Mercè Saumell*

According to the available data from the ICEC (Institute of Catalan Businesses of the Catalan Government), in its 2017 report[1], there are 165 professional companies and 164 theatre buildings available (of which 70% are public, 22% private and 7% belong to Foundations or Associations).

At a territorial level, 60% of the venues are located in the metropolitan area of Barcelona. The second biggest concentration is the district of Girona, the area closest to France, with a total of 20 professional venues. At the same time, it is worth mentioning that there are ten Catalan counties without professional stages.

El Molino. Memory of historic Paralelo (the bulevard du spectacle in Barcelona). Unsigned photo

Other data of interest: of these 164 theatres, only 16% are historical buildings (prior to 1970), while 48%, almost half, were built after 2000—all indicative of a very recent infrastructure. Concerning capacity, only 7.5% have more than 1000 seats.

Regarding the 165 companies or production enterprises, 69% are dedicated to the theatre, 16% to dance, and 15% to other performance genres (circus, puppets, etc). Of these, only 12% predate 1980. 34% came to life between 1990 and 1999 (sometime between the Olympic euphoria of Barcelona 1992 and the subsequent crisis). One last piece of information, only 2.5% of the current productions exceed €300,000 of initial investment.

The ICUB (lnstitut de Cultura of the City Council of Barcelona) continues its provision of grants to small theatres and to the “factories of creation” (multi-arts venues which include performing arts in their programme).These creation factories, which rehabilitate old factory buildings, turning them into centres of arts production by resident creators, have been important for the performing arts since the end of the 1990s.

Celebration of the World Theatre Day, Barcelona’s Ramblas (1976). Unsigned photo
Bits of History

Let’s travel back to 1976, an extraordinary year for Catalan theatre. It was the year of Grec 76, Barcelona’s summer festival, self-managed by members of the Independent Theatre[2]. After the death of Dictator Franco, in 1975, a promising horizon appeared for those young professionals. In that context, it was necessary to reformulate those emerging companies, also regarding their business and economic viability.

Thus, in 1976 two opposing initiatives emerged in Barcelona: the Teatre Lliure (The Free Theatre) and the Saló Diana (Diana Hall) —ran by the Assembly of Workers of Showbusiness (ADTE) and located in the local Chinatown, in a former movie theatre full of pajilleras (prostitutes)— turned out to be a brief adventure between 1977 and 1978. In that venue, they celebrated the International Libertarian Days of 1977 and participated in the Freedom of Expression campaign caused by the imprisonment of some of the fellows of the company Els Joglars.They also invited companies such as Living Theatre, Rajatabla, Cali Experimental Theatre and Jango Edwards. It was a self-managed popular theatrical initiative that did not receive the approval of the municipal administration. A suspicious fire in 1978 precipitated the definitive closure of the Diana, one of the main emblems of the Barcelona known as Barcelona Canalla (Scoundrel Barcelona).

King Lear, by Shakespeare. Núria Espert in the titular role. Directed by Lluís Pasqual. Teatre Lliure of Barcelona (2015). Photo: David Ruano

In Catalonia, the development of theatre in recent decades has been heavily influenced by the political ideology of institutions, although the vitality of its professional infrastructure is much more advanced than in other parts of Spain. Well into the eighties, the transition to democacy continued to bring about the recovery of lost liberties and cultural identity. By the nineties, this process had led to a divergence between the emphasis placed upon the Catalan language and that placed upon business.

In this period, under the conservative regional government, the Catalan dramaturgy experienced a phenomenal boom, at the expense of avant-garde initiatives that had characterized the previous decade. Symbolically, the theatrical “audacity” of the eighties all but ended in 1992, with the Olympic Games and the beginning of the increase of tourism. That was a time of a marked contrast of cultural models between the Generalitat, the conservative regional government, between 1980 and 2003, and the various socialist mayors (1982-2010).

After 1992, the neglect of contemporary stage creation coincided with a growing trend which favoured the adoption of market laws, with the consequent growth of private companies in this area. It was the time of musical shows or funny one-man-shows, which prioritized commercial success over the cooperative culture that had arisen with the beginnings of democracy.

In 1981, the Centre Dramàtic de la Generalitat (Dramatic Centre of the Generalitat), or CDGC, had been inaugurated at the headquarters of the historic Teatro Romea.This Dramatic Centre was created with the aim of establishing a national repertoire based on classic Catalan dramatists and the promotion of new playwrights. This institution, directed by Hermann Bonnin, fulfilled functions as a provisional institution, in the hope of a future National Theatre. However, the evolution of the CDGC was not favorable.

In her study of theatre and politics in Barcelona, Professor Lourdes Orozco of the University of Leeds points out:

The nationalist enthusiasm that characterized the theatrical audience of the 1970s not only supported the Independent Theatre for being Catalan but for its artistic qualities, which have not been reproduced in the Centre’s programming; and second, the social reality of Catalonia in the eighties and nineties evolved in a multicultural direction whose theatrical interests were not included in the CSGC programming. (2007: 96)[3]

The arrival in Catalonia, in 1984, of Josep Maria Flotats (who had been an actor with the Comédie Française) was particulary noteworthy. He came at the invitation of the Generalitat. This was the preliminary step towards the inauguration, with much delay from its original schedule, of the National Theatre of Catalonia (TNC), in 1997, with Flotats at its head.

Thus, in the nineties, the construction or rehabilitation of large performance spaces took place. At the organizational level, CIATRE (Association of Professional Theatre Companies of Catalonia) emerged in 1996, linking the historical ones of the Independent Theatre with the new ones. At this time, there was also the elevation of the playwright.

Writers such as Sergi Belbel and Josep Maria Benet Jornet (a veteran dramatist restored to prominence) found themselves, suddenly, in a position of increased cultural status. There was international success for Jordi Galcerán (his play The Grönholm Method was translated into several languages), as well as for the young playwrights who emerged in Barcelona from the Sala Beckett or the TNC (such as Lluïsa Cunillé, Pau Miró, Jordi Casanovas, Victoria Szpunzberg, Marc Rosich, Josep Maria Miró, Pere Riera and Esteve Soler). All of these helped revitalize local theatre.

In reaction to this, more countercultural groups emerged, such as General Eléctrica (1997-2001), led by Roger Bernat and Tomàs Aragay, the company Sergi Fäustino, Agrupación Doctor Serrano, and the company La Vuelta (1999-2002), directed by Marta Galán.

10.000kg. General Elèctrica (Roger Bernat). Grec Festival, Barcelona (1998). Photo: Josep Ros Ribas
The Twenty-First Century

The arrival of Pascual Maragall to the presidency of the Generalitat, in 2003, initiated, in the words of Ricard Gázquez, “a period of renewal of strategies of approach and action in favor the artistic sector” (2010: 18)[4] that crystallized in 2008, with the Law of the National Council of Culture and Arts (CONCA), the creation of the first Arts Council of Spain (the first attempt to move away from political interferente in the field of arts and culture). However, CONCA was born with certain difficulties and ended with the resignation of its members, almost unanimously, in November 2011, due to government pressure. It was an attempt to free the arts in Spain from the ups and downs that political changes entail. Currently, the CONCA is only an advisory body.

However, with the Maragall government (2003-06) came a period of strong decentralization with respect to Barcelona. Some Performing Arts Centres were created in other Catalan cities, such as Reus, Terrassa and Girona. In 2006, with the change of the Catalan culture ministry from the Socialists to Esquerra Republicana (Republican Left Party), more interested in the local, the theatre in the Catalan language was prioritized. Many, very active, small-format shows filled the outlying spaces of the city of Barcelona. A theatrical fringe emerged in the nineties, exemplified by the short-lived Sala Conservas (1994), managed by Simona Levi. From 2000 until today, this fringe has been consolidated by an active circuit including Antic Teatre, La Poderosa, Sala Flyhart, Almeria Teatre, Akademia and, more recently, Hiroshima and La Vilella .

Enchanted Waters, by Puig I Ferrater. Production of TNC, Barcelona (2011)

Enchanted Waters, or Aigües encantades
Public Theatre

The politicization of culture has created an environment in which the artistic and administrative direction of the great cultural institutions is conferred upon candidates who share the political affiliations of those in power.

The model of public theatre par excellence in Catalonia is the TNC. Located in an area of little cultural tradition (although next to the Auditorium), the TNC has not managed, in its first twenty years, to establish a clear artistic line or gain a loyal audience (in 2015, ticket sales averaged at 66% of capacity).

The different artistic directors, Flotats, Domènec Reixach, Sergi Belbel and Xavier Albertí, have given priority to the repertoire and the Catalan dramatic heritage, but have shied away from programming Catalan companies, thus showing an idea of national theatre closely linked to the text and of little aesthetic plurality. Nor have they managed to establish a defined network of national and international relations at the level of exchanges and co-productions (something strongly felt in the case of the dance venue Mercat de les Flors or the Teatre Lliure).

Shakespeare’s Hamlet. Marisa Paredes and Eduard Fernández. Directed by Lluís Pasqual. Produced by Teatre Lliure of Barcelona and Teatro Arriaga of Bilbao. Photo: Josep Ros Ribas

The case of the Teatre Lliure is very unique. It emerged during the Independent Theatre movement and was founded as a cooperative of professionals, thriving under the direction of Lluís Pasqual and Fabià Puigserver, who were pioneers in the establishment of the European stable theatre formula in Spain; an art theatre for all, with its own space to act and rehearse, and also to have workshops to create sets and costumes.


Eduard Fernández in Shakespeare’s Hamlet

The headquarters, in the neighborhood of Gracia, were, from 1976 onwards, a focus of renewal for Catalan and Spanish theatre, with an important international dimension from the beginning. It had a resident dance company, a chamber orchestra and a theatre company. Its programme of activities included conferences, colloquiums and presentations of publications. Consequently, it enjoyed a committed and loyal audience from the beginning.

In 1987, a second stage began, with the creation of the Teatre Lliure-Public Theatre Foundation of Barcelona, through a board of trustees that included the Ministry of Culture, the City Council of Barcelona, the Generalitat, and the County Council of Barcelona. After a period, under the artistic direction of Álex Rigola, Lluís Pascual became its director again and he still is today. After forty years, the Lliure is, today, the centre of production of Catalan public theatre, with more national and international prestige.

Wedding Bells, by La Cubana. Teatre Tívoli, Barcelona (2015). Photo: David Ruano
Private Businesses

To guarantee the viability of the arts sector, it was necessary to consolidate a series of production, exhibition and distribution businesses, which acquired a major role in Catalonia, in the new millennium. The pioneer was the Grup Balañá, founded, in 1927, by the Barcelona-born bullfighting manager Pedro Balañá, who, also, quickly started managing cinemas and theatres. The incorporation of new generations into the company has placed the theatre business at the forefront, converting many of its cinemas (which, in turn, had occupied old theatres buildings) into some of the most central and beautiful venues in the city, such as Coliseum, Tivoli, Borràs Theatre and the Capitol, located in the popular Ramblas of Barcelona. The Balañá Group is made up of programmers and exhibitors but not producers; they have counted on the collaboration of some of the most talented creators of recent years, especially, the company La Cubana and the popular one-man-show Pepe Rubianes —the only ones capable of maintaining a show running for two years.


Campanades de boda

For its part, Focus is the most powerful theatre programming and production company in the Catalonia. It was born in 1986 and, soon after, started producing very successful musicals, which enabled the company to grow to its present prestigious position. In 1999, it was awarded the management of the emblematic Teatre Romea, the only theatre that programmed plays in the Catalan language during the Franco regime. Between 2010 and 2012, Calixto Bieito held this position at the Romea, where the short-lived BIT (Barcelona International Theatre) was developed, with the complicity of several European partners.

Today, Focus manages, in Barcelona, the Villarroel Theatre, the Condal and the historic Goya (stage of the premieres of García Lorca and Margarita Xirgu as Mariana Pineda and The Prodigious Shoemaker), as well as La Latina in Madrid. The project of Focus rivals that of a public theatre, inasmuch as Focus produces and programmes a classical and patrimonial repertoire.


Aida | La Fura dels Baus & Omer Meir Wellber | Arena di Verona 2013 (DVD/Blu-ray trailer)

Finally, regarding theatre companies in Catalonia, there is the production company TRES PER 3. This group produces programmes and manages two important Barcelona venues, the Victoria, in the Parallel (the popular boulevard from the end of the 19th century), and the Poliorama, in Las Ramblas.

A comprehensive consideration of the producing companies that emerged from the Independent Theatre movement would require another paper in itself. However, one should point out the solvency, versatility and vitality of La Fura dels Baus (the most international Catalan and Spanish company), La Cubana and, to a lesser extent, Dagoll-Dagom, Els Joglars, El Tricicle and Comediants.

Aida, by Verdi, at the Arena of Verona (Italy), in celebration of its centenary (1913), directed by Alex Ollé and Carlus Padrissa, La Fura dels Baus. Photo: Ennevi

The relationship between tourism and theatrical production in Barcelona is another focus of research, especially as regards foreign investment. There was an unfortunate example, involving the Dutch company Stage Entertainment, which premiered the musical Les Miserables (2011) in the Catalan capital without the expected impact. It is also interesting how the local financial world, through Ethika Global Consulting, has invested in the recovery of the Apolo Theatre, located in the Paralelo area and dedicated to the musical and burlesque genres.

Poster of the eighth edition of the Festival Temporada Alta, by Antoni Tàpies, Girona (1998)
The Case of Girona

Perhaps the most eye-catching development in recent Catalan theatrical story has been the transformation of the Girona counties and, in particular, of its Girona city itself, into a real power within the sector. Bitò Produccions was born in Girona, as a production and distribution company, in 1991. It was closely linked to the Independent Theatre heritage. Bitò has produced and programmed, since its inception, in 1991, the autumn festival Temporada Alta (High Season). Today, Temporada Alta is the premier theatre festival in Spain, both in cultural importance and in audience size. As a testament to this, it is worth mentioning that the experts who comprise the “Observatory of Culture: of the Contemporary Foundation (Madrid) have once again chosen Temporada Alta as one of the main cultural events.

The 2016 report places Temporada Alta Festival as the premier Spanish Performing Arts Festival and the country’s fourth most important cultural event, preceded only by the San Sebastian International Film Festival, PHotoEspaña and ARCO[5]. Temporada Alta is a long festival (its programming extends over a month and a half) and occupies the theatres of Girona and Salt, the city of its metropolitan area.

Led by Salvador Sunyer, it extends its influence to the south of France and has created subsidiaries in Buenos Aires, Santiago de Chile, Montevideo and Lima. From the Catalan perspective, Temporada Alta surpasses in quality and identity the Grec Summer Festival of Barcelona, a festival that does not match the singularity of Temporada Alta, either at the level of production or of programming.

Theatres in the counties of Girona were especially active in the first decade of the twenty-first century. In addition to Temporada Alta, one has to mention the excellent work of the scenic research centre L’animal a l’esquena (The animal on the back), managed by the contemporary dance company Mal Pelo, with an outstanding international dimension.

Located in the town of Celrà, this is a model site offering free residence to various theatremakers, such as Xavi Bobés and his Playground Company, among others. The vitality of Girona is also reflected in a series of micro-festivals, at which one can sample very experimental theatre, including festivals such as Map, Sismògraf (Seismograph), Ingràvid (Weightless) and Emergent. Finally, one must not leave aside the oldest, and most selective, private Summer Festival of Music, Opera and Dance, in the Perelada’s Castle, next to the Costa Brava, or Girona’s new International Golden Elephant Circus Festival, which has ambitions to become one of the most important in Europe.

The divine diva, by Sol Picó. Fira de Tarrega, 2003. Photo: David Ruano
Other Peripheries

One cannot offer an overview of theatre in Catalonia without mentioning what happens in Lleida, the inland province of Catalonia. The Street Theatre Festival of Tarrega, which was led by the Comediants Group in the four first editions (1981-84), has been influential ever since. Currently, Tarrega is one of the most important events in Europe where street theatre is concerned. It is, also, an important centre for training, research and production of the genre, through a specialized street theatre master and the residencial programme it offers. In this way, a series of creators have the opportunity to carry out their projects and show them at the festival, with the possibility of coming to the attention of national and international programmers.

In short, the Catalan theatrical periphery is more active than the theatre over a comparatively numb Barcelona.


[3] Lourdes Orozco (2007) Teatro y política: Barcelona (1980-2000), Publicaciones de la ADE, Madrid (p. 96).
[4] Ricard Gázquez (2010), “Escritura dramática, dramaturgia y política culural en Cataluña (1986-2006)”, Pygmalion, 1/10, ITM. Pp. 17-38 (p. 18).

*Mercè Saumell holds a PhD in Art History. She is a specialist in contemporary theatre and, more specifically, Catalan devised theatre. She is professor of theatre in the graduate programme (MA and PhD) of Barcelona’s Institut del Teatre. Between 2009 and 2016, she was the director of the university’s Cultural Services (centre for documentation and museum of performing arts, publications and research programs). She is the author of two books on contemporary theatre and has published several articles in international research journals. She was co-organizer of the IFTR (International Federation of Theatre Research), Barcelona 2013. Currently, she is working on an inter-institutional project on the Independent Theater in Spain (1962-80), led by the Reina Sofia Museum in Madrid.

Copyright © 2018 Mercè Saumell
Critical Stages/Scènes critiques e-ISSN: 2409-7411

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Overview of Theatre in Catalonia
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