Life is a dream for the thousands of people who, at night, turn Buenos Aires into one of the biggest theatrical scenes in the world, resisting the economic crisis which looms large over the country.
If you were to fly a drone over the capital on a weekend evening, you could see the art scene awaken with passion, from the brilliant lights of Avenida Corrientes in the historical centre out to smaller neighbourhood venues.
“We have resilience and a great advantage with the idiosyncrasies of the middle class. When you have some money in your pocket you go out to eat, to the cinema, or the theatre,” explains one who's key to Bueno Aires' world-class threatre scene, producer Sebastián Blutrach, who at 50 is the president of the Argentine Association of Theatre Businesspeople (AADET).
More than 200 theatre venues, the majority of them independent with some 30 considered commercial, regularly compete with the ranks of New York, London, Paris, Berlin, Madrid, or Barcelona.
They open each night despite the incessant inflation, deep recession and soaring electricity prices, which in some cases have increased by nearly 1,500 percent in four years.
“The theatre doesn’t create millionaires. It's an artistic business of very high risk. One puts down the value of an apartment on the opening night and the price becomes intangible, it becomes worthless. With interest rates at 70 percent, it’s crazy to do it. But with a [successful show], we pay for between three and five failures,” says Blutrach, the owner of the historic Teatro Picadero.
“In 2005, we sold two million tickets. The boom was in 2011 with three million [tickets]. But in the last four years, the real cumulative fall in the box office is 50 percent,” claimed the producer of the greatest theatrical success in Argentina, Toc Toc by the Frenchman Laurent Baffie, which has been running nearly 10 years.
A ticket costs on average the equivalent of US$15. The Picadero, with 300 seats, is a temple of the resistance, a symbol. In 1981, with Argentina's under the rule of a brutal military dictatorship the theatre was burnt down and destroyed.
It was an attempt to crush the 'Teatro Abierto' (“Open Theatre”) scene – a cultural movement for freedom of expression in which creators debuted dozens of new works. When the 1976-1983 dictatorship fell from power, the Picadero was reborn from its ashes, on the western limit of Avenida Corrientes, the capital's own “street that never sleeps,” with its numerous theatres, bookstores, and cafés.
Now, the theatre is preparing to launch the dramedy Siete Años by the Spanish playwright José Cabeza.
In a dressing room backstage, the actress Florencia Raggi applies make-up in front of a mirror gleaming with lights as she prepares to go on stage.
“Theatre resists. There is talent in writers, actors… There is much love and devotion,” says Raggi, a 47-year-old former model who’s spent more than 20 years treading the boards.
Some 30 streets away, amidst the old houses of Villa Crespo, is an “Off Corrientes” venue. The Actor’s Patio, created by Clara Pizarro, stands with its façade painted blue and its sidewalk planted with a jacaranda and ash tree.
“This goes further than money. It is an enormous passion, to come, to study, to research. There is a small state subsidy. To survive, we rent out the venue for rehearsals,” explains Pizarro, a producer and director of the show Madame Sabo Cabaret. In the play, a trans woman narrates a passionate love affair between two revolutionaries, in front of the aesthetic of a cabaret show from 1920s Berlin.
It is a solo show by artist Max Accavallo. “The more crisis there is, the more theatre is needed. There’s a lot of resistance. It is a surrealist experience,” he reflects, sheathed in a silk robe while being fitted for a wig.
Artists’ wages have fallen too amid the crisis. They need to work three or four jobs to survive and occasionally do ads or small TV roles, and it still isn’t enough.
Sitting in an armchair on the warm and flowery patio, bathing in sun rays from the skylights, actress, author, and director Helena Tritek explains that “there is a need to express oneself, to speak, to tell stories and legends.”
The 78-year-old glory of Argentine theatre who studied with Lee Strasberg in the Actors Studio of New York, reflects that “theatre is again resisting."
She marvels at it all. "it’s almost miraculous," she smiles.