Today’s excursion involved a trip to a hospital in the neighborhood of Tijuca, courtesy of the UniRio van and Professor Carmela Soares. As you can see in this picture, the hospital was brightly painted and surrounded by plants and gardens. The building itself and the medical school next door had Spanish tile on the roofs and beautiful archways everywhere
we looked. The place had a much warmer feel than the sleek, antiseptic hospitals to which I am accustomed in the United States.
Every Wednesday morning Professor Soares and four of her students lead a theatre workshop called Teatro Renascer, which means the theatre of rebirth. This program is not only part of UniRio’s theatre programming but also a part of the larger Renascer organization which provides many different kinds of services to people in the neighborhood. The woman who started the Renascer organization was a nurse and a nutritionist who began approaching patients waiting in the long hallways of the hospital and offering them services, like nutrition classes. Over the past fifteen years, the program has expanded to include literacy courses, physical therapy, and arts therapy. Six years ago Teatro Renascer began doing theatre workshops in a meeting space off the side of the hospital. The Renascer organization now serves many Tijuca residents who are not patients in the hospital, as well as those who are currently being treated there. UniRio currently has multiple theatre workshops in hospitals: Teatro Renascer’s theatre workshop for elderly people and Enfermeria do Riso (led by Professor Ana Achcar) in which students and faculty trained in clowning entertain those sitting in the waiting rooms of various hospitals. This morning we visited Teatro Renascer and saw their work with elderly people.
Professor Soares gave us a brief tour of the hospital as we made our way to the place where the theatre group meets. We saw beautiful courtyards and gardens, like the one in which Renee Gross and I are standing with Professor Soares in this picture. The hospital had many long corridors with high, arched ceilings where people waited to be seen by doctors. I have no idea how long people usually wait in those hallways, but I had no trouble in seeing what a gift it would be for clowns to come along to break the monotony for those waiting for care. Wouldn’t that be a pleasant distraction for any of us who need to wait in a hospital?
The theatre workshop that Professor Soares and her students facilitate takes place in a spacious room in a small building off to the side near the hospital’s main entrance. The workshop participants range in age from sixty to eighty-eight years old, and they were definitely the most lively bunch we’ve encountered on this trip! They had more energy than either the children of the Maré favela or the women we met in the prison, and neither of those groups was the least bit lackluster. This workshop made more use of music than the others we’ve seen so far. Two of the student facilitators were very talented singers, and one of them played the flute with remarkable skill and seemingly inexhaustible lungs.
We arrived ahead of most of the workshop participants, and as they began to wander into the room for the beginning of the workshop, they hugged us and kissed us on both cheeks before even asking who we were. At several points during the workshop, someone would take me warmly by the hand and say something obviously friendly but not quite intelligible to me in rapid fire Portuguese, and when I would smile back, my new friend (and I made plenty throughout the morning!) would laugh and hug me. This group was contagiously good spirited and friendly.
To begin the workshop, we made a circle with plastic chairs and then stood in front of them to begin physical warm ups. I’d assumed that this would be physically kind of a low impact workshop since some of the members of the group were nearly ninety years old, but I could not have been more mistaken. We hardly sat down again for the rest of the three hour workshop. I’m really not sure why we bothered to make a circle of chairs in the first place. One of the UniRio students led us in a few simple stretches, and then we went around the circle with each of us leading a new stretch or warm up. I tried to pick something simple and easy to do, but the older participants of the workshop pushed us to do more when their turns came. After the physical warm ups, the same UniRio student led us in a few scales for vocal warm ups. Then she played her flute and sang with another student. One of the workshop participants, a woman named Marta, sang a whole song by herself. Andy was later able to identify it as the Brazilian standard “Por causa de você.” Then the rest of the group was invited to sing the same song with her. They had a couple of lyric sheets for us to follow along as best we could. None of the workshop participants ever displayed the slightest tinge of shyness or embarrassment about their voices or their bodies. They sang, danced, and moved with both physical ease and the kind of total abandon that we theatre people so admire in actors who are able to shed their inhibitions.
After the song, another UniRio student led us in an exercise in which we were to each one by one step into the middle of the circle, state our first names and an adjective starting with the same letter as our first names, and create a physical gesture to go with it. The workshop participants and facilitators were all very creative and funny (as were my students Renee, Liz, and Andy), and the exercise went without a hitch until it got to the oldest person in the workshop–a eighty-eight year old man named Claudiomir. His first name is Claudiomir, but everyone calls him by his last name, which was something that began with a B that I never did quite catch. He had to repeat himself three times in this exercise because he refused to choose an adjective to describe himself that began with the same letter as his name. He was hilariously funny and loved the spotlight so much that he seemed to deliberately mess up his part in the games so that he would be asked to repeat himself. He has a trickster’s sense of humor and decided to mess with me from the beginning of the workshop. He would approach me and say, “You’re not Brazilian are you?” And when I confirmed his suspicion, he began mumbling and speaking in jibberish to try to make me think he was really saying something to me and that I couldn’t keep up with him because of my lack of skill in Portuguese. The UniRio students immediately recognized what he was doing and explained it to me, but he thought this was such a funny trick that he repeated it every chance he got in the workshop. He also made a big show of wanting to hug me goodbye at the end of the day and then would turn and walk in a different direction at the last second right before he was about to hug me. I’ve never before met someone his age with that much energy! He moved and danced all over the place for three hours straight and didn’t seem the least bit tired when it was all over.
After we introduced ourselves, we were asked to invent a character with a different name and give that person a voice and a body. I became a character named Rosangela in tribute to our Portuguese teacher in Michigan, and we then interacted with other people in the room as our characters and had to switch to become the character we’d just met as soon as we’d shaken hands with them. It was a rather complicated game, and the workshop participants kept us on our toes. They were amazing!
Then we gathered at one end of the room while the student with the flute played music. Each person had to cross the room by her/himself, moving in time to the music the flautist played. At first it seemed that people were moving to match her rhythms and notes, but then it became clear that the workshop participants had taken over and that the talented flautist was following them, trying to anticipate their rhythms and improvise music to suit each person’s style of movement. It was an incredible thing to see.
After about two hours or so, we folks from the U.S. were pretty tired and starting to fall behind, and we were ushered into a side room by the UniRio students who had brought quite a spread of chocolates, small cakes, coffee, and tea. We gratefully partook while the workshop participants were rehearsing the improvised scenes they are currently developing on the theme of birthday parties. On our way back into the workshop room, as we were heading to our seats in the rows of chairs that had been set up as an audience, Claudiomir snatched a half-eaten cracker from Renee’s hand, gobbled it up, and laughed. He was always at least two steps ahead of us no matter what we did!
The workshop participants were divided into two groups, and they had made themselves elaborate props. The first group
had made quite complicated paper mache food for the party and brought a baby doll in a stroller. One of the guests at the party got very drunk, and the others kept trying to take away her beer as she became more and more disruptive. The second group adorned their table with tablecloths in a Brazilian flag pattern and served real food at their party. They ended with a patriotic song and dance number that included much flag waving and putting leis of fake flowers around each party guest’s neck. After they bowed at the end of their scene, they rushed to put their leis around our necks and insisted that we keep them as souvenirs of our visit to the workshop.
We had a fabulous time this morning and are very grateful to members of Teatro Renascer for letting us be a part of their workshop today. We will carry their hugs, songs, and leis back to the U.S. with us. Obrigada, Teatro Renascer! The group’s name makes sense to me now because I feel that I’ve been infused with new life and energy because of the joyous presence of these people in the world.
*This blog post was updated on July 16 to correct a few incorrect facts that were pointed out to me by Professor Carmela Soares. Thank you, Carmela!
The following portion of this post is made up of reflections from Andy Martínez on the same workshop:
Greetings from The Riviera—This afternoon I sit in a crowded Starbucks in Ipanema waiting for my clothes to dry at the Laundromat around the corner. I’m taking a break from my Brazilian sojourn to sip some Western capitalism—iced tea—as well as my reading of Carson McCullers’ “The Heart is a Lonely Hunter,” in order to offer a few precious accounts of my morning at a hospital in Rio.Singing songs from their prime and playing theatre games that focused on integrating integral motor skills, I trespassed upon an energetic and enthusiastic crew of fifteen 60-to-90-year-old people in their weekly class.
My love-cup was filled when I sat down to observe the golden-aged practitioners improvise one-by-one across the room in collaboration with a live flautist. Using their hips, legs and arms like fine brushes, the aged dancers painted a breathtaking portrait of grace at an advanced age. The sounds of the flute responded to every staccato, legato, and accented efforts made by each respective dancer.
We finished the class in a circle dance. We held hands. We rocked backward and forward perhaps to songs of their youth. We picked up the tempo and began to rotate our circle counter-clockwise, maintaining our hold to one another.
When we reached the end of the song, the elders took the lead from the UNIRIO undergrad facilitators. Impromptu, they repeated the song’s coda three times, each time adding a greater emphasis to the words, until our entwined hands were thrown into the air in a final exclamation.
What my iced tea, Carson McCullers and I realize here in my air-conditioned cocoon of cacao, is that this last circle game can be more than simply a closing exercise to which a song is sung and steps are repeated. Rather, the song could be an anthem, and the exercise in motor skills could be a celebration of life for these folks. Their conviction certainly supports this theory.
It is my express hope that should I reach the ages of these particular friends that I engage in a similar way. You know, celebrate the everyday? I don’t want to miss that.
Will you join me?