Two movements, both alike in dignity…

DISCLAIMER: the following are my personal views and mine alone, they do not reflect the views of any of the groups cited or individuals who work with me elsewhere.

I am currently part of the leadership teams of two grassroots groups striving to shake things up in the theatre sector: Migrants in Theatre (UK-wide) and Theatre Directors Scotland (as the name suggests, Scotland-only). Each group has specific aims, needs and demands, but there is a lot that overlaps between them. Both groups are reasonably young – though both have been unofficially running for longer, TDS launched in 2018 and MiT launched in 2020, mid-pandemic. Both groups are unfunded and entirely volunteer-run. Both groups intend to address gaps in the sector, identified through hundreds of hours of unpaid research. Both groups had important meetings with sector leaders this week.

I have been thinking a lot about the dynamics between people in salaried jobs in theatre and freelancers/people on zero-hour contracts for the past few years, but this difference has been massively exacerbated in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic and the resulting closure of theatres. I have written elsewhere* about how much a missed opportunity for meaningful reflection and renovation this whole year has been, but today I am feeling particularly bitter about it and the reason for that is that the MiT meeting left me energised, whereas the TDS meeting left me feeling despondent.

Throughout my 14 years in the UK, I have always been unsympathetic towards London. When asked why I decided to live in Scotland, my usual reply is ‘because it isn’t London’. I should explain that this is not necessarily a dislike of London itself, I just never stopped being a small town girl that doesn’t feel comfortable in giant metropolitan centres. If I had to go back to Brazil, I wouldn’t want to live in Rio or São Paulo for the same reasons. Granted, I stayed in London for 9 weeks a few years ago, on an unpaid internship as Assistant Director to a rather peculiar and extreme person, which was not exactly the most pleasant of experiences, and that may have influenced my perception of London as a place to live and work as well. But this afternoon, seeing the London ADs coming on screen, readily asking the MiT group, ‘what do you need? How can we help?’, engaging as active partners in the movement, was so refreshing and left me wishing sector leaders in Scotland were more genuinely interested and less reluctant about taking responsibility for changing the game.

I could move, I hear you say, but Scotland is much more than theatre to me. It’s where I built a community of people that matter to me more than many of my blood relatives in Brazil. I could follow the government’s advice and retrain, I suppose, but that would mean throwing years of training in the bin and abdicating from the sector I’ve been so hellbent on improving. Besides, I am stubborn and suffer from a sort of Don Quixote Syndrome.

There is no conclusion to this Friday night rant, which was going to be a twitter thread but I decided to compile my disorganised thoughts in one single text. Comments and ideas are welcome. If you are reading this, you know where to find me. I’d say buy me a G&T and we can rant together in the pub, but that’s not allowed this year, so I’ll take comments here, on twitter or via email – your choice.

*I have contributed a short essay to forthcoming book Scotland After the Virus, edited by Simon Barrow & Gerry Hassan, to be published by Luath Press in November 2020.

Re-entering the industry

I had been ‘in exile’ for three years, between September 2012 and November 2015. That may not seem like a lot, but when you work at such small-scale in such a closed industry like theatre and performance, it feels like a huge gap in your career. I tried to keep developing professionally as best as possible during that period, attending workshops and residencies that were within my reach and organising my own projects to keep being seen on both sides of the Atlantic. Within a couple of months of arriving back in Porto Alegre, I organised an intervention for the International Migrants Day. In early 2013, I managed to get a grant from Creative Scotland to run a residency in my hometown. In 2014, I created La Niña Barro, working for 6 months over skype with the performers in Spain, and took it to the Edinburgh Fringe, where it had a nightmare run, but it went on to tour Spain, Brazil, Uruguay, and the USA, winning an award in Miami just after I moved back to Edinburgh. I mean, I tried to keep myself in the loop, relevant, and in people’s minds. It’s hard enough when you are in the same city, let alone in a different continent. But now I was back and to make the most of the 3 years ahead, I had to re-enter the Scottish theatre industry.

For the first couple of months back, I signed up to everything I could. I needed to show face, catch up with people. I attended an excellent two-day seminar in Glasgow organised by Playwrights’ Studio Scotland, including a one-to-one appointment with a producer facilitated by the Federation of Scottish Theatre. I went to a launch event for a network of artists of colour. I attended the recently-formed EPAD networking events. I turned up at Creative Salon meet-ups. And I went to the theatre furiously. I went to see lots and lots of plays – granted, mostly at our main stages.

All the networking amounts to nothing if you don’t have much to talk about, though. OK, I had my PhD to talk about, but I needed to start making theatre again. I hadn’t flexed my directing muscles since La Niña Barro, which had been over a year before. Understandably, I was a bit aprehensive about getting back into a rehearsal room with some actors, so my first project after coming back was a low-risk, yet stimulating one: I volunteered as a director for a 24-hour play event at the RCS. Led by some of the MACCT students, the event involved all levels of courses at the institution. We all met at the RCS on the evening of 1st February, 2015 and each director was paired with a playwright and then we got to choose 4 or 5 actors. The actors were sent home and the director/playwright pairs convened in one of MA students’ flat to write a 10-minute script overnight. We gathered back with the actors at the RCS the next morning and rehearsed during the day. In the evening, we showed our pieces to a sold out house. The slightly annoying thing about it was that years ago, back in 2009 or 2010, my friend/long-term collaborator/other side of my brain Jen McGregor and I had tried to run a similar project in Edinburgh, specifically themed for Halloween. We simply could not find a venue that would take us (Summerhall didn’t exist yet, they might have gone for it) and had to abandon the idea. I licked my wounds and got on with it, and I’m glad I did. I got to work with a bunch of fun, talented new people and got to experiment a little with my cultural fusion thing. I had a cast of British, Czech, and Portuguese actors with a Singaporean writer and was allowed to use some Indonesian gamelan instruments. It actually turned out quite beautifully. One of the organisers said he welled up during our tech run.

It was a great challenge and an excellent way to worm my way back into directing without risking my sanity so soon. It was also a way of getting more involved with life at the RCS, as I would have to start honing my academic skills pretty sharply as well. It didn’t actually mean re-entering the industry per se, as it was a student project, but it gave me that little confidence boost that was necessary to pursue bigger things, and something to talk about at networking events.

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Brasilia comes full circle

It’s July 2006. I’m in Brasilia, capital of Brazil (NOT Rio, but I expect everyone to know that by now), leading a workshop with my mate Marion on how to use drama techniques as a teacher of English as a Foreign Language. The workshop was part of the Braz-TESOL (Brazilian Association of Teachers of English to Speakers of Other Languages) annual convention, which we were extremely proud to be a part of as recent graduates. This, however, was supposed to be my last activity as an ESOL teacher, for, as overly dramatically announced by Marion at the start of the workshop, I would be leaving him and moving to Scotland in a couple of months. My mixed feelings of sadness and excitement were only enhanced at the end of the workshop, when one of the participants, an experienced American teacher quite a few years my senior, approached me to say thank you, ask for a book reference, and yell at me: “What the hell are you going to do in Scotland?!”, which was kinda sweet.

This was my first time in Brasilia, and I had made a point of wanting to visit my own country’s capital before setting off in an adventure that would probably take me to many intriguing foreign capitals, so I’d like to tell you a bit about it. It still is one of the most bizarre places I’ve ever been to. First of all, it’s a city that was commissioned to architects and engineers, and therefore especially designed (by the great Oscar Niemeyer) and purpose-built. This means that it didn’t develop organically like most cities and towns around the world, which gives it a sterile and somewhat intimidating character. But maybe that feeling also comes from the fact that it is the Government’s headquarters (which was indeed in Rio until Brasilia was inaugurated in 1960). Another strange thing about Brasilia is that it is definitely not a pedestrian-friendly place. Every time Marion and I asked for directions, people kept asking if we were driving and told us brasilienses were made of head, arms, and wheels. We were stubborn enough to try and walk around, but we ended up sunburnt (it was winter, but the city has been plonked in the middle of a desert and it hardly ever rains there), exhausted and almost ran over a few times. There aren’t even pavements in most areas! Other than that, it really is worth a visit. If you look at it on Google Earth from above, you can see it’s shaped like an airplane. The main Government buildings are built along the plane’s body, with the Congress and the President’s house at the ‘cockpit’, and then the rest of the city (hotels, houses, schools, etc) is methodically distributed over the north and south ‘wings’. And of course, if you are into design and architecture, all of Niemeyer’s work is a must see.

Anyway… as you know, I left Brazil and went to Scotland to study theatre. In 2007, in Bristol,  I met brilliant Brazilian dancer and choreographer Augusto Omolù, who introduced me to the work of Eugenio Barba, the Odin Teatret and the International School of Theatre Anthropology, when I was still trying to figure out the answer to that American guy’s question. And then a whole new world opened up to me, and everything that Augusto told me about his work with Barba resonated within me, like something I didn’t quite understand but felt like it was the right direction to follow. I dedicated the following years of my course to studying Barba’s practice even if it wasn’t part of my coursework, aided by lecturers from a different specialism who had introduced me to Augusto and had also collaborated with Barba in the past. The more I learned, the more interesting and confusing it all got, and I ended up using a lot of this newly acquired knowledge to write my dissertation (an analysis of the performative elements in the funeral ritual of a Brazilian indigenous tribe, if you must know).

A year and a half after I graduated, I had an opportunity to go to the Odin Teatret in Denmark for a 2-week workshop with Tage Larsen, one of their actors. Eugenio Barba wasn’t there, unfortunately, but it felt like some sort of scared pilgrimage to be in that theatre and have access to their library, videos, archives. Cheesy as it may sound, it was a dream come true. That wasn’t my last encounter with the Odin. Shortly after I was forced to move back to Brazil, I had the chance to take part in a short seminar led by Julia Varley, another legendary Odin actress, in Las Piedras, Uruguay. And then, fast forward to December 2013, the cherry on the cake: I was one of 10 Latin American directors selected to take part in a residency with Eugenio Barba himself – guess where? Yep, in Brasilia.

So that’s how it all came full circle to me. 7 years after I had been to Brasilia for the first time, just before moving to Scotland to study theatre, I was back in the capital for an intensive course led by a guy I didn’t even know existed in 2006 but was now one of my biggest role models. It was such a fantastic week, during which I felt like I was finally beginning to understand what I’d been studying for good part of a decade. And I got to sit together for dinner with Barba and Varley and tell them about my own work. Cheesy as it may sound, it was a dream come true [2].

eugenio_julia