Madrid’s theater scene is experiencing a boom, with some of the most exciting works mounted by troupes acting in the smallest theaters with the least name recognition, often on non-existent budgets. Small house productions are popping up at off-market theaters throughout a city making headway in establishing itself as a serious player on the independent theater scene.
This is a brief introduction to three of the many grassroots groups in Madrid that deserve a look.
Bombín Teatro was envisioned as an opportunity to foster exchange between theater communities in Spain and Argentina. Joaquín Gómez began the company with his Buenos Aires production of Tríptico, o la Desolación de Rafael, a deeply personal work that explored the ego, ambition and internal divisions of one character—a struggling writer/actor/director—played by three different actors of different nationalities, accents and appearances. The work was a provocative meditation on identity, which earned him a run in Madrid.
We wanted to spin the bedroom around and put the public inside the scene, blame them. The girl is now hanging above your head.
For his next production, currently on stage at Sala Teatro La Usina he directed his attention towards more traditional material: Lorca’s La Casa de Bernarda Alba. Lorca’s masterpiece, written in 1936 and too blatantly political for a Spain torn by civil war, a dictatorial patriarch and a church seeped in the cult of the virgin, was performed for the first time in Argentina, which leads Gómez to feel connected to the work.
What’s fresh about this production of Bernarda Alba? Gómez says it’s Bernarda herself. He aimed to probe beyond the simple depiction of an authoritarian matriarch and expose, if not justifications for, than at least reasons behind her rigidity.
They chose to show “a woman alone in her bedroom, so that we see who is behind the hard mask, the pain she is experiencing from her loss [the death of her husband is what immediately precedes the action of the text]… the fear she has of losing her mind like her mother. That is where you find our innovation. Nobody is so good or so evil.”
The ending is an example of how, in Gómez’s words, you can “dust off a classic.” Through powerful choreography, the whole scene is inverted. The bedroom, the sight of the play’s ultimate tragedy is transported from behind the action to an imagined space right above the audience. “We wanted to spin the bedroom around and put the public inside the scene, blame them. The girl is now hanging above your head.”
And what does he think of Madrid’s theater scene in times of crisis? “The crisis, in one way, helps theater. With money theater can explode commercially, but in times of crisis, you do with what you have. With few resources you can do a lot.”
If he could make one change to Madrid’s theater scene? “I would like to see more of a reflection of the diversity that exists in Spain.”
Casa de Bernarda Alba runs Sundays in February at Sala Teatro La Usina.
Casa de la Portera takes another novel approach to classic material. Those in attendance are not so much audience members as participants in the events that populate the text.
In a little rented apartment in La Latina they invite theater-goers into the action. You sit in the living room with Nikolai Ivanov, wallowing in his melancholy from the chair next to his. You cringe as Chekhov’s famous gun—destined to go off before the final act has come to a close—waves wildly around the office where you are seated in an easy chair, part of the set rather than safely in the public. You race in and out of the play’s action, your position in the audience, and your position in an apartment with people who are dressed to attend another century’s dinner party. Reality and fiction are urged to do exactly what it is they are supposed to: challenge each other, reflect on each other, dissolve into each other.
The divide between observer and observed is significantly diminished, and a classic is injected with a tangible vigor. This is truly innovative, and truly independent theater at its best.
José Martret is the directorial mind behind the theater, which he says found influences in projects encountered in Argentina as well as from the next theater on our list, Microteatro Por Dinero. However, most of the other projects that he was aware of which elided the divide between audience and cast, did so in short format. He wanted to test the limits with something lengthier. Ivan-off was their first effort and it was a grand success, which led to a series of projects. At present, there are five performances being staged seven days a week.
The idea to start the theater “came from the pure necessity to work, to keep creating, and not to depend on the decisions of producers, or program directors, or theaters,” says José.
What does José think about the state of Madrid’s theater during the crisis: “I think that at this moment when a spectator is going to spend their money, they think about it very carefully. When they enter the Casa de la Portera they see that they have invested in something absolutely unique.” It seems to have paid off. At present, to get hold of a ticket to one of their shows you need to book two weeks in advance.
What would he change about theater in Madrid? “We need to lower the intensity of the mistreatment of theater and culture. That’s what I would change. Actors, directors and producers are fighting for their work, and it should be a little easier.”
Casa de la Portera has shows playing seven days a week. Ivan-off will return for a second run in March.
Microteatro por Dinero is the best known of the three theaters here discussed. They start with a theme that rotates monthly—for love, for money, for papers, for Christmas, for family, for my crisis—and stage a group of 5 short pieces each running 6 times daily.
It’s like a dare. Tell me a story in fifteen minutes. A story that people will understand.
The group began humbly in November 2009 with a series of short plays about prostitution (for money, a theme that is revisited annually) staged in a makeshift theater near Plaza la Luna. When they were offered a butcher shop that had fallen into disrepair, they transformed the space and have never looked back.
Veronica Larios, manager and co-owner of the theater, says “microteatro had a lot to do with the resurgence of the neighborhood.” In fact, they were one of the first new businesses in a district that has quickly become one of the city’s coolest zones.
Many of their patrons, says Veronica, “are people who might not normally go to the theater… It’s an alternative form of entertainment… Friends want to eat, have a beer. Here we have both, plus, the opportunity to see a show.” She adds, “If you come once, you will come back.”
The actors and writers, many of whom are well-known, or at least names frequently visible on the credits of sitcoms, are attracted to an opportunity to be closer to the crowd, and to be involved in the creative process in a way that is impossible in their ‘day jobs’.Part of what Veronica calls the theater’s “accessibility” to artists, is based on the sheer volume of opportunity: “Every month we change the program, and every month we are producing between seventeen and twenty-one short plays, there are a lot of opportunities to become involved.” Another part of the appeal for the artists: “It’s like a dare. Tell me a story in fifteen minutes. A story that people will understand.”
What does Microteatro por Dinero see as its role in the theater community in times of crisis? “I could tell you we have a certain advantage in the crisis. We are easier on the pocket… We are more accessible.”
If she could change one thing about theater in Madrid? “I would like to see more productions by contemporary authors.”
You can see Microteatro por Dinero seven days a week, with shows starting every five minutes after 20h.
Ryan Day is a writer who lives in Madrid. He and some friends run The Toast Cafe, a space for literary and other artistic events that happens to make a pretty mean hamburger and a whole array of veggie cuisine… and lots of coffee for those who just want to sit and scribble. You can find more of his writing at The Nervous Breakdown.
Image Credits: gordon dionne