Noelia Hernando-Real[1]


That the Spanish theatre has always been in a state of quasi-permanent crisis seems a shared belief, a maxim that forces the Spanish theatre to try to reinvent itself again and again, but an effort which has seemingly been doomed to fail. Up until very recently, when Spanish academics talked about a crisis in our theatre, they used to refer to the period of the late 1960s and to the unavoidable consequences of Franco’s dictatorship. As Khaled M. Abbas has stated, given Franco’s extreme censorship, the Spanish theatre suffered from an acute existential crisis. This was mainly a commercial kind of theatre, which relied on private financing and bourgeois audiences who demanded traditional forms and contents (2010: 16), and therefore became a hindrance to the development of a different kind of Spanish theatre.

Fifty years later, the Spanish theatre is again in crisis—if it ever abandoned it—and while many would still want to blame Franco for our own failures, it is high time we questioned our own mistakes, even if changes in the theatrical system—the creation of an eminently public model—were originally meant to liberate the Spanish theatre from formal and thematic strictures. The present crisis, palpable in the diminishing numbers of spectators, the kinds of plays produced, public and private budgets, and the form and content of the plays, should give us the chance to analyse our theatre model and, if for once we want to overcome this crisis, utterly change this model. The present crisis is shouting loudly that there must be something rotten in the Spanish theatrical system.

Looking at the evolution of the Spanish theatre from a distant point in time, it also seems ironic that the same blatant denial of crisis that the socialist government of Mr. Zapatero repeated again and again, until his final revelation at the end of 2008, is echoed in the theatre world. “We are absolutely safe from the economic crisis,” said the president in August 2007; “it depends on what we understand by crisis,” he exhorted in June 2008; to “nobody knew, and as soon as we have known that we have objectively entered an objective situation of crisis, I’ve been the first to talk,” which was the president’s long-awaited recognition of the crisis in December 2008 (“Estas son las frases,” 2012).

In 2007 literary and theatre critic and poet Enrique García Trinidad pointed to the crisis in the theatre business, not in the theatre itself, adding that “What is in crisis is intelligence, our capacity to think for ourselves. […] What is at rock bottom is good taste, which has been perverted by some bastard, hypocritical, and mercantile interests” (2007). According to García Trinidad, money was invested in theatre, yes, but in the wrong kind of theatre, that is, in musicals, to which he refers as “a little story in purely Yankee-style” and in all kinds of performances where actors “jump four times on the street and ‘create spectacle’ (lights, cranes, laser, etc.)” (2007).

While García Trinidad is disrespectful of the audiences’ taste, he was right in claiming that money was not invested in supporting an original Spanish theatre, nor in reinforcing the Spanish theatrical tradition (Jardiel Poncela, Lope de Vega, etc.), and the effects of, in a way, this waste of money has had its effects on the present crisis. In 2008, theatre producers were glad the theatre was not “mocking the crisis, but skipping it” (Cimarro in Mínguez 2009). They were amply satisfied with the numbers: the Spanish theatre had grown 5 percent regarding 2007. Venues were occupied 80 to 100 percent, and just considering the box office takings of Madrid and Barcelona, more than 150 million euros were collected (Mínguez 2009). That is, figures for both spectatorship and box office takings had risen.

Nevertheless, nobody seemed to take into account in 2008 the danger signs that, in spite of the apparent good health of our theatre, were fairly obvious. One key question nobody wanted to ask was how to maintain 800 public theatres. In contrast to the scarce 80 private theatres in Spain, ministries, autonomic governments, and town halls owned 90 percent of the theatre venues. Furthermore, it had been typical of Spanish town halls to be the major contractors for touring companies. Consequently, when, in the year 2009, public administrations started delaying their payments, the first symptom of the crisis was pretty evident. In keeping with the revelation of Mr. Zapatero’s lie, the theatre, which had been rising in recent years, abruptly broke off its positive growth. The Spanish theatre lost almost a million spectators (it diminished 5.5 percent): 18.2 million tickets were sold in 2009, in contrast to the 19.5 million tickets sold in 2008 (SGAE “Las cifras” 2012:16). Nevertheless, a magic formula was then apparently found: fewer productions and an increase in the price of tickets. Only this magic formula explains why the box office rose from 260.6 million euros in 2008 to 266.7 million euros in 2009 (SGAE “Las cifras” 2012: 16).

But this magic formula goes directly against a solid foundation of the theatre, and its consequences are absolutely palpable. Rosana Torres, writing for El País, denounced that strange couple formed by public administrations and theatres. As stated earlier, town halls customarily used to hire touring companies, which are mainly private. Paradoxically, as Torres argues, theatre companies, which are indeed in need of funding, are the ones who support to some extent some town halls. That is, knowing that town halls would delay their payments, many theatre companies used to invest their own money to put the play on the stage first, even though they were aware they had to wait a few— sometimes many—months to see their money return. Ironically, since these theatres are public, workers at the town halls are the ones to collect the money from the box office.

Conclusion: the money is used to cover other holes in the town hall economy (civil servants’ wages, electricity bills…), and theatre companies have to pray to get their money back and their salaries paid as soon as possible. And it is often the case that this happens later rather than sooner, as seen in the examples of the leading theatre producers, Jesús Cimarro and Juanjo Seone, who in 2010 denounced the public administrations for owing them 850,000 and 500,000 euros respectively. No wonder tmany of the 1,200 touring companies, which had up to 3,000 different spectacles a year in 2010, had to close. As Concha Bustos claimed in 2010, “Public administrations may end up sinking our theatre” (in Torres 2010). However, while public administrations were asphyxiating the small theatre companies, the larger ones, partners in the government’s ever-optimistic outlook then, talked about using resources and imagination to palliate the crisis. For instance, Mario Gas, director of the Teatro Español, which used to receive from the Madrid town hall between 5 and 7 million euros a year, talked about the “scenic vitality” of his theatre in 2009, even though only 28 percent of these 7 million euros were recovered through the box office (“El teatro español” 2009). Famous actors and actresses also talked about how good an opportunity this crisis was. “The Spanish theatre is in good health and this crisis opens up new possibilities to creativity,” said Asier Etxeandía in 2009 (in “Etxeandía” 2009). “The theatre is not in crisis. […] The theatre is better than ever and audiences crowd auditoria,” claimed Manuel Galiana in 2010 (in Soler). But these actors cannot fully grasp the effects that the crisis has on the theatre. Being part of the star system, they are paid—sometimes later than they thought, but paid eventually. The same year Galiana in which said that the Spanish theatre was better than ever (2010), when Spain was submerged in an officially declared state of crisis, marked the beginning of the decline of the theatre, as evidenced in lower spectator rates and lower box office takings. The number of spectators declined from 16.8 millions in 2010 to 14.8 in 2011, and the money collected at the box office from 252.7 in 2010 to 226.1 million euros in 2011 (SGAE “Las cifras” 2012: 16). The crisis in the Spanish theatre was officially declared.

It could be said that since the early 2000s Spain had lived in a cultural bubble. During the years when the country enjoyed an unprecedented—more than probably fake—economic boom, cultural budgets were impressive. In an attempt to make Spain come close “to international cultural referents” and to “have a longed for culture, a referent, a mirror in which other more developed countries should look at themselves” (SGAE “Balance” 2012: 2), no expenses were spared. Besides the investment in cultural productions, theatre spaces were built almost everywhere, theatre festivals were funded all over the country, and Spanish stars were paid astronomic amounts of money to act. As Marcos Ordóñez wrote in El País, in the years previous to the official declaration of a country in crisis, “there were 1,200 premieres in more than 1,500 acting spaces” (2011). Numbers were considered the path to prestige. It seems now that such cultural excess and economic efforts were not part of a larger cultural project. This was, to put it in a nutshell, a mere pose with “politic, partisan, image, and prestige aims” (SGAE “Balance” 2012: 3).

The present situation, therefore, comes as no surprise. Given that the system has always relied on public investment, in 2011 many of these almost new theatre spaces have closed down. Cycles and festivals have reduced their length or disappeared from view. Bills are shorter. Many theatre companies are forced to create new spectacles because they do not have other places where their plays can be staged. Plays which only require two or three actors are prioritized for just that reason, in the same way that plays with one simple setting are prioritized before others which would be more expensive to put on the stage (Ordóñez 2011).

A good question is: where is quality left when technical requirements are the main reasons to produce one play or another? Moreover, we should not forget that the price of the tickets, due to the increase of our VAT to 21 percent, when it used to be 8 percent, has made theatre a luxury.

Furthermore, the private sector seems to have gained force, which has a very remarkable influence on the kinds of plays staged in Spain nowadays. In a country traditionally and stereotypically known for enjoying life, theatrical entrepreneurs have decided to give spectators what they apparently want: respite from the harshness of the present crisis. A quick look at the most popular plays in Madrid and Barcelona today reveals that people are more than willing to spend over 100 euros on a musical: Grease, The Lion King, The Sound of Music, Pretty Woman, to name just a few. Unsubstantial plays with the usual boy-gets-girl, boy-loses-girl, boy-gets-girl plot, livened up by the music of some groups from the 1980s and 1990s—the old good times of Spanish culture—such as Marta tiene un marcapasos (with music by Hombres G, a boy band from the late 1980s), or 40 Principales: El Musical (a musical merely created to play onstage the most popular songs in Spain in the recent year and which were heard on 40 Principales [“Top 40”] radio station), are becoming more and more popular. And obviously, we are witness, too, to a proliferation of all kinds of comedy—all unrelated to the crisis: Carol López’s Hermanas, Woody Allen’sHusbands and Wives or Jardiel Poncela’s Los habitantes de la casa deshabitada, to give a few examples.

There have been, however, some public and private initiatives to give other spectators what they also want: plays that deal with the crisis; plays that fulfil the primary role of theatre as a means of discussion. The Teatro Español, a theatre that, as noted earlier, is 100 percent public, and under the direction of Mario Gas between 2004 and 2012, has been a leading force in putting onstage plays that deal with the crisis. In the 2009-2010 season, David Mamet’s Glengarry Glen Rose, a biting comedy on economic recession, was produced. The way the play was advertised leaves no doubt about Mario Gas’s purpose:

In the 80s Glengarry Glen Ross meant an acid critique of the capitalist system, so close to the US society as the stars and stripes in its flag. Now we are on a similar crossroads: a big crisis. […] The work and identity of the contemporary individual are confounded in our society and even more at crisis time, when we could do anything, now matter how evil it may seem to us, to keep our jobs. (“Glengarry” 2009)

“Glengarry Glen Ross.” Teatro Español. Carlos Hipólito, Ginés García Millán, Andrés Herrera, and Gonzalo de Castro. Directed by Daniel Veronese. © Ros Ribas
“Glengarry Glen Ross.” Teatro Español. Carlos Hipólito, Ginés García Millán, Andrés Herrera, and Gonzalo de Castro. Directed by Daniel Veronese. © Ros Ribas

The play was a success, not only because of David Mamet’s artistry, but also, as is customary in the Teatro Español, because the director, Daniel Veronese, worked with some of the most well-known Spanish actors, many of them TV stars, such as Carlos Hipólito or Gonzalo de Castro. The fact that the reviews firstly pointed to the play’s “luxurious cast” made this point.

Another attempt by the Teatro Español to make Spaniards face our crisis came though Gas’s production of Miller’s Death of a Salesman, with Gas’s overt aim to show that “considering everything around [Willy Loman] one deduces that every capitalist system takes advantage of the individual” (in Torres 2009). Yet another play which dealt with the crisis on the stage of the Teatro Español was John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men in 2012, a painful, dark, and realistic depiction of the terrible effects of the Great Depression, which should make spectators think about our own economic crisis.

However, the case of the Teatro Español in Madrid is an exception to the rule. Apart from coproducing Death of a Salesman, the Teatre Lliure in Barcelona, the other main Spanish theatre, has been producing plays unusually found on other Spanish stages, such as Beckett’s Krapp’s Last Tape or Pinter’s The Dumb Waiter, but plays which, after all, do not deal with the crisis. Nevertheless, one should not forget that, given its public budget, workers at the Teatro Español will always be paid each month and that this theatre has always counted in an ever-loyal audience characterised for their leftist ideals. Therefore, the most innovative and challenging plays are very often found at this theatre. In a way, Gas was giving his audience what spectators wanted. It is also remarkable that, although Gas was accused of producing plays with such technical requirements that they were difficult to go on tour, these three plays, which in a way deal with the crisis, went on tour around Spain.

After Gas’s departure from the Teatro Español, allegedly because of his high salary (around 100,000 euros a year minimum) and the necessity of the Madrid town hall to cut down expenses on culture, a new director was announced in 2012: Natalio Grueso. A look into the 2012-13 season shows that there is no interest in talking about the crisis at the Teatro Español this year.

“Muerte de un viajante.” Teatro Español. Jordi Boixaderas. Directed by Mario Gas.
“Muerte de un viajante.” Teatro Español. Jordi Boixaderas. Directed by Mario Gas.
“De ratones y hombres.” Teatro Español. Fernando Cayo and Roberto Álamo. Directed by Miguel del Arco. © Ros Ribas
“De ratones y hombres.” Teatro Español. Fernando Cayo and Roberto Álamo. Directed by Miguel del Arco. © Ros Ribas

Although most private theatres, as stated before, prefer to put onstage comedies and musicals that make spectators forget the crisis, there have been two remarkable and successful exceptions. The first one is the theatre version of a 1960s novel by Rafael Azcona, entitled El Pisito (The Little Apartment). In this play, directed by Pedro Olea, a humble couple cannot start their life together because they cannot afford an apartment, a situation which is well-known to most Spaniards. When the country was seemingly in good economic health, almost any person with a job could get a mortgage, no matter the astronomic interest. Many of those who bought a house in the years previous to the declaration of the crisis are now in serious trouble, forced to return to their parents’ homes in many cases. And the situation is not better for those who want to buy a house now, since getting a mortgage has become a heroic adventure. When the housing bubble exploded, many personal stories were also shattered. In El Pisito, there is a comic solution to this housing problem: the male protagonist will inherit the apartment where an old lady lives, but he has to live with her till she breathes her last breath. The play, with leading comedians and actors in the main roles (Pepe Viyuela, Teté Delgado and Asunción Balaguer) was an instant hit. After its premier in Madrid at the Teatro Marquina, El Pisito went on tour around the country for two years and returned to Madrid in September 2012 to close the season.

“El pisito.” Palacio de Festivales de Cantabria. Pepe Viyuela, Teté Delgado, and Asunción Balaguer. Directed by Pedro Olea. © Javier Naval
“El pisito.” Palacio de Festivales de Cantabria. Pepe Viyuela, Teté Delgado, and Asunción Balaguer. Directed by Pedro Olea. © Javier Naval

The second exception is an updated version of Dario Fo’s ¡Sin paga, nadie paga! (Can’t Pay? Won’t Pay!). This social drama, in the form of a hilarious comedy, deals with themes all too well-known to Spanish spectators: the high unemployment rate (more than 6 million people are presently unemployed in Spain), prices that go up, salaries that go down, political corruption, evictions, and politicians who, allied with security forces, ask the people to calm down while they, apparently, try to get the country out of this crisis. As Gabriel Olivares, the director of the play, says, they wanted to produce ¡Sin paga, nadie paga! to “reflect upon and understand our present situation. To believe that sooner or later this situation will pass without knowing how, […] and above all, to be aware that this will happen again later. And for the same reason: the boundless ambition of a few who are supported by the political class, no matter what party” (“Sin paga” 2012). While the play opened in September 2012 at the Teatro Infanta Isabel in Madrid, it is a poignant coincidence that the summer of 2012 was witness to the same initial situation found in Fo’s play. All the national media echoed that the Andalucian Trade Union (SAT) organised two supermarket robberies to “give food to the people” and to denounce the scarce social benefits that characterise the new rightist government of Mr. Rajoy. After three months in Madrid, the play is now on tour, probably because of the necessity to see plays that deal with the crisis, but also because the play is advertised as a sharp satire on our situation and Pablo Carbonell, one of the most well-known Spanish comedians, plays the leading role.

“¡Sin paga, nadie paga!” Promo Photo. Pablo Carbonel and Leire Ruiz. Directed by Gabriel Olivares. © Jean Pierre Ledos.
“¡Sin paga, nadie paga!” Promo Photo. Pablo Carbonel and Leire Ruiz. Directed by Gabriel Olivares. © Jean Pierre Ledos.

The cases of the plays which deal with the crisis as a topic discussed before, in either public or private theatres, Glengarry Glen Rose, Death of a Salesman, Of Mice and Men, The Little Apartment, and Can’t Pay? Won’t Pay! show how the crisis has affected the Spanish theatre system. All of them had popular TV actors and actresses and all of them were tested first in the capital before going on tour, whereas earlier it was the other way around. While working with famous actors and in a way prioritizing comedy, above all in the case of private theatre, seem to be two of the solutions already found for the survival and aliveness of the Spanish theatre, other solutions are being planned at the moment.

The Spanish theatre will only get out of its crisis if, as Franciso Chacón claims, it follows the maxim “Adapt or perish” (2012: 2). As the SGAE (General Association of Authors and Editors) affirms, “most theatre practitioners agree that the future does not rely on rebuilding a mainly public model,” but they also agree that “the new model cannot be mainly private, above all because this would mean putting creativity at the service of market logics, whose consequences are already obvious now: […] comedies are prioritized and less conventional proposals disappear.”

Thus, the new model envisions the configuration of a mixed model, close to the British model, where alternative non-conventional proposals are supported by public budgets, which would also bet on “young players” and enable the access to acting spaces; while production is left in private hands (“Una vision cualitativa” 2012: 12-13). This model, which has worked for years in the United Kingdom, does not seem possible in Spain, where the private sector has never been characterised by investing on culture for the sake of culture. Only the future will tell if this model takes roots in Spain. Other possibilities which are being examined nowadays are crowdfunding and the updating of the Ley de Mecenazgo (Patronage Act). The draft of the Ley de Mecenazgo obliges non-profit-making companies to allocate at least 70 percent of their trading profits to objectives of general interest, i.e. culture. While the entering into force of this Act would pave the way for a new and more sustainable theatre system in Spain, it is also true that it demonstrates the government’s willingness to cut back on their cultural budgets drastically, whose effects will only be ascertainable in the future, but which have already made theatre practitioners raise their voices.

To conclude, I also believe that the Spanish theatre will only get out of its crisis if the changes in the system described before are coupled with a renewed education of the spectators. Spanish spectators must learn that the theatre is much more than its mere spectacular nature. As Jesús García Calero affirms, “Without authors, without the social self-esteem of authors, we won’t be able to overcome our problems. That is the magic of theatre; it makes life more bearable; it lets us dream” (2012: 3).


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Edited by Lissa Tyler Renaud


[1] Noelia Hernando-Real is Assistant Professor of English and American Literature at the Universidad Complutense de Madrid (Spain) and a researcher at the Instituto Franklin-Universidad de Alcalá de Henares. Recent publications include Self and Space in the Theater of Susan Glaspell (McFarland, 2011) and the co-edition of Performing Gender Violence. Plays by Contemporary American Women Dramatists with Barbara Ozieblo (Palgrave Macmillan, 2012). Noelia Hernando-Real is Vice President of the International Susan Glaspell Society.

Copyright © 2013 Noelia Hernando-Real
Critical Stages/Scènes critiques e-ISSN: 2409-7411

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The Budget is the Thing: Spanish Theatre in Recession (Spain)