There is a line of latitude connecting Buenos Aires to Cape Town, South Africa: the 34°S. Through this parallel, the two countries exchange performing art and theatre thanks to Proyecto 34°S, the independent artistic exchange behind Theatre in Translation.
Back in 2010, Proyecto 34°S asked playwrights from both Africa and Latin America to submit their plays for a theatre contest: the winners each won a trip to the other country to present at the premier of the translated version of their plays.
Two years later, the experiment lives on thanks to an online library that showcases African and Latin-American dramas selected throughout the Theatre in Translation/Teatro en Traducción (TT) project.
An eclectic collection of 20 plays from these two continents is now available to download in both English or Spanish, to allow readers “stepping into the other worlds created by the talented, courageous, sensitive and funny writers featured here,” as it reads on the Proyecto 34°S’ website. A book featuring the top plays was also printed in few hundred copies and it is available on request.
“We are planning to premier the winning South-African play, called Luce Verde in Spanish [Green Man Flashing in English] here, next November,” explains Nikki Froneman, founder and director of Proyecto 34°S.
“In the long-term, our objective is to establish a biennial festival of African theatre in Latin America and vice versa. But this is huge. In the meantime, we decided to work with already existing festivals in Latin America, so they can start including more African content – and of course the other way round. This way, people can get used to the idea, so it would be easier from there to move forwards.”
In 2009, Nikki Froneman planted the first seeds of her ambitious project with the production the first Festival of South African Theatre in Buenos Aires.
During five days of performances from three award-winning South African theatre companies, more than 1200 people enjoyed the cross-country cultural immersion offered. The programme also included live music performances as well as the screening of a documentary.
Proyecto 34°S has an erratic character, following the nomadic life of its founder, Nikki, shuffling back and forth from Cape Town to Buenos Aires many times a year.
Last summer, Nikki brought the Argentine play Machitún to the South African National Arts fest. Directed by Argentine Javier Drucaroff and featuring choreography and performance by Cirque du Soleil acrobats, it was an outdoor spectacle with flying bouncing acrobats, ethereal dance and dream-like live electronic music.
“For our TT project, we tent to look for plays that had a very strong physical theatre component, so that it wasn’t very text based and people could understand it better. Even though we worked with text-based plays as well,” Nikki explains.
Plays, however, are not the only cultural product exchanged across the 34°S parallel.
“We are making sure that the wider community gets also involved in what we do. We work basically in replicating the format with local structures of the production, so it can stay in the country for much longer period, in order to exchange not only theatre but everything that could come out of that.”
This philosophy indeed reflects the short-term goal of Proyecto 34°S and its spin-off, the TT project: to get the plays off the page – in new languages, new places, with new casts – and new audiences watching, enjoying, absorbing and, most of all, thinking.
It comes easy to Nikki to explain why African theatre might be relevant, or at least thought provoking, for an Argentine audience too.
“Here in Argentina, people are not so much struggling with the big questions: ‘who/what/where/when are we?’ Everyone seems to be very clear about relationships between different groups of the society,” she points out.
“On the other hand, South African theatre is still quite concrete when talking about drama and real life issue. Where Argentine drama is on a more experiential level, more intellectual perhaps, in South Africa a lot of time you still deal with more concrete issues in terms of subject matter.”
In terms of staging, however, South African plays can be extremely creative. “We do a lot of experimentation with non-realistic staging too, like setting a play in the middle of a dusty road in the country-side, and perhaps we are a little be more interactive with using the stage,” said the South African-born theatre producer.
The big difference between the South African arts scene and the Argentine one is, however, a matter of scale, size and opportunities.
“Here in Argentina there is so much theatre around that it is possible to see everything, everywhere. The trick is to find very good stuff. There are some 500 theatres in Buenos Aires: a commercial circuit (Corrientes), than state theatre (San Martin, Sarmiento) and then independent circuit (San Telmo, Microcentro, Almagro, Palermo). It’s so huge that artists can live off their art, perhaps by doing classes in five different places, working for three different shows at the same time, [working on] solo shows, coaching etc.”
“In South Africa, however, it’s either you are in Arts or you are not. The industry and audience are small.”
For people working at Proyecto 34°S, there is still a lot to learn and to be exchanged, as Nikki admits. “Rather than comparing South Africa with the US, Europe or Netherlands, we prefer to exchange experiences with Latin America. From a development, social, cultural and technological point of view, we are on a completely different level from those places.”
Buenos Aires has therefore been a bridgehead. “That there are a lot of similarities between South America and us, we are going to keep exploring them,” she said, widening the scope of the Proyecto 34°S vision. Perhaps, more similarities than people could think of.
Proyecto 34°S will be encouraging the promotion of a much wider social consciousness and cultural understanding also in Brasil, at the Escena Contemporanea festival in July, and with its on-going collaboration with the Mercosur Festival in Cordoba.
The hard part was to create a contact. Then, cultures and continents easily unfold ahead.