“If they will not stage our plays in the official theatres,” Argentine playwright Robert “Tito” Cossa wrote in a 1981 article, “if they will not mention us on the television channels, if we do not appear in any of the second-rate syllabi in our main theatre schools, do we Argentine playwrights even exist?”
Soon after Cossa’s condemnation of artistic censorship, he and 20 other Argentine playwrights launched ‘Teatro Abierto’ (Open Theatre), a movement that would become one of the most important artistic resistances during the dictatorship.
In a massive festival that generated over 25,000 spectators, some of the nations principal playwrights, directors and actors came together to stage one-act plays that directly or indirectly spoke out against the dictatorship and proved that yes, Argentine playwrights do exist.
This Thursday marks 30 years since the first play premiered.
An Idea Takes Shape
During the dictatorship, Cossa recalls: “We lived with fears, precautions, and doubts. We didn’t know all the terrible, criminal, and brutal things that were happening, but we knew about the disappearances. We had friends who were disappeared.”
Unlike other forms of expression such as film and journalism that were subject to strict censorship during the dictatorship, there was no censorship for plays before they were staged. According to Cossa, “we premiered what we wanted to, and they didn’t prohibit us.”
After the premier, some plays, like Eduardo Pavlovsky’s intense family drama ‘Telarañas’ (1977), were banned. However, many plays with decidedly political undercurrents premiered to great public and critical success. One need only think of Cossa’s ‘La Nona’ (1976) in which a ravenous grandmother ends up killing her children; or Ricardo Monti’s ‘Marathon'(1980), a dance contest that turns into a critique of fascism.
Still, the environment was far from friendly towards playwrights. From 1977 to 1979, the number of theatergoers dropped by nearly 25%. Most of the important playwrights, being leftist, were excluded from official theatres and cinema, and were forced to premier their works in small independent theatres. Osvaldo Dragún, an Argentine playwright and one of the main architects of Teatro Abierto, characterised the experience as working on “little floating islands” isolated from the mainland of official artistic representation.
By 1980, as Cossa remembers, “a small light at the end of the tunnel appeared, suggesting that the dictatorship might end. The repression had begun to ease.” The majority of what human rights groups estimate were 30,000 disappearances had already occurred. General Jorge Rafael Videla was poised to hand over power to General Roberto Eduardo Viola and the Falklands/Malvinas War was still come.
The flames of resentment felt by many Argentine playwrights were fanned in 1980 when, at the command of the military, the National Conservatory of Dramatic Arts eliminated the course on contemporary Argentine theatre from the curriculum.
After the incident, a group of Argentine playwrights began to meet every week over pastries and mate. In these meetings, Cossa remembers that they “got up to date on what was going on” and about who had left the country, and they “consoled one another” through the difficult time.“We were exhausted,” adds Cossa, “and we felt like we had to react. But rather than pick up arms we did what we knew how to do, which is theatre.”
Through these meetings, Teatro Abierto was born. Dragún, who passed away in 1999, brought to the table an idea suggestedby a group of young people: a series of short plays that addressed the censorship and prohibition they faced.
The playwrights involved in the meetings wrote each original one-act plays. Late at night in bars on Avenida Corrientes the playwrights began to plan for the event. Dragún remembers, they met “quietly, so as not to frighten anyone. Not even ourselves. The police sirens were louder than our voices.”
A Movement Is Born
With Teatro Abierto, members of the theatre community came together to stage 21 plays. The rehearsals happened “wherever possible, at whatever hour possible. The morning, the afternoon, the night, at dawn”, Dragún explained.
In May of 1981, the playwrights decided to go public in a press conference covered by nearly all the city’s major publications.
The buzz began during open rehearsals for the plays, and lines stretched around the block to purchase tickets. On opening night at the Teatro del Picadero theatre, actor Jorge Rivera López read the declaration of the principals of Teatro Abierto: “Because theatre is an eminently social and communitarian cultural phenomenon, we are trying, through the quality of the shows and the low ticket prices, to recover a mass audience; because we feel that all of us together are much more than the sum of each one of us alone.”
A different trio of plays costing less than the price of a movie ticket, was performed each afternoon in seven-day cycles for two months. Plays included Griselda Gambaro’s ‘Decir sí’, a chilling allegory of the victim/perpetrator dynamic set in a barbershop, ‘Gris de ausencia’, Roberto Cossa’s examination of life in exile, and Eduardo Pavlovksy’s ‘Tercero incluido’, which staged a war ritual enacted between a couple in bed.
A week into the performances came what Cossa describes as a “great political error” on the part of the dictatorship. Early morning on 6th August of 1981, the night that Frank Sinatra crooned across town, the Teatro del Picadero was destroyed by a fire. While it has not been confirmed that the fire was an intentional act by the dictatorship to squelch the movement, most assume as much.
But rather than ending the performances, the fire only energized the movement. A press conference held the next day was attended by Nobel Prize winner Adolfo Peréz Esquivel, and Ernesto Sábato. Jorge Luis Borges expressed his support in a telegram. Out of numerous theatres that offered their space, organisers chose Teatro Tabarís, expanding the nightly capacity from the 300 seat limit of the Teatro del Picadero to 700 seats. According to Cossa, after the fire the movement became “political in nature”.
The success of Teatro Abierto inspired other movements such as Danza Abierta, Poesia Abierta, and Cine Abierto. But although the organisers also continued the festival until 1985, they had difficulty generating the same excitement. The years following 1981 were met with mixed critical reviews and a dwindling public interest.
Much was due to the changing political times and the fact that Teatro Abierto was built as a reaction to a “closed” society, and – as Argentina approached democracy – the tenets of Teatro Abierto began to lose their vigor.
In 1982 the lack of connection between the festival and the political context was even more dramatic. The competition for plays to be included closed in mid-March, and on 2nd April, Argentine forces attacked the Falkland Islands. As playwright Mauricio Kartun, whose play was included in the 1982 festival, writes” “The festival started in October without any material that alluded to the conflict” that had been going on at that point for nearly six months.
The festivals in 1983 and 1985 emphasized Teatro Abierto’s commitment to freedom of expression. The 1983 festival opened with a huge march from the Teatro del Picadero to Avenida Corrientes behind a banner that read “for a popular theatre, without censorship.” In 1985, the last year, organisers staged a two-day celebration of theatre throughout the country called the “teatrazo“. Performances took place in non-traditional venues, from plazas to train stations to warehouses to buses. The plays that year, however, were panned by critics.
Despite the fact that the movement continued after 1981, Cossa affirms, “what I always remember is the first year.”
A certain aspect of the legacy of Teatro Abierto has been carried out in the present-day theatre movement, Teatro x la identidad, which has claimed status as the child of Teatro Abierto because, as organiser Amancay Espíndola explains, “we are in search of the children of the disappeared people that Teatro Abierto spoke about.” Their festival is also modeled on Teatro Abierto, in its inclusion of short plays, its attempts to involve famous members of the theatre community and its attempt to represent “through theatre what is happening,” says Espíndola.
Of course there are important differences: Teatro x la identidad was launched by the Abuelas of Plaza de Mayo with a specific mission to find children of the disappeared; whereas Teatro Abierto was formed in response to frustration around artistic censorship during the dictatorship.
Teatro x la identidad is prominently featuring Teatro Abierto in this year’s cycle by re-staging of two plays that premiered in the 1981 cycle: Cossa’s ‘Gris de Ausencia’ and ‘El Acompañamiento’ by Carlos Gorostiza. Teatro x la identidad will also pay homage to Teatro Abierto with activities on 1st August in front of the Picadero theatre. And the political council Comuna 3 organised a festival in front of the Picadero on 23rd July, which they follow with a ceremony to honour the protagonists in Teatro del Pueblo on 28th July, the official anniversary of Teatro Abierto.
On the 30th anniversary things are also looking up for the Picadero theatre, which has not been a working theater since the 1981 fire. After ownership changed hands numerous times, and the space narrowly escaped demolition, a new owner took charge again at the end of June of this year. Sebastián Blutrach is a theater producer who has worked with well-known Argentine playwright, Daniel Veronese. Blutrach intends to open the space this summer, perhaps in time for the anniversary.