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!

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