Jun 29, 2007

Inside the Actors Studio

I'm in my native Caracas since Tuesday. It's always both exhilarating and frustrating to be here. Caracas is a complex metropolis that showcases the best and worst of large cities.

Recently I had an amazing experience here: I was an observer in an Actors Studio workshop, taught by Lisa Formosa, in which about thirty Venezuelan actors are participating. Thanks to my research I know many of them quite well. Being a witness to the learning process of actors helped me deepen my understanding and learning of their craft.

I saw how these actors came prepared to perform a text that was given to them beforehand. They were ready to become a character written by brilliant and challenging authors like Sam Shepard and Tony Kushner, among others. I was impressed by the workshop instructor's ability to make changes in the plan and move the actors out of their comfort zone. She encouraged them to explore the duality of their characters, and warned them about the tendency that all actors have to make their characters better people than they really are.

I have known for years that acting requires talent, intuition, intelligence and a particular brand of sensibility. Yesterday I learned that great acting also requires risk, commitment and the willingness to explore human emotion...starting with the actor's own emotions.

Jun 22, 2007

Telenovelas, actors and the celebrity factor

Even though telenovelas are still despised by many, it's undeniable that the genre largely determines the "star system" in Latin America. As a matter of fact, most Latino actors that have made it to Hollywood performed in at least one telenovela before making the big jump. (Edgar Ramírez, Sonia Braga, Gael García Bernal, Salma Hayek, María Conchita Alonso and Diego Luna, to name a few).

Because of the demographic and cultural traits of Latin American countries and the widespread consumption of television in the region, telenovelas provide actors with a level of popularity and recognition that neither the theatre, nor the local film industry can offer.

In my research I've encountered several actors with tremendous experience in theatre and/or film who are working in their first telenovela. They're always amazed at the level of recognition they've acquired thanks to the telenovela. People now recognize them everywhere they go and, for the first time, these actors feel that they've become public figures. Also, for the first time, these actors have pondered the meanings and consequences of that thing we call "fame".

The entertainment press increases the visibility of actors at an exponential rate. Their coverage ranges from serious interviews and news stories, to gossip and speculation about the actors' professional and personal lives. This hyper-visibility in the media creates a celebrity aura that many times cloaks the fact that actors are human beings--sons and daughters, mothers and fathers, spouses and friends--whose delicate job deals with human emotions. This celebrity aura has consequences for the actor who doesn't understand quickly the risks and pitfalls of "fame." It also has consequences for us, the public.

As members of the audience, we tend to perceive celebrities as people with big egos, a lot of money and no real problems. We also like reading about their personal lives.

Our relationship with telenovela actors has elements of admiration and identification (because of the characters they play). But, it also includes elements that are the consequence of our fascination with celebrities and our perception of them. This is why we eagerly read the entertainment press and we feel particularly shaken when something dramatic (either good or bad) happens to an actor (for instance, Gaby Espino's wedding, Daniela Bascopé's illness and Yanis Chimaras' murder). This is also the reason behind the increase of gossip columns, web pages and blogs, in which half-truths, speculations, and even strictly false "news" abound. Actually, it's increasingly difficult to tell the difference between news and false news.

I can't comment on telenovela actors of all Latin American countries. However, I can write about those who work in Venezuela. Throughout the many hours of interviews I have conducted with them in the last eight years, I've found that most actors are dedicated and serious professionals who, like most of us, try hard to live a balanced personal life. Committed actors are particularly intelligent and sensible. They respect and value their craft within an industry--the telenovela industry--that places more value on physical beauty and youth than on talent and experience. This is an industry that many times limits and disrespects its actors. However, in spite of all its imperfections, the telenovela industry remains the most important source of jobs for actors, and the best way for them to project their talent to the mass audience.

The telenovela business can be like a sausage factory: simplistic, repeated, redundant and relentless. Therefore, it's truly admirable and comforting to observe how committed actors use intelligence and talent as they work on their characters. They understand that their profession goes way beyond the sausage factory and the reality of being simply "famous."

Below the images of SOME of these committed actors: Gledys Ibarra, Javier Vidal, Elba Escobar, Beatriz Vásquez, Laureano Olivares, Carlos Cruz, Marisa Román, Roque Valero, Julie Restifo and Caridad Canelón.

There are MANY MORE. So many, that it's impossible to place their pictures in this post.

ALL OF THEM have my respect.

Jun 18, 2007

Remakes a la U.S.A.

What happens when remakes are produced in English and geared towards the U.S. general public? (not only geared toward Latinos)

A year ago, U.S. general and trade publications announced with a mix of curiosity and expectation that telenovelas had finally arrived to the U.S.: Newsweek, Broadcasting & Cable, Time, Multichannel News.

MyNetwork TV promoted its new productions Desire and Fashion House, based on Colombian telenovela scripts. And ABC was ready to launch in the upcoming Fall season Ugly Betty, based on (also Colombian) Yo soy Betty, la Fea.

A year later the telenovela landscape in the U.S. is, seemingly, a paradox. On the one hand, we can't find telenovelas in MyNetwork TV (Variety). On the other hand, Ugly Betty is a certified television phenomenon. Acclaimed by critics and audiences, the show has garnered some of the most prestigious awards in television, including a Golden Globe and a Peabody.

What are the reasons for this disparity in the reception of MyNetwork TV telenovelas and Ugly Betty?

Possibly the following:

1.- Because the press presented MyNetwork TV telenovelas as "over the top melodramas" closely related to soap operas, these shows were perceived by the non-Latino U.S. audience as "trash TV". This isn't surprising since that's the way soap operas are depicted in the mainstream discourse, even though some of today's television hits, like Desperate Housewives and Grey's Anatomy have a high dose of melodrama.

2.- What MyNetwork TV presented us as "telenovelas" was really the network's executives and producers interpretation of the Latin American genre. Therefore, these productions included characters and situations that lacked the flavor of telenovelas. Hence, the Latino audience didn't "feel" they were telenovelas and wasn't attracted to them at all.

3.- In contrast, Ugly Betty isn't really a telenovela. It's more of a hybrid between two television genres that Americans (and everyone who watches U.S.-made TV) know well: The sitcom and the series (with its 1-hour format, regimented by the "season" concept, prevalent in U.S. television). Therefore, Ugly Betty's format felt familiar to the U.S. audience, (which generally doesn't know what a telenovela is, and/or despises the Latin American genre).

4.- Ugly Betty also benefitted from being preceded by the success of the film The Devil Wears Prada, which has striking similarities with Ugly Betty.

5.- With very few exceptions, the casts of MyNetwork TV "telenovelas" were conformed by actors perceived as "second class." While the cast of Ugly Betty showcased talent. In particular, protagonist América Ferrera is a gifted actor who had already demonstrated her talent in the excellent Real Women Have Curves.

What will happen now that NBC has acquired the rights for Colombian mini-telenovela Sin Tetas no hay Paraíso (Without Breasts there is no Paradise) (video), based on its namesake novel written by Gustavo Bolívar? Will it become another one-hour, once-a-week sitcom/series like ABC's Betty?

Most probably, since both were acquired and re-conceptualized for the U.S. market by Ben Silverman.

In sum, even though telenovelas are watched in over 130 countries, they haven't been able to attract the U.S. English-speaking audience. So far, this public hasn't have access to real telenovelas, only to remakes that change their essence. We don't know yet if one day the U.S. will watch telenovelas. In this sense, this public is still one of the last frontiers the telenovela hasn't been able to conquer.

PS: Further questions I ask myself:
1.- Why are U.S. television executives so attracted to the stories written by Colombian authors?
2.- Why are Mexican executives so attracted to remaking Colombian and Argentinean telenovelas?
3.-Why aren't Brazilian and Venezuelan telenovelas as attractive for remakes?

Jun 10, 2007

Original Stories or Remakes?

This week I had the pleasure of being interviewed by Luis Clemens, a freelance reporter who covers Hispanic marketing and media for trade publications such as Multichannel News.

In his blog, Clemenseando, Clemens wrote a post titled Too Many Telenovela Remakes? in which he describes the current telenovela landscape in U.S. Spanish speaking networks:

All three of Univision's primetime telenovelas are remakes. "La Fea Más Bella" is a Televisa remake of Fernando Gaitán's "Yo soy Betty, la fea." "Destilando Amor" is the Mexicanization of another Gaitán novela "Café, con aroma de mujer". In the new Televisa-produced version, Colombian coffee has been replaced with Mexican tequila. (The original setting of a coffee plantation has been replaced with an agave plantation and agave is the basic ingredient of tequila). "Duelo de Pasiones" is yet another Televisa remake. This novela is a remake of "Flor de las Nieves", which first aired in Cuba in the late 1950s.

To be sure, remakes aren't exclusive to the U.S. telenovela landscape. Remakes ("refritos", as they are commonly called in Venezuela) are present in many television stations across the world which, like Univisión, purchase their telenovelas from Mexican giant Televisa.

In Venezuela, remakes also have a place in television production. In the last few years, RCTV re-made as single shows some of its most successful telenovelas like La Señora de Cárdenas, Natalia de 8 a 9 and Silvia Rivas, Divorciada, all originally written by José Ignacio Cabrujas. In 2006, RCTV broadcast to low ratings a remake of Julio César Mármol's El Desprecio. And before being taken off the air by the government's cancellation of its license, RCTV was airing Mi Prima Ciela, written by Pilar Romero as a remake of her two successful telenovelas Elizabeth and Maite. Venevisión has also produced remakes of variable quality and degrees of success. (By the way, the question why remakes aren't always successful in Venezuela merits a separate post).

As I told Clemens, when he interviewed me, I'm not against remakes. But, I am against producing an excessive number of them. I also disagree with those who see the remake as the only production option, or as their preferred production choice. I firmly believe that it isn't healthy for the telenovela industry that one of its crucial players--Televisa--produces almost exclusively remakes. This focus on remake production will gradually asphyxiate creativity, diminish the generation of new plots and the possibilities of Latin Americans telling the stories of who we are and how we love. In the long term, remakes may produce fatigue in the audience as the genre will lose its freshness.

Last summer Produ.com published on its website a collection of videotaped interviews with key producers and writers discussing the issue of remakes. In his interview, Colombian writer Fernando Gaitán, whose marvellous Yo soy Betty, la Fea has been successfully remade in many countries, and is the inspiration for ABC's Ugly Betty, states that "television can't continue repeating itself, they're going to kill the genre", and adds "the remake is eating up the telenovela".

Award-winning Venezuelan author Alberto Barrera Tyszka hits the nail on the head when he states that the current emphasis on remakes "is related to one of the telenovela industry's strongest anxieties: how to guarantee success".
Certainly, the percepction among many networks executives is that remakes are sure successes. This is particularly true in Mexico.

And, even though Mexican producers like Salvador Mejías argue that they are the ones taking risks "because the issue is that people don't feel it's a remake", it seems obvious to me that the preference for remakes is a telltale sign that the "business" aspect of the telenovela is paramount and more important than any of the other facets of this media/cultural product that so defines Latin Americans.

I alway say that telenovelas have a little (or a lot) of Cinderella, Romeo and Juliet, The Count of Montecristo, The Prince and the Pauper, The Man in the Iron Mask and Ugly Duckling, among other classic plots. Notwithstanding this common ground, Latin American creativity has produced wonderfully diverse love stories with characters we know and recognize. These are stories about ourselves, and as such they must evolve with the social formation and not get stuck in a vicious cycle of repetition.

(Note: Here you can find several video interviews with Fernando Gaitán in Spanish, including the one in which he discusses remakes. Also, through the link Ver más opiniones del Remake, you can access other interviews on this same topic).

Jun 2, 2007

Telenovelas and the Closing of RCTV

In the sad and worrisome saga of the closing of RCTV, telenovelas have taken center stage.

In political discourse:

On May 26, one day before closing RCTV, Chávez mentioned telenovelas as one of RCTV-induced worst ills in Venezuelan society, calling them "pure poison" that promote capitalism, "a danger for the country, for boys, for girls.” Ironic words coming from one of the most important beneficiaries from the ideological work performed in the mid 1990s by RCTV's telenovela Por Estas Calles.

Telenovelas are also an ingredient of the opposition's discourse that criticizes the closing of RCTV. For instance, Monsignor Roberto Lückert, vicepresident of the Venezuelan Episcopal Conference, Conferencia Episcopal Venezolana , declared in daily El Universal that the end of Radio Caracas Televisión (RCTV) “injures the Venezuelan sentiment because it is one of the oldest communication enterprises in the country" , whose telenovelas and humorous shows were “part of Venezuela's sentiments and feelings”. Surprising words coming from the Catholic Church, which has traditionally criticized telenovelas, but consistent with the logic of polarization that pervades my country.

In academic discourse:

There is an acknowledgement of the privileged sociocultural role that telenovelas play in Venezuela. In Latin America in general, and in Venezuela in particular, melodrama is a key element of identity. (Personally, I keep searching for the English equivalent to the verb “despechar”… and haven't been able to find it, after many years...is it that only Latin Americans can be "despechados?" Maybe that's why boleros, rancheras and telenovelas are Latin American. ) Academic discourse in Venezuela also acknowledges the role that fiction plays in our imaginary. As sociologist Tulio Hernánez expressed en El Universal on June 1st:

“In fiction, only in fiction, life is as we would like it to be: Good people are rewared, bad people are punished, and suffering lovers trust their eternal love. Fiction is a commercial product that the masses perceived and celebrate with a high degree of identification. As part of Venezuelan culture, every night people watch with focused attention an episode of their favorite story and follow the comings and goings of its characters. RCTV, as the pioneering and oldest network with 53 years of history and the largest number of telenovelas under its belt, has created an affective and emotional link with the audience."

In the public's perception(s):

In blogs and Internet chatrooms dedicated to Venezuelan television, there are many posts indicating how the audience misses watching RCTV's telenovelas. “What about my telenovelas?”, is the question being asked by a generation that has chosen every night between RCTV, Venevisión, and more recently, Televén.

Surely, some of RCTV shows have found and alternative outlet. We can watch newscast El Observador in youtube. And it seems that humorous show La Rochela will be on the air this coming Monday on Globovisión. But...what about telenovelas? It's hard to imagine them on any outlet related to Internet, like youtube and Globovisión, because that would hamper international sales, which are the most important source of income for what is left of RCTV. Therefore, I don't think the audience will be able to watch its telenovelas in the near future.

Before ending this long post, I must mention how important it has become for the Venezuelan audience to see telenovela actors express publicly their rejection to the closing of RCTV. And even though throughout my research I've learned that both in RCTV and self-censored Venevisión there are actors from every political stance, the audience uses the simplistic and manichean logic of polarization and assumes that if an actor hasn't voiced publicly (VERY publicly, as in standing on the stage of one of the street protests, or appearing on a TV opinion show) their rejection of the government's measure against RCTV, then that actor must be "chavista", a supporter of Hugo Chávez. (See in Spanish: 1 and 2). The public (and some of the entertainment columns) now are the judges of actors' credibility, and their judgement is based on political position. In these perceptions we see, one more time, evidences of the domination of the logic of polarization, the use of labels (“chavista”, “antichavista”, etc.) to organize reality, and the wide fracture in Venezuelan society. And all these factors help the government, not those who opppose it.

Actors are also the target of the government's attacks. The Chávez government understands well the power of popular culture and its voices in Venezuela, and, therefore, wants to diminish and silence those powerful voices when they aren't on their own side. Hence, we see Chávez further demonizing the private media, arguing that these "manipulate people's feelings" by "placing a bunch of crying actors on the screen. It's a terrible thing, typical of fascism."

Yesterday, actors protested in the streets of Caracas and turned in an important document to the OAS. It's a first step to "rescue the public spaces that have been seized and taken away from us" (actor, writer and university professor Javier Vidal).

And this is the heart of the matter:
The government closes spaces and limits our options. Among these options are telenovelas. Those imperfect and controversial melodramas that are part and parcel of Venezuelans' daily diet and identity.

---Cartoon taken from The Economist-May 30, 2007