Paladio Arte: The Spanish company creating theatre with the socially excluded

The cast of Nadie, directed by Manu Medina. Photo: photos: Juan Carlos Gargiulo Blanco The cast of Nadie, directed by Manu Medina. Photo: Juan Carlos Gargiulo Blanco
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Segovia is home to a company pioneering a technique called Teatro Brut, which focuses on working with those with physical, mental and sensory disabilities. Nick Awde meets artistic director Marta Cantero Diaz to hear how it is changing the country’s attitude towards disability

Translating as ‘raw’ or ‘outsider’ theatre, Teatro Brut is the term Paladio Arte uses to describe its method to empower socially excluded people through text-based theatre.

“We also call our way of working ‘teatro genuino’ (real theatre), meaning its driving premise is to find what a person has inside of them and to work with that,” says the company’s artistic director Marta Cantero Diaz.

“In the case of people with neurodiversity and mental illness, this is their power. It finds even more value through the context of theatre. Paladio Arte has always worked with this concept, but over the past few years we’ve focused on ensuring that many things we did not have a name for, are named.”

Paladio Arte is responsible for one of the most powerful moments I have ever witnessed in theatre – or indeed anywhere else. It’s a scene that features an elderly patient from a psychiatric hospital. He stands on a bare stage, withdrawn, motionless, near catatonic. Suddenly there’s a practitioner by his side. Somehow she intertwines with him, shadowing him, guiding him with gentle gestures and whispered instructions.

The cast of Despierta, directed by Manu Medina and Juan Polanco. Photo: Juan Carlos Gargiulo Blanco

Spellbound, you forget the guide is there and see only the man as he struggles to unlock himself through the energy of his performance. The look of revelation that spreads across his face as he succeeds is as much a revelation for the onlooker – indeed, according to Cantero Diaz, his doctors say he hadn’t communicated for years until he stood on that stage.

A pleasant modern structure perched atop a hill, the company’s theatre – Sala Teatro Paladio – overlooks the Spanish city of Segovia, with the local Red Cross centre on one side and an old cemetery on the other. Its roomy 200-seat hall and stage offer an adaptable, welcoming home for the theatre’s busy production calendar. This is where Teatro Brut took formal shape as the result of a three-year research programme in collaboration with director Medina.

Paladio Arte – now with its own company and school – emerged in 1996 as a project in the EU’s Horizon II programme (promoting labour market integration of the disabled Europe-wide), together with support from Spanish institutions such as the regional government of Castilla y Leon and the disability inclusion-focused Anade Foundation. That civically minded connection continued via an ambitious follow-up theatre training programme within the EU’s Emp-Now 2, a community initiative for equal employment opportunities for women.

Segovia-born Cantero Diaz joined while she was still a psychology student. “When I finished my studies, it coincided with the start of the Horizon II projects, out of which Paladio was born. Eventually, I took the reins of what has become a non-profit organisation and a ‘centro especial de empleo’ (sheltered employment centre – a system to provide work for the disabled).”

Paladio Arte is a non-profit association that works to integrate the socially excluded into society and the workplace. It mostly works with people with physical, mental and sensory disabilities and its Paladio Theatre Company offers intensive training in the different disciplines, including theatre, performance, voice, music, make-up and set design.

“We provide a platform for innovation made by people with different abilities – conceived not as society giving to the individual, but as the individual contributing to society. Art is an important culture in itself, for the individuals that create it, for the local cultural structures where it is inserted [created and performed], for exchanges between neighbouring cultures and as a force capable of generating trends within the framework of international culture,” she says.


Teatro Brut

Teatro Brut empowers performers who are socially excluded, particularly the disabled. Director Manu Medina says: “I’ve witnessed an actor who entered the emotion and personality of her character in a matter of seconds, an actor who contextualised the entire work by moving his arms around his body, he didn’t say a word.”

Medina, who developed the method with Paladio Arte, found inspiration for Teatro Brut’s approach in the art brut (from the French meaning raw art) or ‘outsider art’ movement that started in Europe in the early 20th century. Outsider art is defined as art by self-taught or naive artists, taking the English term from the title of UK academic Roger Cardinal’s groundbreaking 1972 book.

As a movement that celebrates what we now call the Other, art brut was founded by French painter Jean Dubuffet to describe art created outside the limits of formal culture. Dubuffet focused on art by those on the outside of the established art scene, using as examples psychiatric hospital patients, children and makers of peasant art.

“Using the concept of ‘brut’,” says Medina, “this methodology can be applied to the theatre and it’s what drives Teatro Brut. It is theatre that goes to the heart of creativity, where there is no limit. A theatre where the only thing that does not fit is fear and where the here and now becomes the work’s primary value.”

Students and actors – some of whom have been with the theatre since the beginning – come to Paladio Arte in different ways and many are referred through institutions. And, adds Cantero Diaz, of course there’s no typical show.

“Our shows can start from an idea or a script and from there the director marks out how to achieve their objectives through a range of improvisation possibilities. Each of our actors has their own skills and these need to be discovered in order to contribute to the work that’s being made. For example, someone with a wheelchair or a speech disorder will be helped to find that contributing skill and add that to the narrative.

“Our shows are very unusual, but that’s precisely where our value lies. We could never play A Midsummer Night’s Dream as Shakespeare wrote it – but no one could do what we do.”

Paladio Arte marked its 20th anniversary in 2016, celebrating a journey that has led the company to national and international prominence, spurred on by collaborations with the likes of Medina and flamenco choreographer Maria Pages.

Recognition has come from the likes of Spain’s National Arts Awards and the chance to perform a show like Nadie (No One) at the National Drama Centre (Centro Dramatico Nacional) in Madrid. Babilonia, performed for Paladio’s 20th anniversary, was one of the world’s largest street parades by disabled artists.

Marta Cantero Diaz
Marta Cantero Diaz

“Of course that recognition doesn’t stop us having ups and downs,” says Cantero Diaz. “But it’s important to keep going and it’s not a small thing to have made the journey that we have. To premiere at the Centro Dramatico Nacional, to get great reviews, to perform at international festivals, at major theatres within and without our borders, that’s the prize for us.”

Collaboration was inbuilt from the start. Paladio’s first offering in 1996 was a joint production created with Portugal and France, a fruitful union that produced El Cafe de Babel (Babel Cafe), which was performed in all three countries. Work continues with companies such as Senegal’s Takku Liggey and German mime Jomi and there’s the chance for international participation in the annual Paladio Arte International Festival.

“We are one of the few companies in the world that does text theatre with people with disabilities – most companies working with people with disabilities concentrate on dance and movement – and we are a global one-off. Moreover, Paladio Arte is Spain’s only sheltered employment centre dedicated to theatre production,” says Cantero Diaz.

Paladio Arte has seen attitudes and opportunities change in its two decades. “Change has been slow but sure. When we started we could never have imagined the day when theatres and festivals would open their doors to theatres like ours – a professional company created by disabled performers without a label.

“Financing is a regular problem, but then who isn’t it a problem for? While we’ve been lucky enough to have both public and private support, our 20 years of experience also guarantees [the quality of] our work and helps build our resources: the theatre school, workshops and the shows,” says Cantero Diaz.

Could all this have been achieved in big cities such as Madrid or Barcelona? “Yes of course, in another way, under other circumstances. But it’s clear that across Spain, in the big cities and small towns, there’s a huge difference being made to art and diversity because of our disabled dance and theatre companies.

“In the beginning it was difficult because the attitude that artistic work by disabled people could not be professional was far more ingrained. Today you’ll still find those attitudes, but our work, and that of other companies, is changing that.”

Profile: Paladio Arte

Artistic director: Marta Cantero Diaz
Founded: 1996
Location: Segovia, Spain
Theatre space: Sala Teatro Paladio (200 seats)
Number of productions (2017): 25
Audience figures (2017): 2,500
Staff: Seven permanent, four temporary
Turnover (2017): 12,000 (£10,600)
Funders: Institutions such as En Accion (a social bank), Fundacion Caja Segovia: 8,000 (£7,100)
Key contacts: Marta Cantero Diaz +34 678555239, apaladioarte@gmail.com