If It Works, It Works

photo: The actor José María Peña in character for his show ‘The Casting’ at Seville’s Microteatro. / KAREN McCONARTY.

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As fewer and fewer people attend the theatre, actor José María Peña, currently representing the short play ‘the casting’ at Microteatro theatre, remains steadfast in his dedication to the craft. He discusses here professional acting at a time of economic and cultural crisis in Spain.

IN A SMALL BLACK BOX THEATRE in the heart of Seville, the lights begin to dim. “Please silence your cell phones,” the house manager says to the show’s four audience members. “And enjoy the performance!” The 10x8ft space feels uncomfortably intimate. As the door closes, one woman nervously laughs. Others contemplate whether this was worth the €3.50 entrance fee.

After a moment of darkness, an actor stumbles into the spotlight, an arm’s length away from his audience. “Casting?” he calls. “Casting!” He is dressed in a suit and is wearing a makeshift arm sling. He leans forward and rubs his eyes. “Oh, hello,” he says awkwardly to the people in the darkness. His audience responds apprehensively, unsure if his greeting is really meant for them. The actor, José María Peña, introduces himself in character, as if auditioning for the role. His four audience members will be his casting directors. This, they will soon find out, is an audition gone wrong.

Among other unfortunate moments, José’s character proceeds to forget his lines and flatulate in the middle of his audition monologue. By the time he finally recites it as rehearsed, he realizes with shock that he is not, in fact, at the casting call. He has spent fifteen minutes suffering through a non-audition for a set of perfect strangers. Throughout the show, José establishes a kind of rapport with his audience, exhibiting trained comedic timing. But what makes this one-man show so relatable is that it mirrors the all-too-real experience of many struggling actors: the classic story of a bombed audition.

José, a 44-year-old actor from Seville, is no stranger to the stressful art of auditioning; his theatrical resume spans more than 20 years. José founded Digo Digo Teatro in 1997, with the help of his colleague José Luis García Pérez. The two ran the company for many years before it closed. He has appeared in plays produced by La Sala Cero – “the theatre in which I feel most at ease,” he says –, the Centro Andaluz de Teatro, the Microteatro Sevilla, and a number of other venues in Seville. In addition, José’s screen acting credits include the movie La mula (2013) and popular television shows such as Cuéntame cómo pasó, La pecera de Eva, and La República. “Even after working for 20 years,” José laughs, “my whole life is a constant audition.”


photo: The actor José María Peña during the interview. / KAREN McCONARTY

José grew up in what he deems “an absolutely normal family.” As an artistically inclined child, school was difficult for José. “When I was in high school, I was not a good student,” he admits. “But I liked courses where you did things, like in theatre.” It didn’t take him long to realize that acting was his passion. After high school, José attended the Centro Andaluz de Teatro (CAT) for four years. At the time, this institute was “one of the best in Spain,” José recalls. “There was a very good environment, with excellent professors.” There, Jose met an influential acting teacher, Juan Carlos Sanchez, , who taught him the technique of the contemporary mask. He also met some of his closest friends there, including the actors Alex O’Dogherty, Paco León, Paz Vega and, of course, José Luis Garcia Pérez. Now, some of those friends have gone on to work in television or for renowned theatres throughout Spain. CAT has since been closed by the Ministry of Culture due to lack of funding, ironically coinciding with its 25th anniversary.

José fondly remembers the first time his parents saw him perform, at the theatre of the School of Economics in Seville. “The performance was very bad, a poorly directed mishmash of recited poems by household names like Lorca, Alberti or Miguel Hernández. All very cheesy. It was a train wreck,” he recounts. Regardless, he says, “that is probably the most memorable moment of my career.” His parents always supported him in his desires to become an actor, but José suspects they wished he had studied something different. José’s father, Luis, never liked theatre much. In fact, he was the first to ever get up and leave during a performance, which José found rather entertaining. “He died while telling a joke,” José recalls.

Over two decades later, José sits at a café near Las Setas, taking a long drag of his cigarette. “What they don’t tell you in drama school is that you need good luck.” He flicks an ash to the ground. “They never teach you real life.” To get by, José relies on his support system here in Seville, composed of his family and friends. “I have my mother, Concha; my son, Bruno; the mother of my son, Ana; and my brother, Luis.” His mother often helps take care of seven-year-old Bruno, who has seen a number of his father’s performances. “Bruno is my most faithful supporter,” says José, smiling. “Children are little clowns that you learn from.”

He also counts on old friends from childhood and a number of contacts from the institute. “In times of crisis, we must pull on our friends,” he says. “I have great support.” The list of José’s professional contacts is long, and includes well-connected theatre professionals such as director and actor Julio Fraga; actor José Chavez; director and actor Pepe Quero; graphic designer Enrique Cameno; stage designer Otto Pardo; and, of course, Juan Carlos Sanchez, his teacher from CAT. Without their (often free) assistance, production costs would be unbearable for José.

Public interest in theatre has dramatically decreased as of late. The acting scene in Seville has not been the same since 2012, when the Spanish government increased the sales tax on cultural events from 8 to 21% in an emergency effort to shrink the public deficit. Before this tax surge, the economic crisis was already taking a toll on local theatres. Audiences were scarce, and many theatres lacked the funding to produce shows. Now more than ever, theatre shows are seen as “articles of luxury,” José explains. “And this is killing any cultural business.”

Furthermore, in a country with an overall 24% unemployment rate, the arts—an area constantly in need of funding—stands little chance. “It’s not just the actual production itself that costs money,” Jose explains. “It’s the preparation, the rehearsal… There are a lot of things.” As he speaks, José repeatedly refers to theatre professionals as “second-class workers,” overworked and underpaid. “We do a lot of work [to prepare], and then we do more work during other people’s free time.” A usually difficult career is made even harder as a number of great theatre studios and companies disappear from Seville.

In addition to the economic crisis, there is also a general lack of appreciation for theatre. “If you see a movie about Peter Pan that is very bad, when you leave you don’t say, ‘movies are bad.’” He shrugs, throwing his hands in the air. “If someone goes to the theatre and what they see is bad, they say, ‘The theatre is boring.’ But there are many plays, many productions.” Indeed, the public’s relationship with theatre is riddled with misunderstandings. “Here,” José adds, “everyone only sees the traditional culture—like Semana Santa—which to me seems very repetitive. But, there is more culture.” Take, for instance, theatre. “Theatre is life, indirectly,” he says. “It is not ‘Big Brother,’ it is life.”

Considering Seville’s ever-smaller theatre audiences and its competitive atmosphere, one wonders whether José would choose to be an actor if given the chance to do it all over again. He thinks for a moment. “I would have studied history, or journalism. Or something to do with law,” he ponders. “To be an actor is very complicated. Because there is no work. Really, 80% of the people in our profession are unemployed. I’m talking about actors, directors, …everyone. There are many individuals behind the scenes. So, this career is pretty complicated.” Of course, he concludes, there is nothing quite like being an actor. “Everything you are given will present challenges. If it works, it works.”

José seems genuinely surprised when you ask him about his career goals. “I don’t live to earn a pension,” he says. “I can only live for this. If you live to earn a pension, you will have a bad life. I can only live for this.” •