The Michigan/UniRio Theatre Exchange is off to an exciting start! We are all so grateful to our hosts at UniRio as well as to the Brazil Initiative and the faculty and staff of the Center for Latin American and Caribbean Studies (LACS) at the University of Michigan who have worked so hard to make it possible for us to be here.
Our day started off at UniRio where we met Professor Marina Henriques (pictured here with Andy Martinez in the UniRio van that took us around town) who gave us a brief history of the Mare favela. (There should be an accent on that “e” in Mare, but I can’t figure out how to put accents in my blog posts. Mare is pronounced “mar-ay-ah” in Portuguese.) Mare is a very large favela within Rio de Janeiro–so large in fact that there are sixteen or seventeen (the exact number varies depending on your source) communities inside it. Professor Henriques and her students conduct Saturday morning theatre workshops in two of those communities: Nova Holanda and Praia de Ramos. Their program is called Redes de Teatro na Maré.
Favelas are often described by sites like Wikipedia as shanty towns, but we saw today that they have far more infrastructure than that. Those of us who have traveled to other parts of Latin America agreed that what we saw of the favela looked very similar to other economically disadvantaged neighborhoods and distinctly more built up than some places I’ve seen, like some of the colonias in Juarez, Mexico, where people live in makeshift shelters made of cardboard boxes. The parts of Mare that we saw today were composed of real buildings made of concrete, metal, and wood arranged around narrow streets and alleys, as can be seen in this picture that I took from inside the second or third story of a building in which one of the theatre workshops takes place. We felt completely safe while we were in the favela and saw no hint of violence, past or present. However, Professor Henriques and her students stay safe in large part because they are cautious and thoughtful about the ways in which they approach the favela. On the morning of each trip to the favela, Henriques calls the staff at the NGO in Mare with whom UniRio partners in setting up these theatre workshops to make sure that it is a safe day to enter the favela. Only then do she and her students make their way to Mare to engage the residents of the favela through theatre.
The UniRio van took us to the edge of the favela, alongside a major thoroughfare known as Avenida Brasil. We stopped briefly at the Centro de Artes da Mare–a remarkable place to which we later returned–and then boarded yet another van (one owned by a local NGO called Redes da Desenvolvimento da Maré or REDES) to ride deeper into the interior of Mare so that we could visit the first theatre workshop of the day, which took place inside a building where REDES offers classes and community programming for the people of Mare. We passed classrooms in which children were studying French and English and then arrived in the room in which Henriques’ UniRio students facilitate a theatre workshop with about a dozen middle and high school aged students. They invited us to participate in the physical theatre games that they were playing, and we kicked off our shoes and joined the group. I was surprised to discover that they played some of the same theatre games that I’ve seen used time and again in the U.S., including a version of Zip Zap Zop that they called Zip Zap Ho! (“Ho!” being their equivalent of “Whoa!” from the U.S. version of the game). Liz Raynes also recognized a song and dance exercise that another group employed later in the afternoon. She had played that theatre game in a Spanish speaking country elsewhere in Latin America during previous travels abroad. The facilitators and participants in this first workshop seamlessly incorporated us into their group and seemed disappointed when we had to leave early in order to get to visit the other two workshops in the favela.
The UniRio students’ facilitation style is much like the one we use at PCAP; two or three students lead the same workshop every week so that they develop longstanding relationships with the people in the workshops. This program for theatre in the favelas began three years ago, and many of the facilitators and participants have been part of the project since its inception. The first and third workshops we saw today will hold public performances of their theatre games and short improvisations, while the second workshop will hold a more formal original performance devised by the workshop participants (more on this later). Henriques’s students are obviously both well-trained and very committed to the residents of Mare. In all of the workshops we observed today, the student facilitators were energetic, highly competent, and good motivators. The workshop participants were without exception completely focused on the task at hand. All three of the workshops we observed were with youth, though one workshop with adults was also taking place at the final site we visited. Doing theatre with youth can be very challenging in terms of focusing their energy on the subject matter of the workshop, teaching them to engage respectfully with one another, and convincing the outliers of the group to participate when teenagers often insist that they are “too cool” to play theatre games or risk embarrassing themselves. Today’s workshops avoided all of these common traps and displayed remarkable cohesion. Anyone who underestimates the potential of urban youth should spend a morning observing the children of Mare in these theatre workshops.
The REDES van took us back to the Centro de Artes da Mare where we observed the second theatre workshop in the beautifully restored space you see in this picture. When we arrived, the UniRio facilitators were costumed outlandishly–one in a cape and the other in a top hat–leading a theatre of the oppressed exercise in which the youth were drilled in a rapid fire version of Simon Says. Each person who made a mistake in following the leader’s orders was told to stand in a kind of holding pen offstage, guarded by the facilitator in a cape. The final girl standing after all the others had been eliminated was given a large stick to hold and told to take over guarding her peers. The facilitators barked orders at her and asked her if any of those in the holding pen were her friends. The girl immediately said, “No!” and brandished her stick at the offending captives. When the exercise had ended, and the group sat in a circle discussing what had happened, the girl who had been transformed into a soldier reported that during the exercise, she thought nothing of becoming the oppressor; she had just enjoyed exercising the power given to her. The young residents of Mare discussed how easily this had happened and related it to other experiences in their actual lives. Agosto Boal (may he rest in peace) would’ve been very proud.
We also had the opportunity to watch the members of this workshop perform several scenes from the play they are currently devising about the history of Rio de Janeiro. The first two scenes of the play will deal with historical events, the third scene with life in Mare in the present, and the final scene with Mare’s future. The play will be performed in the Centro de Artes da Mare, likely in December 2013.
The Centro’s director Isabella Porto (pictured here on the right with Marina Henriques and me)
was very gracious in giving us a tour of the facility and telling us about the history of the space. In 2007 the building was in shambles and with very little money and many volunteers, members of the community restored the space and made it into a professional performance venue. One side of the building is built for theatre, the other for dance. The famous Brazilian dance company Lia Rodrigues Companhia de Dancas (the “c” in “Dancas” should have the little tail on it that makes the letter take on an “s” sound in Portuguese, but again I’m not able to figure out how to put special characters into my blog posts. Sorry, readers of Portuguese!) served as the driving force behind the renovation of the space and continues to perform there. Isabella and Marina both emphasized how important it is that professional quality performances of both theatre and dance take place in this space inside the favela. The Lia Rodrigues Company includes two dancers who are from Mare, but they are equal to the rest of the company in their dancing abilities. The company does not do community outreach work through theatre; rather they create cost-free professional performances in a space that is readily accessible to those who live in the favela. This commitment to high quality art for an audience that cannot pay for it is admirable and ought to be emulated by more professional artists and cultural centers. All people deserve access not just to the arts but to the arts in their most refined forms. Too often we treat working class or poor audiences as though they are not deserving of the same quality of art as those who can afford to be patrons.
From the Centro, we rode the REDES van to a more distant part of the favela where we visited our final theatre workshop, which took place in a hospital called Centre Municipal de Saúde Américo Veloso. The workshop participants were, once again, children from Mare, and they met in the hospital only because it provides a good space for their work, not because anyone involved in the project needed treatment at the hospital. These students were improvising scenes based on news stories they had read, and their performances reminded me of the Living Newspaper work of the Federal Theatre Project, reimagined for the era of television news. Many of the young performers used their cell phones as stand-ins for the handheld microphones used by news reporters or talk show hosts. They addressed timely topics, including the present debates in Brazil about whether people can choose their sexuality or are born with a particular sexual preference. All of the skits were both informative and uproariously funny, and like the other two workshops we observed, these children and college students were having a great time, as did we.
We emerged from Mare in awe of the work that Henriques, the UniRio students, and the residents of the favela are doing, and we look forward to rejoining them there again next Saturday.
*This blog post was updated on July 8 to correct some information that I had misunderstood and to add in extra names and facts that Professor Marina Henriques sent to me. Thank you, Marina!