What is Theatre about?
Luís Miguel Cintra 
Abstract / Résumé
Reasoning about theatre as a more meaningful way of living and understanding life more deeply: a political statement.
Une réflexion sur le théâtre en tant qu’une façon de vivre et de comprendre la vie d’une façon plus profonde : une déclaration politique.
I have always thought that theatre should be primarily local and accept its ephemeral status. It is far better for us on stage to know for whom we are performing and that these people understand the language we speak; each intonation, each glance and each silence that we construct. Such understanding raises the hope of true communication and that the work we do will be more demanding. It increases the possibility of something really happening that night and of that moment not being repeated on a daily basis, let alone forever lasting. I will make an exception here for a few exemplary performances which suddenly open our eyes and return us to “our” audience transformed in some way. Some of the performances I saw during my youth marked my life forever, and not all of these were Portuguese.
Unfortunately or not, over the years, as many more international performances have come to Portugal and more interesting theatre has been made here, the less theatre I have seen as a spectator. In my reflections on theatre here, I will be referring almost exclusively to my own experience of performances in Portugal and, to a lesser extent, in Spain. These are performances I have encountered professionally for the best of reasons, in other words, emotional ones.
I will comment more on my own desires than on those who work in the same profession in other theatres. I have almost stopped going to the theatre in Portugal and abroad. My own theatrical activity leaves me little free time to see either what other Portuguese theatre companies are performing or the international performances that some programmers buy on our behalf. If there are obviously some free evenings when I’m not working, I now find it too much of a risk to give up an evening outside the theatre for a night of theatre which will in all probability see me fall asleep out of sheer tiredness. I admit I’m a bad spectator.
But let’s get to the point.
When I’m asked the question “What is theatre about?”, my first reaction, one I’m not ashamed of, would be “I don’t know”. The more theatre I do, the less I know but the more I ask myself questions. I try to stop myself giving a definitive answer. I’d prefer the question to be “What is theatre about now?” “Now” meaning really now and not today. Nevertheless, what I ask myself, as someone who makes theatre, is whether I’d like it or not, whether I’d think it a bad or a good thing, if a contemporary spectator leaving a performance asked himself this same question. Seriously, I think of an audience as made up of many different human beings who each think differently. Or rather, that’s how I’d like an audience to be. I think that at the very least, I’d want each of them as they leave the performance to formulate the question “What was this theatre about?”
I know that when I began making theatre, my answer would immediately have been: of course I want them to ask, and if they can’t find an answer, I would have considered the performance a failure. I fought, we fought, for theatre to mean something to the spectator. We fought for a theatre that made people think and, where possible, which had some political meaning. Some of the happiest moments in our work came at the end of the 1970’s, before and immediately after our revolutionary period. We’d remain in the theatre with the audience after the performance talking about what the text meant, what it was about, what reality it referred to.
Nowadays, after much hesitation and a temptation to simply say “I really don’t care” out of weariness and so much accumulated disillusionment, I believe I would end up answering “yes, yes, I still want someone to ask “What was this theatre about?” but only if the answer is “I don’t know”. Only in this way, would it have been worthwhile their leaving the house and spending money on a ticket. It pleased me greatly when, as I was leaving some of my recent performances, many spectators came up to me and said “I didn’t understand anything, but I liked it a lot”. I think that in the society in which we live, this is what’s left of a space of communication for an activity which it seems many people still enjoy and continue to search out. It’s not a reduced space, but a larger one. It’s a space for invention. I no longer believe in the possibility in theatre of a “battle of ideas”. The proof of this is in the fact that the battle of ideas has itself been transformed into spectacle. Theatre will have to be something different.
Here the first problem, or the first absurdity, arises: contemporary democratic societies, for reasons we all know, don’t in reality produce a power which is representative of the political interests of the citizens who elect them. They don’t want to and aren’t able to do so. They are not interested in the development of the political practices of their citizens, because if this development were really taken seriously, it would destroy the way they currently operate, as it’s more than obvious that this system doesn’t satisfy their desire for happiness. My first conclusion, therefore, would be: that it will be difficult in the near future for theatre to continue to be subsidized by the State, whether through European money or money from local and national governments. Unless it’s financed through inertia or theatre strays from its political nature to become pure propaganda. Unless, through a patient and hidden operation of manipulation of the natural desire of any healthy person to be with others, form a group with them, and arrange to see them in person, this desire is channelled into forms of performances which are merely comforting and do not demand the taking of responsibility, creating false events in which nothing political effectively happened, but in which there was a lot of what is called “social life”.
Theatre is expensive, though, and this society has made it even more expensive by overloading it with administrative and bureaucratic demands, as well as integrating it within the general framework of the job market where it is subjected to marketing, increased taxes, a higher cost of living and so on. Without financing from the State, a situation which may well occur in the near future for the reasons I have explained earlier, theatre will enter into, if it hasn’t already, a market-based logic. It will have to sell itself. As everything from the education system to the economic crisis is encouraging people to bury their heads in the sand, the majority of people will prefer illusion to reality, and won’t even allow themselves “a moment to dream”, as the Brazilian song goes, “to fantasize about being a king, a pirate or a gardener”. They will prefer the illusion of well-being. The more superficial and deceitful the liar, the more lies they will sell. Those who survive will be those who turn out the best propaganda, those with the best marketing, those with the best artistic techniques for not leaving any space at all for thinking, choosing or deciding.
They have stolen so much of ourselves from us that, to return to my much-desired hypothetical question to the spectator: “What was this theatre about?” , in the majority of cases, this has already been replaced, no doubt justifiably (at least something remains of our curiosity about the body of the other when so much else is “much ado about nothing”), by one of these other questions: “Who are the actors?” or “Want to go for a drink?” or, best of all, “Did you enjoy it?”. All this means that the spectator is more interested in amiably falling into line with the person s/he is with than in lying about a performance during which they went to sleep.
More frequent even than all these, is the question that precedes the performance itself, before many spectators end up seeing it. ”How long is it?” or the final comment which, not so very long ago, was still common “My God, it ended so late!” In a very short space of time, the most frequent question has increasingly become an affirmation “Oh well, at least it ended early”. According to my Spanish colleagues, performances of more than an hour and a half in Spain are already almost totally banned by commercial good sense, in other words, by the survival instinct. This tendency is a black plague which mutilates any longer text or any need for a slightly longer stage creation and this plague is now reaching our shores in Portugal.
I know, none of this is new. I am also aware of the less depressing side of the question. I know that the number of people wanting to be actors has grown tremendously and that many of these would-be actors have never been to the theatre. I know that the younger actors who my generation has already helped to train are much better, more numerous and much more free than we were at their age. There are more technicians interested and involved in the performances themselves. There are new groups forming to create their own performances and there is a huge desire to make theatre, even amongst those who have never been part of an audience. There is more life in the theatre. Even the educational system has adopted a more technical form of training that sets aside increasingly less space for everything that makes theatre what it is: ephemerality, poetry, literature, the arts, the so-called humanities. In other words, anything which has nothing whatsoever to do with social status or the accumulation of material wealth.
In spite of everything, I want to believe that the theatre I have made and that others have also made is a vital force and that in some way this theatre changed the world to some infinitesimal degree by making those involved in it and those who came to see it think. So much so that we cannot live in any other way. That was also important, like so much that we share in life with others. It is this which makes me continue to work in a social atmosphere which has sterilized theatre, made it banal, and integrated it within a system based on consumption. Such a system copies existing models, it is subject to the limits that bureaucrats impose on it, and it caters for an audience whose only concern can be the money they leave behind at the ticket office. This makes me continue working to create more life or an alternative to the life they have anticipated for us and which we have allowed ourselves to live.
I think that nowadays it is very difficult to transmit to the spectator anything which goes beyond what they already recognize. The society in which we live organizes our way of thinking to too great an extent. It creates defences and fears within us, leading us not to go to any form of theatre which cannot be likened to a consumer good and does not offer us social comfort. Theatre has already become locked into this system in order to satisfy our continuing role as passive consumers. In my own head, I cannot remember any idea, story or speech I heard at a night out at the theatre. Something else remains. Something else which I think these new audiences are looking for in theatre: in other words, what happened that night on and offstage.
It’s sad, though, that theatrical activity has been reduced to a mere pretext for a night out, for meeting someone and having a drink. I aspire to a little more than that but, unfortunately, that’s the way things are. Faced with this contemporary reality, I think that the role of those who still believe in some sort of political purpose for theatrical activity, those who enjoy making theatre because they find in it more life and a different life from that we are expected to live, is to share this with the public, making the public feel they have experienced something new on the night they went to the theatre, something different that surprises them, wrongfoots them, provokes in them new thoughts or sensations. How? By confronting them with a language that’s unfamiliar to them. By creating performances where audiences don’t see themselves reflected, that don’t send them to sleep and that provoke in them new knowledge, a new way of feeling, new images however without meaning they might appear to be.
Comedies, tragedies, dramas or farces, there’s no need to choose between them. Classical or contemporary, performance or play, dance or opera, musical theatre or theatre of the spoken word. Any form of classification is redundant and, deep down, makes little difference. From the moment a classification enters the head of the spectator, they stop thinking and revert to that very Portuguese tendency to not take risks. So, “please don’t save as”. Let the spectator not have categories within which to classify what they have seen.
On the contrary, I think that what still gives some political consistency to theatre, what I think should happen there, comes from its ability to be a permanent risk, a surprise, constructed each in its own way, invented according to the possibilities available. It can range from the simplest of materials, like the spatial relationship with the audience, to attitudes which are not taken from everyday life, right up to the heights of rhymed poetry or the absence of words. Sensations. Charades. Let theatre do anything whatsoever apart from what it’s supposed to do. So, “please do not copy/paste”. There are already enough behavioural models for our daily lives that we end up internalising.
For my part, I have found a space to jolt the certainties of the spectator within historical texts which are unfamiliar to them, seeing as they have little sense of history. I have also found such a space in a vindication of the poetic and metaphorical for an activity which has to stop being an imitation of the society that we know or the clichés of human behaviour in order to confuse us and force us to think or feel in a new way. Make the audience, for example, see an idealist on stage in the flesh instead of a cynic. A saint rather than a sensible man. As I like humankind, I trust they will like themselves better in this shape and form than in their formatted selves. That they will want more life where they have only been allowed to survive, and that only just.
I hope that young artists stop wanting to make theatre in order to be admired and want instead to make theatre so that they can live more. I hope that they leave behind all those false encounters which are demeaning and hypocritical. The wind must blow in another direction, one which theatre deserves. We all want to see: the multiplication of the audience into many small, but genuine groups of spectators enabling us to abandon the main halls. I hope that theatre, like power and religion is shared out amongst neighbourhoods of different social groups and lived to the full. Let us return to amateur theatre and the theatre of the collective. Let theatre be increasingly local so that it can once again be universal. Let it become once more the place that humankind invented to reflect on itself. Or which mankind reflected on in order to invent itself.
Translated by Francesca Rayner, University of Minho
 Luís Miguel Cintra(born in 1949) is a distinguished Portuguese actor and director who graduated from the University of Lisbon in romance philology and studied at the Bristol Old Vic, having directed his first performance, enthusiastically received by critics and audience alike, when he was twenty. Internationally known for acting in Manoel de Oliveira’s films, he founded (together with Jorge Silva Melo) the theatre company Teatro da Cornucópia where he has created some of the most interesting performances on both classics (Vicente, Shakespeare) and contemporary authors (Edward Bond, Heiner Müller, Jean Genet, Federico Garcia Lorca, among others). Having received important awards along his career, he has also directed opera and toured abroad with some of his productions.