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Cannibalism on stage

The Teatro Oficina theater has been in existence for more than 50 years. It is now active in urban intervention

MARILIA HALLA

Zé Celso on stage in "A terra", staged in 2001, based on "Os sertões": the founder of Oficina is still activeMARILIA HALLA

The façade of the Teatro Oficina theater building, on Jaceguai Street – a small side street leading to 9 de Julho Avenue, in São Paulo’s Bixiga neighborhood – is as plain as a garage facade. When the heavy front door opens, it reveals a structure that does not resemble a conventional theater in any way: inside, a long walkway runs between two bleachers made of steel and wood.

There are no curtains or seats, and no stage either. A person walking down this walkway will notice a slight slope towards the back of the building. In the middle of the walkway lies a huge window on the left, next to one of the bleachers, which provides a view of the buildings in the neighborhood.

Italian architect Lina Bo Bardi designed the building in the 1980s, so that theater director José Celso Martinez Corrêa, now 75 years old, could develop a line of work that combined a Greek arena and Carnival. The performances held in the theater take up the walkway and spread out into all the corners of the building. Quite often, the bleachers are the stage and the spectators join in the performance.

The white-haired José Celso is always there, wearing light-colored clothes and often standing in the spotlight. “The theater is like witchcraft that swallows the general bewitchment in which the entertainment, with the fetishes of merchandise, enslaves humanity. We want to undo the voodoo. We want to bring in a breath of fresh air to invert the dominant abstract equations,” he says.

RELEASE / TEATRO OFICINA ARCHIVES

"O rei da vela", staged in 1967: research focused on epic theaterRELEASE / TEATRO OFICINA ARCHIVES

The director always spells the word “theater” without the “r” or with the “r” in parentheses and joins the syllable “the” to the syllable “ater.” He says that “act” and “acting” are not the same, and thus expands the meaning of the word mimesis, from the memorized text, to produce a performance with an air of Dionysian celebration. The play currently being staged at the Teatro Oficina, Macumba antropófaga, has this profile: the play starts inside the theater and then goes out into the street. The performers walk down Jaceguai street and wind through alleys, houses and streets in the neighborhood. The actors perform to the sounds of drums, tambourines, and declamations.

José Celso sees the theater group’s current endeavor as part “of the discovery of theater as urban intervention. The permanent characteristic is the guideline established by a basic reference: the works of writer Oswald de Andrade (1890-1954), especially Manifesto antropófago.

The rediscovery of Oswald “was the most important cultural revolution in the second half of the 20th century,” says the director, referring to the Tropicalista movement. “Nobody knew who he was, not even Glauber [Rocha, the filmmaker], or Caetano [Veloso], or Gil [Gilberto Gil] or Hélio Oiticica [artist]; Oswald’s antenna linked us at this definitive moment when language, body and art were de-colonized,” he goes on.

The Teatro Oficina theater group was founded in 1958 by José Celso, Renato Borghi, Etti Fraser and other actors. Its first phase was realistic; during this period, the plays were based on the methodology of Russia’s Constantin Stanislavski. In 1967, in the aftermath of a fire that destroyed the theater entirely, the group staged Oswald de Andrade’s play O rei da vela. This led to other performances that centered on the epic theater of Germany’s Bertolt Brecht.

ARTHUR MAX

"The bacchae", staged in 1996, and staged again in 2010ARTHUR MAX

The theater group disbanded because of the political situation and partly because of disagreements among the group members as well. The military dictatorship exiled José Celso, after he had spent 20 days in jail on account of protesting against the regime. He returned to Brazil in 1978 and gradually went back to his theater-related work, now in partnership with architect Lina Bo Bardi.

The revival of the Oficina repertoire took place in 1991, with the play As boas, based on a text by Jean Genet. Actor Raul Cortez was in the cast. Ham-let (1993) was based on Shakespeare’s work, and The bacchae (1996), by Euripides, was inspired by Dionysius, the Greek mythological figure that was the god of carnal pleasure, madness, wine, sex. The Teatro Oficina celebrated nudity, the body, and the flesh as a bridge to spiritual orgasm.

Jose Celso’s line of work results in long performances, many of which last as long as four hours. Some examples of such lengthy performances are Cacilda!, staged in 1998, and based on the life and work of actress Cacilda Becker, and the Os sertões [Rebellion in the Backlands] trilogy adapted from the work of Euclides da Cunha. In the performance, the original text was divided into three parts: A terra [The land], O homem [The man] and A luta [The fight]. Some sessions, which combined the three parts, lasted longer than ten hours. One of these lengthy performances was held in the region of Bahia where the Canudos massacre occurred, as narrated in the book by Euclides da Cunha.

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