December 2015

Teatro Achá: Cochabamba’s Big Stage

Standing in the center of Plaza 14 de Septiembre, Teatro Achá looks just like the other buildings. Yellow façade and some white plaster ornamentation seem to be the main style of the Plaza. Teatro Achá is no different. Nestled between Calle Bolivar and Avenida Heroinas, its exterior is barely distinguishable from the Police Station. However, from the right angle, you can see an old, terracotta dome peeking above.

By: Tyler Bunton
Projects Abroad Volunteer
Connecticut – United Estates

Teatro Achá is not just the oldest theatre in Cochabamba. It is one of the oldest in all of Latin America. Better-known theaters like Teatro Colon in Buenos Aires are still younger than Teatro Achá. In 2014, the theater celebrated its 150th birthday. However, the roots of the theater trace even farther back.

Detail of the main wall of Teatro Achá
Photo: Tyler Bunton

I sat down with Carlos Lavayén to discuss his detailed book: The Chronological History of Teatro Achá. In a way, he stumbled upon the theater while researching other architectural elements of Cochabamba. Growing up in Cochabamba, he had been to the theater before for movie showings, graduations, and other community events, but was unaware of the big name entertainers that had previously preformed there.

As an architect, the beauty and rich architectural history of the theater caught his eye. He began studying the theater in a casual manner, eventually his interest grew into something more. He searched through hundreds of old documents, both published and unpublished to compile the most accurate history of the theater he could.

He began with the beginning of the building’s history, when it was home to the Church of St. Augustine. This began in 1587; the building remained as a church for almost 300 years. However, by 1780, it was in ruins. The main vault of the structure had collapsed. So, by 1787 a new, different church had been built. The foundation of this church was in the shape of a cross. It is laterally upon this foundation that Teatro Achá was built. The dome and terracotta vaulting that you can sometimes see rising above the straight, neoclassical edges of Teatro Achá belong to this church. They have remained as a symbol of the theater’s strong roots in Cochabamba’s history.

In 1826, Antonio Jose de Sucre expropriated the church of St. Augustine, even though it was already virtually deserted. He wanted a space in Cochabamba for university education. He designated the building for this use. However, it was again expropriated by President Jose Maria de Achá in 1864 for use as a theater. Plans to install a theater on the church’s site of began in 1862. It was initially going to be home to a national political convention. However, delays in construction made this impossible.

The theater was inaugurated as the “Teatro de la Union Americana” in 1864. There wasn’t much sustained activity in its early years. It was mostly home to many upper class ceremonies, celebrations, dances, conferences, plays that re-enacted historical events, and local performances. Soon after, the theater was renamed in tribute to former President Achá. In the late 1870s and early 1880s it went through a slow time of closings and ruin due to famine and war with Chile. Lavayen also attributes this to the difficulty of getting to Cochabamba through the Altiplano and the difficult path through Mt. Tunari. Before an Andean railroad line, it was much easier for performers to play at the coastal Chilean cities like Valparaiso and Antofagasta.

In the early 1880s, it was thought that the theater would be left in complete disrepair until it completely collapsed. In 1883, however, the vaults were repaired for the arrival of the well-known Zarzuela company of Jose Jarques. Zarzuelas are much like operettas but preformed in Spanish. These became a very popular and important part of the theater’s early history.

Photo: Tyler Bunton

In 1894, one of the first exhibitions of a phonograph along with a projected image took place in Teatro Achá. This was followed by several presentations of film in the theater. This opened the theater up to Cochabamba’s lower class for the first time. In the early 1900s, a railroad connection between Valparaiso and the Bolivian mining city of Oruro created a new artistic circuit in South America. It essentially began in Chile, continued to Oruro, then Cochabamba, and then ended in the rich, aristocratic environment of Sucre. Lavayen describes Cochabamba’s significance on this circuit as a kind of place of peace, for artists to rest in a comfortable, spring-like weather. Overall, this led to bigger artists coming to Cochabamba and Bolivia as a whole in the 1900s leading to some much needed improvements.

By 1918, a new façade was installed in Art Nouveau style. The façade wassymmetrical, adorned with imagery of vegetation. This façade characterizes the external appearance of the theater today. The simple, modernist nature of it was relatively ahead of its time.

The inside of the main building.
Photo: Ximena Noya

Also, the early 1900s meant the introduction of silent cinema to. This was essentially, in Lavayén’s words, the most groundbreaking of changes to come to the theater, greater than any renovation or closing that it would have to endure. “Traditionally, art of a theater happened when you turned on the light to see the performer,” Lavayén told me, “The idea of turning off the light for a show to begin was a completely different phenomenon.”

This didn’t mean the theater stopped functioning in its traditional sense. The following years held even more interesting visits and performances. From 1923 to 1925, there were performances of “El Gigante Camacho,” a gigantic man; in 1926 the poet and feminist Adela Zamudio was coronated. The Floral Games, a historical poetry competition began in the late 1920s as well.

The theater continued to host both live performances and various onscreen presentations. In the 1940s and 50s, Mexican talking films became very popular in the theater, drawing in audiences of all classes. Bigger performers appealed to a more “cultured,” wealthier crowd. Famous singer Yma Sumac came to Teatro Achá in 1943, and Berta Singerman followed in both 1944 and 1947. Despite all this activity, there were plans to destroy the theater altogether in 1948 as part of an urban planning project. Luckily, they weren’t carried out.

Detail of the dome
Photo: Ximena Noya

Lavayén characterizes the 60s and 70s as a time of resurgence in local theatre scene of Cochabamba. Many theater groups performed in Teatro Achá, and local productions soared. International artists continued to visit, as well. The great violinist and future Grammy winner Eric Friedman performed there in 1972 accompanied by pianist Monica Cosachov of Argentina. Renowned Violinist Jaime Laredo (born in Cochabamba) played at the theater several times as well. The ballet company of Buenos Aires visited twice.

In 1988 and 1989 the inside of the theater underwent tremendous remodeling, and was reopened afterwards. Lavayén describes 1989 as the point when he lost interest in the theater’s architecture. The internal renovations, in his eyes, changed the theater forever from the familiar, beautiful space he had visited many times throughout his life. However, the bones of theater are undoubtedly the same. Lavayén admitted to taking his family to the theater three years ago and enjoying it as he always had as a child.

Through countless performances, church services, galas, and presentations, this space has seen thousands of audiences. Each has sat in the same space, under the beautiful dome of the Church of St. Augustine. There may have been many renovations, and changes over the years, but applause have been ringing out in the corner of the Plaza since nearly the beginning of Cochabamba. Carlos Lavayén calls Teatro Achá “Cochabamba’s Big Stage” simply because it is the one building in Cochabamba that seems to be entwined with the city’s very heritage. We can only hope that it will continue to see more applause, and continue to be a symbol of Cochabamba’s rich culture.

Calendario DICIEMBRE 2015

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