by Rovie Herrera Medalle*
Jesús Cimarro is the Director of the Festival Internacional de Teatro Clásico de Mérida (International Festival of Classic Theater in Mérida). He holds an MA in Cultural Business from the Universidad Complutense in Madrid. He is the President of the Productions Association of Theaters in Madrid, as well as the President of the State Federation of Associations for the Performing Arts in Spain.
Cimarro worked as a journalist for El Correo Español-El Pueblo Vasco (Spanish-Basque Newspaper) and, nowadays, he is still actively collaborating as a consultant and writer in theater related publications in the Spanish media. He has taught extensively on theatrical production and distribution courses and workshops in the Centro de Nuevos Creadores de Madrid (Center for New Creators in Madrid), since 1999. Cimarro is also a member of the Autonomous Community Regional Council in Madrid and, before that, he served as a Member of the Theater Council in the Culture Ministry of Spain.
In 1988, he founded the theater production studio Pentación Espectáculos S.A in Madrid which is highly regarded by the public and by critics. He is responsible for the production and distribution of more than a hundred and fifty successful theater events.
First of all, I would like to ask about the origin of the Festival Internacional de Teatro Clásico de Mérida. How did this international theater festival start?
The origins of the International Classical Theater Festival of Mérida date back to 1933. Its inauguration took place during the Second Spanish Republic, with Miguel de Unamuno’s translation of Seneca’s Medea (4 B.C), in which the well known actress Margarita Xirgú starred. After the Spanish Civil War (1936-39), there was a break in the 1940s and 1950s due to the postwar period. The Festival was resumed in 1955 and, since then, it has been celebrated uninterruptedly, up to the present day.
The setting is second to none. Mérida’s theater is one of the oldest operating theaters in the world, and it was declared a World Heritage Site by the UNESCO in 1993. I can’t help but think about the bond between twenty-first-century audiences and the first spectators, who sat in the auditorium more than 2000 years ago. How does this exceptional setting contribute to a unique experience for the spectator?
Yes, as you very well said, the Roman theater of Mérida is currently one of the oldest theaters in Europe, as is our Festival. Interviewers are usually filled with curiosity about the spectator’s experience at the Roman Theater of Mérida, and as I always say, it is a unique experience, to enjoy a summer night performance under the moonlight and to have the privilege of watching a Greco-Roman theme framed in such a setting is one of the best experiences one can have in life. And if you are lucky to share this experience with someone, it is magical.
What staging difficulties do companies find? Do they have to adapt a production to fit it to the large, open-air Roman stage? Do you help them with this? What does this entail? What do you do if it rains?
This venue is different from an Italian theater: we have a proscenium arch 50 meters wide that goes back seven meters in depth. Hence, stage directors have to visualize the performance in that space and to take into account this space as a starting point to plan the show.
If the play is not intended to be performed in a Roman Theater, there can be some challenges related to the presentation; if that is the case, the performance has to be rearranged in some aspects, such as staging or lighting. I am at the stage directors’ disposal and I counsel them about any issue that may arise.
If it rains heavily, the performance cannot go ahead and we are forced to cancel. Fortunately, in the seven years that I have been in charge of the Festival, we have never had to cancel. It has rained before, after, or lightly during the performance, and we did not find it necessary to suspend or cancel.
In what ways has the Festival contributed to the development of local theater?
Well, it has contributed indeed. There have been many projects, productions and co-productions with local theater companies, and this has meant an increase in both the popularity and quality of performances.
It is no secret that we live in a globalized society in which distances have shortened and communication has become instantaneously. The Festival is conceived through the most primal and essential human forms of communication, the word and the image, and it still succeeds in engaging the contemporary audience. How do these classical works talk to the audience?
One of the goals that I set as artistic director of the Festival was to encourage those playwrights who rewrite or adapt classical texts to take into account ways in which the classical texts echo in the contemporary world. I believe this is essential in order to spread the classic authors’ message. To this day, I am proud to say that we have succeeded in conveying messages written 2000 years ago.
A wide selection of classical plays has been performed throughout the years in Mérida. Plays exploring the figures of Medea, Achilles or Viriathus bring to the stage universal matters. Do you think that this could be one of the keys to the popularity of classical theatre?
Absolutely, the use of historical figures helps engage the audience and this has been one of the key aspects in the different programs we have had in the Festival. Also, universal themes, such as love, honor and freedom help viewers to sympathize with the characters.
Over the years, the Festival has evolved and today it comprises diverse activities apart from performances, can you expand on this?
Certainly. Most of the activities take place in the Roman Theater, although there are other spaces with performances that serve as extensions of the Roman Theater. This means that small or medium size theatrical companies perform different classic texts on different stages. In addition, there are exhibitions at the National Museum of Roman Art, conferences, seminars, masterclasses, parades, workshops, [and various forms of] international cooperation. There are numerous shows and activities, apart from the performances, for the audience to enjoy. On Mondays, theater-related films or films with Greco-Roman themes are shown. In short, a wide variety of performing arts activities and events are available for the public during the Festival.
What about the infrastructure required for such a festival? Does Mérida provide the necessary hotels, restaurants, etc.? Has the Festival affected the growth of Mérida?
Mérida has a great number of hotels and restaurants to welcome the tourists who visit the city every summer. Undoubtedly, the Festival has contributed to improving the economy, not only of Mérida, but also of the entire region of Extremadura. The positive economic impact in the city for each ticket sold multiplies its value by five. The media impact is quite impressive. Last year, more than 5,500 news articles on the Mérida Festival were published, which translates into an advertising value for the city equivalent to 40 million euros.
Festivals have become very expensive events to maintain. Does that have any impact on the way they are managed and marketed? Do you think that government administration should be actively involved in the promotion of theater festivals such as Mérida? How is the Festival funded?
The current budget that the government spends on the arts is not enough, and more capital should be invested. I believe that the administration should not only invest a great deal of the public budget in cultural events but should also get more involved. The support of the administration for the management of cultural events would help to properly promote the work of the artists and to achieve much more extensive development of the arts.
The Mérida Festival is funded through a board composed by the Autonomous Community of Extremadura, the Ministry of Culture, the Councils of Cáceres, Badajoz, and the City of Mérida. This represents only 50 per cent of the funding and the other 50 per cent is obtained through the box office.
You have been in the forefront of theater productions in Spain since the 80s, in what ways do you think that the theater scene has changed after three decades?
In these past 30 years, theater has changed as the world and society have also changed significantly. The Spanish scene has adapted to the contemporary scene, it has updated the ways of working, producing, and creating, as well as the topics and themes that have been presented on stage. And all the changes have helped to improve the current theatrical scene. Nowadays, we have a complex business structure to grant us solid foundations, so we can work more freely. This freedom is necessary to provide the artists with the security they need to unleash their creativity.
As Director of the Festival how do you envision the event in the years to come?
I have a contract until the 2019 edition. I would be delighted to continue with the project and I hope I will. In the first place, I will try to have a program as eclectic as possible taking into account that its essence is rooted in the Greco-Roman arena. My wish is to pass on the baton, in the future, to a director who has the vision of what this Festival entails and the great scope it has.
*Rovie Herrera Medalle holds an MA in “English Studies, Multilingual and Intercultural Communication” at the University de Málaga. She is a PhD candidate at the same University, where she has also taught American Theater. Her research interests are Contemporary Women’s American Drama, Spectatorship, and the Cognitive approach to Performance.