Independent theater in Buenos Aires is currently thriving, despite a number of severe economic challenges over the past few years including double-digit inflation, currency devaluation, an astronomical increase in the cost of utilities, and a dramatic surge in the general cost of living – all of which have inevitably led to a rise in production costs, theater rental rates, and the price of show tickets. Nevertheless, many independent theaters continue to enjoy sold out performances not only for the best, most popular plays but even for works that aren’t necessarily the top recommendation of the critics. Over the past few years, it has become increasingly more difficult to get tickets for plays in Buenos Aires, and the days of running up to the ticket window at the last minute are pretty much over. Tickets for many shows must now be purchased well in advance, often online, and in some cases, one must seek out a cyber box office in the middle of the night as soon as tickets are released for sale. Most incredibly, even this strategy may prove to be unsuccessful for the plays in highest demand.
While the booming success of independent theater in Buenos Aires is undoubtedly due to the consistently excellent, high quality of the plays and respective productions, given the adverse economic circumstances mentioned above one would expect a noticeable decline in audience numbers. On the contrary, the theater-going public in this city, long considered by many to be the theater capital of Latin America, continues to grow and a genuine appreciation for the dramatic arts prevails. Although there are surely many contributing factors to explain this phenomenon, perhaps one of the most long-standing influences could be summed up in one name: Dubatti.
Jorge Dubatti is a widely recognized expert on Argentine theater whose critical studies are found regularly in top theater journals, as well as the prominent bookstores in Buenos Aires. For the past fifteen years, he has been formally training spectators through the weekly meetings of his Escuela de Espectadores de Buenos Aires (Buenos Aires Spectators School). Founded in 2001 by Dubatti, the Escuela de Espectadores is currently housed at the Centro Cultural de la Cooperación Floreal Gorini (CCC) on Ave. Corrientes, in the heart of the commercial theater district, and it runs annually from May to November. Most appropriately, the weekly sessions are held in one of the CCC theaters. Although participants pay a registration fee to the CCC, it should be noted that Dubatti hosts this program on a voluntary basis. This program has become so popular that at any given time, there are literally, hundreds of people on the waiting list! Due to such high demand, double sessions are scheduled on Monday evenings with over 150 participants at each meeting. Although one could easily perceive this endeavor as an underground, grassroots movement, given the literal subterranean location of the theater where the meetings are held, the Escuela de Espectadores is a formal program that is publicized in the CCC calendar of events.
I had the privilege of being invited to attend a session of the Escuela de Espectadores in August of this year, and I was highly impressed with both the format and quality of this innovative program, as well as the unending dedication of its founding director. The mere fact that there was so much public interest in theater was both exciting and refreshing in itself. I arrived just after 5 pm, and the session was already in progress with Dubatti on stage sharing a number of important announcements. Needless to say, it was a full house, and I ended up in the nose-bleed seats. My unrestricted viewing point, however, enabled me to observe not only the formal part of the program but also the audience. Most of the participants were either middle-aged or senior citizens, and there was a fairly even gender distribution among these two groups. I was particularly impressed with the fact that the majority of the students had notebooks and actively jotted down ideas throughout the session.
Furthermore, nearly everyone gave their undivided attention throughout the meeting, and only a few occasionally checked messages on their phones. This was a serious group of spectators! As for the formal program, after Dubatti made his announcements, he went over the weekly flyer that he prepares for the group that includes notices for upcoming premiers, book presentations, talks, and interviews, as well as his list of play recommendations for the month. Additionally, he reviewed the styles of theater represented in his suggestion list, effectively reinforcing material that had been covered in previous sessions through the analysis of other plays, theoretical models, etc. Dubatti enthusiastically engaged his students in this preliminary part of the program, and it was evident that his passion for theater was contagious. Furthermore, it was clear that his students were particularly inspired by his extensive knowledge of and experience with theater.
The more formal part of the session that I observed was quite excellent and involved professional guest speakers representing not only various aspects of theater but also current and upcoming productions. This part of the program was conducted in formats that consisted of interviews and panel discussion. There were several short segments that included a brief appearance by actor Guido Botto Fiora, who was in Lorena Romanin’s Como si pasara un tren. This play was a major hit at El Camarín de las Musas. Following Botto Fiora, Ciro Zorzoli spoke about his work as director of Gonzalo Demaría’s Tarascones which was one of the season’s hottest productions at the Teatro Nacional Cervantes. Zorzoli was joined by Marilú Marini, a well-known Argentine actress currently living in Paris who commented on her role in Santiago Loza’s Todas las canciones de amor. Loza’s play premiered later in August with great success at the Paseo la Plaza.
Jorge Dubatti’s Escuela de Espectadores offers a unique model for preparing current and future generations of theater aficionados. Although Dubatti insists that he is not there to “teach,” there is no doubt that the eclectic programs that he organizes as director, moderator, and mentor both inform and inspire the participants. In short, they provide them with the analytical tools and strategies necessary to develop a deeper understanding and appreciation of theater. The enormous success of the Escuela de Espectadores is evident in the high demand for this program in Buenos Aires, and also by the fact that similar programs based on Dubatti’s model have already been established in Mexico, Bolivia, Uruguay, Chile, Colombia, Brazil, and Spain. This remarkable initiative is a celebration of theater that, in my opinion, deserves a standing ovation.
This post was written by the author in their personal capacity.The opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not reflect the view of The Theatre Times, their staff or collaborators.