THE POLITICIANS, the generals the corporate executives of North and South America have get-togehters all the time, says Argentineian playwrite Osraldo Dragun, so why not theater people too?
Why not indeed?
Thanks to a complicated package of grants from goverments (chiefly our own), foundations and private industry, Dragun and a few hundred of his theater colleagues representing most of the nations of the Western Hemisphere will be gathering in Connecticut later this month to talk over their common and uncommon problems (with a group of U.S. hosts, including Arthur Miller, Edward Albee and Estelle Parsons). And in route, they are pausing at the Kennedy center this week to give the Washington public a look at the work of theatrical companies from Brazil, Mexico, Argentina, Colombia, Canada and Chile.
The whole enterprise is called "Theater in the Americas," or "Encuentro del Teatro en Las Americas ."
"Unbelievable as it may seem, it's the first time that theater people on the American continent are getting together," say Joanne Pottlitzer, whose New York-based group, Theatre of Latin America, Inc., has been the driving force behind the venture.
Exciting theater exists all over Latin America, according to Pottlitzer - but in woeful isolation.
"In my country, says Dragun, "we know more about the theater in the United States then we do about theater in Peru or Colombia." (On the Avenida Corrientes, Buenos Aires' Broadway, about 20 percent of the fare has originated from the United States, Dragun estimates. A few of the titles on Buenos Aires marquees: "Chicago," "The shadow Box," "Pippin" and "I Love My Wife.")
But the worst ingnorance of all, Pottlitzer insists, is of what is going on, theatriacally, south of the border (and north, too).
Not only ignorance but arrogance, a feeling of "what could we possibly learn from Latin America? Plenty, she belives. The Mexicans, for example, were doing things in the early '60s that anticipated Joseph Chaikin's open theater and related U.S. developments 10 years later.
Dragun, one of the founders of non-commercial, innovative Argentinian theater in the 1950s, has recently been touring U.S. campuses and speaking to audiences of Latin American literature students. In the process, he also has talked to theater students and professionals and found, again and again, that "they don't know nothing about us." (Dragun speaks very clear English, but out qualms about the double negative appear not to have registered.)
What little attention is paid here, academically, to Latin American theater tends to focus on its development from European antecendents, Dragun complains. In fact, Latin American theater "has its own estheitc . . . It is very vital, not intellectual, a theater of action."
In his own "Historias Para Ser Contadas " ("Stories to Be Told"), first performed in Argentina in 1957, actors shuttle back and forth between serving as kind of narrative chorus and playing roles as human beings, animals and forces of nature.
"You can play this play any place," he says. "You don't need a stage. And this is not just an abstract point. Dragun's and director Oscar Ferrigno's Teatro Do Los Buenos Aires regularly performs in parks, public squares and the Argentinian hinterland.
Latin American theater in gerneral, tends to be less dependent don language, says Pottlitzer, insisting that non-Spanish speaking audiences should be able to enjoy this week's productions - especially the free performances at the Musical Theater Lab. (Brazilian, French, Canadian and Chilean groups will be appearing at the Kennedy Center's new Terrace Theater, where tickets will cost $6.50 and $7.50. The remaining productions by Dragun's company and others from Colombia, Mexico and English-speaking Canada, will be at the adjoining Musical Theater Lab, and for free)
Kennedy Center chairman Roger L. Stevens, in offering facilities for the festival, nevertheless cautioned that tickets mights not be easy to sell. As a result, according to Pottlitzer and her colleagues, they have made a concerted effort to get word to Washington's ever-expanding Latin population - through community groups and two locally based theater companies, the Gala Hispanic Theater and Theatro Nuestro .
Since some of the countries represented are not known for their encouragement of dissent and artistic freedom, the plays will probably appear to have a decidedly non-political character, but that appearance, says Pottlitzer and Dragun, may be deceptive.
A situation makes a play political, says Dragun, offering the example of the Chilean production, "Cuantos Anos Tiene un Dia ?" ("How Many Years in a Day?"). The play is about a group of friends who are preparing a documentary for a Chilean TV station. One of them fails to show up for work one day because, or so Chilean audiences assume, she has been detained for political reasons.
The play, says Pottlitzer, makes the case for staying in Chile rather than leaving it. "I wept at the end," she adds.
Pottlitzer's first exposure to Latin American theater was in the early 1960s, while on a fellowship in Chile - and one of the plays she saw was Clifford Odets' "Waiting for Lefty," performed by group of striking Chilean coal-miners.
In 1967, she founded Theatre of Latin America, which, with foundation support, maintains a library, publishes a newsletter and presents Latin American plays for U.S. audiences. "Theatre in the Americas" is the high-impact culmination of 10 years of this non-profit group's work.
So far, financing has come from the congressionally funded Inter-American Foundation ($87,000); the International Communications Agency ($45,000); the Organization of American States ($15,000); the Ford Foundation ($40,000); the Rockefeller Brothers Foundation ($10,000); the governments of Brazil, Canada, Mexico and Ecuador (paying basically, the cost of sending their own delegations), and the Ralston-Purina, Owens Corning and Exxon Corporations.
Pottlitzer puts the total tab for the festival - not including the space donated by Connecticut's O'neill Center New York's La Mama Theater and the Kennedy Center - at $400,000.
And what return will this investment yield beyond the general purpose of improving communications?
"Everybody asks me that," says Pottlitzer, slightly exasperated. "I don't find it so general." CAPTION: Picture 1, no caption; Picture 2, Scene from a Chilean play, "Cuantos Anos Tiene un Dia"