Radical street theater in Brazil

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Fri Sep 13 12:44:36 MDT 2002

(Augusto Boal's Theater of the Oppressed, which is discussed below, has
ongoing workshops at the Brecht Forum in NYC)

WSJ, Sept. 13, 2002

As Brazil Tilts Toward the Left,
Some Citizens Are Acting Out


SANTO ANDRE, Brazil -- The setting was a municipal-hall lobby in this
gritty industrial town. The actors were a troupe of senior citizens. The
plot involved an old man who is forced to stand on a bus while a young
lady sprawls out on a seat reserved for the elderly.

It may not seem like the stuff of great theater, but this particular
performance, by the group known as "It's Never Too Late," provoked an
intense reaction from its audience: A young woman leapt out of her chair
and sent the villainess flying off her seat.

Welcome to Theater of the Oppressed, a Brazilian-born, grassroots form
of drama whose goal is political change. Its most characteristic feature
is its "interventions," in which spectators step into a scene and take
the part of the underdog.

With the Left on the rise again in Latin America's most populous nation,
so is an old populist idea -- using theater as a vehicle for social
reform. Ahead of the October elections, the Workers Party's presidential
candidate, Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, is leading in the Brazilian polls.
While that has spooked many investors, it's given many actors, or people
who think they can act, hopes of a more receptive audience.

In fact, some skeptics fret that if the Left wins the presidency,
state-sponsored thespianism will run amok. "On each street corner there
will be an improvised actor declaiming his monologue," wrote Diogo
Mainardi, a columnist for the weekly news magazine Veja. "Brazil will be
transformed into a giant stage for millions of bad actors."

Some of the most creative uses of political theater are emerging from
local administrations, such as Santo Andre's, run by the leftist Workers
Party. After a series of local political victories in recent years, the
party now governs about a quarter of Brazil's population. One prominent
Workers Party leader has also embraced "psychodrama," a therapy that
encourages people to dramatize the conflicts in their lives rather than
just talk about them.

For one day in March of last year, the city of Sao Paulo became the
Broadway of psychodrama, when Workers Party Mayor Marta Suplicy, a
trained psychologist, encouraged ordinary citizens to turn their daily
struggles and grievances into theater. Ms. Suplicy conceived this epic
exercise in civic therapy in the hopes of purging her polluted,
crime-ridden city of what she diagnosed as "low self-esteem." The mayor,
a former TV sex therapist, dispatched 700 psychodrama coaches to dozens
of parks, plazas and public halls to organize impromptu amateur dramas.

In these many venues, street people pretended to be lawyers, while
doctors portrayed laborers. One student, striving for authenticity in
his role as a government bureaucrat, pretended to solicit a bribe. Ms.
Suplicy also took part, playing an overdressed robbery victim seeking
help from an unsympathetic security guard. Carried away by the sketch,
the make-believe guard called Her Honor a "pain-in the-neck peacock."

Psychodrama was developed in Vienna in the 1920s. Today, Brazil has
5,000 specially trained psychodrama practitioners, who work in private
practices, education and other fields. Psychodrama's popularity here
stems in part from Brazilians' "tendency toward expressiveness and
exuberance," says Sao Paulo psychodrama specialist Carlos Borba.

In Sao Paulo, psychodramatists are following up last year's massive
act-in with smaller-scale role-playing workshops based on themes such as
"Geopolitics and Mental Geography" and "The Virtual, the Possible and
the Real."

Some of this political theater produces actual results. That's
especially true of Theater of the Oppressed, which has spread to more
than 60 countries. A few years ago, 26-year-old Adriano Carvalho and
some friends in Rio de Janeiro wrote a play about low-income youths like
themselves whose poverty was a roadblock in their pursuit of higher
education. "We had a script, but we wanted more," says Mr. Carvalho.

Guided by a drama coach, he and his friends took the show on tour from
university auditoriums to public parks, and then shared audience
suggestions for new legislation with a sympathetic Workers Party state
congressman. The result: a bill waiving college-entrance-exam fees for
poor students and offering incentives to tutors in working-class areas.

This kind of political theater reminds people "they can imagine and
create a different ending for their life stories," says Augusto Boal,
the Brazilian dramatist who founded Theater of the Oppressed.

In the 1960s and 1970s, when Brazil was ruled by a military
dictatorship, the Left used theater as a means of protest. Mr. Boal, a
playwright and director, was arrested, tortured and exiled by the
military for his pioneering theatrical work. In 1992, after Brazil's
return to democracy, Mr. Boal was elected as a city councilman in Rio de
Janeiro on the Workers Party ticket. He used public theater as a kind of
brainstorming tool to help formulate several pieces of legislation,
including Brazil's first witness-protection law. Now a private citizen,
Mr. Boal directs a Theater of the Oppressed center in Rio de Janeiro
that works with a range of government and civic groups.

Here in Santo Andre, a Workers Party stronghold near Sao Paulo, even
discussions about filling potholes turn into political dramas. At budget
time, a municipal theater troupe does the rounds of neighborhood
meetings. At each gathering the troupe leads role-playing exercises
designed to determine, for example, whether locals want the city's funds
used for improving streets or improving preschools.

Sometimes hard truths have emerged from the city's theatrical exercises.
A sketch on teen pregnancy prompted some young girls to come forward and
tell their parents that they themselves might be expecting.

Critics claim that the Workers Party's embrace of Theater of the
Oppressed has turned civics into a kind of soap opera. "They are just
tiny groups of exhibitionists," says Odon Oliveira, president of Santo
Andre's chapter of the rival Brazilian Progressive Party, referring to
the actor-activists.

Santo Andre is hardly a floodlit fantasyland, he says. Crime is rampant.
Earlier this year, the Workers Party mayor was kidnapped and murdered.
Authorities also have been investigating alleged irregularities in
municipal finances.

But Neide Perreira de Almeida, a member of one of the Santo Andre
troupes, argues that theater helps keep a lid on civic corruption. If
you stole in Santo Andre, she says, "the crowd would let you hear about
it the next time you went on stage."


Louis Proyect

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