Danville man helps save theater in Spain

September 15, 2003|JENNIFER BRUMMETT

When Jay Allen was working on his doctoral degree, he was concentrating on 20th-century Spanish literature. Then he read "Don Quijote de la Mancha" - or, in its Anglicized form, "Don Quixote."

"I fell in love with the work and changed my major," says Allen.

Little did he know that many years after discovering the work of Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra he would be involved with the renovation of a 17th-century theater in the author's hometown of Alcala.

Allen says that in the early 1980s, three undergraduate students were poking around a closed movie house in Alcala. During their explorations, they noticed different aspects of the edifice, representing different stages in its development. So they taught themselves enough to research the theater, El Teatro Cervantes de Alcala de Henares, and wrote a book about it.

Allen met them and got involved with the theater soon after they discovered it. In 1989, an international commission was formed to save the building - at one point McDonald's was about to occupy the site - and to plan its future. In addition to a number of Spanish archaeologists, architects and theater people, the commission included three British experts on Shakespeare's Globe, and two foreign researchers of Spanish theater, John Varey of the University of London and Allen. The theater originally was built in 1601 as an open-air theater, Allen says.


"In the 18th century, it was enclosed and artificial lighting was added," he notes. "Then it was redesigned to become one of the earliest Spanish Romantic theaters in the 19th century. In the 20th century, it was a movie theater."

Now, 400 years after it was started, the theater is a "piece of living archaeology" and offers live theater to patrons, with the possibility of replicating each of the different incarnations of theater that have characterized the building over the centuries. A theater festival has been held there annually for the past two years while the finishing touches were put on the restoration and renovation - there was a competition for the best design for it, Allen says - and the final stages were just completed for the opening on June 4 of this year. Allen spoke for the researches who have worked with the project over the years at the opening.

The playhouse has been outfitted with the latest theatrical lighting and machinery, yet it retains the possibility of exposing the cobblestone floor and the well of the original open-air theater, with no front curtain and scene changes on the open stage with the audience watching, just as it was done 400 years ago. In those days, women and men were segregated in the audience, and women were relegated to the "cazuela," or stewpot.

Today, audio-visual equipment projects the history of the theater to visitors.

"That theater is from the period of the earliest commercial theaters in Spain," Allen says. "It is an exact contemporary of the Globe (in England). though the two traditions arose independently."

Before Alcala, a Madrid theater

Allen says he had never taught theater until the late 1970s. When he took a job at the University of Kentucky, he began including performance in his classes on Golden Age, or 16th- and 17th-century, theater.

"Early in the process, I was asked what the Renaissance Spanish theaters were like," Allen says. "I didn't know. I found that these playhouses had never been adequately described, so I researched it."

From his archival research for the classroom came a tangible model of a Renaissance theater that existed in Madrid from the late 16th to the mid-18th centuries, built for him by people at Television Espanola who needed it for their programming. It was a difficult process to produce an authentic and credible model, Allen notes.

"At the time, Spanish archives were hard to get in to. But I was able to slowly reconstruct the plans for a theater model over several years, based on repair documents and records of the properties around the theater."

Allen designed a model of El Corral del Principe, one of two permanent public theaters in Madrid for a century and a half during the time of the Habsburg monarchy. The year 1983 marked the 400th anniversary of this important European playhouse, which also was a contemporary of the Globe. Today, the theater on that site is called the Teatro Espanol.

When this "theater" first was opened, it was an open patio with the walls of neighboring houses at each side. The theater manager only owned the patio, and people paid to get in and stand and watch the shows.

But on the sides of the theater, in the neighboring houses, people would open windows to watch. Over time, builders walled in the patio in order to finally gain control over access to all of the viewing space.

When Allen designed the model, the theater was 400 years old, he says.

"It had been a municipal theater at that time, as it still is," he notes, adding that that factor enabled him to put together enough data to be able to reconstruct it. "There was a paper trail for it.

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