Argentine Theaters Are Feeling Flu's Effects

By Juan Forero
Washington Post Foreign Service
Tuesday, August 4, 2009

BUENOS AIRES, Aug. 3 -- Carlos Rottemberg, one of Argentina's best-known stage producers for 35 years, had been anticipating a stellar season for this city's vibrant theater district.

With 175,000 people expected to fill the theaters during the high season this year -- the end of June through early August -- he and other producers were preparing to roll out children's shows, critically acclaimed avant-garde plays, as well as elaborate Broadway-style productions. The sidewalks below the bright marquees on Corrientes Avenue were to be packed with theatergoers vying for tickets, particularly families with children on school break.

Then came swine flu.

The H1N1 virus infected tens of thousands of people and caused the deaths of 200 others, more than in any country outside the United States. In the midst of the Southern Hemisphere's winter, Brazilian tourists who usually flock to ski resorts in Patagonia, in Argentina's snowy southwest, stayed home. The small-business association here estimated losses in Buenos Aires alone at $1 billion, with the usual bustle at restaurants and tango clubs falling off sharply.

For the capital's theater district, which includes 300 venues and considers itself as groundbreaking and lively as New York's, the damage was felt deeply. Theatergoers avoided the throngs common to this culturally rich city, South America's second-largest. Producers took the unprecedented step of closing for 10 days. Ticket sales plummeted by as much as 60 percent last month compared with a year earlier.

"We are saying that we cannot recover this year," said Rottemberg, who also owns theaters here and in the coastal city of Mar del Plata. "Just at the moment when there are more productions and more investments, when we are in the high season, this happens to us."

In the United States, 353 H1N1 deaths and more than 5,500 cases have been reported. But the public's reaction here has in many ways been more anxious. Argentines are famously distrustful of the government, and many have expressed skepticism that officials are adequately confronting the epidemic.

The fallout has been widespread. Retail sales fell 16 percent in July from a year earlier; property sales contracted by 30 percent; and tourism was off by more than 50 percent.

The virus, brought here by an adolescent who had been vacationing in Florida, spread from the upper-crust neighborhoods in the capital's north side to poorer, more crowded barrios in the south, said Eduardo Lopez, a leading epidemiologist who helps advise the city's health department.

Nationwide, an estimated 40,000 people have been infected. At Ricardo Gutierrez Children's Hospital, where Lopez is chief of the medical department, the staff has set up a trailer with specially outfitted examination rooms to deal with 5,025 children who arrived with swine flu symptoms.

Still, Lopez said that public health warnings for people not to congregate have helped ease the virus's spread, as did the government's decision to extend a school break in July from two weeks to four. On Monday, 10 million children returned to school in a sign that the country was returning to normal.

"I think Argentina took measures that were important to get at the epidemic, and the epidemic is coming down," Lopez said.

But there remains a palpable fear among Argentines -- one that has kept many people away from the theater.

Sitting in a cafe and sipping coffee on a cold morning, Daniela Meroni, a real estate agent, explained that she had recently wanted to see the musical drama "Piaf," about the life of Edith Piaf, and the Argentine adaptation of "August: Osage County," about an American family's meltdown.

She goes to the theater with her husband once a week, a devotion that is not unusual in a country with a long tradition of theater that began with the Southern European immigrants who arrived here in the late 1800s. But Meroni said the slew of news reports about swine flu dampened her enthusiasm.

"We love the theater," said Meroni, 41. "I have a whole bunch of works I want to see, but I don't want to go. My son is 4, and what worries me is that I'll get sick and contaminate him."

Sebastian Blutrach, a young producer whose parents also used to run theaters, said the flu brought the curtains down in a way he had never quite seen. Even in the aftermath of the 2001 economic collapse, when many Argentines lost their life savings, the theater generated big crowds, he said. And, before that, during military rule in the 1970s and '80s, when subversives were thrown from airplanes and the economy was paralyzed, the theater produced cutting-edge works.

Now, one of Blutrach's productions, "Backyardigans," about five preschoolers on a fun-filled adventure, will generate only a third of the expected ticket sales. Another production, "The Way Things Are," a new play about relationships that had garnered good reviews, closed Sunday instead of running late into the year.

"We had to do what we had never done -- we closed the theaters because we didn't know what to do," he explained. "This was a perfect storm."

Some productions, such as the swashbuckling adventure "Zorro," have managed to limp along. Gerardo Baamonde, one of the actors in the show, said he thinks people are showing up because the venue -- a big-top tent -- is so large.

"The little theaters have really suffered," Baamonde said. "Here the people have a sensation of security, there's lots of space up and down, and people don't feel cramped."

During one afternoon showing last week, in fact, dozens of families did show up to see Zorro beat back his adversaries, sword at the ready, from atop a black stallion. Only half of the 800 seats were taken, three of them by Roman Piñeiro and his two children. He explained that they had been cooped up too long.

"We cannot keep them in the house forever," Piñeiro said. "We can go out, taking precautions."

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