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Bogotá Theater Capital of the World

From its very beginnings, Bogotá’s Iberoamerican Theater Festival –now in its 15th year– has been much more than a performing arts event; it’s more like a bastion of freedom, a colossal party where millions of people celebrate art as one of the pillars of life. 

Text and photos: Roberto Quintero

About ten years ago, when I first heard that Bogotá’s Iberoamerican Theater Festival (FITB) was “the largest in the world,” the skeptic in me thought it had to be an exaggeration. But I confess that the comment piqued my curiosity, and so I decided to investigate. I found it was true: given the scope of the event, the number of renowned artists in attendance, the number of performances, and the number of people who attend, it is by far the largest festival in America and one of the largest in the world. Surprised, and with my “tail between my legs,” as my mother would say, I’d promised that one day I’d go see for myself. Luckily, this year I fulfilled that promise. Well, naturally, it took some effort on my part.

With unusual determination I prepared myself for the experience: I scheduled a three-week visit to Bogotá, bought tickets to an absurd number of performances (more than twenty shows) months in advance, enrolled in five workshops, and made a list of the free talks I wanted to attend. I tried to schedule more activities, but there wasn’t a single free spot on my entire agenda. After getting organized, I arrived in the Colombian capital, trusting, naively, that I knew what I was in for.

I soon discovered that the wonder of the FITB lies far beyond mere statistics. On Saturday, March 12, an enthusiastic crowd lined both sides of the pedestrian section of the Carrera Séptima, Bogotá’s main avenue, to enjoy the traditional inaugural parade. The enormous number of people in attendance was as impressive as the joy with which they cheered the more than twenty-five delegations of clowns, acrobats, dancers, and actors who marched for two hours. It was almost a religious experience, I swear. The joy with which Colombians celebrated theater that afternoon bordered on madness. In all my years of following the performing arts I have never seen anything like it.

To understand the love and sense of ownership that Colombians feel for the FITB, you have to dig into its past and that of the festival’s creator, Fanny Mikey (1930-2008). In 1988, during one of the most violent periods in Colombia’s history, this Argentine actress (along with Colombian cultural manager Ramiro Osorio) produced the inaugural festival: a small sampling of performances that unsettled Bogotá’s daily routine. On the fifth day, extremist groups tried to stop the event by attacking and partially destroying part of the festival grounds located at the National Theatre. Despite threats, Fanny decided to go ahead with the festival, and people supported her, generating a kind of insurgent movement to counter the horror of the violence of those years. It grew to be a free space that took root and became known as the “festival of the people and for the people,” in Fanny’s words. This slogan, still spoken in her honor and despite her absence, continues to echo on the streets of Bogotá.

 A Shower of Stars

Aside from the emotion and passion that it excites, this performing arts festival is also very capable of dazzling when it chooses. A constellation of theatrical artists starred in this, the fifteenth edition of the Bogotá Iberoamerican Theater Festival, which took place from March 11-27. They may not be as well known as Brad Pitt, but to the theater community they are like the gods of Olympus.

One such star was Germany’s Peter Stein, one of the greatest theater directors in the world, who presented his monumental mise en scene of Alexander Pushkin’s Boris Godunov, the great tragedy created during Russia’s Golden Century. Another guest who left the audience speechless was the legendary Mexican playwright and director, Luis de Tavira, who presented The Lime Circle (an adaptation of Bertolt Brecht’s The Caucasian Chalk Circle), starring the National Theatre Company of México. Even at four hours long, every minute was worth watching!

Undoubtedly, among the most sublime was the work of Slovenian avant-garde genius Tomaž Pandur, a recurring guest at the festival, whose Faust (Goethe’s work adapted by Livija Pandur) featured state-of-the-art technology and a gothic beauty. German incendiary and eternal rebel Thomas Ostermeier closed the festival with his staging of Henrik Ibsen’s An Enemy of the People, which incited a heated political and ecological debate in the audience and left them asking what kind of world we want to build.

One of the most popular and entertaining shows was Arrabal a musical performance based on the work of Argentine composer Gustavo Santaolalla, and his electronic tango group Bajofondo. Award-winning dancer and choreographer Sergio Trujillo —originally from Cali but now based in New York— staged the show, his first work presented in Colombia. The hilarious comedy Hotel Paradiso by German theater company Familie Flöz played to packed houses. And last but not least, the famous Russian clown Slava Polunin, critically acclaimed as the world’s best clown, presented Slava’s Snowshow. This beautiful and magical, as well as very funny show was the festival’s biggest hit and after sixteen consecutive sold-out shows the festival organizers had to add two more presentations to meet audience demand.

The biggest Colombian hit was Labio de liebre, written and directed by Fabio Rubiano. This black comedy offers a scathing look at the fuzzy boundary between victims and victimizers and provoked much thought on Colombia’s current peace process. Critics called it the “biggest thing to hit Colombia’s theater scene in recent history” and word of mouth made the play a “must see!” Tickets sold out just hours after going on sale.

Joyful Statistics

This is only a sampling of this year’s FITB performances; it would be impossible to cover them all. Over a period of eighteen days, 4,370 artists from thirty-two countries representing four continents, including forty-four international groups and ninety Colombian ones, gave 914 performances in theaters, on the street, in parks, shopping centers, and unconventional spaces, before a total of 2.2 million people. Amazing! This represents a seat occupancy rate of 82%, which few theater festivals in the world can boast.

And so, fully convinced that the Bogotá Iberoamerican Theater Festival is indeed the world’s largest, the obvious question that remains is how on earth they’ll be able to top this year. The next festival is already scheduled for March 16 to April 1, 2018 and I’ll be there to find out for myself