Monday 7 July 2014

Cartões postais de Almada

[introduction and some fascinating arguments about post-crisis funding]

To Portugal for the 31st Almada International Theatre Festival, and it feels like a bit of a departure in all sorts of different ways. First off, this is actually something I pitched to the Guardian *before going*, rather than – as with Sibiu – something I pitched while there as an afterthought. As such, rather than waiting until a story finds me, I have to go and find the story. Secondly, the location: I’ve been to Festivals from Helsinki, through Borås, Rakvere (x2), Riga, Vilnius, Minsk, Lublin, Warsaw, Berlin, the Ruhr, Munich, Prague, Nitra, Ljubljana, Bucharest, Sibiu, to Sulemaniah. If you look at those Festivals on a map (below), you’ll notice a distinct absence of anything west of Brussels outside the UK (I caught – and signally failed to write-up, I now realise – IIPM/Milo Rau’s Civil Wars at this year’s Kunstenfestival) or (Kurdistan excepted), anything south of Bucharest.

Partly it’s just coincidence, of course – I really should have been to Avignon at least once by now – but partly I do think it’s also a fairly ingrained preference and perhaps also prejudice. By and large, I prefer eastern, northern, and cold countries. I think, subconsciously, I don’t trust art that comes from hot places. Which is ridiculous. So I jumped at this chance to come and find out about south-western European (and a lot of South American) theatre.

The first event at the festival I went to was a *very long* panel discussion (I sat out the chance to see (Italian) Pippo Delbono’s godawful Orchids for a second time, having already endured it once in Romania), on Saturday morning. And it was very useful indeed. Having got to Portugal, I realised I knew literally next to nothing about the place. I’m pretty sure I haven’t seen a single piece of Portuguese theatre, and, worse, I know hardly anything of its history.

After a quick read-up on Wikipedia – don’t knock it, it’s an informative and concise piece – I also got to realise why. Thanks to Britain’s Britain-centric way of teaching history, the reason we don’t get to learn much about Portugal is that we’ve barely crossed paths, except when tussling over bits of empire we both quite fancy (apparently also the whole “Spanish Armada” thing also involved Portugal, and there was some fighting around the Napoleonic Wars there, but...). Indeed, thanks to having already acquired itself a far-right military dictatorship in the 1930s, but also having a US naval/air-base on it’s colonial mid-Atlantic outpost the Azores, Portugal sat out WWII and (like Spain and Greece) retained its dictatorship well past 1945. As such, Portugal totally sits outside what I’ve always thought of as the post-WWII European/world narrative. Instead, Portugal’s key date is the revolution of 1974. This is modern Portugal’s year zero. In this it’s perhaps a bit like 1968 – but with a more successful(-ish) outcome for the left. The dictatorship was overthrown, but after a few years of democratic back-and-forth (no doubt heavily sponsored by the CIA), the possibility of a socialist/communist Portugal was shelved in favour of a neo-liberal economy which became an early adopter and advocate for European monetary union. A move which, post-2008, they’re no doubt rueing pretty hard.  But, enough of my flimsy grasp of history, and to the concrete things which were discussed yesterday...


The discussion was convened by Luis Miguel Cintra – every year the Almada festival is dedicated as a kind of lifetime achievement award to a leading Portuguese theatre artist, and this year he’s it. To this end there’s also a massive retrospective of his career in the lobby of one of the Festival’s two principal venues, the Escola D. António da Costa, of which I took many photos that I’ll post as a separate piece. Cintra is one of the founding members (and continuing artistic director, I think) of Teatro da Cornucópia (whose work, needless to say, I haven’t got the faintest clue about).

Early on in the discussion, Cintra pulled a neatly controversial move. He produced a copy of a petition/angry-letter about the state of Portuguese theatre that had been written in 1975, the year following the revolution, that had been signed by a vast majority of the people sitting on the panel, including himself. He asked everyone how they now felt they’ve measured up to the demands of their younger selves. It was an impressive gesture, and obviously one that made all the signatories on the panel look immensely uncomfortable. As a point of comparison, imagine someone like David Hare being confronted with Portable Theatre’s manifesto (if such a thing was every written down).

[The following takes the form of an expanded version the notes I took on my phone as the Festival’s excellent press officer Eduardo Brandão valiantly provided an excellent simultaneous translation for me. As such, it frequently becomes just dialogue.]

For me, what was most fascinating about this discussion was the constant tension between these old men and the young men they had once been. Revolutionaries who have become (and remain) the establishment. “That panel represents pretty much all the recipients of government theatre funding” someone explained to me. There were only about 10 people on the panel. There was also an interesting tension between principle and pragmatism. And the question of whether these guys were now just kidding themselves about the revolutionary potential of their current work.

First up to respond was João Mota, now the director of one of Portugal’s “national theatres” (in common with most European countries, there’s more than one National Theatre, the second here is up the coast in Porto). The Portuguese NT in Lisbon subsists on a pitiful state-subsisdy of €1,400,000 a year (and we Brits thought we had problems). It produces only one in-house production a year, and the rest of the time acts as a kind of subsidy distribution service (a de facto Arts Council project-funding body, in fact) for other, “independent” companies, whose work fills its stage(s). His initial take on the document was to deny that he had really betrayed its central tenets of what it called for. This was patently flannel, as one of the things it called for was annual (?) elections to decide the artistic director of the National Theatre.

Another speaker, João Lourenço, saw no distinction between then and now. He called it a “beautiful document” but argued that it only made sense in the context of the revolution. There was “nothing to miss,” about the fact that we no longer lived in a world where there document made sense, but he felt it was useful to know where the current theatre scene had come from. It’s transitional nature is key, he thought, but “appreciated the surprise” of having been reminded of it.

Cinca pressed him: “This almost happened. What if it had?”

João Mota (yes, there were more people called João on the panel than women): “It is [now?/still?] easier for the older generation to get funding from the state, but everything is a process of change: “We’re witnessing the end of ethics and the dawn of great mediocrity. In 1975, we weren't thinking about age, but about political beliefs. Now I’m 71, I know it’s easier for me to get funding. This is different.”

Back to João Lourenço who argued: “You misunderstand. The current government are terrible, anti-cultural. The people who make decisions are totally out of touch. We should not be a part of this.”

Luis Miguel Cintra: “I wish we could write [the document] again. There a bit in it that says: “we wish to be nationalised.” The relationship with the state (then and now) has totally changed. We still have the right to be subsidised. The state doesn’t believe that. The document is a statement by artists at a time of revolution. And it sets of a vision of that state. I still believe this vision of the state.

LMC then spoke about touring Spain and about the relationship between state and theatre there. The younger generation should realise these things about the state: they see the current state as normal. From what João Mota says, observed Cintra, he’s not following the model we proposed in 1975. It’s not the job of he NT to redistribute funds to companies, even if it does it well, which it does. The funds are also meagre. The parliament does not represent the will of the people, but they are still there are there as representatives of the people.

João Mota: Power is filled with contradiction. I have presented my resignation many times. I am still free. I am conducting a public service...

LMC introduces João Brites, and artist who is making work “outside the market”, as he puts it:

Brites kicks off by criticising LMC and sees document as symbol of moment of fracture. He suggests that there needs to be more dialogue between the artists on this panel, let alone with the government. He contextualises his career. His company used to be a children’s company, he talks about funding, about the trials of trying to make project for today... “I still see myself as an independent company. This is a rapturous text of 40 years ago. We don't want to fight each other but we never talk, and when we do talk we talk about subsidies. Cornucópia used to make the public watch four-hour shows... What happened?”
He continues: “These - we - are the most powerful theatre makers in Portugal... We should argue... We have to fight and get angry...”

LMC: [drily] “I don't think that will be a problem.”

Cintra critiques Brites’s move to countryside as “a privilege”. “It is profoundly different to what I do at Cornucópia – but we were privileged to find a space in the middle of Lisboa. And a great designer. And we adjusted ourselves to the funding criteria.” There follows stuff about funding committees: “You have to find your own money if you are going to make three- or four-hour-long shows for audiences of only 50 people.”

Then another quote I found incredibly striking (in a morning of many striking statements): “Young people today take great pride in having created good relationships with sponsors. This is No Reason For Pride.”

Introduces someone else who talks about the catastrophe of private funding. LMC says that he saw this guy’s show, and agrees that it makes no concessions to the market. But how is it possible? Juggling, apparently... However, the show is a monologue... (with the implication that it could not afford to be more).

No, counters the guy [sorry, note-taking didn’t get his name] “It’s not a solution, it’s an artistic choice [it being a monologue].”

Ana Zamora [Spanish artist]: sees work of Cornucópia as exemplary. This doesn't exist in Spain. There we are just building cultural products – terrible. No process, no research. Zamora has pioneered a previously non-existent path. But now, having pioneered, she finds she has to fight the people who followed her for grants. “I cannot create an eight-person show. Funding is episodic. Now we have to sell shows in order to fight funding cutbacks. Now a tricky time, but we need to keep true to our own artistic visions, or else what’s the point?

Brites: I don’t try to sell shows [unclear if he means “with marketing” or “not taking any money for tickets at all”], instead he opens his rehearsals to public and makes the work more public at different stages in its creation [I’m very much reminded of Chris Goode’s Open House experiments here]. “I’m trying to build complex projects, but making them open to the public. As artists we have anc obligation to integrate things that don’t naturally do so. We need to keep in fighting in total independence: political, economic, aesthetic. Each project is like a war. (When groups fight, we have a common memory of the past). The past is with the people still.”

LMC: In Spain, Cornucópia receive no public funding [fair enough, they’re a Portuguese company]. Instead, there they train young actors, replacing role of publicly-funded theatre schools [because those don’t exist/funding has been cut].

Another striking statement: “You can’t call the public “the audience” or they become an instrument for funding.”

Cornucópia is a group of artists. We gets offer for funding, sponsorship, obviously (!) but we reject them because of the terms...

Next up, Miguel Seabra. He is described as an artist who falls between the generations – no longer “young”, but nowhere near old enough to have signed the 1975 document. And, God bless him, he’s the first to mention that there aren’t enough women on the panel.

Seabra apparently makes “social theatre” – Goes into the countryside and villages and makes pieces which explore the recovery of local pagan traditions...

He tells as story about having a stroke and the doctor treating him telling him that he shouldn’t expect to ever be able to use his right hand again. “We should never take hope from people” he says. “We need to try, to fail... We need determination.” He pays producers, which how he buys “artistic freedom”. His age suddenly seems key. He has absolutely no discernible ideology at all – at least financially, he’s all ruthless pragmatism and

Luis Miguel describes Portugal’s artistic landscape as still “post- revolutionary”, but notes that TV shapes actors now. In theatre, less. But you can feel how actors are being changed by being market-ized – how actors are changing themselves to better conform to commercial and public expectations.

Because there is now less funding, there is more control over the work being made. Public servants who don’t watch theatre are the inspectors. Time is taken out of working to apply for funding, and jump through hoops for inspectors.

[And here, Eduardo and I ran out of steam.]

The above is just the edited highlights of what was variously a fascinating and frustrating conversation, but it felt horribly, pressingly relevant to pretty much anyone making theatre in the current financial climate (so: anyone making theatre).  This could be the shape and sound of panel discussions in the UK in as few as ten years time.  And without anything like the same uncompromising (from some quarters) ideological back-up.  Watching the discussion, even at its most frustrating, it felt like these were arguments we also need to be having. And soon, before it all gets too late.  Not just conversations about funding, but on the meaning of funding, about what money it's actually acceptable to take.

There is literally no way of taking a photo of a panel discussion that makes it look interesting, thank heavens for writing. (Luis Miguel Cintra is centre, the guy with the mic (2nd left) is the NT director João Mota.) 

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