Paolo Abbate of Face2Face Theatre

Paolo Abbate, artistic director of Face2Face theatre company, Madrid
Interviewed by Dana Rufolo.

Paolo Abbate was born in Washington, DC to Italian parents who had international professions. His family then moved to Geneva, Switzerland where he completed his schooling. After graduating from Brown University in the USA where he studied comparative literature, he moved back to Europe. In the early 1990s, he settled in Madrid, studying there with a disciple of Jacques Lecoq. In 2000, he started the professional theatre company Face2Face. It grew from a two-hander into a company that presently hires twenty-five people at the height of the season; actors, set designers, costume makers, technicians. Face2Face is known for its pedagogic theatre plays; the company specializes in theatre for students learning English. They either give school shows in theatres in the city or else they go to larger schools that have a theatre in them. They also send shows on tour throughout Spain. Recently, they added family shows — adaptations of classics — to their repertoire.

 

Paulo Abbate. Credit: Agolpedeefecto.

 

In what way have you intertwined your own concepts of performance with the practical side of running a theatre company in Spain? Are you achieving your dreams?
I have definitely fulfilled my dreams living a life in art and making a living out of it. And the joy of seeing people’s faces light up — making people happy. I couldn’t ask for anything more. Of course, now is a difficult time because there are no audiences.

Yes, how have you been managing during the pandemic?
We’ve survived thanks to the furlough schemes. ln Spain, everyone’s wages have been paid, around 70 per cent of the full wages. At least we didn’t have to close the company.

Would you have had to close it?
Yes. We probably would have started it up again afterwards, but we would have gone bankrupt.

You advertise as being “interactive theatre”. What does that mean?
Our shows are a really good way to learn English. The students participate. It is often the child’s first experience as a theatregoer. About ten years ago, 2011, we started putting on family shows for English-speaking or bilingual families in Madrid and Barcelona, and we’ve been working in the most important commercial theatres like Teatro lnfanta Isabel in Madrid and Teatre Poliorama in Barcelona. We put on family shows. Every year we do a version of A Christmas Carol, also Dracula, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde. We do our own adaptations – versions of these timeless classics.

You do A Christmas Carol every year with a different production concept?
No, the same show.

And you get people repeating, coming back?
Yes, it’s a tradition for the English-speaking crowd here.

 

The Titanic. Credit: Rodrigo Abia

 

You don’t have your own theatre, I understand, but you do have your own rehearsal space?
Yes, a house pretty near the centre of Madrid. We have our office and rehearsal space and storage space and workshop space, all close together, we rehearse here, It’s a rehearsal space with mirrors but not a wooden floor for dancers. For the performances, we usually come to an agreement with theatres to put on our shows on.

When you perform in the theatres, do you have a full house?
When it’s for schools, yes. For the community, we are working in 700-1,000-seater theatres, and there aren’t enough people around who understand English to fill those theatres.

Can you give me a structural analysis of how you work?

We’ll have an idea for a play and talk to a theatre and find some dates and organize around there. That’s the commercial side. For the schools, we usually at the beginning of the season, in September, rehearse four different shows we are taking on the road with a group of actors, mostly from England, although we have occasional American, Australian, and etc. actors, for two months of rehearsal, and they tour Spain continuously until the summer. We usually go and cast in England. We set up an audition. We get in touch with agencies and tell them what we need and then we set a date for the audition and go over, interview, have a group audition in one day. We usually go to England for a weekend. We might in the future now do everything over Skype, now that we’ve tried it.

So you don’t have your own company, in terms of local actors?
We do. We have a small group of local actors who are full time, but especially for the touring part we hire.

So every year the same school will see a different set of actors?
Yes, and a different show.

What are you looking for when you audition in England?
We have an age limit of about 35, because it’s gruelling work. It’s day-in and day-out: shows, traveling, driving, setting up. They have to be very young and energetic. We’ve gone through that, so we know. You reach an age where you get burned out, so we look for actors who have good comedy skills, movement skills, improv skills, singing. And also the psychological aspect as well — people who work well in a group, are resilient, can handle stress. A touring actor’s job is really tough.

And do you get actors coming because they want to see Spain, or because you offer then enough money — or for other reasons?
Not to do with the money, although it’s pretty well paid. The idea of having a full-time job after their training period; also that it’s in Spain, that’s a big plus. Ninety percent of the actors we’ve had loved it. A lot have stayed on, started families.

So now you have a community of ex-actors who come to your shows with their families?
Yes, that’s happened.

Explain theoretically a tour. How many schools do you have that expect to see something from you every year?
Somewhere between 300 and 500. We put on over one thousand school shows every year.

How many happen in Madrid, and how many are outside of the city?
About a third in Madrid and the rest is in the rest of Spain, but we might have two or three shows in one school. We have about three performances in every school. Usually, we offer a show for different age groups: 3-7, 6-11, 10-14, and 14 up. Each show has different themes, different stories. I do most of the writing myself or in collaboration with other members of the company.

They expect to see something from you every year?
Yes, new shows every year. After five or six years we might resuscitate old shows that worked well.

Are you very well integrated into the school during the days you are there?
lt depends. Sometimes they treat us like the help; sometimes we’re the first foreigners they’ve seen in their whole life. People are very warm in general.

Can you describe the geographical net of where you go?
We work in every single province of Spain except the Canary Islands. We’ll organize a tour in Andalucia, and they’ll do three days in Seville and two days in Cadiz and so on; we’ll send people to the Basque Country and it will be four days in Bilbao and San Sebastian and so on. Or Galicia, and they’ll do two days in A Coruña and three days in Santiago de Compostela. They go to every single province.

How long did it take you to get that network going?
The first year we did maybe 50 shows, the next 100. By the third year we already had two companies going, and last year it was five different touring companies. We send out storytellers, as well. It’s a reduced version of a show, traditional storytelling. It’s like a one-man or one-woman show.

Are the storytellers bilingual? Do they read in English and answer questions in Spanish?
It’s all in English. It’s counterproductive for the kids to hear Spanish.

Do you have activities around the shows?
Well, the teachers receive a teacher’s pack. To prepare for the show. There are all sorts of exercises and games and songs. Occasionally we’ll have a talk-back for the students. We offer that, but they don’t always take it up because it’s hard to fit into the school schedule.

Do you find that you’re introducing English to children who don’t know English very well?
During the twenty years we’ve been going, we’ve seen a huge improvement in their level of English. But otherwise in general the school in Spain is very old fashioned — no essays, no independent thinking, lots of memorizing and learning by rote.

Do you work against that in your scripts?
Not consciously. We try to promote our own values, but beyond that we try to catch onto themes that the students will like. We want people to have fun and to associate learning English as a fun activity. We try not to get too heavy-handed in social themes.

Face2Face — where did the name come from?
Style of theatre: no fourth wall, face-to-face with the audience; interacting with the audience; the touring shows have two actors, so it’s 2.

Would you want to be performing outside Spain if you were given the opportunity? Be part of festivals if you had a chance?
Definitely. We are organizing an English language theatre festival — we’re still in talks with the city council. It’s meant to be a showcase for companies who use the arts in language teaching in Madrid.