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.
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.
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.
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.