“It is through the heart that the viewer’s mind is turned upside down”

Carme Portaceli

Retrat de Carme Portaceli. © Clara Soler Chopo

Carme Portaceli is to be the forthcoming director of the Teatre Nacional de Catalunya [TNC, the National Theatre of Catalonia], making her the first woman to run the institution since its foundation. She will join the TNC team in October this year to begin putting together the programme for the 2021-22 season. Her career, her productions and her effective management at the helm of the Teatro Español in Madrid attest to her capacity to take on this new challenge.
Portaceli believes in the theatre that alludes to people, fears and anxieties, seeking to inspire enthusiasm and hope. Her mission is to create a welcoming TNC, open to everyone: the people who have already lent it support and have made it grow and thrive, the artists who have not worked there and the audience who have not yet discovered it.

Carme Portaceli (Valencia, 1957) founded the Factoria Escènica Internacional [International Stage Factory] in 2006, a space for research and development to create shows and parallel activities that help to contextualise the audience and actively engage them. Throughout her extensive career, she has directed works by universal classic authors such as Shakespeare, Gorky, Bertolt Brecht and García Lorca, as well as contemporary European playwrights such as Bernard-Marie Koltès, Heiner Müller and Thomas Bernhard. She has also directed adaptations of classics, including Mrs. Dalloway by Virginia Woolf and Frankenstein by Mary Shelley. The latter show sold out in the Great Hall of the Teatre Nacional. Portaceli was responsible for the stage direction of the opera L’enigma di Lea, by Benet Casablancas, at the Gran Teatre del Liceu. Her latest show, No passa cada dia que algú ens necessiti (de fet, no és gens habitual que algú ens necessiti) [For someone to need us is not an everyday occurrence (in fact, it is rare for someone to need us)], premiered at the 2020 edition of the Festival Grec.

Who introduced you to the theatre for the first time? Do you have a first memory of the theatre?

Not really. My first theatrical influence was my sister-in-law Teresa Lozano, my older brother’s wife. She did theatre and he’s the one who introduced me directly to the world of theatre.

I’d like to start by talking about your family a little bit.

I come from a somewhat upper-class family. A family in which everyone has pursued higher education and many of whom are doctors. Jokingly, they often call me “Dr. Portaceli”. I have two older brothers, I was the long-awaited daughter many years later. One is an architect and the other, a doctor. As I said, an educated family.

Did you have a very artistic upbringing?

I haven’t had a conventional upbringing. My mother, who was a conventional woman, brought up in a traditional manner, was very ambitious when it came to her children. For example, at the age of twelve, I was sent to London for three months to stay with a family to learn English. Later I was sent to another family in Dublin and then I went to university in London. My mother thought it was a way to raise me and put me on a level where I had to be, and to make me acquainted with freedom.

And what impact did this freedom have on you?

I remember the first time in London, the impact of seeing Black, Indian and Chinese people, all mixed together. I came from a place where we were all the same, both in Barcelona and Valencia, because I’ve spent my life between these two cities. And I remember thinking, “This is the world, where I come from is not the world”. And that was more or less my upbringing.

Did you first attend school in Valencia?

Retrat de Carme Portaceli. © Clara Soler Chopo Portrait of Carme Portaceli. © Clara Soler

I first went to school in Valencia, but I come from a Catalan family on my mother’s side and I came to live in Barcelona at a very young age. My brother came to study architecture in Barcelona and Barcelona was always where I wanted to live, because it was a place where my language and my culture were respected, which were not that respected in Valencia at that time.

So who taught you to write in Catalan?

When I was little, I wasn’t taught Catalan at school in Valencia, but I studied it at home. At the age of twelve, I still remember going to Eliseu Climent’s bookshop, the Llibreria Tres i Quatre, famous because the far right set it on fire two or three times a year. I asked for a grammar book to learn Catalan, as I knew how to speak it but no one taught me grammar and it was forbidden at school.

And at what age did you come to Barcelona?

When I was seventeen I came to study Art History at the University of Barcelona, ​​and when I was finishing my degree I joined the Institut del Teatre and started directing on courses in directing actors for the camera, because I really liked the cinema. And thanks to that experience, I realised that theatre was my greatest interest in the world, and I started working as an assistant director. I have had the utmost privilege of learning directing alongside Fabià Puigserver and Lluís Pasqual, who have been my mentors.

What did you learn from Fabià Puigserver?

He would tell me that theatre was a way of life, and when he said that, I didn’t understand. Now I do. It’s a means of introspection and looking at the world from somewhere. He always said something beautiful to me: “Portaceli, if you want to make the audience believe that an elephant is flying on stage, if you do it right, people will believe it”, and it’s true. It’s about understanding our craft’s capacity for abstraction and creating from scratch using words, understanding where the words go. What I have learned most from Fabià and also from Lluís Pasqual is that, in the theatre, one and one don’t necessarily make two. When my students have to say something like “I love you”, they say “I love you” directly, but I ask them, “Why do I love you?” You may tell someone that because you are about to kill them or to commit suicide, because you don’t love them, because you’ve just cheated on them… The key is from where things are said, to know with which tone it must be said so that it reaches the heart. It is through the heart that the viewer’s mind is turned upside down.

You have also trained abroad.

Yes, I was then awarded a scholarship and went to Paris. There I assisted Antoine Vitez, an extremely well-educated man, the last of the humanists. I may not have done the theatre I’d have liked to have done, but I did learn respect for the text from him. We did Electra, and with boundless freedom. I understood that classic theatre can be done in a modern fashion if you are able to grasp its essence. Years later, when I did L’auca del senyor Esteve [The Epic Life of Mr. Esteve] at the Teatre Nacional, Santiago Rusiñol’s great-grandson, moved after seeing the performance, came to me and said: “We cried, we laughed and I can only think that if my great-grandfather was here, he’d say that this is his work in the 21st century”. You don't have to be afraid of the classics and you always have to broach them with absolute respect, but you have to transport them to our vision, because that’s what we have, we don’t have any other.

You also met Bernard-Marie Koltès, one of the authors who has influenced you and whose four works you have staged. What was he like as a person?

He was very vivacious, even though I met him when I was beginning to fall ill and they still didn’t know what was wrong with me. He gave me the rights to his work Combat de negre i de gossos [Battle of Black and Dogs being the English title]. When I returned to Barcelona I staged the show in Espai B at the Mercat de les Flors venue. Until then no one had done theatre there, I inaugurated it as a theatre venue. Then one day Fabià came to see the rehearsal. He had just been denied the bullring in Plaça d’Espanya and he discovered the space. Koltès wanted to come to Barcelona to see the première, on 27 or 28 September 1988, but couldn’t because he was premiering Return to the Desert in Paris on the same day. And he passed away a few months later.

Carme Portaceli al davant de l'entrada principal del Teatre Nacional de Catalunya. © Clara Soler Chopo Carme Portaceli in front of the main entrance of the Teatre Nacional de Catalunya (TNC). © Clara Soler Chopo

Throughout your career you have premiered German authors such as Marius von Mayenburg, Botho Strauss, Heiner Müller, Elfriede Jelinek and Thomas Bernhard. Where does this run by German authors stem from?

I’ve had lots, a run of them, but I don’t have that many now. What I liked most was their freedom. They always have tremendous freedom when it comes to doing things and telling them the way they do. I’m not so close to this trend right now, although it still piques my interest. Now really beautiful things are happening dramatically speaking in our country, there are extraordinary people who must have the opportunity to keep growing. Because of my relationship with my European colleagues, I am very interested in what’s happening in some areas of Italy, in Portugal… Movements are starting to emerge that really appeal to me.

And how do you identify this talent abroad?

I’ve seen a project called Between Lands being pioneering, a European initiative designed to work to defend culture and the Europe of cultures and all the values ​​that encapsulates. I will continue to foster the initiative through the Teatre Nacional de Catalunya.

Should Between Lands promote the exchange of works between one country and another?

Yes, but for the works to travel not from a commercial point of view, like a simple swapping of stickers, but going further. We need to put the fundamental issues that interest us on the table. During the lockdown we have been talking with other directors and discussing the role culture should play as a public service today. I also say this because I will be the director of the Teatre Nacional de Catalunya and I have been the director of the Teatro Español. What you have to do is inspire enthusiasm, trust and hope for culture, and that is our service. And how do you do that? Well, by putting fundamental issues on the table. What is the theatre about? About us, our fears, the things that upset us, that fulfil us or that generate uncertainty for us, such as the time we are living in… The theatre doesn’t speak of zombies, but of human beings and their interior. We need to share these key issues among the six countries taking part in the Between Lands programme. We have to see how we go about doing a joint programme, so that a spectator can have a “travel bonus” and that, if borders is proposed as the topic of discussion, he or she can see works about borders in Belgium, France, Portugal, Catalonia…

So it’s not so much about the shows touring, but about there being a dialogue between the productions…

Especially if there is a dialogue between the productions and playwrights. For example, that a playwright from there and one from here work on a French production, in a play that deals with borders or any topic that interests us, forever advocating culture together in the face of political issues that we have somewhat neglected.

Theatre cannot be completely detached from politics. Within the new role you will play in a public theatre, how do you think it can integrate the political dimension held by theatre into an institution of national scope and into such a complicated political scenario?

I’m sure I won’t encounter any problems, because what I think I have to do in a national theatre is to make it a theatre for everyone. Therefore, hospitality should be our course of action. This will be our major policy, to hold onto the TNC’s entire audience and that has kept this theatre going year after year. But at the same time, we need to open the doors. The TNC must provide a gateway for artists who have never worked there and also broaden the audience to include new age groups, without class or gender restrictions.

You will be the first woman to direct the Teatre Nacional. Thus far no living Catalan playwright has premiered any work in the Great Hall and maybe it’s time they did...

It won’t a problem for me. It’s both my intention and in my genes. No explanation is needed, a theatre is the mirror of the world and there are men and women in the world, so there should be the same in the theatre.

One of the big headaches for any TNC director has been filling the bulk of the Great Hall. With Frankenstein you showed you are capable of filling 800 seats. You can’t create an overly intimate mise-en-scène, because you have to reach the audience in the back row and for that you need epic ingredients and a certain amount of space.

Carme Portaceli asseguda al pati de butaques de la Sala Gran del TNC. © Clara Soler Chopo Carme Portaceli in the seating area of the TNC’s Great Hall. © Clara Soler Chopo

Indeed, there must be space, but I think it’s an internal matter. As a playwright, you have to be prepared to reach people’s hearts with your heart. You must have a life story, and some young people already have one, but I think it is progressively gained with age. If this life story is already on its way, it must be accompanied so that over time the playwright can take that leap. I have a project, which I can’t yet tell you about, that should help prepare the playwrights for the Great Hall.

Do you mean that playwrights must be lent support before being thrown there, amidst the lions?

In principle, I think they have to be supported, and I’m no one to say who’s coming and who isn’t, but you can guess which people might be more likely to break that glass ceiling and fill the 800 seats. And you can prepare them with exercises, so that they progressively go down this path until they end up in the Great Hall one day.

How do you think the TNC audience could be made younger?

I have lots of projects and initiatives emerging outwards from the theatre. We shall go to neighbourhoods to work with teenagers. And we’ll do some commissioned readings that talk about women’s invisibility, for example. If you approach these new audiences, then they are the ones who come to see you. In this regard, the experience of the Teatro Español has been extraordinary.

Tell me about that experience.

We called it “Reading Spanish in the Neighbourhoods”. We did theatrical readings on the weekends at community centres or in neighbourhood libraries. Extraordinary synergies were created with the people involved.

Which was reflected in the rate of occupancy of the Teatro Español...

When I joined, the average occupancy of the Teatro Español was 28%. Within five months, I raised it to 67% of its total capacity and ended it up at 80%. I was let go afterwards.

Were you let go for political reasons?

I had a three-year contract, extendable to another three years, a regular contract. And I was told over the phone that I wouldn’t continue after the first three years. Of course, they respected my last season.

So they didn’t breach the contract, they just didn’t renew it?

In my case there were two cycles and it was not renewed. It’s the same as saying they let me go. But well, that’s what happened and we ended up with 80% occupancy, a good figure considering that there are about sixty seats with reduced visibility in the Teatro Español.

Having worked in Madrid and having been able to compare what is done there with what is done here, is there much difference between the theatre culture of one city and the other?

There was a few years back, I don’t think there is now. Madrid has alternative theatre venues and an interesting theatre scene, more than a few years ago.

From Madrid we mostly get musicals, a product of major investment, which is very different.

Yes, it’s as if we were saying “the theatre” on Gran Via, which is something else entirely, like the Paral·lel here when it existed.

Going back a bit, I’d like you to tell me about the Factoria Escènica Internacional (FEI) that you founded and of which you were the artistic director. The FEI started in 2006 with the production of L’agressor [Täter is the original German title, meaning “culprit”], by Thomas Jonigk.

As with almost all my projects, the meaning of FEI was to bring together a number of artists (from music, theatre, movement), which is what I like to do, so that we could share a series of projects and for the management to go hand in hand with the creation from the very first day. There were Dani Nel·lo, Marta Carrasco and I, among others. At that time, the Factoria was a pioneer of many things. We co-produced for the first time with the TNC, with the Teatre Lliure, with the Grec… It was a small private company and I was starting to do these kinds of co-productions, which were not common at the time. Now, this is commonplace. We were rehearsing in the Nau Ivanow, which was a space I had discovered when I was preparing the performances of Gènova, a show produced by the Fòrum de les Cultures in 2004, which incorporated live music, and where I rehearsed until unearthly hours that bothered the neighbours. Then we looked into the possibility of changing venue and we were told that someone had a warehouse in La Sagrera. We went there by chance, we stayed to rehearse and I really liked it. I found it to resemble a sort of German warehouse, as if it was in Berlin, and I asked if they’d mind if we set up there. We staged L'agressor thinking that no one would come and we filled the hall.

And is the Factoria on a break at the moment?

I left the FEI when I started working at the Teatro Español. I could have stayed given the kind of contract I had; I found it to be legitimate, but not nice.

In any case, if we run through all your productions, you have preserved this willingness to take risks, to do experimental theatre, to seek out new boundaries…

That’s what I do. Frankly, I think that’s what most artists do: you seek out your own language that fulfils you, that allows you to tell what you want to say, and that goes straight to the audience’s heart. And that’s what I’ve done since the outset. I started working on live music and stage movement, and that led me to do a lot of research into the kind of language in a more conceptual and abstract stage space. It’s about the situation coming out of nowhere and everything being transformed.

Carme Portaceli davant unes portes amb un cartell que diu "Respostes i incerteses". © Clara Soler Chopo Carme Portaceli in front of some doors with a sign that reads "Respostes i incerteses" [Answers and Uncertainties]. © Clara Soler Chopo

The word allows us to build worlds on stage in an abstract space, but it is also true to say that the audiovisual world has burst onto the stage lately. Do you think that the abuse of screens could marginalise the word?

I have indeed also used audiovisual media a lot since I made Gènova in 2004, at a time when it was still not widely used. I used it as another resource to reach the heart and to explain things using images. But I don’t think audiovisual media is at odds with the essence of theatre, which is the word, because it’s with the word that you create the world.

In fact, in your latest show, premiered at the Festival Grec this past summer, the word prevails above everything else. And it asks the viewer to listen very carefully, because it is a collage of texts, including a long interview with the Korean philosopher Byung-Chul Han published in El País.

Yes, but they were very short extracts and it was very clear what Byung-Chul Han says. We live in the age of communication and during the lockdown we have been hyperconnected all day via Zoom, Skype or WhatsApp, but suddenly we realise that we do not form a community. What about rituals, which are community-building, and why aren’t we performing them? And we know what we’re talking about, because we live in a country where the dead from part of the war haven't been buried properly. We are well aware of how serious it is to skip rituals. And then Han said yet another interesting thing that we just pointed out and is wholly related to this theory of authenticity: now it turns out that we have to be authentic, we have to say what we feel or think, what comes into our mouths and what we feel like saying. Instead, Han argues that there are rules of coexistence and that we cannot say anything that pops into our head. And this is called sincerity or authenticity, but it is quite the opposite. The ego is always at the centre of it all, as if what you think is very important; and it’s not, it’s often better to keep it to yourself and not hurt anyone. My friend Pepa López always says: “Sincerity must be reserved for what is good, not for what is bad”.

Now that we’re talking about rituals, theatre being one of them, during the lockdown there was a temptation to do virtual theatre. In your last season at the helm of the TNC, Xavier Albertí incorporates the online audience. Do you think streaming can replace live performing arts? Don’t you think that physical presence is part of the theatre ritual and that it is irreplaceable?

It is irreplaceable because physical presence is what builds community. The essence of theatre is this community, and it is also the essence of the human community. What makes us ready for coexistence and tolerance is sitting together while we watch the same thing, and being touched side by side, and then we’ll discuss whether you like it or not, because it’s not the most important thing. What’s most important is witnessing a situation together and being moved and breathing together. I always tell my students, “I’m not interested in what you think, or whether you liked it or not”; the important thing is that you tell me what you thought while you were in the theatre, and we can discuss it from there. I don’t give classes to see whether you liked it or not, we can’t always be that important.

Is there anything that scares you in this new stage you are embarking on?

Not right now. I know the people who work at the Teatre Nacional very well and they are not ones to stop working at five in the afternoon. I enjoy working in a team, listening, discussing and bringing people together. The TNC has the best technical teams, smart people who are eager to get things done, and we need to get up to date on things like technology and English. Maybe I’m very naive and I’ll run into all sorts of problems, like all public theatres, but I think I am joining a team of top-notch professionals, and that makes me confident.

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