Monday, 18 March 2013

Guest post: "Festival of festivals", by Gustavo Gordillo (Colombia)

Last summer at the Kennedy Center we heard the very interesting story of Fanny Mikey, an Argentinian-born Colombian actress who was one of those people who could move mountains in order to get what she wanted. And one of the things she wanted was to promote the arts in Colombia. One of her greatest achievements was the creation and organization of the Bogotá Iberoamerican Theatre Festival. Fanny Mikey died in 2008, but those who worked with her are determined to keep the biggest theatre festival in the world going. Our colleague Gustavo Gordillo is the creative director and he agreed to share with us his insight on a festival that has changed both the cultural and social scene of Colombia. mv 

Sara Says, Teatro Petra, Colombia. (Photo: Juan Antonio Monsalve)
What is the first thing that comes to your mind when you hear about Colombia? If you still consider the disgraceful violence or the drug trafficking cartels that made so much damage to the country, you might as well reconsider. Truth is that in the last ten years the country has made a shift and is now considered as one of the four countries in the world with the highest economical growth, being also a country with a very stable economy.  Those difficult times, where everyone thought that Colombians were a menace to society and that nothing would change in the country, are left behind. Yet, there’s still a lot of work to do.

Colombia, a country with a strategic location in the south american continent, has reduced the major social problems and has begun to reveal breakthroughs in artistic fields such as film, music, literature, design, technology and theater.

Bogota, the capital, a city of 9,000,000 inhabitants, is where most of this change has been implemented. It has developed a social culture (practically nonexistent before) and citizens´s attitudes are in a constant process of transformation. A reflection of this process is perhaps the most important cultural institution in recent times: the Iberoamerican Theater Festival of Bogota.

And no wonder, because since its conception 28 years ago, there have been 13 festivals. More than 2,000 theater companies from 60 countries have been invited; around 3,000,000 people have attended each year theaters and street events in the capital, and there have been about 7,000 theater venues. Around 20,000 students have attended educational events and nearly 30,000 artists have trod the boards of the theaters of the city. These numbers were achieved after much effort and hard work. The founder of the festival  invented this cultural event in a city located at an altitude of 2600 meters, a city remembered for being cold and boring, that had nothing to celebrate.

Fanny Mikey, the festival´s founder and director, managed to change the minds of the people, taking them out of their homes at a difficult time for the city and the country, where violence, fear and impunity were taking to the streets. Since the first festival, the black hand of violence threatened its existence by exploding a bomb in the middle of a venue in the most representative theater. The incident occurred in 1988, during the most tragic and difficult times of the recent history of Colombia. With no deaths, but with much fear, the festival was intended to close its doors, but the public responded by facing fear, opposing illegality and massively attending all venues and events. Culture overcame as the right weapon to oppose the scourge of violence... and the festival moved forward.

Inaugural parade. (Photo: Juan Antonio Monsalve)
The audience of Bogota took over the festival assuming it as a property and from that time until today, people wait with anxiety for the next edition of the festival, held every two years, and attend massively the different performances, celebrating with different artists from around the world the biggest festival of the performing arts.

The Iberoamerican Theater Festival of Bogota became the biggest festival in the world. Artists and directors come from all places, feeling as if they got to an oasis of culture where there is an audience thirsty to meet other cultures. The festival became a prestigious stage for actors and directors, and they usually continue visiting the festival without interruption. This is why today, after 13 editions, the sense of pride of the inhabitants of the city in this event remains intact.

The festival develops programming for the whole family and also has in mind all sectors of the population. It starts with a massive parade, where the audience of the city welcomes the participating countries, which takes place along the main street of the city, ending up at the central square. There, a big concert welcomes more than 40,000 attendees to the first free event. After that and for 17 days, the 40 most representative theaters in the capital welcome stage settings from every continent. At the same time, the best of street theater is presented for free in popular parks, busy streets and shopping centers.

Educational events are of great importance, as most of the invited artists become mentors and teachers, carrying out workshops and seminars for more than 1,500 students interested in learning about the arts from within. There is also a market which brings together producers from all over the world, making room for any kind of scenic and creative projects.

Players of Light, Groupe, France. (Photo: Juan Antonio Monsalve)
At the end of each day, all festival participants share their experiences in a place where everybody speaks the same language: music. Different bands play live music and party every night. Trying to decentralize the festival, around 4,500,000 people in the country´s different regions become part of the event, watching live on an exclusive public television channel what they cannot attend in person.

At the end of 17 days full of unforgettable experiences, the event culminates with an unprecedented mass meeting, where about 300,000 people enjoy a riot of fireworks, music, joy and already feel some nostalgia, since they´ll have to wait two more years for the next edition.

In comparative terms, similar festivals in other developed countries raise only 10% of the total cost of the event at the box office, leaving the remaining 90% to sponsorships, donors and government grants. In the Iberoamerican Theater Festival of Bogota, the figure from the box office is almost 70%, while the sponsors are at 20% and government subsidies and foreign embassies only 10%. This makes it a highly risky festival, but, at the same time, immensely grateful to an audience interested in culture, performing arts and commited to show the world the best face of Colombia: culture, art, and celebration.

Twenty six years later, the Iberoamerican Theater Festival of Bogota is more alive than ever, sheltered under the vision that the Colombian audience took as a motto: 'An Act of Faith in Colombia'. From April 4 to April 20, 2014, you may be part of the live audience that will assist the fourteenth edition of the festival, with the theme that was created for the first festival: 'The Best Theater of the World in Colombia, the Best of Colombia for the World '.

Gustavo Gordillo is the creative director of the Iberoamerican Theater Festival of Bogota. He co-founded the first production company in Colombia that specializes in culture. This company has associated with the National Theater Foundation and with the Iberoamerican Theater Festival of Bogota, which has 13 continuous versions and has become the largest theater festival in the world. He has studied marketing and film production and previously had a career as a director and screenwriter for commercials, videos, soap operas, live events and documentaries. Gustavo also founded a renowned music band in Colombia which has recorded five albums.

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