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A new revolution of micro-theaters

In the troubled cultural climate, playhouses are downsizing, with surprising results

An image from the production 'Los hijos de las nubes' in the Cuarta Pared theater in Madrid.
An image from the production 'Los hijos de las nubes' in the Cuarta Pared theater in Madrid.

When he steps out of the taxi, José Martínez looks around, checks that his wallet is still in his pocket, and grabs his wife firmly by the arm. He seems uneasy as he makes his way through the multi-racial throng that packs the narrow streets of Lavapiés in Madrid.

"THAT's the theater?" he asks in disbelief as he stops in front of number 24 Abades Street. Martínez is 69 years old and hasn't been to see a play in nearly a decade. His perplexity does not diminish when he walks into the theater, a dark and narrow place with 19th-century furnishings. And his patience is truly stretched to the limit when he pays his ticket and is led into a 20-square-meter room, and seated on an uncomfortable wooden chair that creaks with his every move. Soon after that, the lights go out and two bearded men dressed like schoolgirls make an appearance. José snorts, yawns and fidgets in his seat. "There's no way I'm staying until the end," he warns his embarrassed wife. The audience shushes him. More minutes go by, and disaster seems imminent.

But something happens during the 75-minute play. By the end of act one, José seems alert and focused; during act two he laughs more than 10 times, and by the time the show is over, his eyes are two large and tearful orbs, while his hands run the risk of ending up red raw from so much clapping. "Bravo!" he yells out, before exiting La Casa de la Portera.

When parliament becomes a theater, theater needs to become a parliament"

The work in question is called Las huérfanas (or, The orphan girls) and it is one of the latest successes by José Martret, director and founder of the playhouse. He and Jorge Calvo also star in this astounding comedy, which has overtones of Oscar-winning Spanish director Pedro Almodóvar's work. All 25 members of the audience were holding back tears after the two transvestites became increasingly complex and lovable as the plot developed.

It's not the first time this has happened. March 8 marked the first anniversary of the opening of La Casa de la Portera, once a dark and gloomy ground-floor premises that has been an anarchist club, a short-stay shelter for immigrants, and a janitor's home. The first play staged here was Ivan-Off , in the Chekhov version, and it launched one of the most surprising phenomena to take place in Spain's theater world for a long time. In the course of 14 months, more than 10,000 people have filled the 25 seats of La Casa de la Portera, according to their own estimates, and the founding pair have received around 30 proposals from well-known directors. The selected works play to packed houses and there is a one-month waiting list to buy tickets.

This theatrical miracle is not unique. Other alternative playhouses are staying afloat thanks to word-of-mouth. Other salient examples are Microteatro por Dinero, the pioneer of the short format, and Flyhard, which is captivating Barcelona audiences. There are other new spaces filled with quality plays, such as Madrid's Lumière, Kubik Fabrik, Sala Tú and Teatro del Arte, and Barcelona's Attic22, Atrium and Porta 4. These are just a few recent examples of success in the desolate landscape of the independent theater scene. UK daily The Guardian has referred to some of these venues as part of "a cultural revolution within Spanish theater."

It's a spontaneous response to the excesses of the establishment"

The alternative wave is nothing new in Spain. Since the 1980s, several theater companies and acting schools have opened unconventional premises aimed at smaller but more devoted audiences. In the 1990s, the movement was consolidated and produced playhouses such as Cuarta Pared and Triángulo in Madrid, and Beckett in Barcelona — the latter serving as the engine of growth of contemporary Catalan theater. Workshops, garages, derelict buildings and all kinds of impossible places were turned into theaters thanks to the efforts of their creators.

According to industry veterans, Madrid was always the hotbed of the national theater scene, and it continues to be so. Back in the Golden Age of Spanish letters, in the 16th and 17th centuries, some of the greatest geniuses of the written word, such as Cervantes, Lope de Vega, Góngora and Quevedo, all lived within a few streets of each other in the aptly named Barrio de las Letras in Madrid. Federico García Lorca, Rafael Alberti and Miguel Hernández all hung out in Madrid before the onset of the Civil War (1936-39). Spain's famous Movida — the post-dictatorship cultural revolution that spawned creative talents such as Pedro Almodóvar — had its epicenter here. And now, smack in the middle of the economic crisis, theater seems to be emerging from the ashes, in small spaces that have the power to attract audiences. Seasoned actor and director José María Pou is enthusiastic about it: "These playhouses are a fantastic hotbed for creators."

It is a kind of theater that captures the zeitgeist, and is born out of the impulse to act in the face of the difficulties the cultural sector is facing, in part due to the crisis and in part due to the government's decision to raise the value-added tax rate applied to theater and cinema tickets. Animalario was the company that got the ball rolling, and their 2004 play La boda de Alejandro y Ana marked a watershed moment in the Spanish theater scene. This satire about right-wing ideology was staged at an actual wedding banquet hall, and one of its creators, Alberto San Juan, is back at alternative venues these days — places like Cuarta Pared or Triángulo — to do short monologues from protest plays. In fact, San Juan says that this resurgence of the independent theater scene is closely linked to the need for social change in Spain: "They said it back in '68: when parliament becomes theater, theater needs to become a parliament."

New playhouses, new formats... What is going on? For some, it's a revolution, "a spontaneous response to the excesses of the establishment," says the playwright Félix Sabroso. More pessimistic observers note the recent closure of legendary theaters such as Ítaca, Albéniz, Tis and Espada de Madera. But nearly everyone thinks they see a light at the end of the tunnel. "These places are a laboratory with a future ahead of them," says José María Pou. Or in the words of José Martret, this is "subcutaneous theater," which gets under the audience's skin and into their bodies, to show us that art is all about joy, self-confidence and hope — even in these troubled times.

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