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Stories about San José

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The Cultural Center and Eugene O'Neill Theater are Treasures of Costa Rica

Updated: Jul 1, 2018

by Michael Miller

(August, 2015)

The Cultural Center and Eugene O’Neill Theater are Treasures of Costa Rica.

If you are a North American with a middle-class income, you probably do not go to the opera very often.  It is even less likely that you would fly off to England to watch one of the London Theater’s top-notch theatrical works.  And it is inconceivable that you would visit Moscow to watch the Bolshoi Ballet.

But if you live in Costa Rica, you can enjoy all of these things. And you can do so at a fraction of the cost.

San José, Costa Rica is fortunate to have the Centro Cultural Costarricense-Norteamericano.  In English it is the Costa Rican-North American Cultural Center, or just the “Cultural Center.”

The headquarters and main location the Cultural Center is on Calle 37 about 150 meters north of Avenida 2. It includes the popular Eugene O’Neill Theater.

The Cultural Center is a bi-national non-profit organization that works closely with the U. S. Embassy to help promote diplomacy, cultural awareness and language teaching.  There are several branches of the Cultural Center, but the headquarters is just outside of Downtown San José, on the way to the San Pedro Mall.

The San Pedro Headquarters of the Cultural Center includes one of San José‘s great treasures:  The Eugene O’Neill Theater.  This is an intimate theater that seats 300 and is renowned for it’s state-of-the-art Bose sound system.

At the Eugene O’Neill Theater you can watch live jazz performances, chamber music, choral music, plays, classical recitals and much more.

You can also attend the opera. Not just any opera: The New York Metropolitan Opera.  Live!  As it is happening!

Executive Director of the Cultural Center, Karl Schmack, left, and past board member, Jerry Leden, right, discuss this season’s schedule of New York Metropolitan Opera performances, which will appear at the Center.

The Eugene O’Neill Theater in San José receives live broadcasts of opera performances directly from The Met via satellite. The Theater then projects the images on stage in high-definition, accompanied with exquisite stereo sound.

The results are stunning,” Said Jerry Ledin, a former member of the Cultural Center’s board of directors. “It is almost like being at The Met in person.”

In some ways it is even better.” Said Karl Schmack, the Cultural Center’s executive director. “Because the performance is captured by cameras from many different angles, you will always have the best seat in the house.”

Russian-born soprano, Anna Netrebko, will star in this season’s first opera performance: Verdi’s “Il Trovatore” on October 3rd. It will appear at the Cultural Center, live from the New York Metropolitan Opera.

The Cultural Center is very excited about this coming opera season. It begins on October 3rd with Guiseppe Verdi’s “Il Trovatore,” starring Russian born soprano Anna Netrebko.

In addition to the opera, the Cultural Center also presents similar high-definition performances of plays from The London Theater, and ballets from the Bolshoi in Moscow.

And this August and September, the Cultural Center will be presenting a series of films that focus on important artists.  Beginning on Tuesday, August 18, 2015 there will be a film about Van Gogh.

We will keep you up to date with events at the Cultural Center that should be of interest to the expat community.

Classrooms at the Cultural Center are often used for their popular English classes. The Cultural Center is one of the most prestigious places for Ticos to learn English.

The Cultural Center also serves many other functions.  They are best known for teaching English to Costa Rican students.  At each of their locations, they offer English classes for children, for teens and for adults.  They also offer job placement and career assistance for their bi-lingual students.

One of the most popular services that the Cultural Center provides is help for young Costa Ricans who want to study in the United States.  They prepare the students for the SAT tests, and then they administer the tests.  They help provide students and families with information about living and studying at universities in the USA.  They will help guide the Tico students with the visa requirements, student financial aid, and the reams of paperwork.

The Mark Twain Library at the Cultural Center includes English-language books, periodicals, DVDs, internet work-stations, and many other resources for students and members.

Each of the locations of the Cultural Center has a library of English-language books. The libraries are called Mark Twain Libraries, and they offer more than just books. You will find an impressive selection of audio books, periodicals, videos, DVDs, internet work stations and reference material. I am very pleased that their collection includes a copy of The Real San José, the first and only guide book that focuses on Downtown San José.

Executive Director, Karl Schmack, points out that the Cultural Center receives donations of used books from members of the English speaking community in Costa Rica.  Some of those books become part of the Mark Twain Library system.  And many others are donated to needy schools throughout Costa Rica.

Mr. Schmack says that the Cultural Center encourages participation and involvement from Americans and other expats.  Whether it is to attend the opera or other events, to use the Mark Twain Library, or to make use of any of their other services, visitors are always welcomed. And, Mr. Schmack adds, we are always happy for members of the expat community to volunteer their time for the Center.

American history, and great works in American and English literature are part of what is available at the Cultural Center’s Mark Twain Library.

The headquarters of the Cultural Center, and the Eugene O’Neill Theater are located on Calle 37, 150 meters north of Avenida 2.  For a list of the locations of all the Cultural Center branches, and their hours of operations, click here: Locations.

The Costa Rican-North American Cultural Center, and it’s Eugene O’Neill Theater, are among the great resources of Costa Rica.  They are  an important part of "the real San José."

Michael Miller is the author of the first and only guide book that focuses on Downtown San José, Costa Rica, titled The Real San José. Paperback copies are available for sale at selected retail outlets in San José.  An electronic version of The Real San José is available at Amazon/Kindle.  To access it, click here.

Your questions and comments are always welcomed. You can contact Michael directly by email: You can see additional stories that Michael has written about Downtown San José at his website:

**********BONUS  **********

Interview with Karl Schmack, Executive Director, Centro Cultural Costarricense-Norteamerican (in English; Costa Rican-North American Cultural Center)

Interview conducted by Michael Miller, July, 2015, for The Amigos del Torres RiverWalk Costa Rica.

We are very pleased to have the Centro Cultural Costarricense-Norteamericano (the Costa Rican-North American Cultural Center) as a corporate sponsor for The Amigos del Torres RiverWalk Costa Rica. In addition, the Cultural Center’s Executive Director, Mr. Karl Schmack, has personally joined as an Amigo.

We are honored for this opportunity to interview Mr. Schmack. The interview took place at the main Cultural Center on Calle 37, between Downtown San José and San Pedro.

Q. Mr. Schmack, I notice out front that there is a Costa Rican flag and an American flag. Is the Cultural Center tied to the U.S. Embassy?

A. No. We are close friends. But we are independent of the Embassy. We are considered a “bi-national center.” And even though we are independent, we work very closely with the U. S. State Department. The State Department sees us as one of their most important partners for promoting diplomacy, cultural awareness and language teaching.

Q. Could you tell us a little something about the Costa Rican-North American Cultural Center?

A. Of course. The Cultural Center is a non-profit, independent organization. We were founded 70 years ago. We are a Non-Government Organization (NGO), and our funding comes from donations from private individuals and corporations, as well as some grants from the U. S. government.

We also have a sustainable business: Teaching English. We teach English to kids, to teenagers and to adults.

We have 5 sites: This one near San Pedro, one north of Sabana Park, one in Heredia, one in Cartago and another in Alajuela.

Besides our English classes, we also maintain libraries and art galleries at some of our centers. And here, at the main branch in San Pedro, we have the Eugene O’Neill Theater, which is a venue for many cultural events, such as live broadcasts from the Metropolitan Opera in New York and the London Theater. We also have performances from the Bolshoi Ballet, films that focus on great artists, as well as local performances of jazz, chamber music and much more.

Q. Mr. Schmack, in what ways can the Cultural Center and the Amigos work together?

A. There are several things. One of the things that we have offered, is the use of the facilities of the Cultural Center to the Amigos for meetings and activities. We are happy to share the Cultural Center with the Amigos whenever it is available.

In addition, we have offered the possibility of exposing our students to the goals of the Amigos. We know that there is a big educational component to the efforts of the Amigos. So we have invited the people from Rio Torres to do talks with our students about the environment, about the River, and about changing our culture and behavior towards safeguarding the River.

We have also offered to allow the Amigos to be a part of some of our cultural events. For example we have a jazz event coming next week. We have offered to let the Amigos sell tickets to up-coming events, and to keep part of the proceeds. So, we would give the Amigos 100 or 200 tickets; you would sell the tickets to your friends and associates, and it would be a fund-raising effort for the Amigos.

We would be happy to have the Amigos become more engaged with our events here at the Cultural Center.

Q. In your past experience, have you been involved with any community-action efforts like the Amigos?

A. Not exactly like this. My career, so far, has been mostly in the private sector. But working here at the Cultural Center, I believe we are constantly making important contributions in education and cultural awareness. In addition, I also serve on the board of directors of Junior Achievement, which is an organization that promotes entrepreneurship education among kids. And of course, here at the Center, we work closely with other NGOs.

I believe that if all of us give a little of our time, we can make a real impact.

Q. As you know, Mr. Schmack, the Amigos have a number of goals. One of them, is to have the Rio Torres cleaned. Another, is to create a River Walk along the River. Have you given any thought as to how difficult this might be?

A. To be honest, I consider the goals and the objectives of the group to be a very bold and ambitious project. I mean that in a positive sense. I think people need to think big and bold. That’s how difficult things get done. I respect tremendously the leaders of this organization in trying to turn around a river, that has been so neglected by the government and by the private sector, into something completely different.

I share the vision. I share the idea. I think it will take time. But I see that the group is very committed and very stubborn (in the positive sense). I think anything is possible. All it takes are big and bold ideas and some crazy people to make it happen. (Laughter.)

Q. “Stubborn” and “crazy” people? Can I quote you on that?

A. Yes. Of course. When Kennedy said, “Let’s go to the moon,” that was a big, bold idea. And some crazy people in NASA said, "We can do it." And they did it! Now we even have a space ship taking pictures of Pluto.

The Founding Fathers of the U.S.; they were also big, bold, stubborn, crazy people who made something amazing. But it requires a committed group of people. It requires endurance and following through. If you stay on track, you can achieve something.

Q. Finally, Mr. Schmack, what would you say is the most important aspect of the Amigos’ goals? Would it be:

Cleaning the River?

Community involvement?

Creation of cultural and educational sites along the River?

Creation of Jobs?

A. Actually, what I like about the Amigos is “all the above.” It’s not a single minded project. I think, we need to keep in mind the bigger goals, which is cleaning the River and creating a River Walk. But by also incorporating smaller milestones that can be actionable in the short term, that makes the project more interesting and more holistic.

Maybe the goal of cleaning the River will take years. But the fact that we can educate people. That’s a big win. The fact that we can make the bridges more attractive. And that there is less garbage around them. I think that’s a win.

If all the goals are achieved, all the better. But let’s also do small things that, little by little, will contribute to the goals. If these small things are visible, they will keep people motivated. People will see that things are moving forward. And with each small milestone, we will get closer to our big goals.

This interview was conducted by Michael Miller, author of the first and only guide book about Downtown San José, titled: The Real San José.

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