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2000 – 2014, a time capsule of Portuguese theatre

Photo by courtesy of João Tuna & Teatro Nacional São João Porto
Photo by courtesy of João Tuna & Teatro Nacional São João Porto

The transition from the year 1999 to the year 2000 represented the mythical turn of the century and millennium that for many generations seemed like the foreseeable end of life on Earth—with the corresponding bug, the now very distant and very vintage Y2K. However, in the case of Portugal, it also looked like the beginning of a new paradigm in the relationship between the state and the creation, production and circulation functions in the field of the performing arts in general, and theatre in particular.

Leaning, then and now, on a model that juxtaposed the public sector (embodied by the two national theatres—Teatro Nacional D. Maria II in Lisbon and Teatro Nacional São João in Porto, the only Portuguese member of the Union of Theatres of Europe—benefiting from a specific institutional and financial support) and a non-public sector (i.e. ‘independent’ yet state-subsidized), that relationship was substantially challenged with the coming into force of Legislative Order 23/200. Suddenly, the special treatment given to the selected so-called “appointed companies and structures” (operating on a regular and systematic basis for a minimum of 15 years) was extinct, and the call for proposals application procedure became the norm for the whole community of theatre agents as far as the access to long-term (either quadrennial, biannual or annual) and specific project-oriented grants was concerned.

Regardless of the several legislative and operational changes that continued redefining the regulations for the call for proposals, sometimes overtly against the theatre community’s sensibility, this paradigm has remained in force until today. This is why we believe it is adequate to consider the period between 2000 and 2014 as a time capsule of Portuguese theatre. Such a transformation was, in fact, the political translation of an empirical observation: 25 years having gone by after the revolution of 25 April 1974—and the absolutely unique yet collective adventures towards the creation of an intervention theatre, both popular and politically engaged—the landscape had changed. The new companies operating in the country diversified the possible paths within the Portuguese theatre world, forcing the system into a reconfiguration. These new companies outnumber their predecessors, and are far younger and far more heavily exposed both to the influence of the outside world and to the influence of an advanced art education (in Lisbon, at the Escola Superior de Teatro e Cinema; in Oporto at the Escola Superior de Música e Artes do Espectáculo).

2000, the year that marks the start of this journey, is therefore a big bang, in a way: From then on, all the state-subsidized companies, even those who had so far been chosen and financed by appointment, had to start applying to the available funds in a call for proposals. By then, this had already been the only way for the majority of the subsidized companies, even if 40% of the available funds had until then directly been awarded either to those ‘selected’ long-standing companies or to specific one-off projects.

Ever since, the call for proposals application system has remained the rule—but everything else has fluctuated. Governing bodies, amounts, procedures, evaluation criteria, decision methods, jury composition, i.e. the overall framework has had its ups and downs in the course of these moderately turbulent past 15 years. Still, despite the chronic (and sometimes disastrous) delays in every call for proposals and final results announcement—and indeed in the actual material awarding of the grants to each of the approved applicants—the system has worked without major interruptions. That’s quite an achievement considering the fact that in 2011 the Ministry of Culture was downgraded to a Secretariat of State, and that the body in charge of managing the grants went through several metamorphosis: at first, the Instituto Português das Artes e do Espectáculo between 1998 and 2003, followed by the Instituto das Artes from 2003 up to 2007, and finally the Direcção-Geral das Artes ever since 2007.

So far, we’ve been looking at the bright side of things. But we can look at the dark side, too, if we contemplate the effects of time on the dimension of available funds for theatre support and the number of subsidized companies: slightly over 9 million euros for 117 structures in 2000, around 6.3 million euros for 92 structures in 2014. (By the way, the maximum amount awarded to a company decreased, too: from the 424,000 euros awarded to both the appointed Teatro da Cornucópia and Teatro Aberto in 2000, to the 400,000 euros awarded to the Companhia de Teatro de Almada in 2014). Within this period, 2004 stands out as the year that saw the largest number of companies being awarded a state grant (131), and 2009 stands out as the year that saw the most generous global amount available for theatre subsidizing (reaching nearly 12 million euros).

From 2011 on, though, the contraction of the state supporting action as far as the arts and theatre in particular are concerned has become harsher. That year, of course, Portugal had formally demanded international assistance to overcome the financial crisis, and subscribed to the Technical Memorandum of Understanding proposed by the ruling troika (European Commission, Central European Bank and International Monetary Fund). Whereas so far the overall amount awarded to the theatrical “independent” system had fluctuated between a minimum of 9.06 million euros (2000) and a maximum of 11.94 million euros (2009), it continuously went downhill almost all the way after that year, reaching figures never seen before in this century (and millennium): 6.8 million euros in 2012, 6.1 million euros in 2013, and 6.3 million in 2014. The following figures for 2015 are necessarily incomplete because some calls for proposals haven’t yet reached their final stage (namely for the awarding of the specific one-off projects and the Apoios Tripartidos, a new system created in 2007 that has been operating since 2013, and allows joint-venture applications through an agreement with local governments): So far, 53 theatre companies have been awarded state support, in a total amount of over 3.1 million euros. But even after all the grants will have been awarded there will be a decrease in the global public funds available to the Portuguese theatre community in 2015—a scenario the government has already admitted to.

It’s the theatre of a crisis-ridden economy, stupid—a theatre that the existing statistics partly confirm and partly deny. There were more theatregoers in 2013 than in 2000, both absolutely (1.5 million vs. 614,000) and relatively (148,500 per thousand inhabitants vs. 59,700 per thousand inhabitants). But the best year, 2008, is already very far away (1.8 million theatregoers in total; 175,300 theatregoers per thousand inhabitants). Ticket offices were also doing worse in 2000 (2.5 million euros) than in 2013 (8.6 million euros)—but they had also been doing far better before, for instance in 2005 (11.2 million euros). At this point today, a recovery to previous proud performances doesn’t look very likely.

Not even the two national theatres have been able to avoid the decrease in ticket office revenues: between 2010 and 2012, the Teatro Nacional São João’s dropped from 286,000 to 212,000 euros, in a context where its total budget also dropped from 4.9 million euros to 4.6 million euros (it’s important to emphasize that it had reached 7 million euros just before). And, last but not the least, the institution lost its sponsor. Indeed, national theatres have suffered a lot of institutional instability, too, with significant statutory changes and, among others, a very obvious consequence: the loss of financial independence.

Despite all this, the last 15 years have also witnessed a major reconfiguration of the theatre and cultural centers circuit—with the opening of a series of brand venues, most of them promoted by local governments. These have independent programming and considerable means to coproduce along with the independent companies and structures (a vital function that both national theatres in fact also more or less engagingly commit themselves to, together with the mandatory investment in their own productions). A map of the Portuguese theatre in the last decade and a half will have to include, besides D. Maria II and São João, such cultural centers (some of them privately owned) as Lisbon-based Fundação Calouste Gulbenkian, Centro Cultural de Belém, Culturgest and ZDB, Oporto-based Fundação de Serralves, and Guimarães-based Centro Cultural Vila Flor; and such ‘local’ venues as Teatro Municipal de Bragança (in Bragança), Teatro Académico de Gil Vicente (in Coimbra), Teatro Viriato (in Viseu), Teatro Municipal da Guarda, Teatro Municipal Rivoli and Teatro Municipal do Campo Alegre (both in Oporto), Teatro Maria Matos and São Luiz Teatro Municipal (both in Lisbon). And it will also feature at least the following festivals, with very dissimilar degrees of consolidation and internationalization: Festival de Almada, Alkantara Festival, FITEI–Festival Internacional de Teatro de Expressão Ibérica, Próximo Futuro, Festivais Gil Vicente and Citemor–Festival de Montemor-o-Velho.

It is symptomatic that the Citemor–Festival de Montemor-o-Velho has gone from the place where Portuguese audiences met stage directors such as Angelica Liddell or Rodrigo García—the most performed contemporary non-French playwright in France, and recipient of the Europe Theatre Prize in 2009—to the non-state-subsidized festival where artists present their works almost free of charge, when they don’t actually pay to be there. Then again, this is the surreal country that for the past 15 years has been daydreaming of the mythical future where the government will finally spend 1% of the national budget on culture—and it’s also the real and not at all mythical country where that amount doesn’t even reach 0.1%.


Sources: Direcção-Geral das Artes; PORDATA; Instituto Nacional de Estatística


Published on 20 May 2015 (Article originally written in Portuguese)