Working on the Finer Points of Classical Spanish Theater

Around the time William Shakespeare was shaking the English stage (and the English language) with his works written in iambic pentameter at the turn of the 16th century, Lope de Vega and Calderón de la Barca were doing the same in Spain. These dramatic works by England’s political rivals, however, were primarily written in strict verse structures imported from Italy that required Spanish playwrights to respect specific meters and rhyme schemes. In other words, these works are hard to perform.

The performance of these works, a major component in Spain’s literary “Golden Age,” continues to present a unique challenge to stage actors as they seek to bring life to their characters while respecting the verse forms so artfully composed by Iberia’s most skilled wordsmiths.

To address some of these challenges, two members of Spain’s National Classical Theater Company made a visit UC Davis on Friday, May 23, and offered their expertise in an actor’s workshop sponsored by the departments of Spanish & Portuguese and Theater & Dance, the UC Davis Humanities Institute, and the Joseph Campbell Chair in the Humanities of Sarah Lawrence College.

David Boceta and Isabel Rodes were both trained at the Spanish Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts and have worked professionally in dozens of theatrical productions. At Friday’s workshop, titled “Entre Bambalinas” (Behind the Scenes), the actors performed three short selections from versed plays by Lope de Vega and Tirso de Molina that illustrated the emotive range of the genre. Their tragic tears, evocative inflections, and subtle comedic gestures brought the intense passion and clever wit of the Spanish stage to life in Wright Hall.

In the workshop following the performance, Boceta and Rodes shared some of their techniques with audience members and invited a few to take the stage and work on a short selection by Lope de Vega. The difficulty of speaking in character and in verse readily became apparent, as did the skill of the visiting actors who so generously passed on their knowledge and enthusiasm.

Several professors and graduate students from the Spanish Department, including members of UC Davis Spanish theater troupe, La Poltrona, joined Boceta and Rodes for a roundtable discussion after the workshop. Questions were raised concerning the gap between reading plays from a literary standpoint and interpreting them from the perspective of an actor, and of the role and value of presenting early modern works today.

Entre Bambalinas made it clear that the continued representation of early modern stage plays for 21st century audiences is as important for Spanish literature as it is for English. As the Spanish-speaking population of the United States continues to grow, hopefully many of the Shakespeare festivals that take place around the country will be joined by others that feature works from the rich tradition of Spanish-language theater.