Performing artists in Portugal constantly have to deal with a variety of obstacles that originate in the recent economic crisis, but above all with the indifference with which political power regards the arts, also in recent decades. Nevertheless, there’s a lot of production work and the diversity of the Portuguese performing arts scene is surprising.
Most of the Portuguese performing arts scene is composed of single artists and very small companies. A small number of artists receive a little financial support from the state, and even they work in a very precarious way. Since the subsidies from the state as well as the financial coproduction support from theatres have been severely cut in the last decade, artists must create a lot of new work if they want to keep afloat. Hardly anyone can guarantee what they’ll be doing in 6 months or one year, if they’re doing anything at all. The only constant is uncertainty. Most creations are small-scale productions, as inexpensive as possible, exploiting the scarce available resources to the maximum. Costumes, set and technical material are usually borrowed from other creations. This is more noticeable with younger artists, but it also applies to the most established companies in the country. There are still a couple of big productions each year, but they tend to be the kind of bourgeois mainstream events in the context of some political or historical celebration, with little artistic relevance. They are the exceptions that prove the rule: the Portuguese performing arts lack the necessities of life.
Less is more?
On the one hand, to stubbornly keep on creating work without resources can be counted as positive. Since they are fragile on their own, companies now increasingly get together to cooperate. Artists circulate a lot between projects, freelancing in each other’s productions and as a consequence there is a lot of debate, sharing of information and openness to different aesthetics. The borders between artistic disciplines have faded and resulted in very innovative work. On the other hand, this context has generated the most precarious generation ever. Underpaid work has become absolutely normal and unpaid work is becoming common. Once again, this is not exclusive to emerging artists, but also happens in the best-financed companies in Portugal. It looks like the scene is gradually becoming an amateur one. More and more young artists have to leave Portugal because they can’t make a living here. There is no proper social support for unemployed professionals in the performing arts. And, too occupied with its survival, the arts scene is almost incapable of demanding regulation and justice in the sector. The slogan “doing more with less” is becoming suicidal.
Why then do artists keep producing work at such an intense production rate? The answer is: survival. Although touring with shows in Portugal is still very difficult and international touring is only just starting to become a reality for a few artists, creating new work is the most obvious means to survival. However, financial survival doesn’t entirely explain the unexpected diversity and production tempo of the Portuguese performing arts scene. There’s an idea behind it. An idea of resilience and resistance. More than merely existing, it’s the desire to actually live. In a field where “being seen” is instrumental, the biggest threat posed by the crisis is invisibility. In many cases, the economic crisis has been used as an alibi for budget cuts which are, in fact, ideological decisions, driven by a market-focused mindset which regards the arts as an unnecessary luxury, especially if they are not open to use by the regime. This ideology is not even against alternative contemporary artists, because it considers them invisible to the point of irrelevance. The response from the performing arts scene to this so-called austerity ideology has been a struggle for visibility. This means not only making new work with very few resources, but also doing work that can be visible in society. Whether instinctively or consciously, the most innovative work of the last decade is striking for its quest to be unique.
A diverse generation
A new generation of Portuguese performing artists started working at about the turn of the millennium. Although older generations from theatre and dance are very much present on the scene (and also have more production resources), this new generation is creating today’s most original and influential work. They share a historic context of production and although they often collaborate, the work they create is very diverse.
If you watch the work of choreographers such as Cláudia Dias, Marlene Monteiro Freitas or Sofia Dias and Vítor Roriz, you can hardly see any aesthetic familiarities. The same applies to theatre companies such as Mala Voadora, Primeiros Sintomas, Cão Solteiro, Teatro Praga and Comédias do Minho, and directors such as Tónan Quito, Patrícia Portela, Nuno Cardoso and Rui Catalão, or performance artists Ana Borralho and João Galante. For example, Freitas’ impressive performances always seem to be a process in which the dancers liberate themselves and, through movement, become “another”. “Guintche” (2010), which she created and performed, is exemplary of an oeuvre devoted to exploring an exuberant and grotesque imagery, where the erotic and the ritualistic always coexist. In contrast, the work of Sofia Dias and Vítor Roriz is all about simplicity and control. In one of their recent works called “Out of any present” (2012), they continue their almost scientific, yet playful explorations of language. Humour and politics can always be brought together unexpectedly by their unusual way of mixing fragments of text, music and movement. The work of Cláudia Dias is yet another case: based on the technique of composition in real time, which she studied at the side of choreographer João Fiadeiro, Dias has been creating pieces in which her body or those of the performers are a vehicle for exploring political issues. Such as the European project in “Willingness to will” (2012), or an autobiographical guided tour to her proletarian home town in the already iconic dance piece “Visita Guiada” (2005). These are just three examples of choreographers who are clearly looking to be unique, while yet collaborating and co-authoring work with other artists. Some artistic influences are of course discernible, but their work is unlike any other now being created in Portugal. And even if they are increasingly touring internationally and being coproduced by foreign theatres, you can hardly recognise any of the trends or mannerisms found in the work being shown on the European performing arts circuit (probably because Portugal is still regarded as a peripheral country on that circuit).
This diversity is also very present in the new generation of theatre-makers. While some companies are more prone to devising methods of creation or collaborating with other disciplines such as the visual arts, cinema or dance, others are engaged with more documentary work or devote themselves to repertory. The common thread is that this generation searches for a personal artistic language and a specific range of subject matter. This diversity is also due to a certain resurgence of playwriting in Portugal, through the work of José Maria Vieira Mendes, Jacinto Lucas Pires and Miguel Castro Caldas, among others. More than ever, writers have become part of the process of creating, integrating into collectives and writing from within the artistic experiment. This has undoubtedly helped companies to articulate a much more solid theatrical language. There is a need to use today’s words to talk about today’s world, especially in the context of a crisis. The consequence is that many plays not only adopt a political discourse but also fight more efficiently against the invisibility of the arts.
Can the arts thrive without a strong civil society?
One can recognise the struggle for visibility in the Portuguese performing arts not only in the creations, but also in the way companies and artists operate. They had to invent their own context and handle the production resources for the artistic work themselves. When the latest economic crisis hit hard in southern European countries, the Portuguese arts scene, which is suffering from a chronic crisis, wasn’t surprised. The austerity policies imposed by the government and the European troika since 2011 just meant the worsening of an illness that had been there for a long time, with very few moments of relief.
Historically, Portugal is not good at giving power to civil society. We are talking of a country with a monarchy that lasted almost 800 years, followed by only 16 years of Republic in the beginning of the 20th century and immediately after that by a right-wing dictatorship for another 48 years. We hadn’t had any training in citizenship at all when, in 1974, the Carnation Revolution changed the regime into the republican democracy that we still have (or claim to have). Although it proved to be essential to Portugal’s profound political changes over the last century, civil society had never really been empowered by the State to actively take part in the daily project of developing the country. Unlike the other main sectors of a social state that aren’t devoted to profit (such as education, health and science), the cultural sector depends heavily on the initiative of civil society, since artists and many cultural agents are not employees of state-run institutions. Unlike a fascist regime, a democratic government cannot create its own “politics of the spirit”. It can’t create top-down cultural policies – it needs to trust grass roots initiatives, developing its policies in dialogue with what’s already in place.
In the mid-90’s there was a glimmer of hope when a Ministry of Culture was finally created within the Portuguese government. Culture had reached the status of political relevance and some important projects were put in place, such as the creation of a national network of municipal theatres. Throughout the country new theatres were built and dozens of old inactive venues were rejuvenated. Also, a system of regular grants to independent companies was pursued. This was not only a sign of commitment from the State towards the arts sector, but also a message of trust in civil society.
The times they were a-changin’
In this period, when the turn-of-the-millennium generation was starting to develop its work, theatre and dance were completely different worlds. Dance was pretty much focused on creating contemporary work, and the Portuguese “nova dança” (new dance) was reaching maturity and earning international attention in countries like Belgium, France and Germany. In contrast, the theatre scene was dominated by an older generation called the “companhias independentes” (independent companies). Most of these established companies were born in the early 70’s, still under fascism or immediately after the revolution, and brought about an aesthetic renewal in Portuguese theatre at the time. Although in the 80’s and early 90’s some significant new projects were launched with very different approaches to creation, most of the meagre means of production were in the hands of the older generation. As they still are today.
So, taking a bird’s-eye view, this was the landscape which young performing artists encountered at the turn of the millennium. In the early 90’s two very big cultural centres were inaugurated in Lisbon: CCB and Culturgest, besides the already fundamental work being made by Fundação Calouste Gulbenkian. Between 1996 and 2006, the São João National Theatre reopened in Porto after many years of inactivity, and the São Luiz and Maria Matos municipal theatres also opened in Lisbon. Dozens of other municipal theatres opened their doors all over the country, such as Teatro Viriato in Viseu and Centro Cultural Vila Flor in Guimarães. It seemed Lisbon would no longer be the heart and soul of the performing arts, but that other regions would finally have vigorous artistic clusters too.
Together with these venues, the task of programming came into existence – a new job in the Portuguese performing arts. Mainly in Lisbon and Porto, theatres became co-producers as well as presenters. Artists now had a new partner and were no longer obliged to be owners of a theatre to present their work. Also, touring became possible and thus a natural ambition. The appearance of programmers also meant that venues were no longer aligned with a specific aesthetics, but could offer a more diverse artistic spectrum. Besides the direct impact on the activity of Portuguese companies, these public theatres also exponentially increased the quantity and quality of the international work that could be seen in Portugal. This not only transformed the audience, but these international artists also had a massive influence on up-and-coming Portuguese artists. Companies such as tg STAN and Forced Entertainment were highly inspiring to many of the alternative theatres, and one can trace this influence in today’s work.
Although the whole performing arts scene reacted to this paradigm shift, which took place between 1996 and 2006, the millennium newcomers were the ones who responded to it most and they started to feed the public theatres with their new work. These works were the raison d’être of this model of public theatres. It seemed that the times they were a-changin’. They were, but they didn’t. Mainly because subsequent governments didn’t attach any importance to culture, but also out of frustration at not seeing any immediate results that could positively affect their election prospects, the central state gradually abandoned the projects started in that period and the Ministry of Culture lost its initial influence.
The dream is over
The memory of those hopeful years between 1996 and 2006 is still very distinct. Every debate on cultural policy or financing the arts eventually ends up lamenting that lost opportunity. For more than ten years, governments have increasingly been cutting the already ridiculously low budget for funding the arts. In addition, no real cultural policies have been pursued. How could they, when we have had nine Ministers of Culture in only ten years? The projects that were in place have been gradually abandoned and, after the initial investment in a national network of theatres, we now see many of these venues underfinanced and underequipped. The truth is that many of the municipal theatres that were rebuilt with public funding never functioned on a regular basis. Lisbon and some other cities, against the trend of the various governments, have cherished their local theatres or performing artists. Montemor-o-Novo, one of the poorest cities in the country, is one of them, being the home of O Espaço do Tempo. This independent group housed in an old convent receives more than 40 residency projects per year. Although it doesn’t receive the public funding it needs, this space has done more for a whole generation of new artists, now widely recognized, than any governmental programme ever did. And it has been collaborating internationally at the highest level. Unfortunately, such examples are an oasis in a desert.
The abandonment of the arts by the state reached its peak when the economic crisis struck Portugal. In 2012, when Guimarães was European Culture Capital, the government decided to abolish the Ministry of Culture. In the national expense budget, culture takes a meagre 0.2%, most of it spent by the state itself. Only 0.03% goes to supporting theatre, dance, music, visual arts and cinema created by independent companies or artists. In 2014, a grant for a company for one year ranges from as little as 20,000 euro to a maximum of 400,000 euro, which only one company in the whole country receives. The total amount the government will spend on grants for all the independent theatre, dance, music and visual arts companies in the country is around 13 million euros. This may sound too demagogic, but the investment the Portuguese government made last summer to save a private bank that was going bankrupt due to fraudulent management would be enough to finance the arts for almost 500 years at current levels.
The whole artistic scene, regardless of generation, is constantly facing the threat of extinction. One of the most established and well-financed theatre companies in the country, Artistas Unidos, which has done an immense amount of work presenting contemporary repertory for the last 20 years, is about to be thrown out of its theatre so the place can be made more profitable. Surprisingly, the landlord of this theatre is the University of Lisbon, which shows that the notion of the irrelevance of culture has spread to the most unexpected sectors of Portuguese society. Another case is the Alkantara Festival, the most important contemporary performing arts festival in Portugal, with a quality programme that can stand shoulder to shoulder with such celebrated European festivals as Kunstenfestivaldesarts and De Internationale Keuze. Moreover, Alkantara has been a motor for artistic innovation and the internationalization of local artists. After a cut of 70% in their public funding, this year’s festival is possibly the last.
The increasing international attention granted to Portuguese artists is very important, but it won’t have any lasting effect unless it is also accompanied by national policy. Clearly, the government doesn’t have enough knowledge of how important international cooperation could be for the performing arts scene. The proof is that the present funding for internationalization considers European touring as secondary, not understanding that the Portuguese performing arts still haven’t fully entered the European circuit.
Abandoned space is public space
There are dozens of examples like these to prove that the last decade has been marked by the absence of any real political idea regarding culture. The only way the prime minister or president will mention culture is when they talk about the importance of “self-sustainability” and the “creative industries” as some sort of lucrative version of artistic work, which means a step backwards in the way a democracy regards artistic creation. Even a recent and well publicized study which proved that the cultural sector actually generated more income than the public expenditure it required, meaning that it makes a positive input into the economy, wasn’t enough to change the government’s mercantilist rhetoric. In the absence of a policy for the arts, artists have filled the void themselves and have been involved in creating and carrying out educational and community projects and festivals, and in promoting internationalization.
Maybe the notions of “local” and “community” became essential in the politics of performing artists to fight the lack of any national idea of culture. A great example is Comédias do Minho, a company formed ten years ago in cooperation with five municipalities in the northwest of Portugal. The company has been making challenging theatre pieces and has also invited other artists to direct. They have been researching the cultural heritage of the region, using it as material for their productions, as well as doing educational work with the population. Besides the intrinsic quality of their pieces, this company engaged in extraordinary mediation work that led to major changes in funding policy in that region. They created a solid network and have a very loyal audience. Struggling against the invisibility of artists and communities, they have done more for cultural policy in that part of the country than any government has been able to do over the last few decades. Also, a festival such as Materiais Diversos, in the isolated centre of the country, or artists such as choreographer Paulo Ribeiro, who directs his company in Viseu and runs Teatro Viriato, and theatre director Miguel Moreira, the first Portuguese director ever to present his work in Avignon and who fled from Lisbon to Guimarães to base his activities there, are examples of innovative contemporary artists working in a strong local context.
Even if not included in specific communities, performing artists have been increasingly concerned with the notion of the local. One of many examples is a couple, Ana Borralho and João Galante. Having always been interested in exploring the relationship with the audience in a performance situation, they created “Atlas” (2011) as the result of the ephemeral meeting with one hundred people from a community to celebrate the anniversary of Teatro Maria Matos in Lisbon. What seemed to be a one-off and almost site-specific event became their most acclaimed work so far and toured the world. They arrive in a city and work there for several days with one hundred local citizens (not artists), filling the structure of the performance with their personal stories, making up a mutant performance in constant dialogue with the collective imagination of each community.
Painting the invisible
If the resilience and creativity with which the performing arts scene has reacted to the crisis can give us hope, the violence of the economic crisis allied with the indifference of the political powers may possibly waste what has been achieved. The grassroots initiatives, the combative behaviour and the innovative work – all this can disappear in the blink of an eye. The scene has reached a point of economic collapse and – even worse – has become invisible. The artists are invisible, the audiences (though they do exist) are invisible, and the productions are increasingly becoming invisible. If we continue to lack a political project that can put culture at the centre of an idea of what our society might be, it’s just a matter of time before the country becomes invisible.
Even if money is a very urgent matter, it is not only more funding that is needed. The future depends on policy-makers who recognize projects, workspaces and festivals that have actually been cultural policy icebreakers. The first thing that has to be acknowledged and cherished is that, however precarious and uncertain the future may be, the Portuguese performing arts are filled with vitality and diversity. We need to restore the public dignity of the arts and talk and think differently about them in the public sphere. As if you poured paint onto something invisible and suddenly it appears. It’s always been there.
One of the artists mentioned in this article, Marlene Monteiro Freitas, will present her work Paradise at Transformers in Beursschouwburg on 24 and 25 October.