Archive | August, 2015

Guest blogger Meredith on performances from the Theatre of the Oppressed Conference

28 Aug

We arrived in the plaza early (on time) and devoured paper bags full of hot caramel corn doused in sweetened condensed milk from one of the many pipoca carts lining the edge of the city center. As we waited for our program to begin, I tried to take in the parts of the city I might normally overlook – an old woman on a park bench whispering secrets to pigeons, men delivering flowers on bicycles, angry monkeys yelling at one another up high in the trees, beautiful architecture I don’t have the art history knowledge to describe properly, children wearing sweaters despite it being 65 degrees outside (it is currently “winter” in Brazil).

Finally, a number of plastic chairs were set up in a circle and familiar faces from the Theatre of the Oppressed conference began to assemble. Over the next few hours, participants from the conference performed scenes they had workshopped throughout the week. Afterwards, our giant group played theatrical games in the middle of the plaza. As a college theatre student, this public display of artistic expression excited and fascinated me. In all of my experiences with theatre done in public spaces, a true audience is often limited and passerby are usually annoyed, slightly amused, or a vague mixture of the two. In Largo do Machado I stood rapt – half due to the incredible performances and games, and half as a result of the overwhelmingly positive response from onlookers. Old men, women with young children, teenagers, a middle-aged man who looked strangely like my fourth grade teacher – they all stood and watched, applauded with gusto, and even participated in the games. Never in my life have I seen this type of response to theatre. It is clear that in Brazil, art is not seen as something reserved for a certain type of person or group.

The first performance featured three children from the Maré favela. The age and talent of the sole girl in the group of performers caught my eye. She couldn’t have been more than thirteen, but she commanded the attention of the crowd with unabashed enthusiasm and confidence. It’s always refreshing, both as a performer and a human, to see someone exude so much joy while creating art. In a field where it is easy to get caught up and take myself too seriously, I crave these brief moments that remind me what theatre is capable of. It was a deep desire for more of these reminders that led me to PCAP in the first place.

I have always been passionate about theatre and social justice issues, but had difficulty finding mediums where I could merge the two. When I heard about Ashley’s Theatre and Incarceration course, I immediately signed up. I co-facilitated a theatre workshop in the Women’s Huron Valley Correctional Facility with a group of lively, opinionated, hysterical women. The class helped me build a bridge between my two ostensibly separate passions, but it also served as a necessary, positive jolt in the way I look at myself and my art. I cannot rave enough about the theatre program at the University of Michigan and the remarkable training I have received, but after three years, I was feeling a little worn down. The competitive nature of the community, the focus on the individual, and the notion of being “good” weighed heavy on my mind, and I found it difficult to enjoy my work. I felt drowned in a world where theatre was regarded as “high art,” meant for a certain type of person, with a certain level of education, and a certain amount of money. Theatre was black and white. It wasn’t until I enrolled in Ashley’s class and began my prison workshop that I rediscovered how powerful art could be, how important it is for theatre to wade through the unexamined grey area. How, if used correctly, theatre has the capability to rearrange power. That, simply put, theatre is for everybody.

The day was filled with laughter, warmth, language barriers, and a true feeling of community. My favorite activity was facilitated by a theatre troupe from UCLA known as the Sex Squad. The squad uses theatre, music, and other types of art to promote sexual health education in high schools around Los Angeles. The participants in the plaza were split into five groups. Each group was assigned a substance that transmits HIV (I was semen) and was told to create a unique movement and way of singing their substance in Portuguese. We created a choir of sorts and soon I was standing in the middle of the city square, in the center of the crowd, conducting the chanting – “VAGINAL FLUID! BLOOD! BREAST MILK!” Arms flailed, people stared, and I went and ate more popcorn afterwards.

Alas, here we are now, at the airport in Rio, preparing to depart. I’ve eaten my weight in churros, red meat, fresh fruit, bacon popcorn, and my fellow peers are ready to roll me onto the plane. I loved spending time in this country where I grapple to understand and communicate and find the bathroom, a foreign land where I grew to love the warmth and the slow pace and the orchids in the trees, a trip I took with nearly perfect strangers who taught me so much. I am extremely grateful to Ashley Lucas, our fearless (and patient) leader, to Anna, our graduate school companion and translator, and to all those at UniRio who kissed us on both cheeks and let us be a part of their beautiful work. Obrigada & boa noite, Brasil!

Guest blogger Elena Khutoretsky on Teatro Renascer

26 Aug
Elena drinking cafezinho

Elena drinking cafezinho

My name is Elena and this trip will be my last experience as a student at the University of Michigan. Although I graduated this past May, I am thankful to still be able to participate in this program. I have facilitated workshops through PCAP with incarcerated men, women, and teenagers since September of last year. I chose to come to Brazil in order to continue this work while immersed in a completely different culture.

Prior to coming to Brazil, my experience was limited to prisons and youth facilities, where there were strict rules and restrictions on the content that we can work with in our workshops. Here in Rio de Janeiro, I have expanded my experience to include theater workshops in hospitals and favelas as well. One such experience was particularly memorable for me.

Michigan and UniRio students and faculty with the folks at Teatro Renascer

Michigan and UniRio students and faculty with the folks at Teatro Renascer

It happened earlier this week, when we paid a visit to Teatro Renascer, which is a group of elders at a nearby hospital who participate in an action-packed workshop every week, led by Carmela, a professor at UniRio. The participants were lively and very welcoming, and I hardly even noticed the language barrier amidst all the hugs and smiles. The workshop started with a Portuguese song and dance, followed by a name game which involved participants inventing creative ways to say their names and teaching it to others. The highlight of my day was when, in the middle of my presentation of my name, everyone in the group started chanting it with me and dancing in a circle, concluding the activity. Most of the activities were very physical in nature, often involving collaboration among small groups of participants. We created depictions of bicycles, peeing dogs, various modes of transportation, many different kinds of animals, and one battleship that required everyone’s participation. I quickly found myself literally bouncing up and down with a level of energy I hadn’t felt in a very long time. The final activity was a very intense rendition of a song about the four elements of earth, water, air, and fire, in relation to our bodies. We stood in a circle, singing fiercely with furled eyebrows and stomping feet, while each one of us took turns performing a dance in the middle of the circle. You haven’t seen an elderly lady bust a move like I have.

Elena is a big fan of the monkeys we've encountered in Rio.

Elena is a big fan of the monkeys we’ve encountered in Rio.

I left the place with delicious snacks in my belly, a broad grin on my face, and a surplus of euphoric invigoration that lasted all day long. It was to this date the most uplifting and energizing workshop I have ever had the pleasure of participating in.

More monkeys!

More monkeys!

When I later reflected on the experience, I came to the realization that we could have done many of these activities in a Brazilian prison (which are relatively lenient when it comes to content), and some even in a US prison, especially if we modified them to avoid touching one another. And yet, I couldn’t imagine having this level of fun if I did the same workshop in a prison. Why? Because the unfortunate reality is that there is no amount of energy or vigor that could ever make me forget the fact that we are always being watched, that some people don’t want me there, or that some people don’t believe that prisoners even deserve to have fun in the first place. I’ve had workshops in prisons where we laughed a lot and had a fantastic time, but that has always been in spite of, not instead of, the constant awareness of the rules we have to follow, and the knowledge that the people I am working with are not given the same respect and autonomy that I enjoy. It wasn’t until my experience with Teatro Renascer that I truly understood how much of a difference it makes just knowing in the back of my mind that the participants and I are treated with the same level of respect by society and that no one in the facility looks down on what we do. It made me reflect on how much extra work it takes in prison to achieve just a fraction of the result I would achieve elsewhere. For this reason, this experience highlighted for me the importance of doing theater in prisons. Because there’s not enough of it, because it takes a lot of work, and because everyone deserves it equally.

Thanks for reading,

Elena

Guest blogger Laurel Cerier on doing a workshop at a Brazilian hospital

25 Aug
Laurel on Corvocado Mountain

Laurel at the Botanical Garden

Hello readers! I´m Laurel, a rising senior at the University of Michigan dual majoring in International Studies and Psychology with a minor in Community Action and Social Justice. I joined UM´s Prison Creative Arts Program (PCAP) through Ashley´s first Theatre and Incarceration class two years ago and have since facilitated (with a partner) a theatre workshop at Women´s Huron Valley Correctional Facility, Michigan´s sole women´s prison, as well as a visual arts workshop at G. Robert Cotton Correctional Facility. In addition, I worked on the Prison Art Show Committee for the 19th annual show exhibiting donated art and items for sale by prisoners from the majority of Michigan´s prisons. This fall, I plan to join PCAP´s Literary Review Committee, which compiles selected writing pieces from Michigan prisoners each year into its Michigan Review of Prisoner Creative Writing.

When people asked me why I had decided to go to Brazil to work in prisons, as if this was some insane longing for extra thrill in my life, I always had a hard time answering. It is difficult to articulate my understanding that coming here would undoubtedly teach me more about what it means to be human. After my previous experiences working in Michigan prisons (another “crazy” notion) brought me more in touch with the relationship between policy and people, it is clear to me that a person can read and learn all they want to in a classroom, but until something is before them, being understood in some physical capacity, it remains in the imagination ready for the mind´s interference. As a result, when friends returned from the trip last year with newfound enlightenment and even more questions about how the world works, I could not say no to Ashley´s invitation.

Although I came to Rio most interested in attending the theatre workshops run by UniRio students in local Brazilian prisons, the program led by Miguel, a retiring UniRio professor, at a local hospital ultimately became my favorite. It is not a workshop, per se, as the students did not interact regularly with the same group of people throughout their hours at the hospital on any given day, but this in no way diminishes the work they do there. When I arrived at the facilitators´ office with a few of my UM companions, we were each handed a brightly colored apron and given a brief explanation of what we were about to partake in: fun! Moments later, we lined up behind the bubbly facilitators and were off!

Laurel & Joe feijoada

Joe & Laurel get ready to eat their first feijoada–the Brazilian national dish

The group sang a samba song while playing guitars and a tambourine as we all danced our way through the gray halls of the hospital up to a sunlit lobby, out to the front of the building, and right up to a woman leaving the hospital. The singing continued until one of the UniRio students asked her if she would like a happiness checkup, to which she agreed with a mile-long smile across her face. He put his ear near her chest, listening to her “samba heartbeat,” created by the deep ka-thunk of the his classmate´s tambourine. It seems that her happiness was in full health! He then opened up an emergency aid kit box filled with small slips of paper, pulled one out, and read to her what I believe was some sort of sweet proverb about love and happiness. The woman was absolutely delighted, leaving in joyful laughter.

We continued these checkups periodically with patients, family members, and various hospital staff members alike as we rhythmically wandered our way through the hospital until we reached a pediatric waiting room. After asking a few small children their names, each troubadour pulled simple props our of their apron pockets and commenced their silly skit about a frog, played by the sole male member of the group, who must overcome his fear of jumping high into the sky in order to go to a party he so longingly wants to attend. Although I couldn´t understand a word of the Portuguese, the students moved so fluidly, making such dramatic expressions and absurd sounds, that no one could miss the amazingly executed humor.

Laurel Jardim Botanico

Next, we worked our way to the chemotherapy ward, turning a room that previously had a dull and sterile atmosphere into a small, soft parade! While these adult patients were visibly exhausted and uncomfortable, many lit up at our entrance, and it was here that us foreigners were finally able to articulately join in on the singing with “Stand by Me.” While we sang, one woman´s grown daughter snuck into the room to video our short performance and her mother´s response of pure gratitude and delight. Although this particular patient expressed more enthusiasm than the others, her reaction will forever change the meaning of this song in my life. After that, each patient in that room and the next was offered a happiness checkup and a slip of paper, and then we continued on once more.

All throughout our trips in the hallways, I was overwhelmed by the bodies we had to work through as waiting patients and their family members continued to accumulate in surprising numbers. Ashley explained to me that because Brazil has a socialized healthcare system, with very few privatized facilities, the hospitals are constantly overwhelmed, and patients often suffer for months or years before receiving non-priority treatments, such as elective surgeries like knee-replacements. As I gazed at the mild chaos around me, I couldn`t help notice that in many ways, these jammed narrow spaces resemble a packed United States emergency room, making me wonder how much worse the crowds must be in Brazilian hospitals. Even so, the UniRio students continued their singing and games, forcing out grins and giggles from the people around them. We continued dancing and singing from ward to ward, and by the end of the workshop, I found myself ready to collapse into bed. Amazingly enough, the UniRio students didn´t seem at all exhausted, and when we finally made our way back to their office, they seemed reluctant to lock everything up in the cabinet. It is rare to find so much energy, compassion, and humor in five different people all at once, and in a place so filled with sadness and pain, I felt truly privileged to see and partake in even the momentary goofiness and delight that they brought so many individuals.

Guest blogger on visiting a Brazilian prison

24 Aug

This student guest blogger wishes to remain anonymous.

The first thing I notice about Gabriel is his sharp hair cut, brilliant smile and the soccer ball in his hands, shuffling from one to the other. He’s full of charm and he knows it. Roughly a dozen men, all of them of various ages wear a white T-shirt, blue pants and white Havainas, and they move about on the stage inside this hollowed out church talking with the workshop facilitators. On the wall behind them is a large mural of a bible verse from Psalms. Gabriel asks me where I’m from and I spend 10 minutes trying to explain Detroit through the default references of “Ford,” “Motown,” and “Eminem.” Everyone knows Eminem. After a while he has an idea of where I’m talking about and asks if it’s near Chicago. I tell him it is and he asks, “You know Chicago Bulls?”

“Yeah,” I respond. “Derek Rose.”

“Michael Jordan,” he says now using the ball to mime Michael’s iconic pose.

I keep trying to tell him about Detroit, even though I’m from Pontiac. Gabriel is the first Brazilian I’ve met who knows anything at all about American sports. He’s a fan of Lebron James and knows how the game of football works, which is a big surprise. I tell my team is the Detroit Lions, and we make loud growling sounds. When I ask him where he is from, he drops the soccer ball, points to the ground beneath his feet and says, “I’m from Rio de Janeiro.”

Street scene in Rio

Street scene in Rio

I’ve just recently graduated from the University of Michigan, and for the past two years I’ve been involved with the Prison Creative Arts Project, an organization founded on the basis of building a better community by creating art and theater with incarcerated adults and juveniles. I first found out about this program when I enrolled in Professor Ashley Lucas’ Theatre and Incarceration class the start of my Junior Year, and after my first workshop, a theatre production with Incarcerated young men at Maurice Spear Campus in Adrian, Michigan, I wanted to do more. I took another class in PCAP with Professor Lucas and Shaka Senghor called the Atonement Project, and from that class I learned about the exchange with the Universidade Federal do Rio de Janeiro when professors Marina, Viviane, and Natália came to visit Michigan and see the work we do in the winter of 2014.

This is my second trip to Brazil. Last year’s encounter with this work at the University and with the Center for the Theater of the Oppressed as well as the community work in Maré inspired my return. Since I’ve been in Brazil, the only landmark I have visited more than once is Pedro do Sal, the Birthplace of Samba. In the early 1900’s many gatherings of minority communities were repressed and criminalized in Brazil. People would gather in residential places to express their religion, their dance, their history and culture. Pedro do Sal is one of these places, and I like to think that our work within prisons and marginalized communities is like a revival of this tradition of building community by creating art.

Outside, in the churchyard, Professor Natália explains to us that the prison isn’t segregated by crime but by faction. So every man within the walls of the prison is part of the same gang. It helps us understand the need to control violence and also the ease at which the men in the workshop work together, not to mention the prohibition on wearing colors affiliated with gangs. I don’t want the guards to think I’m affiliated with their gang, and I most certainly don’t want the men in prison to think I’m affiliated with their rivals.

As the men in the workshop perform their production on stage, I think about Gabriel and the American influences that he’s encountered. I think about the hip-hop and rap music they must have been exposed to (One of the sketches in their play is a rap), and I wonder if they know about the Bloods and Crips tennis shoes sponsored by Kendrick Lamar to promote unity, to promote community.  Off the top of my head I can’t remember what Michael Jordan’s shoes promoted. With my time in Rio coming to an end, I still ponder the meaning of liberty, freedom, and history in connection to art and theater. On the bus ride home one of the facilitators still sings one of the songs from the performance and asks me how to say these words in English.  My Portuguese not being very good I tell her, roughly, that “Art is my reason” is all I can come up with.

Guest blogger Joe Ambrose on theatre with incarcerated mothers and babies in Rio

21 Aug
Joe at the Top of the Cristo

Joe at the Top of the Cristo

Ola! I’m Joe, and I am a junior at the University of Michigan majoring in Public Policy with a minor in Intergroup Relations. I have been involved with PCAP since enrolling in Dr. Lucas’s Theatre and Incarceration course last January. Through this course, I co-facilitated a theatre and improv workshop at Cooper Street Correctional Facility in Jackson, MI. I will also have the privilege of taking Dr. Lucas and Shaka Senghor´s course, The Atonement Project, this fall, which will allow me to facilitate another wonderful workshop!

While I have traveled outside of the United States before, this abroad trip to Rio de Janeiro is my first immersive experience in another country. I started the application just hours after a friend told me about her experiences with PCAP and said she would be going to Brazil to do theatre for social change in collaboration with other university students. Surprisingly, my friends and family did not share the same excitement when I told them that I would be participating in creative arts workshops in Brazilian prisons, as well as hospitals and favelas. I have learned a lot about the stigmas and stereotypes placed on prisons and the people in which they attempt to hide from the rest of society, but I had never considered that these stereotypes are amplified when referring to foreign prisons in particular. I don’t know if this is a result of the media, or T.V. shows like “Locked Up Abroad,” but what I do know is that I have never felt more free and able to openly engage in theatre than when in these Brazilian facilities. My experiences inside of U.S. correctional facilities have involved strict policies and guards that will go to extreme lengths to make sure that the guys in my workshop aren’t “having too much fun.” Although I recognize that there is not a single prison in the world that is perfect, I have had the great honor in participating in some great programs here in Rio.

Last Tuesday, I was able to visit a facility called Materno Infantil. Materno Infantil serves as a temporary place for incarcerated mothers to continue their sentences alongside their newborns until their babies are six months at most. Having heard about past students’ experiences visiting this facility and the abundance of baby holding, I was overly excited to visit these heart-warming people. While Materno Infantil still felt like a prison (barbed wire, locked gates, armed guards, etc.), I have never seen a brighter and more beautiful landscape within the walls of a correctional facility. The staff, which was composed of almost all women, was dressed casually; there were colorful gardens, not to mention the dozens of strollers with the cutest babies scattered all over. It wasn’t more than five minutes after we entered, before I had a one-month old named Jennifer, fast asleep in my arms. As an uncle myself, it’s needless to say that I was in my happy place. Despite the language barrier, I could sense the immense amount of joy in this workshop through the wide smiles and rich laughter of the women. After singing and dancing around a circle of seven strollers, a few of my classmates, and I participated in some familiar improv games with the mothers. I had the chance to lead one call-and-response dance activity that I have previously done in other workshops. Although the women had a hard time learning the English version (as I do with games in Portuguese), we still had a ton of fun, and the women busted out some great moves nonetheless. I’ve come to learn how important theatre is because it serves as a single language and allows people to understand and relate to each other on a common ground.

The Man Himself

The Man Himself

After two hours of games and our stomachs hurt from laughing, the workshop started to come to a close. I was able to have a verbal conversation with three of the women, thanks to our translator and friend João, who is a student at UniRio and co-facilitates this workshop. The women asked us some questions about the U.S. correctional system, including curiosity about capital punishment. But then one of the women asked us a question that I will never forget. “They want to know if you are scared of them because they are in jail,”João translated to us. I had completely forgotten that we were interacting with women who would soon most likely be separated from their children and who transferred back to another prison. Our workshop was filled with so much laughter and joy that, for a brief period of time, I had forgotten that we were in prison. I can only hope that these women felt the same way. This woman’s question proves that too many people are socialized to be afraid of people inside of prisons and that we isolate them from the rest of society rather than addressing the larger problem at hand. I will be forever grateful for the experiences I’ve had in Rio, and I look forward to continuing this not only important but necessary work in the United States.

Tchau for now,

Joe Ambrose

Joe's beach acrobatics

Joe’s beach acrobatics

Guest blogger on Legislative Theatre in Maré

18 Aug

This guest blogger, another student of mine, wishes to remain anonymous as the author of this post. She took both the Atonement Project and Theatre & Incarceration courses last year and has co-facilitated creative writing and theatre workshops in a men’s prison in Jackson, Michigan.

Street scene in Rio

Street scene in Rio

On Friday morning, Angela, a lovely professor from UniRio, took us on a tour of the center of Rio and the old theatre district, an area full of historic architecture and buildings that were built both during and also immediately after the colonial era. We learned about the origins of the architecture and colonists’ desires to make the city seem as European as possible, but also walked past recently developed high-rise apartment buildings, looming in between colorful French balconies and baroque windows from Portugal. As a graduate student studying public policy and urban planning, I am continually fascinated by the somewhat haphazard blending of old and new, of modern and colonial that can be found throughout the city. In fact, I have seen the resonance of this uneasy dichotomy in almost everything we have done since arriving in Rio. I see the rush to modernize, to expand, to grow (just in time for the Olympics) at the same time that I see a foundation of unexamined history and marginalized communities getting left behind in all the expansion.

The very first week we were here, we had the incredible privilege of visiting one such community, the Maré favela, to witness some very meaningful theatre work being done there. We were told that Maré’s original residents were northern migrants who came to the region looking for economic opportunity and instead found themselves stranded and isolated in an area in north Rio that is now the massive Maré favela, composed of 16 different communities.

We went into Maré with the Center for Theatre of the Oppressed, an organization that has continued the work of Augusto Boal in Rio and which had been working with youth in Maré to develop a performance piece focused on the discrimination that favela residents face when they leave their community. Using a technique called legislative theatre, this performance started as a traditional forum theatre piece; in addition to be able to intervene though, spect-actors were also given the opportunity to suggest possible policies that could address the situations being acted out in front of them. At the end of the entire piece, we then all had a conversation with representatives from outside organizations about the suggested policies and reached a consensus about which policy made the most sense to pursue. The representatives present then agreed to bring that policy back to their work and begin to advocate for it.

The effortless blending of theatre and policy we witnessed was impressive. The performance was able to illustrate the problem (discrimination) in a vivid and concrete way that a policy brief or set of statistics would never have been able to accomplish. In my classes back home, we often talk about how successful policy-making usually evolves out of some kind of urgent need that citizens can emotionally relate to; it is much easier, for example, to develop environmental regulation after an oil spill has ensured that voters have been staring at slick, oil-covered animals with endearing faces and sad eyes for a few weeks on the front page of their newspapers. Watching the talented youth from Maré paint a bleak picture of the treatment favela residents face outside the favelas, however, I realized that well-done political theatre can accomplish the same thing. Theatre can draw in an audience and emotionally entangle viewers in a scene; it as the power to get people involved and passionate in a way that a news article on the same subject would entirely fail to do. While I do not know enough about current Brazilian anti-discrimination policy to know what types of solutions would be most effective, I still felt lucky to be able to observe the debate and the performance from the Maré children that was driving it.

Sitting in the favela that evening, I could not help but think of the massive amounts of money being poured into fancy new developments and stadiums all over the city and wonder why even a little of that funding could not have been used to alleviate the extreme poverty evident within the community. From the vantage point of my admittedly limited knowledge, the favelas seems to have grown out of the pieces of Brazilian past that are most uncomfortable, and I wonder if their extreme isolation is at least a partly a result of that. Like prisons, like Native American reservations in the U.S., these are communities that exist on the margins, in part because they make us uncomfortable, because in order to change them, we as a society would also need to confront the forces that created them and our own part in doing so.

View of Rio

View of Rio

During the prison workshop I participated in last week, one of the women asked us for a photo that they could keep as proof that someone outside cares enough about them to come visit; she said that too many people see these women as garbage being hidden away from society. It was heartbreaking to listen to her articulate this so matter-of-factly, and it echoed the refrain I heard from the men I worked with in prisons back home. It was also hopeful though, because this theatre workshop, for her, was proof that was not true. Just like the performance we watched in Maré, I was struck by the power of theatre, even the simple theatre that we have witnessed over the last two weeks, power to inform and change minds, to touch emotions and build connections. I find myself increasingly grateful for the opportunity to be a part of such meaningful work, both here in Brazil and back home in Michigan.

Guest blogger Wilder Erb on the Theatre of the Oppressed

17 Aug
Our group in front of a historic library in central Rio de Janeiro

Our group in front of a historic library in central Rio de Janeiro

My name is Wilder Erb, and I have been involved with PCAP or (Prison Creative Arts Project) at the University of Michigan for one year. During the past year as a student I was fortunate enough to be a part of the Atonement Project as well as the Theatre and Incarceration course. I applied to the Brazil exchange program for three weeks in Rio de Janeiro because I am passionate about working in prisons in Michigan as a member of PCAP. I spent the previous two semesters facilitating theatre workshops at the Cooper Street men’s correctional facility in Jackson. I firmly believe doing theatre along with other kinds of social activism work is vital to achieving community uplift. For this reason, I feel deeply invested in working for and with PCAP. Having the ability to take part in similar work in Brazil specifically with the Theatre of the Oppressed was an opportunity that I could not pass up.

Rio's most famous landmark--Christ the Redeemer

Rio’s most famous landmark–Christ the Redeemer

As part of our cultural exchange here in Brazil, we work hand-in-hand with students and faculty at the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro, also referred to as UniRio. This partnership allows us to experience multiple perspectives of the Theatre of the Oppressed, such as sitting in on theatre performances by UniRio students, touring the Maré favela, watching full productions, going into a hospital and playing improv games with the elders, as well as getting a first hand experience of how theatre is performed within both men’s and women’s prisons. Brazilian Augusto Boal founded the Theatre of the Oppressed in Rio de Janeiro where the CTO or (Center Theatre Oppressed) operates as the theatre’s headquarters. Boal’s methodology focuses on emphasizing the importance of creative expression and the need for alternative forms of open dialogue to exist in spaces that traditionally repress these values. One of the experiences to date that I feel best epitomizes the Theatre of the Oppressed was traveling to the Maré favela to watch an amazing performance about how acts of discrimination based on race, the color of one’s skin, and where someone lives remains a prevalent issue in Brazilian society.

A view of Rio

A view of Rio

Favelas, which are unique to Brazil, are designated territories that house Brazil’s marginalized poor communities that not coincidentally consist of overwhelmingly black and darker skinned peoples. These confined areas are often times surrounded by physical barriers, i.e. walls, and experience disproportionately high levels of crime, violence, gang activity and general instability. The performance put on within Maré used vibrant costumes and elaborate stage sets to tackle the problematic issues of discrimination and injustices that places like Maré experience on a daily basis. I found it very interesting how the actors and actresses used legislative theatre to express these controversial realities. One of theatre’s most powerful qualities is that it creates a space for people to come together and actively engage in discussions that otherwise would be looked down upon and viewed as inappropriate means of expression. Being a part of this exchange program has been an incredibly rewarding experience so far. Actively engaging in social activism work such as the Theatre of the Oppressed, along with having access and being exposed to places like prisons, hospitals and favelas give students the most meaningful forms of educational learning.

Signing out,

Wilder

Guest blogger Dana Pittman on forum theatre in Rio de Janeiro

16 Aug
Dana in Rio

Dana in Rio

Bom Dia,

I’m Dana, a junior at the University of Michigan studying Psychology with a minor in Crime and Justice. I’ve been a part of the Prison Creative Arts Project for two years and have facilitated theater workshops in male prisons as well as juvenile detention facilities. I’ve thoroughly enjoyed the work I’ve done with PCAP thus far and hope to continue it in my upcoming semesters at the University.

In the days leading up to our arrival in Rio, I began feeling extremely nervous about navigating through the language barrier. I knew a little of the language from participating in weekly Portuguese lessons with our graduate student companion Anna and had been regularly using the language teaching app, Duolingo. Despite this new training and my prior experience with Spanish, I did not feel that I would have the words or the ability to effectively engage in dialogue or make the most of the experience. And our first encounter with the Theater of the Oppressed workshop didn’t calm my fears whatsoever. We sat listening to the son of a world known theater practitioner lecture in Portuguese for maybe a half hour, but it felt like an eternity. I was definite that the rest of conference would not be beneficial in any way and that I wouldn’t survive the rest of that week, must less the rest of the trip.

Dana in a group of participants from the Theatre of the Oppressed Conference

Dana in a group of participants from the Theatre of the Oppressed Conference

However, once it came to actually engaging in theater and watching the shows that were apart of the conference the language spoken didn’t seem to matter. The expressions of the actors could be seen in the way that they moved around, hear in the manner that they read their lines, and felt when we looked into their eyes. I definitely felt that I was able to understand what was happening in the scenes without fully understanding the words being spoken. Knowing the language quickly felt like something supplemental, rather than a requirement for enjoying the performances and appreciating the social constructs it attempted to bring to the forefront for discussion. Each of the shows followed the structure of Forum Theatre, which is one form of the methodology known as the Theatre of the Oppressed, where first the audience watches a short scene with a character being oppressed or mistreated. After seeing this scene, the audience suggests alternative actions for the oppressed character, and members of the audience take the place of the character being oppressed and go about the situation in a different way. Then the audience discusses the effectiveness and feasibility of the newest actor’s actions.

The discussions that took place revolved a lot around power dynamics, making the oppressed feel heard and attempting to make the oppressor see what he or she is doing wrong. While I didn’t quite have the words to engage in the conversations following the audience’s involvement, it was interesting to listen to everything that was shared during the dialogue. It allowed me to hear a different perspective on some social issues and opened my mind to new ways of thinking even though it was in Portuguese. Before this trip, I had thought of my pervious work with Forum Theater was interesting, but the conference has shown me that this work is revolutionary. I’m excited to continue thinking about these new concepts and ideas that came out of the discussion portion and to keep the conversation going when I return to the United States.

Picture of a favela as we drove past it

Picture of a favela as we drove past it

For the last day of the conference, the participants were invited to the favela (poorer or slum region) Maré. The show specifically focused on employment discrimination, people from Maré have experienced, just because they were from a favela. I became acquainted with two new friends, Léo and Bebita. Together they did their best to translate the comedy throughout the show as well as the technical language that occurred as the audience was invited to create a mock legislature council after the show.

at the Botanical Garden

Wilder, Marjai, Ariel, and Dana at the Botanical Garden

In the days following the conference, Léo messaged me saying, “You, and especially you, have proven that theater speaks a single language.” These words resonated with me. I was astonished that I had confirmed that to him at the same time he and his country had been demonstrating that to me. The art of theater is for everyone; no matter where someone comes from financially or regionally and no matter what language they speak.

Tchau tchau,

Dana Pittman

Guest blogger Ariel Rogan on a theatre workshop in a women’s prison in Rio

15 Aug
Ariel in front of a mural in Rio

Ariel in front of a mural in Rio

Hi all! My name is Ariel Rogan and I have been involved in the Prison Creative Arts Project (PCAP) since January of 2015. PCAP’s mission is to collaborate with incarcerated adults, incarcerated youth, urban youth, and the formerly incarcerated to strengthen our community through creative expression. Since the time I joined until April 2015, I participated in a theatre workshop at Women’s Huron Valley Correctional Facility in Ypsilanti, MI. I co-facilitated with two other students, Jessica and Laura, and we worked each week towards a final performance. I thoroughly enjoyed my time with those amazing women. I am beyond thrilled that I was given the opportunity to extend my prison theatre work here in Brazil! When I heard about this trip, there was no contemplating whether I wanted to attend or not, and I applied right away! I could not pass down the chance to not only continue this awesome work, but to travel to Brazil as well.

This past Tuesday, we went into the prisons. I was grouped with Anna, our wonderful translator, Hannah, Caitlyn, and the workshop leader, Sergio. We went into the women’s prison, and as of now, I have only worked with women. We waited outside of the prison for at least twenty minutes before being let in. I was starting to get nervous that they would not let us in. When we finally did get in, I immediately noticed several differences between this prison and Women’s Huron Valley. The “bubble” process was not long at all here in Rio. The “bubble” is where the security guards check to make sure that you don’t have any contraband before entering the prison. In Rio, all we had to do was sign our names and walk through a medal detector, whereas in Michigan, we had to walk through a medal detector, take off our shoes and socks, show them the bottom of our feet, manifest ANYTHING we brought in (i.e. lip balm), and the guards had to pat us down. I was pretty shocked that the process was way less severe, especially considering the fact that we are foreigners. Another thing I noticed upon walking in was that the bubble was practically outside, so when we entered the prison we were still technically outdoors. Not to my surprise, the structures of the buildings were not built as well as the buildings of the prisons in Michigan. Many of the buildings were only partially indoors, if that makes sense, and I’m assuming they had no central air.

Despite the buildings’ poor structures, I noticed that it did not seem to affect the women’s attitudes. They all said, “Hi!”–“Oi!”–and smiled. There was an overall sense of kindness and what seemed to be happiness around the prison. In Michigan, while most of the women in my workshop grew to really like us, the women we passed while going to and from our workshop building did not seem happy (I could definitely see why) or like they did not want to be bothered when we would say hi to them. The women in the prison in Rio also had a much more fashionable uniform than the women in Michigan. They wore jean shorts, which were cute by the way, and comfortable t-shirts, whereas in Ypsilanti, they wore dark blue unflattering jumpsuits.

Since we can't take any pictures of the prisons, Ariel wanted you to see this photo of the first performance we saw at the Theatre of the Oppressed Conference.

Since we can’t take any pictures of the prisons, Ariel wanted you to see this photo of the first performance we saw at the Theatre of the Oppressed Conference.

We began the workshop by introducing ourselves. When we got to my name they were all stunned and confused. They had absolutely no idea how to pronounce my name because it has a “r” right in the middle of it, and they pronounce that letter like an “h” sound in Portuguese. We all had a good laugh over that. We then played a name game to try and remember everyone’s name. In this game we stood in a circle, and one person would say another person’s name in the circle. The person who said the name would go to take the spot of the person whose name they said in the circle, but before they get to the person’s spot the person whose name was said has to say another name and start moving (I hope that makes sense). Anyhow, the game is super fun and can get silly really quickly. In addition to this game being loads of fun, it really does help to remember names. We played a few more games that stirred up lots of laughs and some that made us think. I think these games are great especially when there are new people to a workshop (us foreigners) because it definitely breaks the ice. More importantly for the women incarcerated, it gives them a chance to have a great time and to be in a space where they don’t have to follow rules and they are given a sense of autonomy.

Theatre work is so important outside of traditional theatre spaces. Before taking the Theatre and Incarceration class with Ashley winter semester, I was so interested in how this worked. I wondered how theatre and incarceration came together, and now that I have had first hand experience, I see how useful and important it is. I did not realize how complex the prison system was and all of its flaws. I used to think, well, if a person did a certain thing wrong, they should be punished and put in jail. Now that I have learned so much, my views have changed dramatically on this topic. I know that everything is not black and white and that often times things are socially constructed and not in the favor of people who are marginalized. This work allows these wonderful people to actually be treated like people, and it also gives them a sense of power. It gives them the power to create something special, to contribute to ideas, to work as a team, and to be proud of themselves. I truly think this work is essential for the sanity of some of these people. It also gives them the chance to show their creativity. I was blown away by the creativity of the women in my workshop in Michigan, and they were happy that they were given credit for their creativity. All in all, I am extremely grateful that I get to be a part of this work that changes lives!

Rio at night

Rio at night

Guest blogger Marjai Kamara on performances in Rio

12 Aug

Marjai is rising junior at the University of Michigan, majoring in the Program in the Environment. She has worked with PCAP since January 2015 and co-facilitated a theatre workshop with boys in detention in Ann Arbor.

Our class of Michigan students on a bench at UniRio

Our class of Michigan students on a bench at UniRio

Oi gente! My name is Marjai, last semester I took the Theater and Incarceration class with Professor Lucas. I wanted to come to Brazil for numerous reasons from an early infatuation with Brazil to loving the work that we did during the semester- luckily for me it eventually worked out and I am here.

We are starting week two in Brazil  and we are adjusted more or less to our Brazilian routines! One really cool experience for me was watching a play the first week by the Center of the Theater of the Oppressed or CTO, which is a theater center that specializes in theater as means of promoting social and political change. With the audience becoming part of the show, they explore, show, analyze and transform the reality in which they are living.

The play was essentially about being black in Brazil and the struggle that people here face because of racism. For those who didn’t know, Brazil has the second highest black population in the world, after Nigeria, so it is a serious matter.  There were two plays in one essentially. One was about how Brazil holds up the mulatto as the symbol of Brazil but how it’s not all it’s cracked up to be. The other was about a girl whose boss was hating on her cabelo natural (natural hair). After that, the girl’s friend, who also had natural hair, looked at magazines and wanted long blond hair. After changing her hair, the friend was able to gain acceptance and take her natural-haired friend’s job.

I learned so much from the play. From life facts like black girls are magical in all parts of the world (I felt so much solidarity here!) to seeing some of the similarities that exist between the U.S. and Brazil and how both countries treat their black people.

Spect-actors redid plays in really amazing ways. My favorite redo was when a lady decided to essentially help to raise her friend’s self esteem by showing her that black is beautiful! That never even crossed my mind!

It was amazing to see the differences and the similarities between blackness in Brazil and in the U.S.  

The name of the place with the mural of the ship with African women inside was called "pedra do sal" or "pedra da sal" I can't remember exactly. It used to be a place where slaves worked, then it was a "quilombo" which is a settlement of freed or escaped slaves, and then it was the birthplace of Samba!

The name of the place with the mural of the ship with African women inside was called “pedra do sal” or “pedra da sal” I can’t remember exactly. It used to be a place where slaves worked, then it was a “quilombo” which is a settlement of freed or escaped slaves, and then it was the birthplace of Samba!

Another amazing experience that I have had in Brazil was doing what we came here to do, visiting theater workshops!!! I, and three other girls went to a men’s workshop with 3 facilitators and 30 men. I have never done a workshop in a men’s prison, but my partners had. We discussed the differences between the U.S. and here–from being allowed to take in props in Brazil to not being strictly checked when facilitating a workshop to the differences in the facilities in both countries.

We were blessed that one facilitator spoke English and translated for us. First we all stood in a circle and passed energy by choosing someone and dramatically killing that person. If you were choosen you had to stage an over-the-top death and then return the favor by killing someone else. It was SO fun, and it loosened everyone up!

Then the men split into four groups, and after five minutes of planning, the groups acted out their skits, and we watched them. While it was hard to understand due to the language barrier, it was so amazing to see them being engaged in their art. I felt so blessed and honored to be allowed to enter that space.

There are numerous other things that we have done, from watching and participating in more plays, to seeing a final performance to end the conference in the city square, to catching a play about discrimination that exists for people who are from favelas (and they are going to take our feedback to pass legislation!), to bonding with the crew, to participating in a safe sex workshop from a professor at UCLA! I won’t bore you with all the details (already probably over the word limit). Just know that I am learning so much on this trip and am happy to be here.

This mural was found  in Ipanema (which is where we are staying). It is of a famous Brazilian singer (I believe the man who made, the girl from Ipanema).

This mural was found in Ipanema (which is where we are staying). It is of a famous Brazilian singer (I believe the man who made, the girl from Ipanema).

Hannah Noel’s Account of Workshop Performances from the Theatre of the Oppressed Conference in Rio

9 Aug

Today’s guest blogger is Hannah Noel from the University of Michigan. Hannah is an undergraduate who has taken two Prison Creative Arts Project courses (The Atonement Project and Theatre & Incarceration) and co-facilitated two wonderful theatre workshops in women’s and men’s prisons in Michigan.

So far, for Hannah Noel, it has been an interesting ride here in Rio. First, it took me forever to get to Brazil. From flights being switched around unbeknownst to me, spending nearly 2 hours on the metro because I missed my stop for the airport after spending the night in a sketchy Days Inn hotel, to being thrown into a taxi and overpaying to get to the Mango Tree Hostel. Finally on Wednesday morning around 10 am, I arrived soon to be swept away by the activities that Ashley and the rest of the group had planned. After hours without rest, I subsided to my hostel bed on the very top bunk and fell fast asleep…

Ipanema Beach in the morning

Ipanema Beach in the morning

Today, Thursday, August 7th, was absolutely wonderful. I woke up at 6 am this morning and joined Anna for a morning beach run-walk and talk. It was beautiful watching the sun rise along the coast as the waves crashed upon the sand like sounding like thunder during a summer storm. Shortly after getting back to the hostel, Yasin and I departed to the open air market a short hop and a skip away where we both bought avocados so large they filled up both of my hands.

Hannah wanted you to see how big her avocado was but forgot to take a picture of it before she ate it. Here's the pit.

Hannah wanted you to see how big her avocado was but forgot to take a picture of it before she ate it. Here’s the pit.

At 1 pm, Ashley gathered all of us students downstairs to embark on our daily journey. I have taken the El in Chicago, the trains in Italy, the subway in New York, and the metro in D.C., but the Brazilian subway separated itself from them all in part because we got separated trying to get off! If you’ve ever ridden a subway or metro of any sort, you know that you cannot dilly-dally too long when getting off and on. In Brazil however, if you do not sprint your ass off of the train, you better believe you won’t be getting off at your desired destination. After Anna, Yasin, Elena, Ariel, Laurel, and myself patiently waited for the rest of the group to arrive (if you hadn’t already guess it, they were left behind on the train), we ascended from the unseen hustle and bustle of Ipanema, to a city square where the aromas of food and city life bombarded our nostrils and the Brazilian sun glistened down upon us.

Just after 2pm, a sizeable group had gathered in the square either to watch the groups from the Center for the Theatre of the Oppressed, or to act in the skits. For those of you reading that don’t know about CTO, it is a place in the neighborhood of Lapa in Rio de Janeiro where members of the Theatre of the Oppressed rehearse and put on shows. Theatre of the Oppressed was started by Agusto Boal as a way for members of poorer communities to put on skits/shows detailing the injustices of Brazil’s society, and to then figure out ways in which acting out those same skits/shows in different ways could serve as rehearsals for changing society. This type of theatre was seen as a threat to the federal government, but brought together many different communities and still does to this day.

Today, we witnessed skits from the workshops that had been happening at CTO and in Maré, the largest favela in Brazil. The very first one we saw was one of my favorites—two children dressed up in circus makeup were playing when they should have been performing their acts on the street for money. The man in charge of them was furious when he saw that not only were they not doing their jobs, but also, they hadn’t made any money. They tried to get money from onlookers but had no luck and were terrified of what the circus master might do to them, so they devised a plan to scare him away. The master had a horsewhip that he used to scare the children, and when he fell asleep with it around his neck, they crept over to him and carefully removed the whip. They CRACKED! the whip, and he woke up in a terror, running and screaming away from the children until he was no longer in sight. They had defeated their oppressor!

Other skits were more serious and although they were all in Portuguese, I was still able to understand what was happening based on the movements and actions of the actors. That’s one thing that I love about theatre in general, is that you don’t necessarily need to speak spoken language of the actors to get the gist of what is happening. The last performance was an interactive one where all of the audience members and actors joined hands, and we marched in circles singing nonsensical words in Portuguese. As we marched, our circles spiraled in until we were all tightly wound and marching in place. I loved this ending because after all that we had seen, it solidified the fact that each and every one of us there today were supporting the ideas of the Theatre of the Oppressed. We came together from different backgrounds and some of us from different countries all united under the concept that by working together to illuminate the inequalities of Brazil’s society, we could make a change.

As the day winded down, I thought about how blessed I am to have such an opportunity to interact with such beautiful and interactive people, even including the students on this trip! Every day is a riveting new adventure that makes me even more proud to say that I am a part of such an incredible group of people, not just here in Brazil, but around the world.

This is Hannah Noel,

signing off.

PCAP Brazil Exchange 2015 and the Theatre of the Oppressed Conference at UniRio

7 Aug

Dear blog readers,

I am far from finished with blogging about my trip to Australia and New Zealand but have been so busy doing that travel and research that I haven’t caught up to myself yet. I’m now in the first week of a three week trip to Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, with a dozen University of Michigan PCAP students. I hope to find time while I’m here to write more about my travels down under, but in the meantime, my students will be guest bloggers on this site, writing about their experiences with theatre for social change in Brazil. This week we’ve been attending a conference about the Theatre of the Oppressed at UniRio (the federal university here that hosts our exchange program). Today’s blog entry comes from Anna Mester, who is my graduate assistant on this trip.

-Ashley

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Joe Ambrose with Branco the Mango Tree Hostel cat

Oi! This is Anna kicking off the Brazil Trip 2015 blogs. I am the Graduate Assistant during our time in Rio, my job is to help out with the logistics, activities and translate for the students. I got involved with PCAP in the past semester, by taking the Theatre and Incarceration class and going to Women’s Huron Valley to help facilitate creative writing workshops every Saturday morning.

This past Tuesday was our first real day. We had the morning off, which I spent running errands with Ashley and took advantage of the free to time to drink fresh coconut juice on the beach, while I wrote postcards for friends and family.  Our hostel is located just one block from the beach!

In the afternoon, we met up at the hostel and

Ipanema beach

Ipanema beach

took the public bus to the Urca neighborhood at the foot of Sugar Loaf Mountain. We walked in the opposite direction to the UniRio Campus. UniRio, founded in 1979, is one of the many universities in the state of  Rio de Janeiro. We made it just in time for the keynote speech of Julian Boal. Boal is the son of the late Augusto Boal, who is the founder of the Teatro de Oprimido (Theatre of the Oppressed); the central theme of this conference.

Boal spoke beautifully about the legacy of his father’s theories since the 1970s (he also spoke quite quickly I rushed to take notes for the students, so that I could translate it into English for everyone). He began with question based on a contemporary political example. He asked: How is it possible that the Brazilian state is talking about fomenting diversity and racial inclusion, while carrying out a “Black Genocide.” His term refers to the countless young black Brazilian men and women that have been killed by the police, much like police violence in the United States. His hypothesis was that diversity is somehow compatible with capitalist means of production, which leads him to believe that diversity is not against the dominant order. Capitalism needs diversity, because it is based on hyperindividualism, which leads us to fall for the myth that individuals alone can overcome hardships and oppression, which he coined the Nike “Just do it” myth.

He critiqued his father’s theories by saying that addressing ideas is not enough, the means of production also has to be transformed. A lot of work that aims to raise awareness ends up “evangelizing”, which is why he would rather focus on the material realities of oppression and the material relationship of exploitation. He wished to transform theatre from a highly professionalized art to de-specialize it whereby all actors would rotate and play all roles. No one would have ownership over one role. His goal is not to make political theatre, rather to do theatre politically. However, he pointed to a big contradiction that still has yet to be resolved. In order to finance these projects, the directors are funded by large companies and are still dependent upon capitalist modes of production.

He ended on a beautiful note, acknowledging that he painted a bleak picture of the world, however he said critique is not antithetical to hope, it is hopeful to critique.

Following the keynote, I spent the afternoon listening to presentations of students from various universities in Brazil. A student from UniRio gave a presentation on the theatre workshop she facilitated in four penitentiaries around Rio de Janeiro. Another grad student from the University of São Paulo presented on his work holding theatre workshops with transvestite prostitutes, called Trans*Theatre. The group of researchers embarking on this project, purposefully decided to approach their research from the point of view of their own subjectivity, which led them to consider questions of identity, transportation, community, self-harm, and sex work, topics that tie the researchers personally to the issues facing the transvestite community.

Students at the Mango Tree Hostel

Ariel, Dana, Marjai, and Wilder at the Mango Tree Hostel

Other than these enriching academic and cultural experiences, I am equally enjoying seeing the city and having time to talk with everyone on this trip. This morning, Hannah and I jogged on the beach as the sun came up over the tall buildings lining the beach. The view is motivation enough to get up at 6:30 am. Just imagine the favelas on the hill painted in a bright pink with the windows flickering like glitter.

Yesterday, we visited the botanical garden, a huge

Orchid in the botanical garden

Orchid in the botanical garden

and beautiful garden with plants and trees from all around the world. I loved the bamboos and orchids in particular, but I also managed to get some great shots of the group! I hope you enjoy!

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