Federico León, Exploring the frontiers of reality

Exploring the frontiers of reality

Twelve years after he was mentored by acclaimed American theatre director Robert Wilson, Argentina’s Federico León is working on a range of projects, from a memorial to Buenos Aires’ lost cinemas to a minimalist play exploring the process of creation.

Just back from Europe, where he had spent the previous four months on the road in Germany, Switzerland, Italy and Spain producing and performing in his latest play Las Ideas, Argentinian writer, director and actor Federico León is taking a moment to breathe. 

“There are a lot of impressions to process,” he says. “A lot of sights and sounds.” Mostly, the impressions are positive. “The response to Las Ideas was good. Different in different countries, but I was very pleased.”

León’s fourth play since his year as a Rolex theatre protégé in 2002–2003, Las Ideas depicts a writer (played by León himself) and his assistant (played by his collaborator and assistant of many years, Julián Tello) discussing a potential work on either side of a partly up-folded ping-pong table (the vertical panel stands at the threshold between the real and the unreal, a surface to write, draw and project images on).

Federico León (right) recently toured his play Las Ideas in Europe. Las Ideas ©Ignacio Lasparra

Federico León (right) recently toured his play Las Ideas in Europe. Las Ideas ©Ignacio Lasparra

A minimalist two-hander, dealing with the process of creation, and exploring notions of the real and unreal, it seems a long way from Las Multitudes, his last work, produced in 2012, a piece which involved 120 actors on stage at the same time and explored social interaction and social archetypes. 

“There is a big difference between Las Multitudes and Las Ideas, but they are both about communication really,” says León. “How we talk to each other. How we represent things. Las Ideas was certainly simpler in terms of casting, but it was complicated from a technical point of view, and writing it wasn’t a deliberate move to simplify things. To be honest, I don’t really understand the process that brings me to a subject. It’s very organic. I find myself in the space that the work comes out of.”

The physical space in which León generally finds himself is his home in El Abasto, a neighbourhood of Buenos Aires filled with independent theatres and playwriting workshops – a space which informs much of what he does and underpins an approach to creation that, while rooted in reality, is nevertheless profoundly about ideas and challenging assumptions. 

León spends most of his time at home, working on productions – he rehearses most of his plays for a year or a year and a half – or teaching in the workshop that he has built in his house. He also makes films from time to time. There have been two since his protégé year: Estrellas (2007) which he made in collaboration with Marcos Martínez and was awarded the Special Jury Prize at the 9th Festival of Independent Cinema of Buenos Aires; and Entretenamiento elemental para actores (2009) which he made in collaboration with Martín Rejtman, a cutting-edge film-maker of new Argentinian cinema.

León’s play Las Ideas explores the process of creation. Las Ideas ©Ignacio Lasparra

León’s play Las Ideas explores the process of creation. Las Ideas ©Ignacio Lasparra

“I need space between projects to breathe, and find out where I am. I took up yoga a couple of years ago. And I find... this adopting unnatural poses, and striving for stability... I find it to be very evocative.” 

Last year – between difficult poses, as it were – León also found time to work on a project called La Ultima Pelicula, which was part of the Changing Places Festival in Buenos Aires. “The project was a kind of memorial for the cinemas that are being replaced by garages.” 

León and a group of fellow artists set up projections of the last film that was shown on the walls of a former cinema. “It was the first time in 40 years that the film was projected there, and the walls are all covered in grease now, and it’s like a ghost of the cinema on the wall. Like a drive-in cinema, but with a roof.” 

And now León is going to spend some time at home. Which sounds relaxing until you realize that he is putting the finishing touches to a 50-seat theatre that he has built in his house, taking time out from setting up the lights and sound for the first show, Las Ideas. “I am going to be playing in front of my mother and family and friends. And that is always a little nerve-racking,” he explains.