Wednesday, 18 May 2022

Shall we run together? 40th anniversary of Teatro Art'Imagem

Photo: Nuno Ribeiro 

From 10 to 12 May, I participated in the meeting 40 Years of Theatre: How theatre has developed in the last 40 years in Portugal, celebrating the anniversary of Teatro Art’Imagem. On the first day, we attended the play “Ai o Medo Que (Nós) Temos de Existir”, the company’s 117th creation. In the following days, we had the opportunity to reflect on four themes:

Panel 1: Theatre and Intervention
with Sara Barros Leitão, José Leitão, Rita Alves Miranda and José Soeiro 

Panel 2: Theatre: Praxis and the Academia
with Fernando Matos Oliveira (University of Coimbra), António Capelo (ACE), Manuela Bronze (ESMAE), Francesca Rayner (University of Minho) and Eugénia Vasques 

Panel 3: Theatrical Decentralisation
with Helena Santos, Jorge Baião (Dramatic Center of Évora), Rui Madeira (Braga Theater Company), Magda Henriques (Comédias do Minho) and Américo Rodrigues (DGArtes) 

Panel 4: Minorities and Theatre
with Flávio Hamilton, Zia Soares, Marta Lança, Francesca Negro, Vanesa Sotelo and Maria João Vaz

It was up to me to make the closing comments, sharing my reflections on what was discussed over the two days. Here they are:

I am not an expert in History of Theatre, so I felt that I learned so much in these two days. “Newspaper theatre”, “Forum theatre” are new to me and I want to know more about them.

I liked the way Sara Barros Leitão opened the meeting yesterday. The way she questioned the very word “theatre”, the genesis of this artistic form, the context in which certain pieces of the classical repertoire were created and the context in which they are appreciated today. She reminded me of when, in my first year in university, in the subject Introduction to Ancient Drama, our professor told us that theatre was created and could grow in Athens in the 5th century BC thanks to democracy. It was like a revelation to me at the time, two things I wouldn't have known how to associate.

Sara questioned the theatre’s Greek roots. I think there was a theatre, a certain theatre, which was actually born in Greece, in Athens, in the 5th century BC, thanks to democracy. A democracy that put the human being at the centre, as a political being and a social being. The Assembly belonged to the men, but at the Theatre we could find everyone, men and women. As Edith Hall said, theatre was the natural complement of the Assembly. It was an open, common space, where life in common in the “pólis” was expressed. And where the Chorus, a fundamental element, represented the collective.

What we had before that were events (δρώμενα) that followed the calendar, the cycles of nature, which were repeated every year, always the same, involving mimetics and improvisation. In the 5th century BC we have poets whose names we know, we have theatre directors and critical thinking (in addition to the expression of feelings brought by lyric poetry in the 6th century). Aristophanes' political comedy was born in the second half of the 5th century, a few decades after tragedy, when democracy (and freedom of expression) was more consolidated. And it didn't survive in the 4th century... In fact, democracy lasted (persisted) for a century. 'That' century that gave us 'that' theatre.

A political issue is not political theatre, we said yesterday. And political theatre does not necessarily happen in democracy. I thought about the Belarus Free Theatre, whose founding members and others, after years of persecution, now live and work outside their country. One of the founders, Natalia Kaliada, gave a speech in 2015 in the UK during the State of the Arts Conference No Boundaries. In that speech, Kaliada recalled that the company was founded under a dictatorship; it did not exist for the authorities, but it existed for the people and the world. She was surprised at the self-censorship practiced by British artists in order to secure funding. She warned of the creative conformism that flourishes in democratic countries. And she asked: “Why is there so much fear of provocative work?”.

Photo: Nuno Ribeiro

We also talked about urgent theatre. I was reminded of the piece “Building the wall”, which Robert Schenkkan (Pulitzer Prize winner) wrote in three days during Donald Trump's 2016 campaign (instead of taking months, as usual). The play was later programmed with equal urgency by a number of American theatres. I also thought of Rufus Norris, artistic director of the National Theatre in London, who, after the Brexit referendum, said: “I don't believe 17.5 million people are racist or idiots. (…) I think we have to listen.” So, in July-August 2016, a month after the referendum, he sent several playwrights to different territories of the country to listen. Nine months later, the first plays, urgent plays, were presented on the stage of the National Theatre.

There are other urgencies in which theatre is involved, those brought by war. One of the first resignations in the Russian cultural sector, on the very day the invasion of Ukraine began or the day after, was that of Elena Kovalskaya, artistic director of the Meyerhold Theatre in Moscow, who said: “It is impossible to work for a murderer and get a salary from him”. I am in favor of the cultural boycott with regards to professional relationships with Russian state cultural institutions. Out of respect for this and other resignations. Out of respect for the culture of conscience and individual responsibility.

“Does theatre have an obligation to be interventionist?”, someone questioned yesterday. I think that, first of all, we must be able to answer the question “What is our theatre’s mission?”. I often complain because cultural institutions cannot distinguish between their mission (the reason they exist, the reason they do what they do) and what they do. In a meeting organised by Teatro Nacional de S. João last October, most of the invited artistic directors answered the question by informing us about what their theatres do (which is more or less the same…). We need to know our purpose, who we are, what our values ​​are. Then we can answer the question “Do we have an obligation to be interventionist?” with conscience, with coherence and without resorting to opportunistic actions.

Photo: Nuno Ribeiro

We also talked about theatre courses. “How can I deal with a blind student? I don’t know… What will happen if I tell them 'Run!'? Will the other students be conditioned, thinking about their colleague?”. We are unaware of so many things and this results in fear and discomfort. What if before saying "Run!" we did a recognition of the room? And what's wrong if other students are aware or concerned about their blind peer's presence and participation? Isn't that what we should be doing out there too, in the street, in society? Are we aware of the presence of others? Do we work together in sharing the common space?

Today, the question of “who is in charge” came up once again, criticising the role of programmers. But let's be clear: Whoever programmes according to their personal taste, as it was mentioned, is not a good programmer. Whoever copies programmes is not a good programmer. Who is a (good) programmer? Someone who programmes in a given territory aware of the people who inhabit it, asking: What is useful, what is relevant, what is urgent for these people? In other words, how are we going to run together?

We reacted with ironic laughter to the statement that theatres and movie theatres in Portugal are programmed by professionals (because they said so in their application for the Network of Theatres). I don't want to imply that there were people who lied when they signed those applications. I would rather ask: How many of these people know what it really means to be an artistic director or what it is to programme?

Still in relation to this point, it does not seem to me that renting a theatre in Lisbon (the Armando Cortês Theatre) to present the work of companies from other cities is the answer to the need and desire to see this work circulating around the country and being seen in the capital. Let's think: Who will see a play because the company is from Braga or Évora? “Theatre people”, let's be honest. The fact that it is a company from another city is not reason enough for many other people to attend. Plays by these companies must be programmed by Lisbon theatres because they make sense, because they are relevant to the mission these theatres assume.

Photo: Nuno Ribeiro

Let’s take a look at the mission of Comédias do Minho, for example: “Endowing the Minho Valley with a cultural project of its own, adapted to its socio-economic reality and, therefore, with a special focus on the involvement of the populations, from the construction of proposals of effective participatory and symbolic value, for the communities to which they are addressed.” The Bons Sons festival was created, in the first place, to serve the needs of the population of the village of Cem Soldos. I remembered an article by Joana Villaverde, from August 2020, entitled “The lives of the interior matter!” and where Joana says that there is no “interior” in Portugal, there are “interiorised” people.

This morning we also mentioned audience surveys (those of Gulbenkian or Braga 2027), their disappointing conclusions, the need to democratise culture. The idea of ​​the democratisation of culture sounds patronising today. Arts Council England’s new strategy for 2020-2030, Let’s Create, advocates the need to give every citizen, regardless of where they live, the opportunity to be creative and to participate. They realised, through an audience survey, that people feel uncomfortable with the so-called “high culture”, but that, at the same time, they have active cultural lives. Deborah Cullinan, former director of the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, wrote in 2017, after Trump’s election: “The basis of our democracy is individual creativity and collective imagination.” It took the British decades to realise that this would not happen if they continued to fund mainly the capital's major mainstream cultural institutions.

In this last panel, on “minorities” and theatre, I thought that we should talk about “minorised” people, as we talked about racialised people. We talked about representation: What stories? Written by whom? Staged by whom? Interpreted by whom?

We mentioned the movie “Danish Girl”, interpreted by a cisgender actor. "At least those roles should be played by trans actors." Not “at least those roles”, whatever roles a person wants to play. However, what opportunities are there for trans artists to make their work known? Of being called for a casting? The National Theatre in London did a casting just to get to know trans actors. To say that “We are all human beings” is true and at the same time it sounds a bit like “I don't see color”… If I don't see color, I also don't see the absence of color. And I can even question whether “voice has got a color”, when actor Marco Mendonça criticises the casting for the dubbing of the Disney film “Soul”. We are all human beings, yes, but we are not all at the places where we want (and have the right) to be. How many black, trans, disabled artists do we know by name?

I also remembered that in the play “Sempre que acordo”, by Lara Mesquita, which won the Cepa Torta Women's Dramaturgy Prize in 2021, one reads that in an interview for the financing of a theatre project, a programmer, member of the jury, asks the black playwright: “Is your play going in the same direction as that other play we saw recently?” (we suppose he refers to "Aurora Negra"). Has this question ever been asked to a white playwright? Was it enough to see one play written by black playwrights for us not to need to see any more? To question whether they all go in the “same direction”?

In a debate I attended in the beginning of the year, Iranian gender non-conforming artist Maral Bolouri, based in Paris, talked to us about the constant performance of oppression. But it has to be the right kind of oppression, otherwise one might be silenced. For example, regarding LGBT refugees, only gay men have something to say; or women from an oppressive family context. And these are the only stories of interest. We need to understand that people, artists, don’t wish to reproduce themselves in a certain way and they should be free to do so.

José Leitão said yesterday that revolutions in Portugal happen (paradoxically) at the national theatres. I kept thinking about it and in some “revolutionary moments” that I believe have taken place at the Teatro Nacional D. Maria II, which is the one I know best:

2016: Presentation of the play “Uma menina perdida no seu século à procura do pai” by Teatro Crinabel, in the year it celebrated its 30th anniversary. At the end of one of the performances, a couple asks for the complaints book. “Those” people shouldn’t be on that stage…

2020: Premiere of “Aurora Negra” at Sala-Estúdio (2022: a black face on the canvas of the theatre's facade).

2021: Teresa Coutinho prepares the Caryl Churchill cycle. In the casting announcement it is said that they are looking for actresses, cisgender or trans. At the same time, “Top Girls”, by Cristina Carvalhal, is presented at Sala Garrett.

2021: “Caligula morreu. Eu não". In the casting announcement it is said that they are looking for actors, with or without disabilities. In Lisbon, around 40 people with disabilities show up.

2022: “Mãos a dentro”, a training course for D/deaf artists.


"What has changed? And tomorrow, after this conversation, what will change?” Zia Soares rightly questioned her presence on the panel. There have been so many conversations like this. The same things have been repeated over and over again. And then?

These are not “fashionable” issues and each one of us must walk one’s walk. We have to become more knowledgeable about things we don't know, we have to educate ourselves. There are people who feel tired, exhausted, people who, for a long time, have tried to “educate” us on a series of subjects. They don't want to have that role anymore, they don't want to be the ones to have to explain. On the one hand, we seem to agree that nothing new was said in this last panel. For me, no, nothing new was said. But if I go back five or six years, much of what was said here today was unknown to me. So, I believe that at least some things may have been new to some people.

I think about everything I didn't know a few years ago and about the time and money I've invested in educating myself on a range of issues. Can we expect every citizen to be able to do the same? And what is our role as cultural professionals in this sense? There will always be a need to explain, to repeat ourselves. And when one gets tired, another should take their place. This concerns us all, this is a common responsibility. Shall we run together?

No comments: