(Teatro Ensayo del Ecuador. Actor: Víctor Hugo Gallegos. 1987. Photo by Teatro Ensayo del Ecuador.)
A rainbow of outrageous and worn-out costumes, bodies swinging across the streets with acrobatic movements, and, the uproar of music created by the combination of voices laughing, chanting and even reproducing animal sounds are just some of the vivid memories of my childhood that I hold onto tightly. I was born and raised in Ecuador, and even though I didn’t start doing “theatre” until I came to North America, I remember that throughout my childhood and youth, street theatre was one of the most prominent and interactive ways to bring audiences to appreciate and admire the power of the theatrical arts, and I must say, a very entertaining one.
What I didn’t understand at the time (my 6-year-old-self was more interested in jumping and dancing with the performers on the streets) was that the tradition of street theatre in Ecuador derived from the fierce physical theatre developed by the first Ecuadorian experimental theatre groups. These first ensembles aimed to break away from the classical Spanish theatre that had been part of the culture until the 60’s. Theatre was well received by the Ecuadorian audiences, specifically the Quitenian population, but in recent years there has been a downward trend in the presentation of theatrical work. What happened to Ecuadorian theatre?
Trying to gain a deeper understanding of the origins of theatre in Ecuador and its relevance now, I had the pleasure to interview Victor Hugo Gallegos, former Founding and Artistic Director of one of the first Ecuadorian experimental theatre groups, Teatro Estudio de Quito, and current Artistic Director of Ballet Nacional Integrado. Victor Hugo describes the original form of Ecuadorian Theatre as a theatre that was purely instinctive: “[it] lacked from formal methodologies or techniques, instead it relied heavily on emotional intensity. It emphasized the abstract language created by the body, which was guided by the exploration of temperament.”
Around 1930-1940, theatre was intrinsically linked to Spanish culture. The first theatrical performances took place at Catholic high schools. The plays presented dealt with themes related to the Spanish old culture as these high schools archived mostly Spanish Literature. Community involvement with high school theatre was evident since the Ecuadorian society of the time possessed high admiration and respect for its European legacy.
Victor Hugo recalls that it isn’t until the decade of the 60’s that a “new Ecuadorian theatre” bloomed. Ecuador was going through turbulent political times around 1963, when “los tzanticos” a group of poets, playwrights and actors started a theatre movement that dealt with national issues and used a “combative language” openly opposing both: the old Spanish theatre tradition and the dictatorship. A year later, in 1964, Fabio Pacchioni, arrived to Ecuador as a theatre specialist sent by the UNESCO. Pacchioni was a theatre director invited to lead an acting workshop at “Casa de la Cultura Ecuatoriana”. He observed the work of “los tzanzicos” and immediately connected with them. Pacchioni eagerly collaborated in the cultural activities carried on by “los tzanzicos” and from that point on; Ecuadorian theatre became politically charged and more socially relevant.
This artistic revolt opened the space for independent theatre companies to bloom. Ecuadorian dramaturges like José Martínez Queirolo y Ernesto Albán Gómez start writing plays with a national narrative. Multidisciplinary and collaborative works that include modern dance and music are brought to the stage of the National Theatre “Teatro Nacional Sucre”. Companies even start collaborating with foreign theatre groups and names like “Teatro La Candelaria” from Colombia are brought to the Ecuadorian stages. Political exiles, mostly Chilean and Argentine also join the theatre scene in Ecuador, as an example Aristides Vargas, Founding and Artistic Director of “Teatro Malayerba” in Quito. Site-specific theatre becomes more popular and towards the 80’s, theatre on the streets becomes a family-friendly entertainment form.
(Escuela de Teatro. Director: Víctor Hugo Gallegos, 1987 Photo by Facultad de Artes de la Universidad Central del Ecuador.)
Theatre changed rapidly from an antique Spanish theatre form into a highly political and experimental one. However, despite the fast evolution of Ecuadorian theatre, nowadays, the theatre arts are facing the scary reality of being almost non-existent. In the last years, the National Theatre has had seasons starring international theatre companies with ticket prices that have made it almost impossible for the middle class to attend performances. And while some independent companies have remained, like “Teatro Malayerba”, they haven’t been able to present continuous seasons given the decrease of audience attendance.
Victor Hugo himself has observed throughout the years how many independent companies have been forced to close and disappear. The popularity of TV shows has given rise to a new form of “easy” entertainment; audiences are not compelled to leave their homes. I asked Victor Hugo, what would be the best way to bring back theatre and its relevance to the community. His answer was simple: “we have to reshape our theatre and give a bigger role to audiences in it. We need to make the audiences feel needed, make them feel that it’s their need to be part of the theatre.”
After listening to Victor Hugo’s words, I immediately thought back of the street theatre shows of my childhood and how important it was for me to attend the performances, otherwise, who else was going to help out with the noise and commotion? Who else was going to jump and dance alongside the performers? Street theatre shows needed me, the audience, or at least, I felt I was needed. It seems that now, Ecuadorian audiences need to be reassured that they are not only useful, but that they have a vital role inside theatre arts. Victor Hugo is currently directing a dance-theatre company and he believes that now, more than ever, it’s utterly important to redesign the structures of the Ecuadorian performing arts and allow audiences to become key players in the change.
Finally, I asked Victor Hugo if he had any advice he would like to give to the next generation of artists, who, like me, are eager to start another artistic revolt in Ecuador and make the performing arts regain its relevance among the community. He said: “One has to acknowledge that making art is the most useless thing in the world.” I lost it at this point, I cracked up laughing, and at the same time, I wanted to cry! Then he continued: “But, even if it’s useless, we have to acknowledge that it’s a human necessity. It allows the indissoluble conjunction of body and soul to be fulfilled.” I completely agree. Theatre, Dance and the arts in general might not always be precisely profitable businesses, and, in some cases, businesses at all; but they do bring happiness and fulfillment to human existence. Victor Hugo was also eager to state that we shouldn’t let ourselves be influenced by a consumerist need. He said: “even though it’s a rocky road, theatre makers have to continuously seek ways to innovate the theatre and make it socially relevant to the times in which it exists.”
(Ballet Nacional Integrado. Artistic Director: Víctor Hugo Gallegos, 2014 Photo by Ballet Nacional Integrado.)
Talking to Victor Hugo left me pensive but enthusiastic and quite idealistic. I believe he thought I was going to end up feeling depressed as he apologized right after our interview was over. However, I felt I had the need to change something. I felt responsible and important. He did it; he made me feel that my role inside the theatre is relevant. His words moved me to the point that I was a “click-away” to book a flight back home in order to start making relevant theatre. He put the responsibility in my hands. It is now the duty of the new generation of artists to identify the needs of our audience. It is our duty to create more active roles for Ecuadorian audiences inside the arts, roles that will empower people to lead the change.
Salomé Egas is a dance-theatre artist that was born and raised in Quito, Ecuador. After attending a United World College school: Lester B. Pearson College in Victoria, Canada, she obtained a B.S in Dance & Theatre from Skidmore College in upstate New York. She is currently based in New York City as a dancer at LFX Dancers and as a free-lance theatre translator. She is the International and Artistic Programs Intern at TCG and had previously interned at the Off-site programs department at Lark Theatre. Salomé is deeply interested in finding ways to combine her passion for the performing arts with her innate love for Latin American cultures and her artistic projects are usually multidisciplinary, multicultural and multilingual. She dreams of going back to her home country and become a dance-theatre artistic director and educator.
Victor Hugo Gallegos is the Artistic Director of Ballet Nacional Integrado in Quito, Ecuador. He is an actor, director, dramaturge and theatre professor. He is the former vice-chair of the Escuela de Teatro at the Universidad Central del Ecuador, he also worked at the performing arts department as an Acting and Directing Professor. After steeping out of his academic career, Victor Hugo served at the Casa de la Cultura del Ecuador, as Managing Director of Teatros. Victor Hugo was the Artistic Co-director of Teatro Ensayo del Ecuador alongside Antonio Ordóñez. He was the Founding and Artistic Director of Teatro Ensayo de Quito, one of the first independent and experimental Ecuadorian theatre groups. His works have been presented and acclaimed nationally and internationally in Argentina, Colombia, Cuba, Mexico, Venezuela, the United States and Germany.