On a rainy Thursday night in Madrid the bar of Micro Teatro Por Dinero is packed with a young crowd of theatregoers waiting to catch a short performance in one of the five tiny rooms in the venue’s basement. When our number is called, we’re led into a small dark room where the audience sits pressed up against each other sardine fashion on tiny stools. A door is flung open, immediately breaking the fourth wall as a distressed young man stumbles in and sits down on my knee in floods of tears.
“Never before has there been a theatre so close, so intimate, and so open—there are no preconceptions, no limits, no censure,” says Miguel Alcantud, the inventor of micro teatro, an abbreviated form of theatre that has taken Spain and many South American countries by storm.
Back in 2009 Alcantud discovered that a brothel around the corner was for rent. Enlisting help from different theatre companies, he arranged for a series of plays to be performed in each room. The performances lasted no longer than 10 minutes apiece, and tickets cost a mere three euros. The idea was an instant hit: Queues formed around the block, and soon a dedicated venue was acquired, where plays of 15 minutes were put on to audiences of no more than 15. The concept has since become so popular that the Micro Teatro Por Dinero franchise has been sold to venues in 15 different cities around the globe, including Buenos Aires, Mexico City, Lima, Lebanon, even Miami.
Back when things were just getting started, the Spanish economy was in crisis and theatres had been badly hit. But Alcantud, who was then already a well-established director working in television, doesn’t think this is the only reason for the format’s success.
“We had the bad fortune that it coincided with the economic crisis, so because of the [low] price of our tickets, it became a theatre of refuge, of the crisis,” he explains. “But we’ve been here for seven years, and 1,000 actors, 600 writers, and 600 directors have passed through our doors. So we’ve helped pay people’s rents, but we have lots of people who simply love the challenge of working in such close quarters—many who consider it almost like a gymnasium.
“The cost of putting on a show is very small, and we change the program every month,” Alcantud continues. “We don’t mind if the piece works or doesn’t work, because we’re always putting something new on. The commercial success of a single show doesn’t matter so much.”
The freedom offered by the form has attracted established names alongside untested talent. “The majority are professionals,” Alcantud points out. “Many famous directors have come here, people who’ve won Goyas,” Spain’s annual film awards, as have many well-known performers, who appear alongside “people who are just starting out. The wonderful thing is that they mix with each other.”
In turn a lot of new talent gets discovered in this intimate format. “It’s become a bit of a custom that practically all the casting directors come almost every month,” Alcantud says. “That’s because they can see actors in their natural habitat. It makes sense, bearing in mind that every month we have 19 hours with around 25 different actors, and normally more than half of these are new faces.”
Some micro teatro works have gone on to be adapted into longer stage productions. One of these, La Rendición (The Surrender)—a play initially adapted by Isabelle Stoffel for micro teatro from the book by Toni Bentley—became an Off-Broadway play. Other recent successes include the film Esto no es una cita (This Is Not a Date), a compilation of a series of short plays that depict the development of a relationship through a string of dates, and Polvorones, a comedy that has just been adapted for a run at Teatro Lara in Madrid.
Marlen Munoz, the theatre coordinator of Micro Theater Miami, notes that comedies have been particularly popular: “The emphasis on comedies is a result of catering to demand. We try to put on dramas, but those plays don’t sell as much as comedy. Our guests always ask for comedies. For instance, our current season has more dramas than comedies, and it’s not doing as well. The space may contribute to the demand for comedy, perhaps because the setting is informal and more laidback.”
Since it was established five years ago, the small Miami theatre, housed in a shipping container, focuses on Spanish-speaking audiences. “We try to have at least five plays in English and seven plays in Spanish each season,” Munoz says, but concedes, “The plays in English do not do as well, because that market is slowly discovering our venue.”
Groupon and LivingSocial deals are slowly bumping up the numbers. Theatrical talent has also shown up in the form of Hollywood screenwriter Michael Kingston, who will contribute a play to the upcoming season.
While it appears that micro theatre is still finding its feet with English-speaking audiences, back in Madrid its growth seems unstoppable: There are more than 10 micro theatres in the city, with the latest to be added to this roster being Tapas Teatro. Located in the basement of a bar, the small theatre was founded back in April 2016 by Nacarid Escalona Acosta and Juan Carlos Pabón, a pair of Venezuelan actors new to the city.
“You feel as if you’re breathing alongside the public and they’re breathing with you,” says Pabón. “We’re dealing with a lot of emotion inside a scene and a lot of attention. There’s not as much artifice, so it’s a tough discipline; the public are really concentrating on you, and notice the good along with the not so good.”
On the practical side, notes Acosta, “Nobody can make a living simply from micro theatre, because, as it’s an art form that is so short, you charge the public so little for tickets. On the positive side, it acts as a space in which you can present something; your work, your talent. This is a showcase for your talent.”
The enterprise has been such a success that the two are finalizing plans to move from the bar venue and open their own dedicated space nearby. “We are going to open up our own Tapas Teatro space, which will operate as a theatre by night and as a multifunctional space by day,” for things like yoga, Pilates, reiki, and Arabic dance.
Micro theatre has yet to take hold in North America—some companies have specialized in small venues and micro-audiences, but not usually for short works, and not on a regular basis. The U.S. has no shortage of Spanish-speaking populations, though, and if the success of Micro Theater Miami is any guide, what’s to stop micro theatre to become as common as microbreweries?