Guest blogger Leia Squillace on theatre practice in prisons and in Brazil

8 Jun
visit to Laguna

Michigan students in the town of Laguna (near Florianopolis), Santa Catarina, Brazil

Hello readers!

My name is Leia Squillace and I’m a rising senior at the University of Michigan. I am studying directing the School of Music, Theater, and Dance and minoring in Women’s Studies and Community Action and Social Change through the School of Social Work. I began my work with the Prison Creative Arts Project (PCAP) this past semester when I facilitated a weekly theater workshop for ten men in Cooper Street Correctional Facility. I had wanted to take the class for quite some time as I feel that it is an inexplicably perfect way to marry my interests in theater and social justice work. For me, theater is a constant practice in empathy, and I feel that this is more true in PCAP than in almost any other theater setting. In addition to wanting to continue my work with PCAP in other parts of the world, I joined this program to travel to Brazil in part because of the work of Augusto Boal, a theater practitioner who created a model of theater for social change called Theater of the Oppressed. He is from Rio and his work has always been inspirational to me. I know that Brazil has a different relationship with theater than the United States, but I feel that I need to experience it firsthand to truly understand to what extent. Additionally, I wanted to be a part of this program because in my experience, theater that exists outside of the context of the States often times uses incredibly powerful techniques and tactics to storytelling that we are unfamiliar with and I am excited to learn about any and all that exist in Brazil.

UDESC discussion

Michigan students participate in a discussion with theatre practitioners and students at UDESC in Florianopolis

Our first full day in Florianopolis, an island city in Southern Brazil, was a whirlwind as is to be expected when adjusting to a new place. We spent the bulk of our day at the University de Santa Catarina (UDESC), which is the state that Florianopolis is in. We spent the afternoon attending two events- first Ashley and a pair of UDESC students spoke about their experiences and work doing theater in prisons. I felt that this was a coincidentally well timed event because it was a very appropriate start to our trip. It allowed us all an opportunity to reflect on our own experiences working  with PCAP before driving into the work. It was also particularly useful to hear the UDESC students talk about their work as well because their approach to theater in prison is slightly different than ours.

First, it was important to listen to the experiences of others who have done similar work to ours. We have read articles and essays from others who do prison theater throughout the semester leading up to our trip, and a few of Ashley’s colleagues have shared their experiences with us in class. To hear people from a completely different part of the world who had never met Ashley before describe their work helped me to realize that prison theater is more than just a fleeting practice that has gained traction in a small community. Because Ashley knows so many of the prison theater practitioners in the states, it can feel like a very small community of people who all support each other in their work. This talk countered my view and helped to prove to me that prison and theater naturally pair well together because they appear in conjunction in many different contexts around the world.

After the talk we saw a production of an adaptation of the Greek play, Medea, called Gota D’Agua performed by the UDESC students. It was in the open air and traveled from location to location between scenes (much like Shakespeare in the Arb, for those readers from Ann Arbor). I do not mean to say that one performance can be representative of an entire culture or country, but this was a first glimpse at how theater is approached in Brazil. Specifically, Ashley had told us that there is a much stronger emphasis on community in theater in Brazil and thus far, the statement has held true. In a literal sense, after the show, the lead actress stepped forward and gave a speech uniting the plot of the play and the current political unrest in Brazil. [For those unaware, members of the Brazilian Senate are impeaching their president, Dilma Rousseff.] Additionally, one of the antagonists held a mask in the image of a former political dictator over his face to further unite the play with the community’s voice. In a more figurative sense, this performance could be called “community-centered” because of the format it was performed in. At the beginning of the show, the audience walked through the performance space and interacted with the actors. Often times, actors would walk through, look at, and speak to groups of audience members. Additionally, by moving locations, the audience was completely surrounded by the play and could feel as if they were within it. Through these aspects, the audience almost became members of the same community as the characters in the play. All in all, a thrilling first day that I think set a tone of introspection and openness for the rest of the trip.

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