The Japan Foundation
Performing Arts Network Japan
Alberto Ligaluppi
Mr. Alberto Ligaluppi
Director general of the municipal Buenos Aires Theater Complex
Complejo Teatral de Buenos Aires (Buenos Aires Theater Complex)
Buenos Aires Theater Complex
*1 Argentina’s military regime
A coup d’etat by the military junta in March 1976 put General Commander Jorge Rafael Videla in the presidency, marking the start of the military regime. The regime used unlawful means to suppress the opposition and it is said that some 30,000 young people (mostly between the ages of 14 and 26) were arrested, tortured and killed, never to be seen again. The regime collapsed after the loss of the Falklands War (Malvinas War) and an election in 1983 re-established a civilian government.
*2 Argentina’s economic crisis
During the era of its military regime, Argentina amassed a huge foreign debt and suffered from hyperinflation. Later, a bold new economic policy of economic liberalization was adopted and public industries including the railways, steel industry, telephone services and the water, gas and electric utilities were privatized one after another. To reign in the hyperinflation a law establishing an exchange rate of one Argentine peso to one US dollar was passed. These moves were praised by the Western economies and the IMF as fine examples of liberalization, but they also led to the collapse of the middle class, rapid growth in unemployment, deficit and increased foreign debt that worsened the economy. Finally in December of 2001 Argentina announced that it was defaulting on its foreign debt. Shortly after this failure of the economy, restrictions were placed on withdrawals of bank deposits that caused large-scale demonstrations in Buenos Aires and protest movements.
Presenter Interview
May. 6, 2012
An inside look at the surprising world of Argentine theater 
An inside look at the surprising world of Argentine theater 
The state of contemporary performing arts in Argentina is not well known outside of the country. After the collapse of Argentina’s military dictatorship in 1983, there was a gradual revival in the arts scene. As the country has overcome its economic crisis, there is now a boom in popularity of theater. National support for the arts is also being actively pursued, as evidenced by the 2011 launch of a consolidated arts market in Buenos Aires named MICA in an initiative by Argentina’s Ministry of Culture, which invited foreign buyers to see works in the five genre of music, film, design, publication and performing arts are strong evidence of the increasing national support for the arts. In this interview we spoke with the director general of the municipal Buenos Aires Theater Complex, Alberto Ligaluppi, when he was invited to Japan for the first time by the Japan Foundation to attend the international performing arts meeting TPAM in Yokohama in February.
[Interviewer: Setsu Higa]

The current performing arts scene in Argentina

Would you begin by telling us about the current state of the performing arts in Argentina today?

The theater world has never been as vibrant as it is now in Argentina, especially in the capital Buenos Aires, and among the Spanish-speaking countries we are definitely frontrunners. The theater world is truly booming. For example, in the course of one week there will be performance of some 400 plays in Buenos Aires alone. This is a rate that I believe is on par with Berlin and London. On the weekends (Thursday, Friday and Saturday) there will be three performances a night at the theaters, starting a 6:00, 9:00 and 12:00 midnight, and each of these three will be a different play. It is normal for plays to begin at midnight in Buenos Aires and there are always audience coming to see these later performances. Even in winter these midnight performances draw a full house at small theaters with seating for about 150, which is really surprising. It makes me realize how much the people love theater.
There are many large and small theaters in Buenos Aires and they can be divided largely into the large private-sector theaters for commercial productions, the public municipal, state or national theaters like our Buenos Aires Theater Complex and the independent small theaters. The large theaters in Buenos Aires are concentrated along Corrientes Avenue, known as the city’s Broadway, and around that you have a cluster of medium-sized theaters. At the public theaters are staged both large-production works of classical theater and the contemporary works of younger and middle aged playwrights, so our audience covers a broad demographic spectrum. When young directors gain a following in the small theaters, they move up to the public theaters and then the medium-sized theaters and finally to the larges theaters of Corrientes Avenue. For this reason, the public theaters function as the gateway to success for many. Also, the public theaters have the lowest ticket prices. On average it is around $20, while the independent theaters charge about $25 and the large theaters from $30 to $40.

What has caused this tremendous boom in theater? Is it economically driven?
No. The reason is more historical than economic, I believe. The military dictatorship (*1) that came to power in 1976 collapsed in 1983, after which the life began to return to the theater world. It is this shift that provided the impetus for the current boom. Argentina is a country with many Italian and German immigrants, and this fact has created a strong influence of European culture. This is of course true in theater, where we have a culture in which it is commonplace for people to go to the theater to see plays. Particularly in Buenos Aires there is a history dating back to the 1930s that saw the same popular productions running for up to three years in large theaters with a seating capacity of about 1,200. In short, there has always been a large potential audience.
However, this culture was interrupted during the era of the military regime. Then, after the return of civic government, the German culture centers in Argentina began to invite many progressive new theater figures and directors from Germany as instructors in the period from the latter half of the 1980s into the ’90s. The influence of these young German thespians was great, and they helped stimulate a flood of activity in Argentina’s theater scene. After that there was also support from France that contributed to the birth of many new works original to Argentina.

After that, Argentina experienced an economic crisis beginning in 2001 (*2). Did that interrupt the impetus in the theater scene again?
Far from interrupting it, the economic crisis actually led to a further growth in audience for the theaters. The economic situation was so bad that people didn’t want to be at home; the psychological effect seemed to make them want to go out and the result was that the theaters were always full. During the course of all this, we had the emergence of a new generation of young directors that are currently active in Europe as well as at home. It is an interesting fact that, whereas in the past the young people who went to see plays at the theater were either thespians themselves or students in the arts, but today you will also find students in economics or engineering going to the theaters for experimental works or the independent theaters and start following of the activities of the young directors they become fans of.

Argentina’s young directors

Who are some of the leading directors in Argentine theater today?

The most famous is the playwright and director Daniel Veronese. Formerly, he was the director of the puppeteers at our theater but he went independent and started directing new interpretations of Chekov plays, that made him a star right away. Then he returned to work with us on a production of a play he wrote based of Chekov’s The Seagull titled Los hijos se mueren (The sons are dead), which just recently was performed to great success in Paris. After that it toured to Spain and Chile and returned to Buenos Aires for a homecoming performance run, and it also went to Australia. Many of the Argentine directors active today have been educated in Europe, especially Germany, and that is true of Veronese as well.

Since you mention Veronese, he came to the 2008 Tokyo International Arts Festival with a production titled Oboreru Otoko (Un hombre que se ahoga [Man Drowning]).
That is a work he based on Chekov’s Three Sisters. Although he has other works as well, the most successful of Veronese’s works are his experimental re-interpretations of Chekov. Though we say experimental, it is still based on theater classics and that may be a good part of the reason they are popular.

In 2008 we also had Mariano Pensotti come to Yokohama to do a production of La Marea using Japanese actors.
Right now, Mariano is touring the USA. He is a very intelligent director. Others who are presently enjoying a boom of popularity are the female director Lola Arias. She writes original scripts based on things that she has seen and these works are popular in northern Europe. Another popular director is Romina Paula, whose production of El tiempo todo entero was well received in Paris. This play is a new interpretation of Tennessee Williams’ The Glass Menagerie. Along with Marcelo Mininno, who has just enjoyed a long run production in Buenos Aires, these playwrights and directors active today were born in the 1970s.

Do young directors like these raise the funding for their productions by themselves?
In Argentina, we have a national agency called the Argentina National Theater Association that offers grants for the projects of young thespians for the purpose of nurturing young artists. Also, in Buenos Aires there is the municipal organization ProTeatro that offers funding for them as well. As least in Buenos Aires, young playwrights and directors are fortunate to be able to receive funding from both national and municipal agencies at the same time. There are also universities in Buenos Aires where it is possible for young people to receive very good training in theater, and these courses attract students not only from around Argentina but also many foreign students from abroad, particularly from the Ibero-American countries. Among these universities, the National University of the Arts (IUNA) offers students the opportunity to learn primarily through practical experience in theater. The directors active today come mostly from these universities.

Are there any trends that particularly stand out in Argentine theater today?
The subject matter of the plays is changing. In the past several years the most frequently treated subject was the dysfunctional family, depicting situations where the family doesn’t or can’t function as a family. But, recently we are not seeing this type of play at all. Replacing this theme, we now see an increasing number of plays dealing with people in conflict with society. This is a welcome shift, I feel. Argentina is famous for its large number of psychiatrists, and for excellent research in the field. So much so, it is said the majority of outstanding psychiatrists in Spain and Latin America are from Argentina, and from that perspective, family crisis is a common occurrence and as a theme it is very Argentine. However, I think it is a very healthy thing that young people are increasingly turning their attention to societal issues.
Recently, we are also seeing new trends in stage art and costume. Due to low production budgets, the tendency was toward simple designs, but now we are seeing more 1960s Baroque type styles. Costumes used to be mainly neutral blacks and such, but recently we see more and more bright colored ’60s style costume and decoration. Stages are the product of the society, and I would that this is a shift that involves a return to origins.

What is the situation with contemporary dance in Argentina?
It is not yet as active as theater, but things are beginning to happen. In terms of contemporary dance, it is Brazil where the most activity is. Argentina is theater and Brazil is dance. Everyone goes to see theater in Argentina, even as families, but for dance there is not that kind of audience yet.

About Buenos Aires Theater Complex

Will you tell us now about your Buenos Aires Theater Complex?

It came to be called the Theater Complex in 2000. Theater Complex brings all of the municipal theaters of Buenos Aires under consolidated management with integrated programming designed to take advantage of each theater’s particular qualities. Before consolidation, each of the theaters arranged its own programs, which led to competition between the theaters, but since coming together as the Theater Complex, the works to be performed at each theater and their distinct directions as theaters is decided by the General Director and his committee, while each theater has its own Managing Director in charge of supervising the preparations for each production and stage set production, etc.
Buenos Aires Theater Complex has seven theaters, a 400-seat movie theater and a music hall used primarily for performances of experimental contemporary music. The Complex also has an adjacent art gallery. Most of these facilities are in the same 14-story building. The oldest and largest of the theaters is Teatro San Martín with a seating capacity of 1,200. The others include the Teatro Presidente Alvear, Teatro Regio, Teatro Sarmiento and Teatro de la Ribera with its two theaters. In the Complex building are also our offices and production workshops where we make everything necessary for stages, from shoes to costumes to sets. We have a staff of 1,116 people working in the Complex and they are all full employees paid by the City of Buenos Aires.
I would actually like to change our name from the Theater Complex to Teatro San Martín. Then each theater would have its own name added to San Martin, such as San Martin Teatro Libera, San Martin Teatro Sarmiento and so on. This is because Teatro San Martín has a long tradition and is recognized as a symbol of theater not only in Argentina, but throughout Latin America. But this is still a secret that I am not going to announce until April 2012.

When and in what way are your annual programs decided on?
Our annual program consists of about 35 productions and it announced in the last week of February each year. Our year starts from February. In Argentina it is so hot from December to February that our main theater season begins with the end of the summer heat in February and runs until November. There are two processes by which our performance program is chosen. One is invitations based on recommendations from our selections committee and the other is through open applications. Anyone can make a project application up until the end of April the year before. Last year we had 300 applications, and from those we selected 22 projects.

What is the composition of your committee and the standards for selecting works?
The committee is made up of theater directors and other theater professionals, journalists and actors. Our selection process involves evaluations of the submitted project plans in terms of the finished play script, the planned casting and the basic concepts behind the stage art by our specialists in each of these areas. In order to ensure democratic and honest selection, much serious discussion goes into the process of selections. Finally consideration is given to selecting works that will fit the character of our individual theaters. For example, Teatro de la Ribera with its two theaters is in a different location from our Complex building. It is in the area of the harbor and the Italian community, so we do our best to select popular works for it. On the other hand, for Teatro Sarmiento we select more experimental projects of young directors. Every year we also select a number of the so-called classical works of theater for our program to be performed at Teatro San Martín. This year these performances will include a large-scale production of Shakespeare’s Macbeth. In this way, we select works that fit the conditions and color of each of our theaters. At Teatro Sarmiento, which specializes in more experimental works, we usually get a younger audience, but last year because we had a popular actor cast in a Moliere play at one of the large theaters, we got large numbers of young people coming to see the play at a theater that usually has an older audience.

About new projects and collaborative productions

Since taking the post of director general of the Theater Complex, have you initiated any new programs or changes?

First of all I have strengthened the focus on Latin America and begun joint projects with its various countries, we have increased interaction with the directors and the audience with the aim of attracting more young people and stimulating activities aimed at them, and we restarted programs to bring international companies with overseas works to perform in Buenos Aires.

Could you tell us in some more detail about the plans you have implemented?
This year we have been very active in inviting foreign works for our program. We have productions coming from Belgium, France Spain and three from Colombia, as well as ones from Chile and Brazil. One of our new programs is a young playwright and director project. It invites young playwrights and directors from Spain and Latin America to create works in Buenos Aires together with Argentine actors and staff. First we choose a script and then choose a director. This year we chose a young female director from Brazil, and we invited a director from Colombia. They came to Buenos Aires where they cast Argentine actors and directed them. I believe this is a very stimulating experience for Argentine actors and theater staff. Also in this year’s program is project that we have been working on with the Chilean director Guillermo Calderón. It is an attempt to have young directors from around Latin America present two or three productions in Buenos Aires at the same time every year.

Are these productions jointly financed?
Yes. Particularly the young playwright and director project is one where we have their home country fund part of the projects. Last year we had a joint project with a private-sector corporation that resulted in a production of Hamlet. This year a young director uses a famous actress in a production of Jean Genet’s The Maids. The municipality’s funding is limited so we actively seek partners for joint productions like this.

Have you also worked with the Leonor Manzo, the star of the Argentine film Luisa that has shown in Japan?
Leonor is now in Spain. She is performing in the play Cordero de ojos azules (Blue-eyed Sheep) that we produced in Madrid. For the premiere in January I was also in Madrid. Leonor is one of Argentina’s greatest actresses, directors and a friend of mine. It is surprising that she has never once performed on the stage of Teatro San Martín. I wanted to have her participate as a director this time but she told me she didn’t want to direct at this time, so we had her participate as an actress.

About Alberto Ligaluppi

Would you tell us about your personal career until now?

I began my career in painting. I painted many works and a good number of them are now in museums. Then I entered directing and started my first theater festival in 1985. It was a university theater festival. Next was the Cordoba International Theater Festival. It became an important festival because we brought together the most avant-garde theater works in Latin America at the time. Then I took the position of the biennial Buenos Aires International Theater Festival. That was in 2009. It was a joint directorship with director Rubén Szuchmacher, and it was then that I was offered the post of Director General of the Theater Complex, which took me away from the festival.

Do you not direct theater anymore?
I wasn’t a very good director (laughs). Then, one day I thought there is no way that you can be a good director of an arts institution and a stage director and a painter at the same time. So, I quit all other activities to concentrate on my responsibilities with the arts and theater institutions I am involved in.

Currently you also teach at Cordoba University. What do you teach there?
I am an academic advisor in the master’s international course in arts/cultural programs. It is a course that teaches how national and regional government agencies manage their arts/culture programs and train personnel, but since I am in Buenos Aires, most of the work is done over the internet and I only meet with the students six times a year. In the past, I was living in Cordoba and it was mainly a classroom course, but now I am involved as an advisor.
Cordoba University is famous as the oldest university in Argentina, with a history of more than 400 years, and I took the position because of a proposal from the Economics Department. If it had been an offer from the Arts Department, I would have turned it down. I thought that since it was an offer that came from an environment outside the arts and culture, it would provide an opportunity to think anew about what the arts are. After the students finish their master’s course, they will be taking on positions in the management of arts and culture programs in national and regional government agencies. Some of my students from this course are already arts/culture program department heads in such agencies. The students come to study not only from around Argentina but also from South American countries like Brazil, Uruguay and Chile. Ours is a course that teaches the students the practical aspects of arts management, from how to plan arts programs and get funding to implement them and how to create arts programs and plan culture projects to how to write an application for funding and the role of corporate philanthropy and arts/culture support in Latin America, so they can put these skills to use immediately in the field.

About the relationship with Japan

What impressions have you received from Japanese theater?

Unfortunately, I have seen few stages. Information about Japanese theater doesn’t reach Argentina. But, I was very much impressed by the wonderful stages of Kazuo Ono. I was quite a passionate fan of his work and I went as far as Sao Paulo in Brazil to see him perform. At the time back in the 1980s Ono had the Butoh work La Argentina based on the story of an Argentine dancer. I was able to meet him at the theater festival in Brazil, where he was with his son. I was surprised to find him such a friendly, good-natured person. For me he had been a great artist that I held in such high esteem, so I was thrilled to be able to speak with him.
Another Japanese artist that I have invited several times to Argentina is the Germany-based director and Butoh artist Tadashi Endo. We really get so little information about Japan in Argentina, and when I was invited to come here to Japan I told the people at our Embassy that if I am being invited to Japan we should also invite someone from Japan to Argentina.

In the same way, we in Japan get very little information about Argentina.
Argentine theater is often performed in Europe and Latin America, but rather than festivals, the invitations usually come from individual theaters or public organizations, and that may be another reason that not much information gets to Japan. Yesterday I met an American participating in TPAM and I learned for the first time that an Argentine play is now touring in Oregon. Usually the productions go to the East Coast or the West Coast in the USA, but this was a case where a director like the stage and invited it to tour central regions of the country. Since we don’t get much information from Japan, I hope this [TPAM visit] provide an opportunity to begin exchanges, such as inviting Japanese directors to Argentina.

Finally, I would like to ask if there are any things you would like to do in the future in your capacity as the Director General of the Theater Complex.
There are two things. They are very big things, the first of which is to get back the kind of youth and energy the Theater Complex had back in the 1980s. The second is to make Teatro San Martín once again one of the most resolute and respected theaters in South America. These are very ambitious hopes, but they are necessary because, under the burden of its weighty history and traditions Teatro San Martín has lost much of its ability to act. In short, it has become afraid of change. In the past, Teatro San Martín was a theater with a powerful voice. However, due to factors like the retreat of liberalism in the 1990s, it became silent. Despite the fact that young people at the small theaters around us are speaking out with energy and vigor, Teatro San Martín has lost its voice. Even during the years of the military dictatorship our theater did things like inviting Pina Bausch in 1982, and Tadeusz Kantor and Kazuo Ono and some of the other most avant-garde stages of the day, and in that way remained resolute in the face of the regime. That set us apart and drew attention from other Latin American countries. I want to get back that kind of resolute and respected theater.

We will be watching with big expectations and support from Japan. Thank you very much for speaking with us today.