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Accomplished in a number of artistic disciplines, Argentine Sergio Renan receives top billing for his stewardship of the Colon Theater

Sergio Renan, Argentina's director of cultural affairs, hardly looks like a man who has paid his dues in the hard-scrabble world of show business. However, beneath his composed persona, is an unrelenting passion that has made him one of the most durable features of his country's performing arts. On stage and in the movies, as both an actor and director, he has "done it all," sometimes superbly. Nothing, though, has endeared him more to the theater-going public than his administration of Buenos Aires's premier cultural venue, the Colon Theater, from 1989 to 1996. "It's a pleasant feeling," he confesses. "I have always trusted the intelligence and the sensitivity of the audience, and even the people who don't go to see what I do have responded with respect and affection."

His has been a hard act to follow at the Colon, where he designed some of the most memorable seasons of recent times. "Choosing the titles, the conductors, the directors, the set designers, and each of the singers," Renan enumerates his responsibilities. "Obviously, the Colon had to have a harmonious combination of Italian, German, French, and Slavic opera, and I wanted some contemporary and baroque opera, which had not often been included. I didn't try to change the public's taste, but to expand their range of enjoyment. It was a gamble, but sometimes I was right. I also tried to reach people who weren't accustomed to going to the theater, especially young people. A simple detail such as subtitling the operas significantly increased attendance."

Now, from his office in the Foreign Ministry, Renan showcases Argentine culture around the world, arranging for artists to exhibit in Berlin, musicians to perform in La Paz, films to show in New York, and the Jorge Luis Borges centennial exhibition to tour three continents. Like almost everything else he has done, Renan's move to the Foreign Ministry from the Colon was on his own terms. The theater is a $45 million municipal enterprise staffed with civil servants overseen by political appointees, and, as general director, Renan was one of these. Before 1996, when city elections were held for the first time in Buenos Aires, the mayor was always a presidential appointee and all other city officials served at his pleasure. The voters' choice, Fernando de la Rua, was from the Radical Party, so Peronist mayor Carlos Grosso's appointees tendered their resignations. Such was the public uproar over Renan's departure, that he was invited back to take charge of artistic programming. Although he had already committed to the Foreign Ministry and was hard at work on a new film, he did return--briefly, since the new arrangement didn't work out. Still, how does someone end up with the simultaneous patronage of two opposing political parties? The answer has to be merit. Throughout his public service, Renan has kept his hand in his creative endeavors, and his most recent projects prove he is unstoppable when it comes to pursuit of his art.

In February 1997 he was taken by ambulance from his office at the ministry, after his pancreas exploded, and he spent the next sixty-four days in a coma. President Carlos Menem, former president Raul Alfonsin, authors Ernesto Sabato and Alberto Bioy Casares, and many more humble visitors were at his bedside while he was unconscious; still others tracked his progress through the news media.

Even today, the well-wishing continues. "Sometimes, it's hard to hold back the tears," he says. Pancreatitis is usually fatal, and Renan's survival has given him a place in medical history. His recovery took more than a year, but the show went on even though he had lost the use of his legs. Once his round-the-clock care subsided, he left his bed for the final edit of his film based on Bioy Casares's novel, El sueno de los heroes. It premiered in November 1997 to favorable reviews but a mediocre box office. Most gratifying perhaps was Bioy Casares's satisfaction with the film. "I was very fearful," he told Renan during a joint interview with La Nacion's Adriana Schettini, "but I felt greatly relieved after seeing it. The film is super." That project completed, Renan's production of J.B. Priestley's An Inspector Calls went into rehearsal and enjoyed a six-month run on Corrientes, Buenos Aires's Broadway.

While Renan's films showcase the rioplatense literature he adores, his artistry cuts a wide swath. As he said in the Schettini interview, "In whatever art form there is a projection of one's own identity." He constantly editorializes as he weaves the chronology of his works with his personal history. Like many effective actors and directors, he is a tireless observer and of all the scenes he has contemplated, none seem to pique his humor, passion, and sense of irony like those from his own life. If there is a common denominator to Renan's view of his career, it's that he has pulled off some of his most solid accomplishments in contradictory circumstances. He is obviously and deeply bothered that some of his major successes occurred against the agonizing backdrop of Argentina in the 1970s, a thought that seems constantly on his mind. But when asked about his childhood, he can't resist contrasting his exalted positions of the past ten years, amused and slightly bewildered at the incongruity.

Sergio Renan was born Samuel Kohan, the child of a Russian emigre father and an Argentine mother. Both parents had grown up and worked as teachers in the province of Entre Rios, site of the paternalistic farm colonies established at the end of the nineteenth century for refugees from Eastern European pogroms. Before the birth of their only son, the couple gravitated to Buenos Aires's barrio Once, a sprawling, clangorous hub of Jewish life then in its heyday. Today, on Friday nights, Once comes alive with black-hatted Hasidim as well as members of more stylishly dressed congregations making their way to Sabbath services. The Yiddish newspapers may have vanished from the sidewalks, but there are still bakeries displaying fruit and nut strudels, butcher shops advertising their approval by the Lubavicher rabbi, and both Ashkanazi and Sephardic restaurants. The multi-storied Sociedad Hebraica Argentina is there, with its array of cultural activities, including recently a nostalgic 1930s-style variety show, with tangos in Yiddish. Close by are the exquisite Yiddish Folk Theater (YFT) and the Jewish Actors Association, where last year, on a tiny stage, two actresses chronicled the community's history.

Renan insists that growing up Jewish in Buenos Aires left its mark. "The Argentina of my childhood, coincided with the first round of Peronism and with the proximity of World War II. The theme of Nazism, of persecution, was present in my family's life and in the life of this country. There was a strong Peronist-anti-Peronist dichotomy, somewhat associated with the Nazis-Allies theme. While Peronism cannot reasonably be defined as a Nazi-Fascist movement, as we, or rather, our parents, believed back then, without a doubt, all the Argentine Nazis and Fascists were Peronists and that's a fact. My father admired pluralist, parliamentary, presidential democracy and was devoted to the values identified with freedom. So a powerful memory from my childhood is of a ferocious anti-Peronism on the part of my family, which gave direction to my own ideological formation. Paradoxically, it was the Peronists who, years later, offered me the direction of the Teatro Colon (and then the direction of Cultural Affairs at the Foreign Ministry), and this was hard for me to understand. It took me a while to grasp that circumstances had changed and this new Peronism, whatever you might say about it, cannot be accused of persecution or discrimination. During my seven years and three months at the Colon, my work was respected, encouraged, and I have nothing but gratitude for the way I was treated.

"But you've asked me about my earliest memories," he says, returning to the question, "and along with this very important fact of daily life, were traditional traits of Jewish communities everywhere: Devotion to knowledge, adulation of the arts, and an obsession with inspiring the children to learn." Renan went through the Argentine public schools at a time when they were among the best in the world. His parents, both pianists, started him on the violin at five and for a while it looked as if he might become a concert violinist. But at thirteen, he was invited to help some friends with the music for a show they were presenting. "I began to vacillate between music and the theater," he recalls. "I played in chamber orchestras and symphonies, and I acted in the theater. I managed to combine both things until I was twenty-one or twenty-two, when I came to the painful realization that I would never be Yehudi Menuhin or Jascha Heifetz, the models my family held up to me. So I opted for the theater."

At sixty-something Renan cuts a dashing figure, even with the ebony cane he still needs to get around, and as a young man he was drop-dead gorgeous. Remind him that he could have coasted through life as a matinee idol, and he doesn't deny it. But the teenaged Renan was also aching to be taken seriously, and he sensed early on the drawbacks of parading his good looks. "I was constantly trying to convince people I wasn't a stupid pretty face, but that my head was working, and that made me a little presumptuous and solemn," he says.

The whole effort seemed to have backfired when, at fifteen, he began studying with Hedy Crilla, a legendary Viennese acting coach. "This boy will never amount to anything," Renan overheard her saying. "He thinks too much to be an actor." Revering Crilla as he did, he was crushed.

But he continued to do battle with his appearance, consistently selecting scripts that, whether good or bad, nearly always have something to say. Renan's stage career began with such classics as Harold Pinter's The Birthday Party, George Bernard Shaw's Arms and the Man, and Samuel Eichelbaum's Subsuelo. As a performer, he came into his own in Agustin Cuzzani's El centroforward murio al amanecer, a bitter commentary on the dehumanizing trade in professional athletes. The play was a huge success by Buenos Aires standards, running for a year and a half, and it forever linked Renan with the uncompromising integrity of the teatros independientes, Argentina's equivalent of off-Broadway.

During those hard-working early years, television paid the bills, but even that was issue driven. For a brief period during the 1960s, Renan and actor-director Juan Carlos Gene co-produced Cosas juzgadas, a series dramatizing real-life cases taken from court archives, which became a Sunday night ritual for Argentine viewers. When censorship tightened, the program was cancelled, but not before the black-and-white close-ups of its protagonist were stamped indelibly on the nation's memory. Renan's triumphant debut in 1970 as director of Jean Genet's The Maids was followed by successful productions of Henrik Ibsen's A Doll's House and Shelagh Delaney's A Taste of Honey.

Combined, the casts delivering the flawless performances read like a Who's Who of Argentina's finest actors: Luis Brandoni, Hector Alterio, Victor Laplace, Ana Maria Picchio, Ulises Dumont, Soledad Silveyra, Cipe Linkovsky. After appearing in a volley of films, including Leopoldo Torre Nillson's near-classic adaptation of Roberto Arlt's Los siete locos, Renan decided to direct his own movie, La tregua, based on the Mario Benedetti story and starring Alterio and Picchio. The neophyte auteur was dumb-founded when his picture was nominated for an Academy Award as the best foreign film of 1975--the first such honor for either an Argentine film or a film in Spanish. La tregua didn't win the Oscar, but it had the privilege of losing to Italian genius Federico Fellini's Amarcord.

The 1970s should have played out as Renan's golden decade, but when he returned from Hollywood, he found himself caught up in Argentina's darkest nightmare. At the airport, he was greeted with the news that he and other celebrities had been sentenced to death by the Triple A, a rogue terrorist squad with suspicious links to certain government officials. Many artists with him on that list immediately left, some for rewarding careers far from Argentina's troubles. But, says Renan, "I was emotionally exhausted from the Oscar experience. Packing my bags again was intolerable to me, and I sincerely thought no one was going to make good on the sentences."

Both the Argentine government and the ruling Peronist Party publicly condemned the threats, and Renan worked for a while with the inconvenience of police protection. "It's hard to imagine life under those historical circumstances, but people get used to anything," he recalls. "You learn to coexist with horror and that is what happened to us Argentines. People lived, ate, made love, and went to the theater." In that context, he did some of his most brilliant and satisfying work on stage, starring in and directing Harold Pinter's The Homecoming, Bram Stocker's Dracula, and Marc Medoff's The Children of Silence. But the film career that had taken off so spectacularly languished.

"I wasn't psychologically ready," he explains. "Artistically, it created a terrible creative paralysis. A too-successful debut often produces enormous pressure to do something even better. I rejected every project from fear of how it would turn out. This went on for three years until I accepted that an artist's career is always marked with successes and failures."

After he made his far less successful second film, Crecer de golpe, Renan found himself "gray-listed" because of his association with colleagues considered left leaning. He could not work on most television channels, nor could he, or anyone who hired him, receive the subsidies from the Instituto Nacional de Cinematografia on which all Argentine productions depended. During that prohibition, he did act in one movie, Volver de las tinieblas, based on the novel by Ernesto Sabato, also considered left leaning but of such international prestige he was beyond reproach. The Instituto wanted the film made, and the director, Sabato's son Mario, flatly demanded Renan as the sine qua non.

With democratic elections a certainty by 1982, such restrictions vanished. When Renan returned to the screen in Bajo tierra, based on the true story of a Polish-Argentine holocaust survivor, he was cast in a character role as the graying father of adult children, a reality check for the fans growing older along with him. Already restless to do something new, he became fascinated with the lush possibilities of grand opera. His first contract at the Colon as regisseur for Manon led to other opportunities to stage such major milestones in operatic literature as Rigoletto, Otello, Cosi fan tutti, and The Marriage of Figaro.

With this experience, Renan would seem the ideal candidate for general director of one of the world's great opera houses, yet he insists, "I was still stunned when I was offered the position." His tenure at the Colon seems the logical closure to the cycle begun as a little boy learning to play the violin. It also signaled a metamorphosis from aloof outsider to consummate insider.

Argentines return to the polls this year to elect a new president, and the cast of characters will shift throughout the government. But Renan insists he's not worried about what happens next. "Sometimes, I wonder, but it's not a subject that obsesses me." he says. "Working in the theater, making movies, dreaming, thinking, triumphing, failing. That to me is being alive."

Paula Durbin is a lawyer and previous contributor to Americas.
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Title Annotation:film and theater director
Author:Durbin, Paula
Publication:Americas (English Edition)
Geographic Code:3ARGE
Date:Sep 1, 1999
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