How community spirit is saving theater

Cash-strapped playhouses are banding together to fight for their very survival

Patricia Ortega Dolz
A networking meeting of theater professionals at the Teatro Pradillo in Madrid.
A networking meeting of theater professionals at the Teatro Pradillo in Madrid.SAMUEL SÁNCHEZ (EL PAÍS)

The letter that the spectator sent to the theater manager went like this: “Dear Ángel, I want you to know that I am stepping out of the theater with a greater love of life. I am walking out with a desire to be a better person — and that may very well be the most beautiful mission of theater, and of art in general. Please extend my thanks to the entire cast. Let it serve as encouragement to you, knowing that you are doing a lot of people a lot of good. With warm wishes, Pedro.”

There are hundreds of handwritten letters just like this one.

Ángel is Ángel Gutiérrez, director of Teatro de Cámara de Chejov (or, The Chekhov Chamber Theater), the same playhouse that was on the verge of shutting down after the regional government of Madrid axed the annual 44,000-euro grant that allowed it to survive. But it has been saved by a last-minute miracle.

With public coffers now empty, theaters are finding it hard to survive after being heavily subsidized since the 1970s and 1980s out of a democratic desire to make culture more affordable for everybody. But nobody has a euro to spend on culture in these times of crisis, and those who do are not willing to pay for something that used to be free — or nearly.

The upside is that the theatrical débâcle has triggered an underground movement best described as a desperate struggle for survival in the wasteland left behind by the property bust. A multitude of initiatives are running parallel to the soaring risk premium and the sinking lender Bankia. What’s more, they are thriving on near-forgotten concepts such as the community versus the individual, happiness versus success, personal growth versus economic growth, and enjoying your job versus sacrificing yourself for work. It is the 15-M protest movement of the theater world, minus the placard-waving and the pot-banging.

Instead of holding open-air assemblies, as the 15-M movement does, theater folks hold networking sessions to exchange business cards, ideas and experiences. Or else they stage plays in private living rooms, as art director Alberto Puraenvidia and stage director José Martret did in La Portera. Sometimes they place piggy banks at the entrance and let audiences decide how much the show was worth. Other times they turn neighborhood residents into partners in a theater project to get the community more involved. They also resort to crowdfunding to find individual sponsors, a technique used by the struggling magazine Primer Acto, which has been published since 1957.

Theater folks hold networking sessions to exchange business cards and ideas

The latest experiment, the one that saved Teatro de Cámara de Chéjov, brought together the playhouse with the International University of La Rioja, an online education center that wants to offer a master’s degree in stage direction and performance.

FAETEDA, the State Federation of Theater and Dance Company Associations, has been warning the industry for a couple of years about the crisis of a business model that relies too heavily on public agencies for revenues. It has also suggested alternatives, such as for theaters to eliminate the middleman (the public agencies) and seek out their audiences directly. Or for theater companies to run the public theaters, using “strictly cultural criteria, with a price limit and the knowledge that managers know what they’re doing,” explains María López, a federation member.

Faced with the choice of going under or reinventing themselves, many theater professionals have decided to fight for the thing that makes them feel alive. Perhaps that is what drew so many of them to Sala Pradillo last Monday for the first of the networking get-togethers. More than 60 people showed up, from the former managing director of the Festival de Otoño, José Manuel Gorospe, to the producer of Teatro de la Zarzuela, Margarita Jiménez, and actresses like Amalia Hornero.

The meeting was organized by Cultproject, a communications agency specializing in performing arts events. All it took was a few potato omelets and some wine to get people talking, saying things like: “There were times when I made 57 euros for a month of work” (Merche Segura, 31, actress); “Culture is devalued; what would happen to a painter like Picasso right now? Subsidies should be there to encourage new projects, but they should be returned once the projects turn a profit. How is it possible that Almodóvar gets subsidies?” (Jorge, actor). “The trouble is that public managers have forgotten that they had this public money to bring cultural programming to those spaces, not to rent them out for weddings and baptisms” (Margarita Jiménez); “The Patronage Law is destroying the cultural fabric; first they forced us to become companies and now, with the new legislation, they are leaving us out because it is aimed primarily at associations and foundations” (Getsemani de San Marcos, director of Sala Pradillo); “We can still join forces to come up with ideas, to create an economy that runs parallel to Bankia’s; we can help each other out.” (José Manuel Gorospe, former managing director for the Madrid-based Festival de Otoño).

In this giant theatrical backstage, there is still the odd agency that is willing to keep its cultural centers open, even if it means hiring a bunch of amateurs willing to work for a song, and getting criticized for encouraging the underground economy.

“We recently traveled to Bilbao in cars and vans and slept in the student residence because we had almost no money. Our salary was not quite 50 euros,” says an actress from Madrid who runs her own theater company and directs children’s shows.

In the meantime, the public keeps leaving letters and messages outside Teatro de Cámara de Chéjov: “A powerful story that reminds us that you should never forget your dreams. Congratulations!”

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