Euskara. Kultura. Mundura.
Basque theatre interprets the world. It speaks Basque, Spanish and French. And while this triad has presented certain difficulties – especially when it comes to distribution – Basque theatre has learned to adapt, taking advantage of those difficulties to reinvent itself. Our theatre culture goes back a long way but few documents have survived to this day. We do know, however, that celebrations in the 15th century included plays in Euskara. The ´Pastorale´ and the ´Mascarade´ are examples of folk theatre still performed the French Basque Country today. In the 18th century, Basque theatre was given a boost by the Count of Peñaflorida and members of the ´Real Sociedad Bascongada de Amigos del País´. Marcelino Soroa, Joanes Etxeberri and Toribio Altzaga are some of the playwrights who marked the 19th-century rebirth of our theatre.
During the Second Spanish Republic (1931 to 1939), Basque theatre experienced a golden age, spreading from the cities to the villages. Since then, the Basque people have been enthusiastic fans of local theatre. The first Basque magazine dedicated to theatre was called Antzerti, run by Antonio María Labayen. The magazine Eskualduna, founded in Bayonne before the Civil War and published in French and Basque, later featured work by playwrights Piarres Larzabal and Telesforo Monzón from 1950 to 1976. The ´Escuela de Declamación´ of Donostia/San Sebastián was once the breeding ground for Basque theatre. Women played an important role in the school, including two of the leading figures in Basque theatre, Katalina Eleizegi and María Dolores Agirre.
The first decade of the Franco dictatorship was a dark and unproductive period for Basque theatre. It slowly began to recover in the shadow of the church, with amateur theatre groups sprouted up in many towns. In the mid-1960s art was imbued with the revolutionary fervour that shook Europe, and Basque theatre began to change both aesthetically and linguistically. Basque groups began to create more modern theatrical productions that sought to identify with social change. The Donostia-based theatre group Jarrai embodied the transformation of the time and staged plays by Tennessee Williams and Eugène Ionesco, as well as work by young playwrights such as Gabriel Aresti. Xirristi-Mirristi, a group created by playwright Daniel Landart from Saint-Esteben, Lower Navarre, was Jarrai´s counterpart in the Northern Basque Country.
In the later years of the Franco regime, Gabriel Aresti represented the soul of a movement that radically modernised Basque theatre in Bilbao, an overwhelmingly industrial city and the scene of great social struggles. This is how independent Basque theatre was born. Maskarada was the first professional theatre group in the Basque Country and the first to perform a play in the Basque language, which before then had been the language of amateur theatre groups. Today, some groups choose to première their work exclusively in Basque while others present performances in two languages.
According to data from Sarea, the official theatre network in the Spanish Basque Country, 2,000 performances are staged every year, many of which are productions in Euskara for young audiences. Over time, new kinds of productions have emerged, and Basque theatre is enjoying increasing international exposure. Dantzerti, the Basque Country´s higher school of dance, is the main centre for training in the performing arts, but it is not the only one. There is also an array of theatre festivals and fairs.
Basque theatre speaks a universal language that tells stories about ourselves and others. Through a variety of formats, people in theatre have managed to reinvent themselves, turning difficulties into opportunities. Basque theatre is in constant change – just like the lives whose stories are told. From main-stage productions to one-act plays, creators, producers, distributors and technicians continue to work to keep the curtain up.