The Japan Foundation
Performing Arts Network Japan
Cynthia Edul
Cynthia Edul

Panorama Sur Panorama Sur
Presenter Interview
Aug. 24, 2015
A breakthrough in exchange between playwrights  Connecting contemporary theater in South America 
A breakthrough in exchange between playwrights  Connecting contemporary theater in South America 
Established in Argentina in 2010, the non-profit organization Panorama Sur (Panorama South) is a platform that connects young theater professionals in their thirties primarily active on the independent small-theater scene. The organization’s co-founder and director Cynthia Edul was recently invited to Japan by the Saison Foundation’s 2015 “Residence in Morishita Studio Visiting Fellow” program for artistic exchange with Japan’s young theater directors. Born in 1979, Edul is recognized as one of the leaders of the young generation of theater artists who will play an important role in building the Latin American theater arts environment for the future. Edul spoke with us about the activities of Panorama Sur and other topics.
Interviewer: Setsu Higa

From actress to university studies, and then playwriting

Would you begin by telling us about what started you on the way toward becoming a playwright and director?
I first became involved in theater as an actor. From around the age of 13 I began attending workshops for theater actors, and for four or five years I acted professionally on stage. But, prior to acting, I had an interest in literature, so I eventually decided to study in the literature department of the University of Buenos Aires. In Argentina, the literature departments are the most difficult of all. You study continuously for seven years to get a Masters degree. So, in order to concentrate on my literature studies, I suspended my activities as a professional actor, but at night I continued training as an actor at the Ricardo Bartís’s Studio “Sportivo Teatral.”
Bartís encouraged actors to create their own stories. Rather than “acting out” roles, he encouraged actors to use improvisation to create their own lines. That gave me a connection between the two paths I was involved in, literature and theater. This coincidence made me want to study plays and playwriting. The best place to do that was the playwriting course of the Buenos Aires Performing Arts Institute where students are taught directly by Argentina’s representative playwrights. It is a course where 12 students chosen from about 100 applicants can study playwriting tuition-free for two years. There are classes two or three times a week for a total of five or six hours, and the rest of the time is spent by the students writing plays on their own. This course is recognized as a gateway to a career in playwriting, and so I entered this course after graduating from the University of Buenos Aires literature department at the age of 24.

What was the first play you wrote?
It was titled “Miami” and it won the Best Debut Work Award of the 2006 Argentina National Culture Awards. The award including funding to mount a production of the play, and when I consulted with one of my teachers in the playwriting course, Pompeyo Audivert, who is also an outstanding director, he said he liked the play and that he would direct it for me, and that resulted in its performance in 2008.

Your second play was Familia Bonsai (Bonsai Family).
Yes, but it was a play I was asked to write for a project of a company that has young playwrights write plays that have young people as the main characters. In Argentina, virtually the only children-oriented shows were those from Disney, so in order to get children interested in theater, we needed works that they could watch in real life-size productions. We needed works that were not for them to see the actors that appear on television but works on contemporary subjects that could make them feel things and think about things. Since there hadn’t been any works like that before, I agreed with that need. For me as a writer, I also thought that it would give me a chance to write more freely. The actors were young people between the age of 13 and 18 who had the dignity and self respect to take active roles in a theater production rather than just remaining passive and allowing themselves to be TV consumers. For that same company I also wrote another play titled La Excursión (The Excursion).

What was the first work that you directed yourself?
It was A dónde van los corazones rotos (Where do the broken hearts go?) that was performed in 2012. It was made possible by the annual Opera Prima program of Centro Cultural Ricardo Rojas that provides young playwrights writing alternative plays the opportunity to have their works performed. Until then I had had four of my plays performed, but I had never directed one myself, so I decided to direct my latest work. I was fortunate to have two stage actors who are famous in Argentina and personal friends that had performed in the production of my first play Miami participate in this new production I was directing for the first time for me as well.

Roots as a writer and contemporary relevance

Is there some particular source that you consider to be the origins or roots of your writing as a playwright and novelist?
I was born in 1979, when Argentina was still in the era of its military regime. My father was the owner of an apparel factory and well known in the industry for his success in starting the company himself and guiding to wealthy prominence. Growing up in a wealthy family like that, we often went abroad and I was able to absorb much of the new music and culture of the 1980s; I even had a Nintendo game set. But then, one day that whole world came crumbling down. My father had race horses and he got into gambling, and he lost his factory eventually because of it. When my father died we found out for the first time that he had a lot of debt. I was 19 at the time and my brother was in his early twenties.
In the 1990s, Argentina was in an era of new democratic liberalization and everything from the oil, communications and railways industries to general infrastructure were being privatized, and in terms of the economic trends, the virtues of consumerism were being promoted, while politically the times were uncertain. And, for our family, although we would go and stay in the luxury hotels of Miami, things were not as they seemed, because my father was gambling and losing all his assets.
My play Miami was written based on those experiences. The story is about a family that is staying in a luxurious hotel in Miami, and while the family goes shopping without a care in the world, the father is in the hotel casino losing everything he has, and over night the family’s whole world collapses. Of course, it is based in part on my personal experiences, but it is also a metaphor of what actually happened to Argentina at the time. While enveloped in the values of materialism and pursuit of consumerism, in fact the country was beginning to falter, and in 2001 there was complete financial collapse. It was very similar to what is happening to Greece now, but I think Argentina was worse. The national population’s poverty rate reached 50% and banks were shut down, and the people took to the streets in protest, beating pots and pans. At that same time my father died, and in order to try to pay off his debt we tried to sell our clothes and things, but there was no one to buy them. No one had cash, so they couldn’t consume.
To finally recover from that situation to the point where we could begin to pay off my father’s debt took ten years. Based on the experiences of those years I wrote my first novel, titled Sucesión (succession/inheritance, published in 2012). As with Miami it was a case of using the small story of a family to reflect the larger realities of the country. We were told that Argentina was a shining example of neo-liberalism that had finally joined the First World countries, we gathered foreign investment and bathed in the benefits of prosperity; then all of a sudden the foreign investment vanished and the money and everything disappeared. This way of expressing the traumatic political situation of the country through the conversations of family members is the method known as metonymy. I believe that my roots as a writer can be found in my works Miami and Sucesión, in which universal realities are expressed through personal conversations.

Transitions in Argentine theater

As the times changed from the 1980s to the ’90s, what kinds of changes took place in Argentine theater?
In the era of the military regime, all types of cultural activities were subject to censorship, and as a result, I don’t think it is an exaggeration to say that virtually nothing new was created. As for what theater people were doing during those times, they would meet in private apartments or basements, because the laws at the time forbid gatherings in public places. The playwrights and actors would gather and perform in secrecy to avoid the eyes of the authorities.
However, in 1981, before the end of the military regime, there was a big movement known as Teatro Abierto (open theater). All kinds of playwrights and actors in Buenos Aires cooperated together and began giving performances of politically oriented plays critical of the military regime at places like the Teatro Picadero. Of course, there were some arrests and the regime set fire to theaters, but the theater people didn’t give in. When the regime was ousted and democracy restored in 1983, all of the energy that had been repressed until then exploded in activity, giving birth to many new movements.
Productions of cutting-edge avant-garde performance and visual arts displays were put on at a variety of places like the El Sótano (The basement) theater and the Eisenstein Café. Ricardo Bartís and other directors, playwrights and actors set up studios and trained a new generation of actors. The light that had been kept hidden for so long suddenly began to shine again. The 1980s after the restoration of democracy was a time when a variety of new cultural and political movements took place.
In the 1990s, these movements became firmly established and led to the birth of numerous independent small theaters based on the activities of what could be described as “off-“ [like “off-Broadway”] studios. These were important places for anti-government or political resistance activities and many young people gathered there. It was just around the time when I was beginning to study theater and would go around to all kinds of studios like these. It was a time when even a girl in her teens like myself could go and experience the underground theater scene. Because my brother was studying at the studio of Bartís, I had the opportunity to go to open rehearsal performances, and that experience really changed my life. I felt like there was no going back after that.
I was just 15 when I saw the extraordinary production of Hamlet Machine (Heiner Müller) by Daniel Veronese, Emilio García Wehbi and Ana Alvarado’s company El Periférico de Objetos. Every scene surprised and excited me. I had never imagined that such expression was possible. That was the kind of experiences I had in that era.

Is today’s theater audience in Argentina made up of people that had that kind of experience? In the past, when I interviewed Alberto Ligaluppi about the Argentine theater scene, I was surprised to hear him say that there were 156 small theaters in Buenos Aires giving three performances a day and even the performances that started at midnight would all be sold out.
That is what makes Buenos Aires unique. There are some long-run shows where the same actors are performing the same play once or twice a week for as long as four years. The audience that makes this possible is made up of people that experienced the fresh rebirth of not only plays but all kinds of culture in the theaters in the 1990s. Also, in terms of the audience, the Teatro Abierto (open theater) movement of the 1980s also played a role in the creation of today’s audience. In other words, that era produced an audience for whom theater was not only entertainment but a medium that provoked serious thought in people.
I would add that the Teatro Abierto movement was the starting point, the roots of theater people I their thirties like myself. At the time, the important playwrights and directors were literally the teachers we were studying under. Because they created studios to train young actors and writers and ran the theaters where the performances were held, the next generation of theater people were nurtured. Those people who pioneered the theater scene of the day are still teaching today at our universities, putting on performances in Europe, and they continue to find the outside financing to run theater facilities.
Furthermore, I believe that other factors like the fact that entrance fees for places like museums are inexpensive, and thus allow anyone to partake in cultural events, and the solid quality of the public education system in Argentina also contribute to audience-building. Since Argentina is originally a country of immigrants, from the time of our country’s founding, public education has played an important role of helping immigrants become assimilated into the society. The existence of this public school system means that even the children from poor families have the chance to become culturally well-rounded members of the middle class.

About Panorama Sur

How did you come to start Panorama Sur?
There were two things that led us to establish the organization. One was something that was always in my mind, which was the great cultural potential of Buenos Aires. There is no other city in Latin America that has as many theaters that are so active as those in Buenos Aires. But, there is no cultural policy and the government is always looking in other directions. They pay huge amounts of money to invite foreign rock groups to Argentina, but there is almost no support for true artists in Argentina. Why doesn’t anyone recognize the potential strength of Buenos Aires as a center for the performing arts? That was the question I always had in my mind.
The second thing was that there were no places for artists to gather. In the 1960s, people like Borges and other writers and artists always gathered in the cafes of Buenos Aires. They were ideal places where artists would discuss things together and critique each other’s works, but now the artists all tended to be active separately. I though that in this condition where the artists were all separate, the arts would begin to weaken. When people are connected it leads to new dynamism, but if writers and artists don’t interact new activities do not emerge. More than anything, I personally wanted a place where I could meet with people and think about issues and discuss things together. I wanted critical reactions and input. So, I thought that if there isn’t such a place, I should make one. I decided to create what I thought would be an ideal gathering place.

From that idea, how did things actually take shape?
As I though about it, I suddenly got the idea that I should discuss the project with Alejandro Tantanian. It happened that on that day a friend had invited me to go along to see a play, and when we got there, Tantanian happened to be there. After the play, I went up to him and said that I had a project I thought he would be interested in. That began a series of discussions from which the basic framework of the project began to take shape.
It took quite some time before the overall design took shape, but I realized that first of all it was important that we create a platform where Latin American playwrights could meet and discuss each other’s works, a platform for debate and for communication. So we decided to go with the idea of creating a residence program in Buenos Aires for Latin American playwrights. In European countries that may sound commonplace, but no residence program existed in the Spanish-speaking countries at the time.
In the 2000s when Panorama Sur was founded, Latin America was in a period of change. Beginning in Brazil, where the Labor Party administration of the President “Lula” [de Silva] was born, the shift to new types of political leaders spread throughout the South America, from President Mujica in Uruguay and President Chavez in Venezuela to President Morales in Bolivia, President Bachelet in Chile and President Kirchner in Argentina.
Being such an era of change, I thought that it would be possible to start new activities that were regionally inclusive and focused on bringing out new possibilities in Latin America.

How did you get the necessary facilities and financing for the project?
The first place we took our project plans to was the Buenos Aires Latin American Art Museum. They not only became our first sponsor but also provided us with a venue. Germany’s Siemens Foundation also provided us with their longest possible support grant of three years, and the Iberian-America performing arts support organization Iberescena and Institut français and the Goethe Institute also offered us sponsorship. For venues we have the Latin American Art Museum as well as the cooperation of various small theaters and the national Teatro San Martín and others.

Would you give us an outline of the plan for the establishment of Panorama Sur?
The program takes place in Buenos Aires over a three-week period in July each year. The centerpiece of the program is the intensive course for playwrights and each year 20 playwrights are selected to come for the resident program to take part in two courses; one is what we call the Clinica de Obra (Work [play/drama] clinic) and the other is called the Desmontaje (Work analysis) course. And, while attending these course sessions the residents complete the writing of a play. The intensive course sessions are closed sessions, but we also have open free lectures and workshops that people from the general public can participate in and free performances of works from overseas.

What actually goes on in the Clinica de Obra (Work [play/drama] clinic) and the Desmontaje (Work analysis) courses?
In the work clinic course Alejandro Tantanian is the main instructor and he gives lectures about drama theory. Then, as a form of practical study, the residents write a play and everyone gives feedback on what each resident writes. Since there are 20 residents, each day we have seven of them read what they have written and get feedback on it and then rewrite parts based on the feedback, and this process is repeated through the three-week program until each resident has completed one work. This makes the course a very unique platform in which the [resident] playwrights all share in the creative process.
In the Desmontaje (Work analysis) course, we begin by having the residents read a play they plan to perform, and then it is analyzed. After that, we have them watch an actual performance of a play. After the performance the residents sit down with the playwright, the director and the actor for a four-hour interview (question and answer session). In this way, it becomes a workshop in which the residents are able to analyze the relationship between the [written] play text and what actually goes on in the stage performance of it. In other words, they explore the relationship between dramaturgy and the actual resulting stage script used in the performance.

Are the plays chosen for analysis Argentine plays?
Yes. By using plays from Argentina, we give our Argentine directors and actors to chance to interact with [residency participant] artists from other countries and get feedback from different cultures.

Who selects the 20 residents [each year] and what is the selection process like?
Since it takes time to transmit information, we begin receiving and processing applications around October of the previous year. Then we actively solicit applicants around February of the residency year and end the application process on the April 30th deadline. One requirement for applicants is that they have had at least one of their plays performed or published. They must also be no longer students but people who have actually begun their career as playwright or are in mid-career; we have no strict age limit, but as a rule the people we accept are up to the age of about 40. The most important requirement is that they be playwrights who are highly motivated and actively working to produce outstanding plays; and if we feel that they are people who will contribute actively to the discussion and debate that goes on during the residency, we are flexible regarding the person’s age.
The final selection is done by Alejandro Tantanian and myself, and in the selection process we read all of the play scripts that are submitted to us. Each year we receive about 100 applications, so that makes for a lot of reading, and we also take into consideration the person’s curriculum vitae and record of career activities, and we try to select a group of people who will be very active participants in the residency. Of course, the most critical factor of all is the quality of the plays that the applicants have written, but the amount of energy that they bring to the group to make it function well is also extremely important.

Are all 20 residents given a full [paid] invitation to the residency?
No. We send the potential participants an invitation to attend an “Intensive course for playwrights” and ask them to apply to their own national playwrights association or other government agencies for financial support for transportation to Buenos Aires and living costs during the three-week course. As recognition of Panorama Sur has spread, it has become easier for participants to get grants or scholarships to help cover the cost. The City of Buenos Aires also offers scholarships for Panorama Sur every other year, and we are now lobbying to get them every year. In Uruguay, the winner of their annual contest for playwrights are given scholarships from the Uruguay Ministry of Culture to participate as residents in Panorama Sur. Also, the Goethe Institute holds drama contest for playwrights from the entire Latin American region, and each year four to six of the contestants receive scholarships. This year, playwrights from Bolivia, Cuba and Mexico received their scholarships. There is also cooperation from Spain and other Ibero-American public organizations that helps enable most of the Panorama Sur participants to attend on scholarships.

Regarding your Panorama Sur workshops, who gives the workshops and where?
We have the directors and actors of our invited foreign stage productions give workshops at the National University of the Arts, Buenos Aires in order to give Argentine artists a chance for exchange with the foreign artists. We sometimes invite artists independently to give workshops, such as João Fiadeiro and Gerald Siegmund from Germany. Our aim is not simply to offer plays for people to see but to also provide interactive connections and networking opportunities for the artists.

Panorama Sur was held for the sixth time this year. Have you noticed any changes in the Latin American theater world as a result?
Yes, a number of interesting developments have resulted from it one after another. For example, one our 2012 participants from Bolivia who came to Panorama Sur on a scholarship is the playwright and director Eduardo Calla, who is also active as a writer. He later contacted us saying that he wanted to start a program similar to Panorama Sur in the Bolivian capital of La Paz. So, in a tie-up with Bolivia’s new theater festival, Paso Alternativo (Alternative way/route) Alejandro Tantanian and I went to La Paz last year to hold a Panorama Sur event for the first time. It was held again in 2015 and everyone has agreed to continue it on a yearly basis. Next year we plan to have cooperative events with Uruguay and Chile, and in this way the movement is gradually spreading.

How about exchanges with playwrights and actors?
The most notable development has been the establishment of an organization named Organización de Teatro Independiente (OTI) by members of our 2013 Panorama Sur residency, and they have gone on to hold a series of events in Chile, Argentina and Spain. The members of the organization cooperate to create works and give performances of them, and the participating artists are from Chile, Bolivia, Cuba, Peru, Venezuela and Argentina, etc. We have seen a director from Mexico team with a playwright from Argentina to stage performances in Mexico, and we are now seeing activities similar to Panorama Sur beginning in Spain, in Madrid and Valencia. Also, numerous Argentine playwrights have been invited to Spain to give workshops, and most of the plays that have been completed during the Panorama Sur residencies have eventually been performed.

Have there been any other types of responses?
Since we have a very faithful audience, they all look forward to what we will be doing each year, and what’s more, we are getting more and more artists interested in cooperating in our programs. What makes Panorama Sur unique is that it is an artist-centric program where everyone is working with us as fellow artists rather than as politicians or bureaucrats. Our orientation toward avant-garde works in pursuit of new aesthetics has become established, but sometimes we get responses from people who say that some works go too far in that direction. But, if we don’t take risks there won’t be progress for the future.

What developments do you see for the future?
Unlike in years past, this year Panorama Sur is being held as part of the 20th [anniversary] Buenos Aires Theater Festival. The festival has a program of about 50 invited works, so we won’t be inviting any foreign productions this time, and instead we will use our budget and venues for something that we had wanted to do until now but were not able to. That is a project to select twelve playwrights from our Panorama Sur residencies until now and have them create a new work. As for how the 12 participants will create a single work, we have proposed the method of overwriting passages from ancient writings. When you look closely at old stories written on papyrus, you will see that they are often written on top of previously written stories. In other words, a different story is written on top of another one. The concept was to create a nine-act play that has at least three acts of comedy and four acts of tragedy. We had a Playwright from Brazil write the first act, and after Tantanian and I reviewed it we chose a playwright from Bolivia to write the second act and then a playwright from Mexico write the third act, and so on. In this way, nine playwrights wrote the nine acts while working in dialogue with the parts written up to that point, and then we had the remaining three playwrights do the directing of the completed play.
The result is a highly experimental trans-Latin American play. The play is already completed and it has turned out very well. It will be performed by a group of Argentine actors at the national Teatro San Martín in Buenos Aires in October. For this reason, our 2015 Panorama Sur will be held in October instead of July as usual. It is a high-risk venture but I believe it is a project that is worthy of the challenge and will be loved for it.

This time you are here in Japan for the first time. Do you have any prospects for collaborations with Japan in the future?
In 2017, I want to have a Japan platform for Panorama Sur. I want to have Japanese playwrights participate in Panorama Sur and have fruitful exchange. It would be ideal if in the future we can have Japanese and Argentine playwrights and directors do collaborative works together. We would like to have Japanese directors do productions of Argentine plays and vice versa. However, first of all I want to prepare means for many Japanese artists to gather in Buenos Aires through invitations from various organizations such as Teatro Colón and the Museum of Latin American Art of Buenos Aires.

Have you been making actual plans?
Yes. While I'm here in Japan I have been meeting a lot of Japanese playwrights and other artists and doing interviews. Because of the time limitations I won't be able to see many actual performances, but I am watching an large number of videos of performances. After this I will be going to Echigo Tsumari, Shodoshima and Kyoto. I will be meeting with Noriyuki Kiguchi who produces The Carry-in-Project, Shiro Maeda of Gotanda-Dan, Yukio Shiba of Mamagoto, Toshiki Okada of chelfitsch and I plan to meet as many other Japanese playwrights and other artists as I can.

It sounds like we will be able to look forward to interesting new projects in 2017 like we will with this year’s coming super-experimental production.
There isn't much information about Japan available in Argentina, so the Japanese works that I am familiar with are mostly the ones that are invited to overseas festivals like the ones in Berlin and Zurich. We have things like Butoh performances in Buenos Aires but there have never been any performances of Japanese contemporary or experimental theater. So, I want to be able to introduce the Argentine audience to a wide range of examples of the contemporary Japanese theater aesthetic as I can.