Brazilian Style

One of the problems of being a World theatre teacher who only speaks one language fluently (much to my shame) means there is a significant section I miss out on. So I was delighted to come across an article in The Stage by Ian Herbert about Brazilian theatre.

Stage-it-on-Rio-630x310My only real reference point in Brazilian Theatre prior to this was Augusto Boal and his Theatre of the oppressed.


Herbert’s article makes for interesting reading on a number of fronts, not least about how theatre is funded in Brazil, especially given the cuts in arts funding across the world in the light of failing economies. I reproduce an edited version here and have tweeted it in full.

Focus on Brazil

The first thing to note about Brazil is its sheer size. Its population, nearing 200 million now, occupies an area into which the European Union would fit comfortably. A closer look shows that the country’s huge population is concentrated in a few major cities – and its theatre activity can be narrowed down yet further.

Recent statistics suggest Brazil has more than 1,200 theatres, of which more than half are in the three big centres of its south-east region – Sao Paulo, Rio de Janeiro and Minas Gerais. Apart from a number of festivals in smaller cities ………. the main thrust of the country’s theatre activity is here. Rio’s 200 or so theatres benefit from the city being the centre of Brazilian TV, where the huge chain Globo produces telenovelas – local soaps that are now seen worldwide. But although Rio has the benefit of a large pool of film and TV actors available for its theatres, it is in Sao Paulo, with 300 theatres serving a population of 20 million, that the real action lies.

Theatre as we know it came relatively late to Brazil, although the 16th-century Jesuit Father Jose de Anchieta is credited with some religious entertainments. It took off with the arrival of the Portuguese royal family in 1808, and by the arrival of independence was already developing the bourgeois comedies that were the forbears of the tele-novela. Theatre was a focus for resistance to the dictatorships under which the country laboured for much of the 20th century.

Two Sao Paulo groups in particular, Teatro de Arena and Teatro Oficina, which were both banned in 1968, produced some of the leading figures in contemporary Brazilian theatre, including Antunes Filho, whose Macunaima stunned London in 1983 with its bare-breasted dancers. Antunes, at 80, is still working today, his latest production being a revival of a play by another great name in Brazilian theatre, Nelson Rodrigues.
The funding of theatre, like the other arts, is supported by the Rouanet Law, a peculiarly Brazilian institution that since 1991 has given companies tax breaks in return for cultural investment…….

On the face of it, the population gains enormously – Brazil has hosted a series of major art exhibitions, for instance, most of them free to the public. But the indiscriminate apportionment of private [money] means that the most popular events attract the most money. Recently, the Kings of Leon received £4 million towards a three-month season in one of Sao Paulo’s biggest theatres. This blurs the distinction between commercial and art theatre – shows like The Lion King….. playing now in Sao Paulo, are just as eligible for backing as The Wooster Group, which is also in town.

Many of the country’s theatres are in fact part of prestigious, well-appointed arts centres, which may be owned by big business. There are also private foundations – I visited one of them, the Instituto Cultural Capobianco. It is set in a rather seedy street, but the inside of the building is beautifully restored. I found a friendly basement bar and two well-equipped studio theatres, the smaller of which was occupied by a cast of 12 and three musicians performing to a full house of 50 people.

The Wooster Group was playing in one of the many venues operated all over the country by the independent centres of SESC, which translates as the Social Service of Commerce. SESC gets its huge income of £400 million from [the tax player], and uses it to provide social centres for workers that equate to rather opulent branches of the YMCA, with restaurants, pools, libraries and entertainment halls. As much as 20% of the SESC budget goes to culture. The body is far more important to the theatre community than Funarte, the country’s equivalent to the arts council, which operates a few theatres and tries to be an enlightened voice for cultural policy. Both are at present heavily involved in the preparation of a new cultural law, which may see more centralised distribution of funding through the capital, Brasilia.

Sao Paulo has another law peculiar to the city – the Lei de Fomento or Law of Encouragement, which gives smaller independent groups a chance to flourish alongside the commercial sphere. Up to around £250,000 each, spread over two years, can be given to some 30 local groups – not for individual productions but for more general ‘research’. The money is distributed regardless of which party is in power……….. Not surprisingly, the number of small groups in Sao Paulo theatre has mushroomed since the law was passed in 2002…………You’ll find two productions of Martin McDonagh’s The Pillowman, two of Strindberg’s Creditors, and a complete cycle of Aeschylus.

In spite of all this, it has to be admitted that theatre in Brazil is still very much a minority pursuit, not the popular platform envisaged by the great Augusto Boal, who is almost unknown to modern Brazilian audiences. Nonetheless, fine work is being done, notably by site-specific directors such as Antonio (‘To’) Araujo, whose latest work involves a helter-skelter journey through the streets and shopping malls of Bom Retiro, a Sao Paulo district…….[seen] as the city’s arrival point for immigrant minorities.

Brazil’s real popular theatre is, of course, carnival, which flourishes all over the country as never before.


Interestingly, Herbert’s last point links nicely with my last post about what constitutes an act of theatre……….

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