Bought by the Portuguese State in 1992, the former São João Cine was opened as Teatro Nacional São João at the end of that same year, with Eduardo Paz Barroso as its director. Musical productions predominated during the institution’s first years. Its theatrical programme consisted in housing outside productions, with the exception of Silviu Purcarete’s staging of Shakespeare’s The Tempest (1994).
Between 1993 and 1995, the building underwent restoration works. On its reopening, in September 1995, a new director was appointed: Ricardo Pais, who until July 2000 pursued a very personal artistic project, which would be resumed in 2002, after a period during which the director’s chair was occupied by actor and stage director José Wallenstein.
An in-house theatrical creator whose labour brings coherence to the artistic project, Ricardo Pais presented his first production for the TNSJ stage in the middle of 1996: Gil Vicente’s A Tragicomédia de Dom Duardos. During that time, the groundwork was laid for the establishment of a major public service theatrical creation centre. The TNSJ started interacting with the cultural reality of Porto through a judicious co-production policy, involving itself in creating spectacles with such Porto companies as Ensemble, Teatro Bruto, Teatro de Marionetas do Porto, ASSéDIO, As Boas Raparigas… and Visões Úteis, among others. This sharing of work on all fronts of production and promotion also included other Portuguese companies, such as Teatro O Bando, Teatro da Cornucópia, Teatro Meridional, and, in later years, Novo Grupo/Teatro Aberto, Teatro da Garagem, Escola de Mulheres and Teatro Praga.
At the same time, the TNSJ has been carving itself a position within the international circuits of theatre production, namely through the participation of foreign creators (such as stage director Giorgio Barberio Corsetti and video artist Fabio Iaquone) in its own productions and the PoNTI – Porto. Natal. Teatro. Internacional. festival, whose editions of 1997, 1999, 2001 (which took place, exceptionally, throughout that year) and 2004 have featured a multiplicity of scenic experiments by such directors as Robert Wilson, Eimuntas Nekrosius, Robert Lepage, Peter Stein, Stéphane Braunschweig, Jérôme Deschamps & Macha Makeïeff, Alain Françon, Ivo van Hove, Thomas Ostermeier or Anatoli Vassiliev.
Championing the stage as the par excellence setting for familiarisation with linguistic polymorphy, the TNSJ elects the word as the ethical focus of all its scenic work, which reveals or revisits texts by a wide variety of authors, especially those who write in the Portuguese language – from António Ferreira to Fernando Pessoa, from António José da Silva to Maria Velho da Costa or from Padre António Vieira to Jacinto Lucas Pires, not forgetting many other classic and contemporary names from universal dramatic writing, such as Shakespeare, Calderón, Corneille, Molière, Otway, Wedekind, Büchner, Chekhov, Jarry, Pirandello, Ionesco, Beckett, Goldoni, Friel or Handke.
Since 1996, the TNSJ has been consecrating an expressive space to dance. There was, for instance, the Dancem! cycle, held in 1996 and 1997, and then revived from 2003 to 2005, but more recently there were also cycles dedicated to Portuguese creators such as Olga Roriz, Rui Horta, Né Barros and Paulo Ribeiro. Pieces by choreographers like Gilles Jobin, Jérôme Bel, La Ribot, Marie Chouinard and Wim Vandekeybus have also been featured in the programming of recent years.
Having found in music a special quality for the nourishment of scenic imagination, the TNSJ also promotes experiments that combine actors and singing (as in the founding instance of Linha Curva, Linha Turva, in 1999), stage directors and opera (like Francis Poulenc’s Le Bel Indifférent, 1997; Haydn’s The Apothecary, 1999; and Benjamin Britten’s The Turn of the Screw, 2001), or musicians – such as Jeff Cohen, Pedro Burmester, Nuno Rebelo or Vítor Rua – with the stage’s demands. The “scenic inescapability” of music is prolonged into something called “musical-scenic” shows, which involve incursions into fado (2005’s Cabelo Branco é Saudade being probably the most emblematic of them, given its international projection) and the participation of composers like Rabih Abou-Khalil and Arrigo Barnabé. Furthermore, the TNSJ’s exploration of interdisciplinarity has led the institution to program, produce and/or support several spoken word, performance arts, live art, and electronic, experimental and improvised music festivals.
Besides all its artistic production, the TNSJ is increasingly engaged in developing a publishing venture aimed at compensating for the ephemerality of stage productions, besides offering different perspectives on such creations. This project includes the publishing of plays and essays (in partnership with Cotovia and, later, Campo das Letras), along with CD, video and DVD editions of TNSJ shows, in addition to programmes and other documentation focussing on the specificity of each project.
Especially significant is the fact that, in 2003, the TNSJ added to its structure the renovated Teatro Carlos Alberto (formerly Auditório Nacional), whose director, Nuno Cardoso, would over the next years stage several TNSJ shows. As the TNSJ’s second venue, the TeCA has since become a privileged space for working in collaboration with other Porto creators and companies, but also the creative source and fundamental premise for a large section of the Portuguese contemporary stage production.
The culmination of the TNSJ’s internationalisation process – which had so far limited itself to the organisation of PoNTI, as well as to certain international co-productions, like Raízes Rurais, Paixões Urbanas (1997), or to a brief membership of the European Theatre Convention during José Wallenstein’s mandate – has come with the recognition of the uniqueness of Ricardo Pais’ artistic project by the Union of the Theatres of Europe (UTE), which in 2003 welcomed the TNSJ to the network of “art theatres” founded by Giorgio Strehler. The most visible consequence of this event occurred during the following year, when the 13th UTE Festival was held at Porto. In recent years, the TNSJ’s international reputation continued to grow, thanks to initiatives like Portogofone (2004 and 2007) and to the increasing circulation of TNSJ productions on European stages. Shows like Nuno Cardoso’s staging of Büchner’s Woyzeck (2005) and various Ricardo Pais stage creations (UBUs, by Alfred Jarry, in 2005, Dom Juan, by Molière, in 2007, and Turismo Infinito, based upon texts by Fernando Pessoa, in 2008) were presented at major international venues. Around the same time, there were also exchanges and partnerships with such structures as Teatro de La Abadía (Madrid), Teatre Lliure (Barcelona), La Comédie de Reims, Teatro di Roma and Teatro Stabile di Torino, further signs of the TNSJ’s maturity in terms of the European scene. The TNSJ’s internationalisation, however, does not limit itself to the confines of the EU space, as proven by the 2000 Brazilian tour of Maria Velho da Costa’s Madame.
In 2007, the Teatro Nacional São João became a Public Enterprise (EPE), part of the State-owned company sector; henceforth, Ricardo Pais combined the roles of Chairperson and Artistic Director. At the same time, the TNSJ was entrusted with the São Bento da Vitória Monastery, which, besides housing several TNSJ departments, also hosts shows and supplementary programmes. In early 2009, Ricardo Pais resigned from his position at the TNSJ. The new Artistic Director was stage director Nuno Carinhas, whose work is an essential part of the TNSJ’s artistic identity, while Francisca Carneiro Fernandes, who had been a member of the management team since 2003, became the new TNSJ Chairperson. In 2018, Pedro Sobrado replaced Francisca Carneiro Fernandes as the new Chairperson. Pedro Sobrado began working at the TNSJ in 2000, as press officer; in 2006, he joined the Publishing department. The new management entity also includes members Susana Marques, who now begins her work at the TNSJ, and Sandra Martins, who was already a member of the previous TNSJ Board.
No historical notice on the TNSJ’s artistic project would be complete without mentioning the close collaborations it has developed over the last decade with many creative minds, of varied ages and talents – from acting to musical composition, from lighting design to stage direction, and not forgetting such areas as scenography, sound design, costume design, voice and elocution, stage writing, photography and the visual arts. This formative ambition, which involves actors, creative/technical personnel and the spectators themselves, has dominated the TNSJ’s activity of the last ten years. This labour is moved not by the pretension of making history, but by a desire of making theatre history begin anew every night.
Bibliography: Paulo Eduardo Carvalho – “Cartografia hesitante de uma experiência multiforme: o TNSJ e o teatro na cidade do Porto”. Portogofone 2004: [Programme]. Porto: Teatro Nacional São João, 2004.