincoln Center Festival’s upcoming series, Four Spanish Language Plays, a showcase of theater works from four different Spanish-speaking countries that is set to start tonight at various venues around the Lincoln Center area. What distinguishes these productions is that every one will be performed in Spanish with English supertitles. (Seriously, this preview is hot shit, so read it!)
The four companies are Chile’s Compañía Teatro Cinema, Proyecto Chejov from Argentina, Mexico’s Teatro de Ciertos Habitantes, and the oldest company, Spain’s Centro Drámatico Nacional. And although these companies all come from outside the borders of the United States, their language (even with dialectic variations) is the same language that our largest immigrant population speaks every day.
In addition, Ms. Garay, who has produced Latin American cultural exchange performance for over twenty years, and has also been newly appointed as the director of the Los Angeles Department of Cultural Affairs, says the unifying element between these productions is that each is presenting theater that is “grounded in literary works from various cultures” and that are also “contemporary in nature.” Compañía Teatro Cinema’s “Gemelos” (“Twins”) is a free adaptation of Hungarian writer Agota Kristof’s novel The Notebook. “Un Hombre que se Ahoga” (“The Drowning Man”) is a free interpretation of Chekov’s “The Three Sisters” directed by Argentina’s Daniel Veronese. Patrick Barbier’s book, The World of the Castrati serves as the inspiration for Teatro de Ciertos Habitantes’ production of “De Monstruos y Prodigios: La Historia de los Castrati” (“Monsters and Prodigies: The History of the Castrati”), and “Divinas Palabras” (“Divine Words”), produced by the Centro Drámatico Nacional, was written by Ramon Maria del Valle-Inclan, who is perhaps Spain’s most revered playwright.
The challenge foreign theater seems to face is something of a cross-cultural puzzle. Opera goers universally attend works sung in languages they do not necessarily know, but in that case, music could be seen as a concurrent language that is accessible autonomously from linguistics. And in film, a genre that allows for occasional foreign-language success, the moving image can convey so much beyond what even subtitles can literally translate. But considering the recent Hollywood successes of directors Alejandro Iñárritu (Babel), Alfonso Cuarón (Children of Men) and Guillermo Del Toro (Pan’s Labyrinth), it would seem that American theater audiences might be primed to open their experience to Spanish-language works.
But there seems still to be disinterest toward foreign-language theater in English-speaking countries, says the director of Mexico’s Teatro De Ciertos Habitantes, Claudio Valdés Kuri. “English speaking countries have become lazy because of the hegemony of its language throughout the world.”
Carlos J. Alonso, Chair of Columbia University’s Department of Spanish and Portuguese, agrees that in most other countries around that world, including England and Canada, “there is an assumption that people will know more than one language.” He also sees it as a positive sign any step to move the United States away from its mono-linguistic fixation. But he thinks there is less an “active resistance” to foreign-language theater in English speaking countries, but “rather a fear of not enough public support” that leads producers to steer away from taking risks on foreign-language theater.
As Executive Producer of Brooklyn Academy of Music, a pioneer in bringing foreign-language productions to New York audiences since the 1980′s, Joseph V. Mellilo has seen through a plethora of productions in a variety of languages in what he said was BAM’s commitment to being “a global performing and cinema arts center.” Most recently, “448: Psychose,” a French adaptation of a Sarah Kane piece starring Isabel Huppert, made waves in New York’s theater community with its ultra spare use of supertitles. And back in the Next Wave Festival 2004, BAM co-produced a run of John Jesurun’s “Faust/How I Rose”, which included a single performance in Spanish without any subtitles. Mr. Melillo said of that decision, “It was important to have the experience of servicing a Spanish speaking audience.”
He also said the challenge inherent in programing foreign-language theater is to find a “universal value in both the performances of the actors and the direction of the work. In other words; if you sat in the theater without supertitles in English you would still have some understanding of the emotional, psychological and social reality on the stage.”
Ms. Garay equally upheld her belief that each of the productions in the Lincoln Center Festival are united in the quality of their theater, not just their language. “Each company is world class and has risen to the top of the collective imagination of their respective countries.”
Few would challenge the artistic impact Irish, Jewish and Italian immigrant populations (among others) have produced in all genres of American art. But today, perhaps for the first time since the early formation of the United States, there is an immigrant population that not only wants to sustain the usage of its mother tongue in common discourse, but that also wants to create and experience works of art through that language. Mr. Alonso is excited, citing the Lincoln Center series as “one of a number of things that are beginning to acknowledge the fact that Spanish is essentially a second national language,” a concept that in his mind has “not quite made it to the consciousness of the general population of this country.”
Then who is the target audience? It would seem obvious to say that Lincoln Center is banking on the thirty per cent of New Yorkers who are Spanish-speaking to turn out for the series. But the percentage of people who attend theater in any demographic is probably analogous. The hope, then, also rests in the largely cosmopolitan audience the Lincoln Center Festival attracts, says Ms. Garay. “The dynamics are different. The audiences relish opportunities to see a diverse panorama of work.”
And Ms. Garay, herself having moved with her parents to the United States from Cuba when she was eight years old, is adamant about the influence a festival like this can have on the collective attitudes toward xenophobia at large and immigration in political discourse. “I’m an immigrant, you know,” she says after acknowledging her own well regarded contributions to American culture. “Come on!”
Compañía Teatro Cinema’s “Gemelos” (“Twins”) begins tonight at the Pope Auditorium of Fordham University, West 60th Street and Columbus Avenue. Tickets are$50.
For the complete press release and details on other show times, click here.