La Candelaria, in Bogotá, is the Colombian capital's historic heart. The district's brightly painted Spanish colonial houses are set on cobbled lanes, filled with students and street sellers, that rise steeply into the Andean mist. Along with universities and libraries, it was a cradle of experimental theatre in the 1960s, and houses one of South America's most renowned companies. Teatro La Candelaria began 40 years ago, says its artistic director, Santiago García Pinzón, with the aim of "making a theatre where you can read the reality of Colombian society".
In 1966, García co-founded the Casa de la Cultura; it soon moved into a converted house on Calle 12 in La Candelaria. A backyard that once housed chickens and pigs is now a 200-seater auditorium, attached to a single-storey building with a central patio and café.
For García, aged 77, creating an audience has been the greatest achievement. Almost all the year's schedule of 150 performances are sold out. Committed to fostering work by Colombian writers, the theatre has made 22 original works - 12 written by actors, and ten through collective improvisation. Its plays are used by other theatre groups, and the troupe's 18 actors have taken their productions across the Americas and Europe.
One of Teatro La Candelaria's most recent and powerfully visual works, Nayra, comes to London this month as part of the Barbican's Bite festival of international theatre. The 70-minute play will be performed in Spanish (with English synopsis provided). It uses Catholic iconography, kitsch props and Amerindian shamans to explore memory and myth, history and dreams, in a landscape scarred by loss and dispossession.
"A strong sense of frustration, hopelessness and fear is creating a disbelief in reality," says García. "Of Colombia's 45 million population, 32 million are living in poverty. And it's getting worse: the riches of this country are increasingly concentrated in a small group." Bounded by mountains to the east, the Colombian capital is sharply divided between a largely affluent north and a sprawlingly poor south, the two sides separated by downtown Bogotá, with its skyscrapers, and the Candelaria quarter. In a poor corner of the north-east, a cult of the Baby Jesus has evolved in the barrio of Veinte de Julio. "Every Sunday, thousands go to pray to the infant for help. It's a Christian religious belief that's been paganised. More people are finding refuge in myth and religious belief - sometimes in mad ideas. And it's not only the poor: a chief judge in the country has an adviser who's a hypnotist. Our work is a procession of all these myths and beliefs among all different classes."
The company's methods were inspired partly by the work of Joan Littlewood in the 1960s and by Ariane Mnouchkine, of the Théâtre du Soleil in Paris. Improvisation is spread over 18 months, including workshops with audiences, before the troupe sits down together to write and even tually publish a final script. But, as García says, "There's always a margin of improvisation - every night is a little different."
The germ of each play is often a historical incident. Past works include 1980's Golpe de suerte, about the lure of easy narco-money among the poor, and El paso (1987), which draws an analogy between Colombia's relinquishing of Panama to the US and the loss of its heartland to drug trafficking. "For 20 years a few gringos would come with a lot of money, buying land and starting cocaine production. No one cared," says García. "But now it's too late. The corruption has spread."
One of Teatro La Candelaria's most popular works, Guadalupe años sin cuenta (1975), probes the roots of la Violencia - Colombia's undeclared civil war, sparked by riots in Bogotá after the socialist mayor Jorge Eliécer Gaitán was assassinated in 1948. "Three hundred thousand people died in the 1950s, starting with riots between liberals and conservatives that developed into popular riots, especially in the plains of eastern Colombia - the origin of the guerrillas." Although today President Álvaro Uribe Vélez's policy of "democratic security" has improved safety in Colombia's cities and corridors between them, war still blights the countryside and hundreds of thousands of people have been displaced. Yet improved urban security was a significant factor in his re-election in May. "Uribe's solution is an authoritarian one - send in more military - and the whole country is voting for him, even those from the democratic sector, because everyone's tired of 50 years of war."
Another improvised play, De caos y decacaos (2002), took its cue from chaos theory and how "a butterfly's wings can make everything collapse. We took private facts about public figures and showed how private lives can throw order into chaos. The names were changed, but the result was incredibly comic. We work with mediated references and it is for the audience to draw the connections. They may strike them only afterwards, when they are reading the newspaper." Hardly any work, García says, is "not political. But we're not trying to do 'political theatre', or propaganda."
There are 35 other experimental theatre groups in Bogotá - ten in La Candelaria alone - and the city hosts a major Ibero-American theatre fes tival every other year. Yet García says that "it's pathetic what is coming to us from the government" - though he has just won recognition in the form of a lifetime achievement award from the mayor of Bogotá.
García is one of four of the original 20 founders still with the group. Some "left for economic reasons, and are now earning far more as TV stars". He, too, has acted in film and television - Colombia is a powerful exporter of telenovelas within Latin America - but according to Rafael Giraldo, one of the actors, "Santiago always had a Plan A, Plan B and Plan C. If all failed, he'd do TV."
The group's latest work, Antigone, draws resonance from the "conflict between the authorities defending the law and the heroine defending tradition. It relates clearly to Colombia, where there are strong family rules, and respect between brothers and neighbours. The war has pitted brothers and neighbours against each other." The play exposes the gulf "between justice and law" as the country grapples with controversial amnesty measures. "The government is creating a new law for the paramilitaries, for them to disarm, which almost makes heroes of them, after all the massacres," the director says. "There's a different law for the guerrillas."
García notes that the voice defending justice is a woman's: Antigone's. "Women in Colombia play a big part in defending life and justice," he says, "whereas men are usually silent."
Teatro La Candelaria's "Nayra" is at the Barbican Centre, London EC2, from 31 October to 4 November. For more details log on to: www.barbican.org.uk