International Hispanic Theatre Festival

For 27 years, director and actor Mario Ernesto Sánchez has carried on a love affair with Spanish-language theater from all over the world. Each summer he invites South Florida to share his passion as he showcases companies from near and far at Miami’s International Hispanic Theatre Festival, a celebration of the playwrights, actors, directors and designers who create theater en español – and sometimes in English.

This year’s gathering, which begins Thursday with Miguel Piñero’s intense play Short Eyes from the Los Angeles-based Urban Theatre Movement, will run through July 29. After paying tribute to the theater of Spain, Colombia, Mexico and Chile during the past four festivals, Sánchez has declared this one a celebration of Latino theater in the United States. Two companies from Los Angeles, two from New York and three from Miami will present plays, along with companies from Mexico, Argentina, Ecuador and Spain. Of the U.S. troupes, just one (New York’s Zerocompañía) is doing its play in Spanish without English translation. The others are performing in English, doing bilingual work or utilizing supertitles.

It’s all part of Sánchez’s dream of spreading the love.

“This year’s festival is really inclusive,” he says. “We have productions in English, Spanish, Spanish with English supertitles, non-verbal shows. Since 1995, I’ve been wanting to attract the non-Spanish speaker.”

Still, Sanchez knows that theater lovers who don’t understand Spanish remain skittish about sampling the festival’s works. His company, Teatro Avante, will close out the festival with Gilda Santana’s adaption of Cuban playwright Virgilio Piñera’s El no ( No), in Spanish with English supertitles. Avante has been using supertitles for years, with limited success.

“People are afraid of not understanding. It’s a cultural thing. They find it very difficult to see things that are not in English,” Sánchez says. “When I travel abroad, when I go to festivals in Costa Rica, in Chile, the audiences just don’t care. They’ll go to see a play in Russian. They have full houses.”

As an evaluator for the National Endowment for the Arts, Sánchez visited theaters all over the United States and got to know the major players in Latino theater. Some companies couldn’t participate because of date conflicts or because the productions that interested Sánchez had closed, their actors already involved in other projects. He invited Urban Theatre Movement to bring Short Eyes, Piñero’s violent 1974 play about an imprisoned child molester, and asked L.A.’s Latino Theater Company to present its production of Evelina Fernández’s Solitude, a piece inspired by Octavio Paz’s The Labyrinth of Solitude , because, he says, “I like to invite things that have quality and that have been proven successful.”

Fernández and her director-husband, José Luis Valenzuela, launched their company the same year the International Hispanic Theatre Festival began. The Mexican-American actress-playwright began creating Solitude four years ago after reading Paz’s obituary. She started with a series of improvisations and experimentation by the company, then wrote monologues, then developed her script. Incorporating an onstage cellist and lots of movement, Solitude focuses on a man who left home and heritage behind to become a success. His mother’s death draws him back to reconnect with his past on a particularly significant day.

“ Solitude, more than some of our other pieces, strikes a universal chord with audiences. It’s about mothers and sons, old lovers and friends. It entertains with dance and music,” Fernández says. “Our company has been together so many years. Now’s the time for us to take our work out and have a national presence.”

Fernández sees progress in Latino theater, she says, but not enough.

“Theatergoers aren’t usually people of color. They never saw their stories on the stage. Diversity in American theater is the only way theater will survive,” she says. “Things have to change. There’s no going back. Theater is a microcosm of what’s going on all over the United States…But I have great faith in the younger generation.”

Julian Acosta, a 1997 Florida International University graduate and the director of Short Eyes, is a member of that generation. He is an in-demand actor who was inspired by fellow members of New York’s hot LAByrinth Theater Company to try staging Short Eyes, the first full-length play he has directed. The Puerto Rican-born Acosta met members of the Urban Theatre Movement through playwright Stephen Adly Guirgis, one of LAByrinth’s artistic directors, and he thought the L.A. company’s energy would be a good fit with Piñero’s harrowing play — a play that feels tragically relevant again in light of the Jerry Sandusky case.

“We never get to hear a lot from the Jerry Sanduskys,” Acosta says. “This shines a light onto the question, ‘How could someone do something like that?’ ”

Also part of the festival’s opening weekend is the launch of La Compañía Prometeo, a professional troupe featuring eight graduates of the Spanish-language conservatory program run by Joann Maria Yarrow at Miami Dade College’s Wolfson Campus. Founded 40 years ago by Teresa María Rojas, who will receive the festival’s Life Achievement in the Performing Arts Award after Thursday’s opening night performance, Prometeo has evolved from a student troupe to the conservatory program and the new professional company, whose actors come from Argentina, Colombia, Chile, Cuba, the Dominican Republic, Venezuela and the United States.

“This seemed organic,” says Yarrow. “I invited the graduates to form a company. But they have to work with other directors, both to enrich Miami and for them to experience what it’s like working with other professional directors.”

Yarrow called on her friend Ernest A. Figueroa, a founder of the Los Angeles-based Directors Lab West, an outgrowth of the Lincoln Center Theater Directors Lab. A producer at the Broad Stage in Santa Monica, Figueroa suggested Chilean playwright Marco Antonio de la Parra’s Infieles ( Unfaithful) to Yarrow. Years earlier, he had directed an English-language production of the play about personal and political infidelity, even made it into a student film, and felt he was ready for the challenge of staging the original Spanish version.

“I’m a third generation Mexican-American,” Figueroa says. “I had six years of Spanish in school, but I don’t really speak it. … But even though I may not speak Spanish and some of the technicians don’t speak English, we all speak theater. There’s a translator, and many of the people in the company are bilingual. But there are ironies. I had a meeting with the sound designer, who doesn’t speak English, and we resorted to sign language.”

Figueroa describes his experience of working with La Compañía Prometeo on Infieles as “a gift,” a process that has reminded him about the nuances of language and given him the chance to immerse himself in a different community with artists from many countries.

The festival itself? That’s the gift that keeps on giving to Sánchez, the man whose passion has persuaded important supporters like the Miami Dade County Department of Cultural Affairs, the National Endowment for the Arts, the Knight Foundation, the Arsht Center, American Airlines and Target to buy into his vision of bringing an ever-changing cast of theater artists to Miami.

“I don’t know who assigned me to do this type of job,” Sánchez says with a laugh, knowing that the answer is himself. “I think it’s needed. I wish I could do an even better job. I wish it could be easier. … I get up at 6 a.m. and go to bed at 3 a.m., but I don’t mind it. … I feel proud that we’ve presented some of the best theater groups in the world.”