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Interview with Sérgio de Carvalho (2010)

Marcos Steuernagel – I’m here with Sérgio de Carvalho, director of the Companhia do Latão. We are in São Paulo, today is November 10, 2010, to discuss the work of Companhia do Latão and theatre and politics in Brazil. Could you start by describing what the Companhia do Latão is?

 Sérgio de Carvalho – The Companhia do Latão is a group of São Paulo artists working on dialectical theatre. When we began, in 1997, we used Brecht’s work as an outline for applying Marxism to aesthetics. However, due to the internal requirements of the method of contradictions that forms the basis of his dialectics, we explored new ways to critique relationships between representation and social life. With Brecht, you need to go beyond him. That is how we began a new approach to dialectical dramaturgy in Brazil, an approach that seeks to stage problems that are relevant to the current stage of capitalism, and to understand how worldwide dynamics influence the peripheral world and vice-versa.

Latão is not limited to theatre productions. The group also produces theory, edits books, a newspaper, and a magazine. We have also worked in video and cinema and, beyond that, we have an intense pedagogical practice, with artists and non-artists. The purpose of Companhia do Latão is to take part in at least two fronts: an artistic practice that is capable of influencing public debate (and this means the group needs to challenge the structures of commercial production), and on the other hand, we are involved with more politicized social movements, through voluntary collaborations. A very important mark in Latão’s history, for example, is the collaboration with the Landless Laborer’s Movement (MST in Portuguese), with whom we learned a lot about political organization. In short, this is what Latão is: an artistic, theoretical, and pedagogical research group, invested in Marxist dialectics as a critical and political tool for today.

Marcos Steuernagel – One of the interesting aspects of Latão’s work is the idea of using Brecht as a model, while at the same time attempting to build a Brazilian Brecthian theory of sorts, of understanding how his theory arrives in Brazil. Could you talk about this?

Sérgio de Carvalho – The most important aspect of Brecht’s work is not just his formal and stylistic achievements, but to what extent they translate a work, that goes beyond his oeuvre. This theatrical workdoes not happen on stage. It happens in the transition between stage and audience. The important aspect of the Brechtian model is an approach that happens in the transit between artists and audience, and unsettles the conventional role of art. Since dialectics does not apply only to the field of the arts, but also to the extra-aesthetic dimension, it requires an updated reflection on the meaning of this symbolic transit, on the contemporary features of ideology and on the role of theatre. This update cannot happen only at the skin level. There’s no purpose in taking an old play by Brecht and doing an aggiornamento, translating the characters to contemporary times, or something like that. Introducing contemporary issues is not enough. You need to consider: what kind of transit could this play generate in the past and what kind of transit can it generate today? That’s why it is an exemplary work. It offers itself as pedagogy so that we can build contemporary theatrical actions capable of modifying the role of theatre. One of the foundations of the Brechtian project was the dismantling of ideology. It was a theatre created to dismantle ideologies, and in order to do that it generated a shock between the material base of the characters and their images of the world. He created friction between visions and ideas and concrete work relationships, seeking not exactly to unmask the dominant ideas, but to generate in the audience a work of historical indignation with the event being represented. And Brecht realized that to speak of a critique of ideology would only make sense if the critique of theatrical representation became part of the problem. Therefore, for you to use Brecht’s model, you need to think about the way in which dominant ideas and images impose themselves today (many times undisguised), in the dramatic forms of the cultural industry, in the technical automatisms of the work world that naturalize the cultural dynamics in different ways. To work with dialectic theatre today requires a reflection not only on how to historicize the ways one looks at something, but to experiment on new collective approaches. And this requires an analysis of the modalities of fetish today. Therefore, the act of creating a Brazilian version of dialectical theatre is a development of the very fundamental blueprint of Brechtian theatre—Marxism. It is a development that is indicated from within the very internal dynamics of Brecht’s work.

Marcos Steuernagel – Could you mention an example of an instance in which Brecht’s theory had to be reinvented, reevaluated because of the differences in context?

Sérgio de Carvalho – In some plays, such as in Saint Joan of the Stockyards, Brecht works with Enlightenment configurations of ideology. Morgan, the great capitalist of the meatpacking industry, quotes Goethe and Schiller while he negotiates over sausages in Chicago. He laments the horrors of the meat industry in the tone of German humanist poetry, in the same movement as he fights his rivals to death and stands on the necks of the butcher workpeople. There you have a specific model: an interaction between a dehumanizing practice and a humanist discourse. In Brecht, it’s not about a simple opposition anymore; it’s an interaction. However, when you look at the history of the Brazilian bourgeoisie, you realize that classical idealism never served the purpose of covering up anything. Even when it was used to justify barbarous actions, the discourse of the defense of freedom and justice was never taken seriously; it was a lettered ornament that juxtaposed the cruel practice. The cultural blurriness of the Brazilian elite is much more intense. The historical oscillation in the development of a bourgeois character in Brazilian elite contributed to make the representation of social conflicts always more smoky, less clear. Here, oppression and the rationale behind it have a different appearance. Therefore, you need to examine this and create different characters. For a bourgeoisie that did not work towards the ideal of autonomy, that did not fully go through industrial revolution, a national revolution, and a democratic revolution—the culture of exploration has a different face. On the other hand, Brazil always reflects the progress of the world: that which worldwide capitalism is becoming. Here deregulation is the norm, the worker has no autonomy to negotiate his workforce, the notion of law and rights is confusing, the inheritance of slavery has not disappeared from the social landscape. And you have to take these things into account. You have to create characters that are more ambiguous, dominations that are more intimate, violences that are more affable, diffused, internalized. At the same time, you have to evaluate the current stage of class struggle, so as to not represent only a theatre of defeat or of social mess. It is crucial to point to the existence, though without illusions, of opposition attempts that take place through organized politics.

Marcos Steuernagel – In Latão’s history you have both staged plays by Brecht plays and created plays inspired by issues raised by Brecht. What is the difference between these two approaches?

Sérgio de Carvalho – When we work with one of Brecht’s own plays we have to interfere in it, in order to keep the Brechtian project active through the strength of its dialectics. One example: The Caucasian Chalk Circle is a play in which the prologue illuminates the parable of the “true mother” that follows it. It is a prologue that takes place in the Soviet Union, regarding the fight over land between two different peasant groups. Now, the Soviet experience is no longer in our field of reference, and we are not, obviously, in Brecht’s post-war moment. So we had to rewrite the play, and we created a new prologue. It is important to keep the debate about the right to property and to keep the format of a legal assembly. By doing this, although through a different narrative outcome, some of the original questions are recreated: How are land ownership rights defined? Would it be possible to have a collective juridical system in which decisions are taken by consensus, and not mediated by a judge? What would a socialist perspective on the use of land be? These are questions Brecht’s prologue asks. They reappear through a film portraying a relationship between a MST peasant theatre group and us. The Latão actors and the peasants work together on Brecht’s text. Our staging began with this film. It showed practical theatre exercises and debates, somewhere between fiction and documentary, in which the very themes of Brecht’s play were discussed in a different form. By refusing to do the prologue, we in fact revitalized and actualized it in an even more radical way.

Marcos Steuernagel – Is the purpose of Latão’s political relationship with MST to improve, to interfere, or to relate in some way to MST itself, or is it to give them visibility? What is the political intervention that happens when you work specifically with them, instead of just creating work about them?

Sérgio de Carvalho – MST does not need visibility beyond what they already have. As any anti-capitalist movement, they tend to be criminalized by the conventional media. MST is associated with an image of violence and disorder, instead of an organized process of struggle for land reform. Our own struggle when we collaborate with this movement is to contribute to a reflection on the critique of these conventional representations, which many times appear within the left itself. The truth, however, is that we always learn more than we teach. The history of our collaborations with MST began in 1998. And we have experimented with several work relationships: we ran workshops, we helped them create a theatre group within MST, we wrote texts for young artists, we presented shows as part of courses or events, etc. We even produced a TV show together. But the collaboration is less frequent than we would like it to be. It could not be intensified because that depends on having the available time to dedicate to the militancy. One of the current projects of Latão is to expand this partnership, as we now have the material conditions to do so. And there is another issue: for you to intensify the relationship with any social movement, you need to act from within it.

Marcos Steuernagel – And do you see this work as a contribution specifically to MST, or as a broader social contribution?

Sérgio de Carvalho – I think the work with MST is an example of the need to act beyond commercial theatre, beyond the show. But our work is artistic. And our main social contribution comes from our critical development, from the capacity we developed to offer dramaturgical models for renewing the relationships between art and society in Brazil. Latão has liberated the desire of a generation of theatre practitioners to reconnect art and politics. It did so by opposing a certain formalist tendency that predominated in non-commercial theatre (“teatro de pesquisa”), by recovering the aspiration for public and historical themes. And we did this without concentrating on a content focused approach (“conteudismo”). The group offered new paradigms that allowed young São Paulo theatre practitioners to create towards a political theatre, and provided examples of an open dialogue within the Marxist tradition, which was considered outdated by many. When we put together radical aesthetics and political thought, in a synthesis that is artistically refined, we stimulated a recovery—on new grounds—of a theatre work that had been set aside during the military dictatorship. In addition to that, Latão contributes to the establishment of several young groups in the city of São Paulo (who come out of our workshops or are stimulated by our productions) and to the politicization of group theatre in the city, by actively participating in a movement that has had significant public achievements, called “Arte contra a Barbárie” (Art against Barbarism), by organizing a newspaper, and by stimulating several manifestations for improving working conditions for artists.

Marcos Steuernagel – And what is your perspective on the context in which Latão appears, the challenge of addressing political issues in theatre…

Sérgio de Carvalho – It was the end of the so-called real socialism, and the establishment of the hegemony of the neoliberal project. In the early 90s, the advances of the neoliberal economy and ideology coincided in Latin America with the moment of post-military dictatorship, with the so-called democratic opening in several countries. In this moment, the most advanced and important political work was out of place. The political artists of Brazilian theatre had either died or had returned from exile and faced the challenges of the new conjuncture, in which left-wing culture had been smashed and all the public debate was tainted by mercantile and mediatized forms. In the mid 90s, the whole discourse about the end of history was still taken seriously, along with all the half philosophical silliness that took over the art scholarship that was connected to larger international debates. But that wore out quite easily. By the end of the decade, the neoliberal ideology had already been shattered, there was already a hangover, and the crises in Asia confirmed the new terms of the debate, marked by a new cycle of contestation of capital and the election of less conservative governments throughout Latin America.

Marcos Steuernagel – This image of the hangover is extremely interesting, since the dictatorship literally crushed all the theatre movement that was extremely strong in the 60s and early 70s. Later on, however, even with the opening process and the end of the dictatorship, some groups, or some people, who tried to come back were unable to. There is this moment, even with the end of the dictatorship, in which it is hard to create political theatre.

Sérgio de Carvalho – In almost all of Latin America there were military dictatorships. This consequence of the Cold War blocked a process that was underway and disorganized generations of artists. At the same time, the central paradigms of the culture exporting countries (the USA, France, the UK), subscribed to a line within counterculture that channeled part of the political energy. If we would no longer have social and economic revolutions, at least we should have a behavioral anti-bourgeoisie revolution—that’s what many talented artists started saying. There was, in Latin America, a displacement of the anti-imperialist and anti-capitalist fight towards the anti-bourgeoisie fight. The change in the conjuncture of world ideology and the reality of the local massacre walked hand in hand, and no one could do political theatre, or else they would go to jail and, in fact, die. Whoever came after the wave of the 60s was already isolated. Many of the left-wing artists, to survive, had to work within the cultural industry, which grew significantly during this period. Brazil’s largest TV channel, TV Globo, owes a lot to the creativity of these artists. It was a network that supported the dictatorship but that, paradoxically, also welcomed the cultural orphans in the very next moment, which was the shutting down of democratic institutions. There is a famous line by the head of TV Globo, Roberto Marinho, saying “I’ll take care of my communists myself,” making it plain that the purpose of repression was to serve capitalist modernization, and not the other way around. It is a very complex situation. Political theatre didn’t end, it was exterminated. It survived hidden in the peripheries of the large city, and in the desires of the exiled. When it returned as a movement in the 90s, it was in the hands of generations that had little contact with past achievements. The contact between generations was lost. And in art, references are extremely important.

Marcos Steuernagel – But it seems that there is a certain period, following the opening process and the end of the dictatorship, in the 80s and early 90s, in which there was no more repression, but still it was hard to talk about political issues, because of an economic conjuncture, of neoliberal politics…

Sérgio de Carvalho – Well, repression exists where it is needed. What was strong in the 80s? A new international staging paradigm that was aestheticizing, visual, operistic. It was a non-verbal model exported by the theatre festivals that began to grow. It incorporated the poststructuralist discourse of the end of narratives. It was an extremely sensorial theatre poetics, deeply connected to perspective displacements, working with abstract landscapes, ruins of civilizations, in a relative liquidation of history. Therefore, that is what Brazilian directors began to mimic: the work of the great directors of oneiric landscapes. And they began to reject a theatre inscribed in reality, which becomes associated with the old political forms that had supposedly failed. The next step was to reject the idea of imitation itself, representational theatre, in the name of an emphasis on performance, on presence, that disguises in the cult of language the extremism of subjectivity. Those were the paradigms that were available. Coupled with this, there was a prejudice against the old national-popular project: “Let’s not do theatre about Brazil anymore, this idealism is over, for good or for worse.” Another issue is the growth during the 80s of theatre in the universities. Theatre is increasingly practiced in schools, and Brazilian universities also consume the postmodern theoretical paradigms. They start to discuss the same theory as New York or Paris, issues that not necessarily apply to us. A Brazilian theatre student knows Robert Wilson’s work as well as a student abroad, maybe even better than a North-American student. Nevertheless, he or she does not know Augusto Boal’s work, which was practically proscribed from Brazilian universities.

Marcos Steuernagel – Boal is a great example. He is known all around the world, but in Brazil it’s still hard… Especially in this moment, when he tried to return to Brazil and found no space, because…

Sérgio de Carvalho – …That’s the absurd situation I am trying to describe: you study post-dramatic theatre theory in Brazil, you study performance art theory, but you don’t study the work of people like Enrique Buenaventura from Colombia, nor Brazilians such as Vianinha and Augusto Boal. So the people doing political theory today in Brazil are going against a culture that does not produce its own theory. That is what forced the groups to organize as work collectives around a process of open learning. The return of collective creation in the 90s was spurred by an economic necessity—you needed to make theatre one way or the other. But it was also an awareness of the conceptual limits that where forced upon us. It’s not a surprise that the next step most of the young groups took was the critique of the commodification of cultural work. Therefore, the politicizing of group theatre in São Paulo happens as a consequence of, and out of a desire to overcome, extreme poverty, both practical and theoretical. And these are the very groups that will spearhead the advancements. The most important Brazilian theatre today, and I have no doubt of that, comes from groups that are able to critique the very conditions in which their production happens.

Marcos Steuernagel – And do you see this politicizing as a movement within Brazilian theatre today, or do you still see it as an exception?

Sérgio de Carvalho – This situation I am talking about is specific to São Paulo. I always say that this city is an advanced lab of international capitalism, where all sorts of experiments take place. Here capitalism announces its future form: demographic explosion bordering the unbearable, extremely violent work relations, extreme human degradation, in which dead-alive in the streets live side by side with an elite shielded by bullet proof cars and helicopters. The group theatre movement is paying attention to these processes, including the suppression of the historical dimension. That is why the groups began to organize themselves, but always haunted by the risk of initialization, which leads to a political step backwards, that becomes more eminent in an era of capitalist growth and of incorporation of the protests by the social-democrat program of the Lula government.

(Interview edited by Sérgio de Carvalho and Marcos Steuernagel, translated from Portuguese by Marcos Steuernagel. https://hemisphericinstitute.org/en/hidvl-additional-performances/item/1506-latao-int-scarvalho-2010)

Por Sérgio de Carvalho

Sérgio de Carvalho é dramaturgo e encenador da Companhia do Latão, grupo teatral de São Paulo, Brasil. É professor livre-docente na Universidade de São Paulo na área de dramaturgia.

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