Buenos Aires is widely recognized by many as the theater capital of South America, and both the independent, state and commercial theaters there regularly offer a wealth of excellent plays and innovative stagings.  Theater enthusiasts will find top notch commercial productions at the theaters along Avenida Corrientes, in the heart of the city, and they will also enjoy first rate performances of both Argentine and international plays at government sponsored theaters such as the Teatro San Martín, also on Corrientes, and the Teatro Nacional Cervantes, which is just a few blocks away.  With the exception of the Teatro del Pueblo, located near the Obelisco, and the trendy alternative theaters of Palermo, those looking for high quality, thought provoking, independent theater generally have to venture out of the microcentro to some of the darker corners of the city in areas such as Boedo and Almagro, where one will find the iconic Timbre 4, El Espacio Callejón, and El Camarín de las Musas, among others.  However, I wonder how many tourists and foreign theater specialists would feel inclined to travel to some of the porteño neighborhoods that are literally off the city map… just to see a play?

Villa Urquiza is one such neighborhood, found at the end of the B subway line, and it is here that theater aficionados will find the elegant, historic Teatro 25 de Mayo, which is housed in the Complejo Cultural Cine Teatro 25 de Mayo (CC 25 de Mayo).  Also known as “El Pequeño Colón” (“The Little Colón”) because of its regal architecture, this jewel of the municipal theater consortium, nestled in a working class neighborhood originally known for tango, welcomes spectators with a stunning façade.  Once inside, visitors will find a grandiose theater that can accommodate over 500 people.  The main theater of the CC 25 de Mayo hosts world class productions representing many areas of the performing arts including dance, music, theater, and film, as well as courses and workshops related to the arts.  Just off the main lobby there is also the enchanting Sala Redonda, which offers a delightful circular space surrounded by graceful arches and lovely stained glass windows, where tango classes and a weekly milonga are held.

Monina Bonelli, director of Complejo Cultural 25 de Mayo. Photographer: Marcelo Zappoli. Photo courtesy of CC 25 de Mayo

In 2016 the Teatro 25 de Mayo welcomed new leadership when Monina Bonelli was appointed director of the CC 25 de Mayo.  Bonelli is a well-known actress, playwright, director, and producer on the independent circuit in Buenos Aires, whose recent roles include the protagonist mermaid in Luis Cano’s La sirena (The Mermaid) and Margaret Thatcher in Steven Berkoff’s Hundan el Belgrano (Sink the Belgrano).  Bonelli’s production experience includes the Teatro Bombón project, which she co-created with Cristian Scotton to offer a series of brief plays at the Casona Iluminada on Sunday afternoons.  The Casona Iluminada was a multipurpose theater space on Ave. Corrientes that Bonelli cofounded five years ago with Scotton and playwright/director Maruja Bustamante, and the Teatro Bombón program ran for three years there.  Bonelli also serves as an advisor for the Bienal de Arte Joven.

As the new director of the CC 25 de Mayo, Bonelli is already implementing plans to expand the theater space and types of programming offered.  One of her most unique initiatives so far is the new series called “El 25 va a tu casa,” which premiered in November 2016 and serves to actively engage the local residents of Villa Urquiza on the home front as it invites them to host a play at their houses; in other words, the CC 25 de Mayo is effectively bringing theater to the spectator in a collaborative approach, as the host family provides not only the stage but also invites the guest spectators for the performance. The first work featured in this series was the play Sólo llamé para decirte que te amo (I Just Called to Say I Love You), which was written and directed by Nelson Valente, and it toured the neighborhood with weekend performances at eight different houses.  Valente’s play features a female protagonist who, as head of household, supports three generations of problematic family members.  This new comedy, which plays off of the eponymous Stevie Wonder hit, is set into motion by the surprise call from the protagonist’s ex high school sweetheart who suggests that they get together.  Valente’s play was commissioned specifically for the “El 25 Va a Tu Casa” program, and the text is peppered with local references that serve to maintain a genuine focus on the surrounding neighborhood in addition to providing an undercurrent of realism for the script.

Complejo Cultural 25 de Mayo. Photographer: Laura Castro. Photo courtesy of CC 25 de Mayo

The CC 25 de Mayo launched the innovative “El 25 Va a Tu Casa” project with an open casting for actors and a public call for families to host the performances.  Eight homes were selected for the first play of the series, and the Valente play was performed at a different house each weekend over the course of two months.  The host homeowners collaborated actively in the production not only by providing the theater space, but also by recruiting the spectators through personal invitations issued to family, friends, and neighbors.  Only those invited were allowed to attend, which helped to maintain an intimate theater experience.  On the day of a given performance, the Teatro 25 de Mayo production crew arrived at the host home around noon to set the stage for the 6pm show.  Although they provided all of the technical equipment necessary for the production, they made full use of the host home facilities with respect to the furniture, rooms, architectural design, and unique “props” found in the house.  One can only begin to imagine the particular challenges of such a production arrangement.  The actors could not rehearse in advance at the various locations where they would perform the play, and the “stage” varied greatly from house to house with respect to the variety of rooms and room layout available, the assortment of props, lighting, spatial distances, and the positioning of the spectators, who were not only present on stage at arm’s length from the actors but also typically seated among the them.  The immediate proximity of the audience with respect to the dramatic action resulted in a penetrating hyperrealism throughout the play, as the public experienced every detail, gesture, facial expression, dialogue, and feature of the set up close.  In short, the spectators, now stripped of the anonymity and comfort provided by the shadows of a traditional theater setting, truly lived the play through an intense theatrical experience shared with both the actors and fellow guests.

The pilot series of the “El 25 Va a Tu Casa” initiative was a notable success, and the program received an impressive amount of press coverage both online and in major Argentine newspapers such as La Nación and Clarín.  The goals of this unique theater endeavor are many and quite admirable as well.  By bringing theater into the homes of the Villa Urquiza residents, the CC 25 de Mayo hopes to make theatre an authentic community event through increased inclusion and access to plays for the local residents.  The CC 25 de Mayo also strives to spark more local interest in theater in order to strengthen its ties with the neighborhood and increase attendance at the various cultural and academic programs offered on site at the cultural center.  Finally, through the free plays featured in “El 25 Va a Tu Casa” the CC 25 de Mayo offers a fitting tribute and token of appreciation to the Villa Urquiza residents who, through their own initiative back in 2000, petitioned the city government to purchase, renovate, and reopen their historic theater that, sadly, had fallen into a state of disrepair and was eventually closed in the early 1980’s.  The Teatro 25 de Mayo finally reopened in 2007, and the success of the residents’ efforts underscores the long standing, deep relationship that this theater has with the community.

The “El 25 de Mayo Va a Tu Casa” program will continue in 2017 on a broader scale, and this is cause for celebration.  In addition to Valente’s play, the second round of the series will feature a play by Lorena Vega that involves teenage actors, and this new work will be hosted by families with adolescent kids.  The focus on theater for youth will attract a younger audience for the programs offered at the Complejo Cultural Cine Teatro 25 de Mayo and also sow the seeds for the next generation of theater aficionados not only in Villa Urquiza, but also in the other neighborhoods around Buenos Aires where the home theater program is expected to be offered this year.

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.