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Colombian Culture: Theater

Theater existed for pre-colonial peoples of Colombia, as religious ceremony celebrating gods and related to seasons, wars and harvests—and on occasions even incorporating human sacrifices. The arrival of the Spanish introduced western theater to the New World, though apart from opera and other European genres, it too was mostly religious and pedagogical in nature. The 19th century introduced more ambitiously secular and historical themes, especially in the Costumbrismo style brought over from Spain which focused on the daily lives of the common population. Some of the more notable authors of this period include Luis Vargas Tejada, JosĂ© MarĂ­a Samper and JosĂ© MarĂ­a Vergara y Vergara.

However, it was not until the early 20th century that a distinctly Colombian theater came into being through the efforts of Antonio Álvarez Lleras and Luis Enrique Osorio who wrote politically themed, realistic plays. They also trained actors, produced theater journals and sponsored companies, all of which laid the foundation for the new directions Colombian theater was to take in the years that followed.

Following World War II, Colombian artists, influenced by European existentialists and the experimental works of Antonin Artaud and Bertolt Brecht, felt even more emboldened to tackle ideological themes. The cataclysmic events from 1948 to 1955 known as La Violencia ended the popularity of the more genteel Costumbrismo of the previous century.

In MedellĂ­n, the Experimental Theater of the Institute of Fine Arts questioned the bourgeois values of Colombian culture, exploring such issues as racism, class inequality and historical oppression. It often did so in an abstract manner, with characters identified as numbers or symbols as an index oftheir dehumanization. Other theater groups revived elements of pre-Columbian ceremony in theater as a means of honoring the heretofore devalued indigenous culture.

In addition to Brecht and Artaud, the vanguard innovations of Stanislavski and Grototowski influenced Colombian theater. These methods were imported by writers and directors such as Enrique Buenaventura and Santiago GarcĂ­a, who had lived in Paris and Prague. This art form was simultaneously more realistic (especially in acting) but more experimental and modernist in its staging.

The success of the Socialist revolution in Cuba was yet another notable historical factor in the evolution of Colombian theater, inspiring a generation of university-based young writers, actors and directors. This movement, called Nuevo Teatro, created newer forms of community-based, cooperatively created theater that addressed the needs and issues of the people, particularly the poor, minorities and the disenfranchised, and became widely popular. These works incorporated elements of folklore and revisionist views of history. One of the most popular plays was “I Took Panama,” staged by the Teatro Popular de Bogotá, which discussed Colombia’s loss of Panama through the interventionist policies of Theodore Roosevelt.

However, due to the left-leaning bent of this movement, many of the artists involved had to struggle with government censorship and harassment. Buenaventura and García were both dismissed from their university positions. Some theater companies were shut down on charges of “subversion.”

The 1980s saw a resurgence of more conventionally scripted drama, particularly as paramilitary and cartel violence resulted in a decline in the popularity of activist theater. Argentine actress Fanny Mikey successfully produced the works of Edward Albee and Neil Simon, and co-founded the Ibero-American Theater Festival, the largest of its kind in all of South America, attracting established repertories from all over the world, such as the Royal Shakespeare Company. In BogotĂĄ, MedellĂ­n, Cali and Cartagena, lively theatrical communities still thrive.

Here are some related tips to help plan your trip to Colombia: Colombian Culture: Music, Colombian Culture: Cinema, Colombian Culture: Museums, Colombian Culture: Art, Colombian Culture: Literature, Colombian Culture: An Introduction, Colombian Culture: Dance, Cumbia, Colombian Culture: Comedy and Shakira.

By Ricardo Segreda
Growing up in New York, Rick Segreda used to cut out of high school in order to hang out at the Museum of Modern Art and catch foreign-language...
27 Sep 2011

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