Go behind the Shakespeare’s Globe, making your way through the alleys of Southwark into Union Street. There, in what used to be an empty archway under the train tracks, you can find something quite exceptional: Cervantes Theatre. Featuring Spanish and Latin American texts both in English and Spanish, the Cervantes Theatre brings to London what Repertorio Español has been doing in New York City for decades, but not quite in the same way. The initiative and dream of Jorge de Juan and Paula Paz, founders of the Spanish Theatre Company in London, has large goals: this intimate space hopes to become a house of Spanish and Latin American theatre culture, a place where English-speaking and Spanish-speaking people can become a community.
With a small but passionate team and the help of donors and institutions from both the UK and Spain, Cervantes Theatre is an example of how a dream can come into being with dedication and hard work. I sat down in this brand new space with Paula Paz, Associate Director and talked about their journey so far, what they have found, and what they hope for.
Aida Rocci: Tell me about Cervantes Theatre. How was it born? How did an old garage become this beautiful theatre?
Paula Paz: It all started with the Spanish Theatre Company three years ago. We had this vision of performing Spanish and Latin-American theatre in London, both in Spanish and English. Here in London, there’s a demand for new authors, new plays. Audiences in London are incredibly educated, eager to discover new things. We thought this was a great opportunity. So we wanted a headquarters, a house of Spanish culture and language, not only for us but also for other companies that were interested in Spanish-language texts. We needed a space in London, a space that didn’t exist before.
A year ago, we approached Southwark Council with this project. At the time they were in the midst of developing Union Yard: these nine arches being repurposed. So little by little, we took all the necessary steps, and six months ago they accepted the project. We transformed an empty arch into a fully equipped two-level theatre. For instance, the seats come from Figueras (in Catalonia); the floor, from Barcelona; the stairs, from Murcia.
Through individual donors, sponsorship, crowdfunding, and the collaboration of some institutions we created this space: the first theatre in London dedicated to Spanish and Latin American theatre and culture.
A.R. Why London? What is the reception you have had in this city?
P.P. The history, the tradition, the respect for theatre in London reaches levels that are hard to find in other cities in the world.
And there is an immense interest in Spanish culture in the UK. Those people are always going to come, either to a Flamenco festival or a classical play. Then there are some audiences who are learning Spanish. And then there is a sector of the public who just wants to discover new plays. Our initiative can be a never-ending source for those people: just have a look at how many people speak Spanish in the world, and you’ll get an idea of how many writers there are as well—writers who don’t normally get translated into English.
It has been fascinating to see the different audience responses. British theatregoers who are interested in Spanish and Latin American culture have the opportunity to see the same production both in English and in Spanish. And it changes completely. Language informs the actors’ movement, the space… it shapes everything. For instance, now with Darwin’s Tortoise (the play I just directed), each version is a different world and yet both share the essence. It is incredible—you don’t get to see this often. It’s a real gem for theatre lovers.
A.R. What about Spanish audiences? There is a large Spanish expat community in London. What has been their response?
P.P. It’s been quite interesting. It’s been a very warm response: we needed something like this, this space, to happen. But at the same time, there is something that needs developing: Spanish attendance to the theatre. British people, even if they are not part of the theatre industry, go so often to the theatre—at least once a month. But in Spain, it’s something we have to work on. But it could be another way to go out. The same way you go out to a restaurant or a pub, you could be going to the theatre. In London the price of a meal at a restaurant can be way higher than the price of a theatre ticket—so it’s a matter of habit. So now that we have this space, one of our goals is to create a habit for Spanish speaking people to go to the theatre. Not just to the theatre, we want to curate discussions at the bar upstairs with Spanish professionals in the art world living here in the UK—a way to inspire people who come to London to find their way in their careers—movie screenings, small-format dance performances, music. We want this to be a place where every week there is something new happening; anyone can belong and get something out of our culture here in London.
A.R. You mentioned translation of Spanish playwrights. Do you plan to commission translations?
P.P. Yes, as a way of connecting institutions. Cervantes Theatre won’t translate them, but we are in contact with other institutions, like Spanish departments in universities, and we want to encourage translations. If there is a space for those translations to be performed, there is a reason for those translations to be done. We do dramatized readings, which is a way to bring the works of many playwrights without committing to a full-blown production. In this way, we can get feedback from the audience, see how translations work, what the British audiences like.
A.R. This is your first season as Cervantes Theatre. What do you look for in your programming? What’s the underlying idea behind your season?
P.P. It’s all about balance. We want Cervantes Theatre not only to host the Spanish Theatre Company but also to be a host house. We will receive other theatre companies, which send their projects and we select those that fit so that they can be performed here. The only requirement is that they have to feature Spanish or Latin American texts. It could be, for instance, a Greek company with their own version of a Latin American play.
So, balance: we want to have a balance of Classical and Contemporary texts, Spanish and Latin American texts, male and female playwrights—that is a very important point for me, now more than ever it is an issue that needs to have sufficient exposure. It’s not that there are no female playwrights. It’s that somewhere along the process they don’t get the same opportunity to get their texts performed.
We do dramatized readings, something that started with the Spanish Theatre Company. And since the opening of the Cervantes Theatre, we have done three stage productions.
We wanted to open the theatre with Lorca because he’s one of the most renowned writers, with a strong presence in the UK. Lorca was the ideal choice to introduce the Cervantes Theatre to British audiences and industry: everyone has heard of him. People love him in the UK. And British audiences love to see the same play performed by different companies¾in other countries, when people see a production of Lorca, for instance, they consider they “have seen it.” We wanted Lorca to be our introduction. And a beautiful thing that happened with Blood Wedding is that thirty-four schools who had Lorca as part of their curriculum visited us. It was extraordinary to see the theatre as a vehicle to teach the language and our culture. Then we did a Cervantes piece (The Judge of the Divorces y otros) because we wanted to commemorate the 400-year anniversary of his and Shakespeare’s death. It was a beautiful way to homage these two writers.
With Darwin’s Tortoise, Juan Mayorga is one of the most important Contemporary playwrights in the Spanish-speaking world. He has been a major supporter of the Cervantes Theatre from the beginning, eager to see it happen. He actually came this week to see the two versions of his play, and we had a post-show discussion afterwards. We want our Spanish and Latin American writers to be able to come here to see their plays performed and talk to our audiences.
A.R. What comes next?
P.P. We want to keep pushing for our mission. We will have a Flamenco festival in the works that would bring the leading names in Flamenco to London in a very intimate space—quite different from what Sadler’s Well is putting on now; this is a different concept: you have the musician, the dancer so close to you. It’s quite special.
Our programming will also depend on what we see audiences react to. For us, it’s so important that people come, and that they come back. We want people to know we exist, where we are. We want to create a tight community, the result of a union of the Spanish, Latin American and British spectator. That is just essential for us in this first year.
A.R. Let’s talk about your process. Every play is done in two languages: English and Spanish. Do you use the same actors for both productions? How does the process differ?
P.P. It depends. Some actors are bilingual and they can be in both casts. But for Darwin’s Tortoise, I wanted casts to be different. As a director, from the first rehearsal, you have to tackle things differently.
For Blood Wedding, Jorge de Juan, used different casts but rehearsed with both casts at the same time. There were 17 people in each cast. In the Spanish version, all actors were Spanish or Latin American. In the English version, all actors were English except some Spanish bilingual actors. It was so interesting to see how the Spanish actors, with their physical training, their energy, their work structure, influenced the English actors in rehearsals. And vice versa, the English actors, with their precise training, their verbal rigor, greatly influenced the Spanish actors. It was so beautiful to see how they took things from each other, resulting in a mixed rehearsal process.
Our next production, The Judge of the Divorces y otros, was simultaneously in English and Spanish. It was so lovely to see how the actors were working on how to translate comically the Cervantes texts into English. We had some Shakespeare characters appear as well. It was both in English and Spanish but made accessible for anyone who could only speak one of the languages. Dramaturgically, it was so interesting to be part of the process of creating that production, checking what worked and what didn’t, resulting in that mix.
With Darwin’s Tortoise, I preferred not to mix the casts. They didn’t even see each other’s rehearsals. The four characters in this play have to create their own world. The main character is The Tortoise, who, in the words of the author Juan Mayorga, is an “impossible character”: a two-hundred-year-old woman who is actually a tortoise that has evolved. For an actress, the creation of that character is unique. You can’t play the character as a copy of what someone else is doing. From the director’s vision and the incredible Mayorga text, she has to take the essence. The translation also matters: the comic highlights change because what is funny in Spanish might not work in English. It’s almost as having two separate projects.
This week was the first time the Spanish actors have seen the English actors’ performance. They were fascinated. The characters that have been created, while reflecting the text, are completely different. Similarly, the audience members who have seen both versions say the experience is a true gift. You just don’t see something like this often. You don’t get to compare the texts in both languages, the actors… the way an English couple fight has nothing to do with the way a Spanish couple fights. As a director, you have to notice that—you can’t expect to make it the same.
A.R. So you recommend coming to see both?
P.P. Yes! Of course! I believe it’s a unique experience. Something you have to see.
Darwin’s Tortoise, by Juan Mayorga, directed by Paula Paz runs until March 18th at Cervantes Theatre, 229 Union St, London.
This post was written by the author in their personal capacity. The opinions expressed in this article are the author's own and do not reflect the view of The Theatre Times, their staff or collaborators.