Independent theatre in Latin America is an exercise in persistence and perseverance. A discussion with artistic manager Carlos Cueva (CC) of LOT Performance from Peru, artistic manager Emilio García Wehbi (EG) of El Periférico de Objetos from Argentina, and light designer Guilherme Bonfanti (GB) of Teatro da Vertigem from Brazil, about cultural policy and the position of independent theatre in their countries, as well as the importance of artistic exchange in the region.

"Cultural exchange stretches artistic boundaries"

November 2007 -

How are things with the cultural policy in your respective countries, in particular for independent theatre?

EG: "Since the early nineties, an enormous number of independent theatrical companies have been established in Argentina. The government support given to these companies by two state institutions, on the national level by the Instituto Nacional de Teatro and in the Buenos Aires region by Proteatro, is issued without distinguishing much between the companies’ past activities or the quality of the performances. The companies are all more of the same as a result."

GB: "The situation in Brazil is chaotic – I would even say that there is no actual national cultural policy. Independent theatrical companies work in isolation as a result: there is virtually no support from the government. Oil company Petrobas [50% state owned, 50% private – ed.] has a major cultural fund that also invests in alternative culture, playing the part that should be played by the state. Alternative art also finds an audience among the middle and upper classes, which are relatively small in Latin America."

CC: "Peru has absolutely no national cultural policy, and in comparison to Brazil and Argentina it has scarcely any cultural infrastructure. Despite the economic revival Peru is enjoying, almost nothing is invested in alternative art: by either the government or the business community. People here are primarily interested in commercial hits and 'archaeological art and digs', because those attract tourists and therefore generate income."

How do independent theatrical companies respond to these political situations?

GB: "Various companies in São Paulo have set up a movement called Arte contra a Barbárie (Art against Barbarism). They collectively composed theatre legislation that was ultimately adopted. The act gives independent theatrical companies the right to collect funds for their productions twice each year via requests to the public and competitions. This stimulation act should also be adopted on the national level, but there are too many companies and not enough money. Moreover, the commercial sector wants its share too, even though it has always had enough money."

CC: "The need to take the initiative is also recognisable in the context of Peru. I have discovered that independent companies that utilise multiple disciplines create an advantage because they can respond more dynamically to current events. You also see many of these companies satisfying a social need, for example by linking their work to cultural sociological research. Nevertheless, the independent art scene in our country lacks cohesion, meaning that independent theatre is sadly still a lonely pastime in Peru."

Your theatrical companies met in 2006 at a large symposium in Peru organised by LOT Performance. Could such exchanges in the region put an end to creative isolation?

GB: "We all live in the same Latin America, our languages are related, and yet we all work in isolation. Reducing borders, bridging the language gap and collectively experiencing a creative process are doubtlessly things that should be done more often. That was what made the international dialogue during the symposium in Peru extremely inspiring."

EG: "Without a doubt, creative loneliness is what causes cultural isolation. I am convinced of the positive effect of international exchanges. It is my belief that the best artists are inspired by contact with things foreign, things new and unknown. In my case, exchanges with LOT in Peru and Eitalc in Mexico made it possible for me to enrich my theatrical work with urban interventions, theatrical machinery, performance and audiovisual arts."

CC: "Cultural exchanges do help in conquering artistic isolation and cultural indifference. After the dialogue with García at the symposium, for example, LOT was able to put prejudices about Argentina in perspective. For an independent theatrical company from a country where the cultural infrastructure is as poor as in Peru, participating in cultural exchange is also vital. Not only for artistic inspiration but also for establishing national and international credit. When you are literally operating in the periphery, it works to your advantage when you have worked with international theatrical companies."

Won't intensive exchanges of this type result in the attuned uniformity that is so characteristic of international trends?

GB: "My view of cultural exchange has nothing whatsoever to do with globalising trends or loss of identity. The actual exchange takes place in the dialogue, not in the initiatives regulated by the authorities in which rules and models are enforced."

EG: "That’s right: cultural exchanges lead to broadening artistic borders, not uniformity."

CC: "There is a true demand for international dialogue in which a variety of creative concepts and methods are reflected upon collectively. Then each of the participants goes his or her own way. What I believe is problematic is that the initiatives are often once-only events that also involve enormous economic risks. I think that we received a small contribution for our symposium from the Embassy of Brazil in Peru, but otherwise LOT had to bear all of the costs."

GB: "The real question, therefore, is: where are the money and the interest? Our governments should be much more interested. We talk about a political Mercosur, but in the area of culture little is being done, and absolutely nothing when it comes to independent theatre."

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The Power of Culture