La Niña Barro in Uruguay

After our brief stint in my hometown of Santana do Livramento, we took LNB to Uruguay, to participate in Muestra Perimetral, an international showcase of theatre in the towns of Las Piedras and Ciudad de la Costa, near Montevideo.

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We were there in winter and for those who always picture South America as a year-round warm continent, you should not underestimate the southern Uruguayan climate. Temperatures were below freezing for the week we were there and our accommodation had no heating and limited hot water. I do recommend checking out the festival – we had a fantastic time overall and made so many interesting connections, but if you do, bear that in mind and bring extra layers and warm blankets.

To me, one of the most exciting things of taking part in that festival was hearing the different kinds of Spanish spoken around the breakfast table. There were participants from Spain (my girls, obviously), Uruguay, Paraguay, Chile, Argentina, and Mexico (there were Brazilians too, but I was only counting the native speakers of Spanish there) and the linguistic range was so rich! It was not just the accent, but huge differences in idiomatic expressions and slang words, or simply everyday colloquial language, a real feast. One of my fondest memories was when one of my Spanish performers was struggling to explain the meaning of something to an Argentinian actor and I intervened to help them, as those are two variations of Spanish I am very familiar with. The Argentinian actor then felt the need to draw everyone’s attention to the fact that they were both native speakers of the same language, but they needed a Scottish-dwelling Brazilian to ‘translate’ for them. It really was fascinating stuff.

It was also very touching to share our work with all these colleagues and with the community in both towns where we performed. There are always people who cry a bit at the end  of the piece, but in Ciudad de la Costa I saw a girl sobbing uncontrollably, which made me wonder what buttons we might have pushed. Again, like with the reactions we got in Livramento, it’s when I see these things that I am reminded of why I do this. And I confess to choking up a little when I introduced the show and thanked the wonderful people at Teatro Acuarela and La Sala for giving me that opportunity to show my work in my homeland. That made an Argentinian playwright wind me up, saying I managed to show I was human after all. This is a guy who had known me for 3 days and already realised that I have a complicated relationship with my own emotions. Bloody writers.

It was a great and intense week, sharing our work and lives with other creatives from various backgrounds in a remote area of the world. Friendships were formed and we hope to see some of those people again and potentially collaborate in the future.

I travelled back to Montevideo with Eli and Alex, and from there they followed on to Buenos Aires, Bolivia (in a somewhat eventful journey), and Spain. I got my bus back from Montevideo to Rivera, where cruel reality awaited. The envelope sent from the UK Consulate lay on my bed, unopened. It was 5am when I got in and I knew I wouldn’t be able to sleep if I left it until the morning. The envelope contained my passport and other original documents and a letter informing me that my Tier 4 Student Visa application had been rejected. But you’ll have to wait for my next blog post to find out how I handled that.

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La Niña Barro in Riveramento

After crowdfunding through the 24-Hour Trilingual Poetry Marathon, we managed to fund our mini tour of La Niña Barro to Brazil and Uruguay. As a thank you to the community of my hometowns of Rivera and Santana do Livramento, we did one free performance of the show at the old Livramento railway station, no longer used.

The railway station building dates from 1910 and is a gorgeous example of the architecture of that period. The station was an important link along the international railway connecting Sao Paulo to Montevideo and Buenos Aires between 1943 and 1954, but as a result of the Brazilian railway crisis in the 1980s, the station was one of many being deactivated.  The derelict building was restored in 2012 and re-opened as a cultural centre, hosting films, exhibitions, and music gigs, but it had to be closed again at the end of 2014 due to water damage. The roof was being re-done while we were there and the top floor wasn’t the safest space to be with a large group of people, but the council agreed to let us use the main hall for the performance.

They were also kind enough to let us rehearse at the station during the week and lend us lights and ladders. Throughout the week, in-between rehearsals, we were going to TV and radio interviews on both sides of the border to promote the show. I got increasingly excited and anxious as the week progressed, as this was going to be the first time my family and my birthplace saw a piece that I directed. I mean, we had done Fronteiras Explorers two years before, but that was a different kind of project.

The day of the performance arrived and we were good to go. I was really unsure what to expect… we had a list of confirmed guests put together via facebook, but I wasn’t convinced everyone would turn up. It was a rather chilly night and we didn’t have a foyer/waiting area, so we closed all doors and as Alex and Eli used the last half an hour before the show to get ready and focus, I went outside to wait for the audience. The first person to arrive, very early for our relaxed standards, was this sweet elderly man. He travelled there by taxi and I helped him get out of the cab when I noticed he had a zimmer frame. He was alone and I couldn’t possibly leave him outside waiting in the cold, so I explained that the house was not open just yet, but he was welcome to sit in the security guard’s office near the heater. Other people began to arrive in their own cars, and following the true tradition of the border, when instructed to wait until we could let them in, remained in their cars drinking their mate and chatting to their friends. A nice long queue began to form, and before long, it was clear that we would have a full house.

We opened the doors to an audience of around 80 people, some of whom had to stand in the back or sides, as we didn’t have enough seats. We did not turn anyone down at the doors, but once we closed them and started the performance, there was a handful of latecomers that could not come in. If I had known that the event would be so popular, I would have considered doing two nights.

The number of people attending wasn’t my only pleasant surprise. The reaction was actually incredibly positive. I wasn’t sure how this audience of non-theatregoers would receive a piece which had been censored in Edinburgh and was very different from everything they were used to. I heard complete silence during the piece and saw many tearful eyes at the end. We offered a post-show discussion and were there for another hour. It was so refreshing to have a mature audience (I reckon the average age was later 30s to mid 40s) of regular punters – apart from a couple of arts teachers and local theatremakers, the majority of the people there were not involved in the industry. There was a blind woman who was very touched by the performance, as well as a lovely girl with Down’s Syndrome who told us during the post-show discussion how much she’d enjoyed it. My siblings and my mother were there and were also moved. But the one unforgettable comment, of all the comments and questions we had, was of that sweet elderly man who’d arrived before everyone else and stayed until the very end. He approached me and said he had followed the 24-hour poetry marathon on the radio, as he did not leave the house much due to his mobility problems. When he heard that we had managed to bring the show, though, he said he knew he simply could not miss it and found a way of getting down to the station to watch it.

These are the moments that will always serve as anchors for me to keep doing what I do. It is hard, it is incredibly frustrating at times, but then something like this happens and it suddenly makes everything worthwhile. Thank you Riveramento for this experience.

 

A wee break in Sao Paulo

Sao Paulo is huge. It contains 4 times the population of Scotland in its metropolitan area. I had been there a few times visiting relatives before, but they stay just outside the city, so I hadn’t actually seen Sao Paulo until I visited my friend Leandro in 2012. He lived in the city centre then, and gave me a detailed guided tour of Paulista Avenue and its surroundings – on which he had written his MA dissertation, so I did get a five-star tour indeed.

As per my previous post on applying for a US visa in Brazil, you have to choose a consulate to attend an interview. You can pick from Rio, SP, Brasilia, or Recife. Brasilia and Recife are further away from my native south, and therefore, more expensive. I then opted for SP because it was the closest of them all and friendlier than Rio, in my experience.

Leandro doen’t stay there anymore, and my relatives, as I said above, don’t actually live in Sao Paulo, so I got in touch with a friend who had offered his couch a couple of times before (word of warning: don’t invite me to your house if you don’t mean it, because I WILL turn up eventually!) and decided to take a wee break to enjoy Sao Paulo for a week.

I was staying near the neighbourhood known as Vila Madalena, one of the coolest (albeit hipster-tastic) parts of town, so I took the opportunity to explore it on foot.

Vila Madalena can be quite pricey, but if you’re feeling lush, I do recommend eating at Lá da Venda, a charming retro grocer’s and restaurant with a delicious menu of typical Brazilian food and gorgeous coffee. In fact, if you are a coffee lover, Vila Madalena is packed with the stuff – I also had a coffee stop at Livraria da Vila (a brilliant bookshop) and bought a bag at the Coffee Lab (the funkiest cafe I’ve ever been to) to take home.

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Your own filter coffee served at the table at Lá da Venda

Now, if you’re a bit broke and just fancy a wander, it’s worth getting down to Vila Madalena to see Beco do Batman – an impromptu graffiti gallery outdoors. It’s pretty straightforward to find and you can easily spend a couple of hours there looking at the graffiti made by local artists.

Apart from Vila Madalena, I also went to MASP – Sao Paulo Museum of Art. Again, if you’re travelling on a budget, it’s free on Tuesdays and on Thursday evenings. There will surely be long queues, but they move fairly quickly. You’ll probably have to brave hordes of people taking selfies with the pieces, but once you get past that, it’s worth it, particularly their collection of Brazilian modernist art (I fucking love that shit!).

I was lucky to be in Sao Paulo when the LGBT Pride parade happened – one of the largest in the world, it gathered around 20,000 people this year and it was bloody FABULOUS! Homosexuality is not a crime in Brazil and same-sex marriage is legal, but it’s also one of the countries with the highest rates of violence against homosexual and transgender people (with 13.29 LGBT people suffering some form of violence per day in the country, according to a 2012 study commissioned by the Federal Secretary of Human Rights, available here in full in Portuguese). It was great, then, to be able to witness a day of celebration, which was also marked by intense political protests.

The one thing that left me a bit disappointed was, ironically, the theatre. I took a tour around the Municipal Theatre (an opera house, rather than a theatre), which was stunning, but didn’t attend any shows there. I went round Rooselvelt Square, where the fringe-y theatre types live, but nothing in their programme that week caught my attention. I watched one play that had been highly recommended to me, A Alma Imoral, which was good, but not mind-blowing. I was more impressed by one very simple, yet highly effective, street show by Catalan performer Joan Català, who was participating of the SESC International Circus Festival. What left me a bit disheartened was that I was looking for something that I knew I would not be able to find in the UK or in Europe, something more rooted and unique, but I realised with some sadness that about 80% of what gets put on Brazilian stages are adaptations of European or North American classics. There doesn’t seem to be a culture of new writing in Brazil, and devised theatre seems to be constrained within academic walls.

Other than that, my week in Sao Paulo was excellent. It’s not usually considered a tourist destination (or at least not as popular as Rio and the northeast), but it’s such a great place for a city break. There is loads on offer, and although it is generally more expensive than other Brazilian cities, it’s easy enough to adjust your plans to your budget. The public transport system is rather civilised (compared to the experience in Porto Alegre and Curitiba, for example) and I felt safer walking around there than I do in the south these days.

So there you have it. If you’re planning a trip to Brazil, do consider including Sao Paulo on your itinerary.

 

A Trial Run of Curitiba

I had been to Curitiba, capital of the Brazilian state of Paraná, only once before, roughly 12 years ago. Back then, I was at uni in Porto Alegre, studying to become an EFL teacher, and the reason of my visit to Curitiba was a TEFL convention. I didn’t remember much about it, as I was only there for a weekend and spent most of my time at the convention, but the few memories I had were of the good kind. I started paying attention to the city again in the past few years for a number of reasons: a couple of my cousins moved there, their official twitter account is absolutely hilarious (Portuguese speakers only, soz), and they have the largest and oldest theatre festival in Brazil, Fringe included. In addition, it’s famous for having a colder climate than the rest of Brazil year-round and for having a decent public transport system. It sounded like a good place to live in if I ever decided to move back to Brazil, so I thought I would give it a trial run. I got a job as a venue manager at the Fringe and went to Curitiba for a month.

I stayed with one of my cousins for the first week and couchsurfed the rest of the time. I was in charge of Solar do Barão, a gorgeous listed building that houses the Museum of Photography, Museum of Engravings, and a comic books library year-round. This 19th-century manor house was the family home of Ildefonso Pereira Correia, Baron of Serro Azul, whose intriguing story I learned from the staff and some audience members while I worked there. A yerba mate lord back in his day, the Baron once saved the city of Curitiba from being pillaged by rowdy gauchos (my ancestors), but entered a complicated political tangle that got him assassinated on a train en route to Rio. After his death, the Baroness moved next door and donated the manor to the Army. It was used as a barracks until about 30 years ago, when it was passed on to the Curitiba Cultural Foundation.

As cool as the story of the venue is, it has its problems as a place to host fringe theatre shows. Having to create a performance space where there isn’t one wasn’t the issue – building the truss and putting the dance floor down was the easiest part. The hard work included shifting a baby grand piano (which allegedly belonged to the Baron and no one is allowed to touch) and accommodating pieces that involved liquids being spilled on stage. The venue regulations stated that the use of liquids, food, and fire was strictly prohibited, due to the risk of damaging the historical structure. Also, with no accessibility, no trained first aiders anywhere to be seen, no emergency lights, and only one possible exit down a wooden staircase, the venue was a death trap.

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We took a group of 20 blind people and one wheelchair user up and down these.

Thankfully, we didn’t have any emergency situations, but I was kept on my toes throughout the full run. I was also fortunate to be working with a tiny, but very good and attentive team.

What of the result of my experiment? Well, it’s unfair to compare this with the Edinburgh Fringe – it’s unfair to compare anything with the Edinburgh Fringe. Some negative aspects of the festival were the relative dullness (it was way quieter than I expected), unclear relationship with performers (a few of the ones we worked with didn’t seem to understand what a ‘fringe’ was), difficulties with the venue (they have an interesting festival-funded venues system, but it’s full of restrictions), and the ‘Ticketless Movement’, which seemed like a good idea at first, but annoyed me to no end, and could be used in a more productive way. On the plus side, I met lots of interesting people and got a dose of some good acting. As for my expectations regarding the city, it was all lies. I think it rained only once in the whole month I was there, temperatures stayed between 30 and 35°C, and getting a seat on a bus is just impossible (well, having enough room to breathe on buses was a laborious task). It has its perks: it’s pretty, it’s clean, and it’s cheap, but I have stopped considering it as a possible base. I would definitely like to go back to visit, though, and potentially to participate in the festival again.

Not Talented Enough for the UK

Most people reading this post are friends who already know the outcome of this whole saga. Irrespective of your knowledge of my ordeal, however, I would like to ask you to please read this with a sense of revolt rather than pity.

As you can imagine from the title and introduction above, I have been deemed not talented enough by the Arts Council of England for the second time, and therefore not eligible for a Tier 1 Exceptional Talent visa. I can’t go back to Edinburgh and continue my work there. I will have to run around my friends’ houses to collect my things they’ve been keeping for me and find a way of disposing of them/shipping them back to Brazil. I will have to decide what to do with my Scottish-registered theatre company. I will have to change my plans and my career.

 

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If you haven’t been through something like this, you can’t really know how painful it is. Granted, I’m not a refugee or asylum seeker and there are millions of people out there who desperately need to migrate as it is a life or death situation for them. But with all due respect, this feels a bit like dying to me. It feels like I’ve been removed from my life. You know when you go through a personal tragedy of some sort, but you have your work to focus on, your friends who lend a helping hand, the rest of your surroundings to help you through? Well, that whole network of support is what has been taken from me. You can put things in boxes and into storage, but you can’t do the same with a career and with people.

I’m being punished for not being good enough, and I’m constantly reminded of that when I answer the questions I get almost daily about this. One good thing that has come out of it is that I’ve honed my storytelling and communication skills to perfection, being forced to adjust the register between talking my 30-something friends and cousins who are doctors and lawyers, and talking to my 80-year-old auntie who didn’t go to uni. Oh, and I’ve had to tell the story many times in three languages as well. But I’m not exceptionally talented, so don’t mind me.

 

 

 

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].

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Some people get kicked out of bars, some people get kicked out of countries

One of my best friends once taught me that good artists steal, so the above line was stolen from a Bacardi ad. If you’re reading this and don’t know me personally, hi, I’m Flav and I’m an alcoholic a theatre director/producer Brazilian. I’m starting this blog because something very bad happened to me recently and putting things in writing as if I’m talking to someone helps organise my thoughts. Also, because the whole situation is too ridiculous to bear alone, and I’m sure there are quite a few people out there going through similar predicaments. I say we find each other and start a support group. Anyway, if you’re new to my life you have to catch up and if you can’t be arsed reading, here’s a video of my telling this story. If you’ve been around me for long enough, you know what I’m talking about and may stop reading now.

I moved to Scotland in 2006 to study Drama and Theatre Arts, which was something I’d wanted to do for years. I had a Tier 4 Student Visa for 4 years, at the end of which I graduated with a First Class Honours (nae bad for an international student whose first language isn’t English). After that, I was granted a Post-Study Work Visa (previously known as Fresh Talent) for another two years. During that period, I got an alright “bill-paying” job and set up my own theatre company. I’d worked with quite a few theatremakers from the UK and beyond throughout the previous years and only now had a clearer idea of the artistic direction I wanted to pursue. I went to London for 6 weeks to take a course in Theatre Production to help me with this endeavour, and spent 2 weeks in Denmark training at the Odin Teatret as well. My company, Fronteiras Theatre Lab, put on its first show at the Edinbugh Fringe in 2012. Earlier that same year, the same company was a semifinalist at the Scottish Institute for Enterprise’s New Ventures competition.

However, despite being able to pay rent, bills and taxes, I didn’t make enough money to apply for a Tier 1 Skilled Migrant, or Entrepreneur visa to stay in the UK and take this project forward. What I could potentially do was apply for the wonderful brilliant well-thought out Tier 1 Exceptional Talent visa (applause, please). But in order to do that, I had to move back to Brazil for a few months. Because that isn’t counter-productive at all.

I don’t want to bore you too much, so I’ll cut the story short. I moved back at the end of September 2012. I organised an international theatre project, worked as an advisor for local cultural organisations in my hometown, and went back to my old job as a teacher and translator to get some money. I applied for the Exceptional Talent visa, but was not deemed Exceptionally Talented by the powers that be. I went to Edinburgh for a wee holiday and then went to Portugal for my childhood’s best friend’s wedding. Then I came back to Brazil and started planning my second attempt at that visa. That’s a whole new post, though. We’ll get to that.