One of the most relevant figures of the late 20th century Catalan theater has passed away at the age of 66. Joan Ollé i Freixas (Barcelona, 1955) was essential as a theater director but also as a personality in the theater sector.
Ollé was able to see how Catalan theatre, from its beginnings on university stages in the 1970s, became professionalized, democratized and established itself in the strongest production model in the entire Spanish state. His relationship, ethical and political, with all those who were his starting partners and whom he encountered along the way was never easy or comfortable. He had a temperamental and acid character, Pepe Rubianes's battle partner, they were a very fearsome tandem both on stage and off it.
Ollé was also a passionate and controversial manager, a trainer for many of the present generations of Catalan theater and a figure loved by Catalan society, although he ended up in a half-fight with its taboo agents such as nationalism, institutions and large production companies. A life full of fights and struggles, and a passionate, political vision of theater with a broad view of other languages and aesthetics.
And a life that has come to an abrupt end, Joan Ollé died of a sudden and unexpected heart attack at the age of 66, in one of the most complicated moments for the director after being section as a professor at the Institut del Teatre due to accusations of psychological abuse and sexual harassment of school students in 2021. The prestigious theatrical school decided to file its case due to lack of evidence and not take the case to the prosecution. Even so, Ollé never regained the status that he held professionally, part of his profession turned its back on him and he was removed from major programming.
Joan Ollé began his career in university theater at the beginning of the 1970s in the New University Theater Group, a group from which one of the fundamental Catalan theater companies, Dagoll Dagom, would emerge. Ollé would direct the company in its first three productions: I was a fool and what I have seen has made me two fools (1974), Nocturn per acordió (1975) with a text by the poet Joan Salvat-Papasseit and which was one of the first works performed in Catalan, and I will not speak in class (1977), a work in which Ollé would work with Pepe Rubianes. In those moments the company turns. It becomes professional, the actors Joan Lluís Bozzo, Anna Rosa Cisquella and Miquel Periel at the head take the direction of the company and decide to put on their first musical, Antaviana (1978), the group's first success and which marked a milestone. Dagoll Dagom would become the great innovator of music. Ollé was left out of that move, as well as the great assembly of the company, Mar i Cel and the production company that he would later form together with Tricicle.
In those same years, Ollé, looking for his own path, would in turn direct two successes that would draw him as one of the directors with the greatest capacity for staging and political discourse of the moment. The first, the aforementioned I will not speak in class (1977), which he wrote with Josep Parramón; and the second, written by Benet i Jornet and Terenci Moix, When the radio talked about Franco (1978). Already in the 1980s he began to work as a trainer and was being valued as one of the great directors of repertoire and contemporary authorship of the moment, his staging of Sanchis Sinisterra's work Crimes and Follies of the Traitor Lope de Aguirre (1986), or his staging of Antigona (1987) by Salvador Espriu at the Mérida Classical Theater Festival were two good examples.
In the 1990s, Joan Ollé, in addition to being a director with a good nose — he introduced Peter Handke's theater to Spain and discovered new authors such as Lluisa Cunillé — his work focused on theater management. For almost a decade he would direct the Sitges International Theater Festival, from 1991 to 2003. Ollé was able to position the festival, which was well fed with public money from the Generalitat, as a benchmark for theater and dance in Spain. He knew how to welcome the new Catalan dance and open the program to other dramaturgies such as French, Latin American or German. In addition, he dealt with the Catalan production companies and placed the festival as a reference for the Barcelona pre-season. At the festival, which took place in the summer, he decided which productions would be successful in Barcelona. As almost always in his career, the marriage did not end well and his resignation led to ink and a confrontation with the patronage of the well-known festival. Paradoxically, in 2002 —the festival would die two years later—, he was replaced as director by Magda Puyo, stage director who is now director of the Institut del Teatre and had to deal with Ollé in the aforementioned scandal of accusations of abuse and mistreatment.
Already in the 21st century, Ollé continued directing, training theater people and having relevance in positions such as when in 2004 Alex Rigola, then director of the Teatre Lliure, called him to be part of the director of the theater. He was also seen as a columnist for Catalan newspapers and making the television program La isla del Tesoro together with his partner Joan Barril, a highly successful space of which he would mount a theatrical version of the same name in 2006. That same year he directed the Nobel Prize winner Mario Vargas Llosa and the actress Aitana Sánchez Gijón in a reading of the text by the Peruvian, The truth and the lies, which had a long way to go. He also had the ability to bring to the theater in 2007 a theatrical version of Javier Cercas's great success, the novel Soldiers of Salamina.
A left-wing man with a clear Catalan identity, he came to direct the staging of the National Day of Catalonia in several editions. But Ollé, although it could result in vehement and somewhat arrogant close treatment, was always allergic to gregariousness. His history with nationalism did not have a happy ending either. Ollé continued to write with the irony and acidity of that generation of cabaret, politics and alcohol to which he belonged. The ironic requests for forgiveness from him in his articles for not wearing the yellow ribbon, not having voted on October 1, 2017 and, ultimately, for being a "bad Catalan", led to an excessive media witch hunt. The tweet from his former Dagoll Dagom colleague, Juan Lluís Bozzo, who urged the Teatre Nacional de Catalunya not to give him any more work as director, is still remembered: "A person like Joan Ollé who, imitating Boadella, has said so many barbarities and insults against Catalonia, do you give him a job every year at the Teatre Nacional? What country is the Teatre Nacional from?
From his last battle, faced with accusations of mistreatment and harassment, Ollé also had congratulations and support. Last year Joan Ollé inaugurated a theater space, Canuda 26. An act in which he was supported by friends such as Joan Manuel Serrat, the actor Pep Munné, the former directors of the Institut del Teatre Jordi Coca and Pau Monteverde, or former students such as the young creator Joan Dolores.