Budget ‘Microtheatre’ grips crisis-hit Spaniards

Breaking through the bar-room chatter, a voice calls audience members downstairs, to the basement of Madrid's "Microtheatre".

Budget 'Microtheatre' grips crisis-hit Spaniards
Actors Alberto Velasco (L) and Chevi Muraday perform "Cenizas" at the Micro Teatro in Madrid. Pierre-Philippe Marcou/AFP

Formerly a butcher's shop, this theatre bar in a formerly undesirable neighbourhood of the Spanish capital now uses its tiny underground chambers for a novel form of budget entertainment.

Paying four euros (just over $5) each — a fraction of the cost of a typical theatre ticket — audiences of about a dozen cram into a room a few metres (yards) square and sit close up to the actors or lean against the wall to watch a 15-minute show.

The Microtheatre was launched three years ago, after the start of the five-year economic crisis which has hit spending hard, not least on pleasures such as the theatre.

On a Saturday night, the 54 mini-shows performed back to back in the theatre's five rooms often sell-out, says the company's manager, Veronica Larios, 35.

"A lot of people are unemployed, a lot of people have had their salaries cut, so people have less spending power in general now in Spain," she says.

"This is a form that lets you spend time in the theatre, and spend just as much as you want to."

'Intense experience'

On a recent autumn evening, punters could choose between shows as diverse as a comedy set in a 1960s Spanish kitchen, or a dark drama set in a torture chamber, where a young woman lay naked and weeping a few inches from the spectators.

"It is a very intense experience," said one member of the audience, Belen Garcia, a 36-year-old economist, on her first ever visit to the Microtheatre. "You see the actors right in front of you. If you stretched out your arm you could almost touch them."

Five years of economic turmoil in Spain have had a major impact on theatres, which were already in bad shape, driving theatres to seek new ways of drawing a crowd.

One in four Spanish workers is jobless and attendance at shows plunged by nearly a third between 2008 and 2012.

A further blow was struck last year when the government raised sales tax on tickets for shows from eight to 21 percent.

"The impact has been brutal," says Jose Martret, 41, an actor and one of the men behind another miniature theatre project in Madrid, La Casa de la Portera.

Time to take a risk

In the Bohemian district of La Latina, this venue houses audiences of 25 for shows running an hour or more for up to 20 euros a time.

The novelty here is that the plays are performed not in a regular theatre but in an old ground-floor apartment — and that the audiences have kept coming.

Tonight its walls are decked out with hunting trophies and gilded mirrors, with thick red carpets and a small altar to the Virgin Mary: props for a production of Anton Chekhov's "Ivanov", a classic rarely staged in Spain.

Martret and the theatre's co-director Alberto Puraenvidia, a set-designer of 36, say they made a "kamikaze" gamble by pouring all their resources into mounting the show in March 2012, hoping it would run for at least three months.

"It was time to take a risk," said Martret. "It is a difficult time for the theatre. It is in permanent crisis."

"Ivanov" ended up being more popular than they expected and ran for 287 performances before they switched to staging different shows, encouraged by its success.

La Casa de la Portera and the Microtheatre do not bring in enough in ticket sales to provide a living for the actors and crew. But they see it as a bridge to other, potentially more lucrative projects.

At the Microtheatre, the manager Larios says they have sold licences to venues in Argentina, Mexico and Miami to run Microtheatre shows, and are negotiating to do the same in London.

These are a few small signs of life in the theatre sector despite economic adversity.

Three years ago, a handful of theatre professionals launched, without any public subsidies, a new theatre festival, Russafa Escenica, with shows set in unusual locations.

In this September's edition, more than 9,500 people bought tickets — sold for a minimum of three euros — to watch shows performed in florists, local swimming baths and elsewhere.

The festival's artistic director Jeronimo Cornelles sees it as a shop-window for the participants' talents rather than a bread-winning enterprise.

In a time of economic crisis, he adds, it has also been a means of protest against the government's handling of the economic crisis.

"At times like this, you can take up a banner and demonstrate," he says. "Or you can do something, build something, and show that there is another way."

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Meet the Spanish rapper bringing flamenco and bossa nova into hip-hop

Spanish rapper C. Tangana was taking a big risk when he started mixing old-fashioned influences like flamenco and bossa nova into his hip-hop -- but it's this eclectic sound that has turned him into a phenomenon on both sides of the Atlantic.

Meet the Spanish rapper bringing flamenco and bossa nova into hip-hop
Spanish rapper Anton Alvarez known as 'C. Tangana' poses in Madrid on April 29, 2021. Photo: Javier Soriano/AFP

The 30-year-old has emerged as one of the world’s biggest Spanish-language stars since his third album “El Madrileno” — the Madrilenian — came out in February. That ranks him alongside his superstar ex-girlfriend Rosalia, the Grammy-winning Catalan singer with whom he has co-written several hits.

C. Tangana, whose real name is Anton Alvarez Alfaro, has come a long way since a decade ago when he became known as a voice of disillusioned Spanish youth in the wake of the financial crisis.These days his rap is infused with everything from reggaeton and rumba to deeply traditional styles from Spain and Latin America, with a voice often digitised by autotune.

“It’s incredible that just when my music is at its most popular is exactly when I’m doing something a bit more complex, more experimental and less
trendy,” he told AFP in an interview.

And he is unashamed to be appealing to a wider audience than previously: his dream is now to make music “that a young person can enjoy in a club or someone older can enjoy at home while cooking”.

‘People are tired’

The rapper, who sports a severe semi-shaved haircut and a pencil moustache, has worked with Spanish flamenco greats including Nino De Elche, Antonio Carmona, Kiko Veneno, La Hungara and the Gipsy Kings.

In April he brought some of them together for a performance on NPR’s popular “Tiny Desk Concert” series, which has already drawn nearly six million
views on YouTube.

Shifting away from trap, one of rap’s most popular sub-genres, and venturing into a more traditional repertoire was a dangerous move — especially for someone with a young fanbase to whom rumba, bossa nova and bolero sound old-fashioned.

“I think people are tired. They’ve had enough of the predominant aesthetic values that have previously defined pop and urban music,” he said.

Parts of his latest album were recorded in Latin America with Cuban guitarist Eliades Ochoa of Buena Vista Social Club, Uruguayan
singer-songwriter Jorge Drexler, Mexican folk artist Ed Maverick and Brazil’s Toquinho, one of the bossa nova greats.

“What struck me most everywhere I went was the sense of tradition and the way people experienced the most popular music, and I don’t mean pop,” he said.

A new direction

C. Tangana started out in 2006 rapping under the name Crema. When the global economic crisis swept Spain a few years later, hard-hitting trap was
the perfect way to voice the angst of his generation. But after more than a decade of rapping, things changed.

“When I was heading for my 30s, I hit this crisis, I was a bit fed up with what I was doing… and decided to give voice to all these influences that I
never dared express as a rapper,” he said.

The shift began in 2018 with “Un veneno” (“A poison”) which came out a year after his big hit “Mala mujer” (“Bad woman”).

And there was a return to the sounds of his childhood when he used to listen to Spanish folk songs at home, raised by a mother who worked in
education and a journalist father who liked to play the guitar. The Latin American influences came later.

“It started when I was a teenager with reggaeton and with bachata which were played in the first clubs I went to, which were mostly Latin,” he said.

Studying philosophy at the time, he wrote his first raps between stints working in call centres or fast-food restaurants.

As to what comes next, he doesn’t know. But one thing he hopes to do is collaborate with Natalia Lafourcade, a Mexican singer who dabbles in folk, rock and pop — another jack of all musical trades.