Fifteen young, Brazilian performers are at the heart of a show at Battersea Arts Centre, which charts the movement that swept through Brazil’s schools and challenged state government. Natasha Tripney speaks to members of Coletiva Ocupação, and the producers that have made its UK transfer possible, to find out why the play has made such an impact
When the São Paulo state government announced its plans to shut down more than 90 schools in 2015, Brazil’s young people decided that they’d had enough.
After the initial protests by teachers and students were ignored, the students took things further. They occupied the schools. Despite resistance from the state government, the movement grew rapidly in momentum and scale. Within weeks, 200 schools were occupied.
The students bedded in and got organised, arranging their own classes and cooking for one another, while demanding their voices be heard. Their demands grew too. This was no longer just about keeping the schools open. It was about the systems in which they lived.
Now Coletiva Ocupação, a theatre collective made up of 15 of those young protestors, aged between 18 and 22, has turned the students’ experiences into a performance. When It Breaks It Burns is in part a recreation of the occupation, and what it felt like to be part of it.
Reviewing the show in the Guardian, Catherine Love described how “they take us right inside the chaos and the fear and thrill of the occupation”. It’s also a provocation. Where might this lead? What happens next?
The show’s producer Lowri Evans was in Brazil in 2017, working with Martha Kiss Perrone on a piece called Rózà, inspired by the Polish activist Rosa Luxemburg. As they toured it around the high schools, they got to know some of the students. “They loved it,” she says. “They were coming all the time. I guess they saw within it the possibility of theatre. They wanted to make work to tell their own stories.”
These initial workshops at Casa do Povo, a social art space in São Paulo, evolved into a scratch performance. Amy Letman, creative director of Leeds’ Transform Festival, saw an early version and became determined to bring them to the UK.
She says: “I remember at the time being aware it felt like an impossible idea, the organiser of a small Leeds-based festival with not many resources, two independent artists in Brazil, a collective of young people, most of whom didn’t have passports and had never left Brazil. But we just knew that we had to find the money, find the partners, make it happen.”
There’s a strong tradition of art overlapping with activism in Brazil. Augusto Boal coined the term Theatre of the Oppressed for work that endeavoured to create social and political change. To do so requires active engagement from the audience; they become, in his term, ‘spect-actors’.
‘I remember at the time being aware it felt like an impossible idea, but we just knew that we had to find the money, find the partners, make it happen’ – Creative director Amy Letman
In a very practical way, theatre can be used to teach people how to resist, giving them the necessary tools. In re-enacting an occupation, and making the audience a part of it, grabbing them by the hand and sweeping them to their feet, the show is very much part of that tradition.
Speaking via Skype from Brazil, Coletiva member Abraão Kimberley describes his belief that theatre is a way of “helping us to handle the oppression”. It’s a way of sharing desires and fears, he says, before adding that in Brazil, it is not always easy for people to have access to art and to culture, “unless you have money or are white”.
His fellow Coletiva member Pedro Verissimo chips in to describe the physical nature of the show. The performers’ bodies are key to the piece, he says. “The play was made at that crazy moment of going from adolescence to adulthood and [the show] captures that.”
When It Breaks It Burns is a performance “born from the body”. It uses movement to create moments of intimacy with the audience but also contains “moments that are massive”. He hopes the show teaches people “new ways of relating to each other”.
Coletiva first brought the show to the UK last year, performing initially at Contact in Manchester then at the Transform Festival. Performing in other countries was “crazy,” says Kimberley. “When we were in Leeds it felt like we could be in Brazil. When we looked into the audience’s eyes, I could see my friends out there.”
Given that most of the members of Coletiva are black, Verissimo describes their bringing the piece to the UK and to Portugal as a reversal of the journey his ancestors undertook. “Returning to Europe with a work of art is a way of disobeying history.”
By the time the show was performed in Leeds and Manchester, says Letman, it had a whole other resonance in terms of the rise globally of youth activism. “The situation in Brazil had also greatly intensified by 2019 – and the crossover with English politics and populism was also starker.”
The power of the show, she says, resides in the way it asks audiences to “reflect on the personal cost of activism and resistance that young people face all over the world, simply because they are trying to take their futures into their own hands and to make the world a better place to live in than it is now”.
One of the things the members of Coletiva hope the show will facilitate is the forging of connections – the creation of a network of young activists. The more they perform the show, the bigger they hope that network will get.
For Battersea Arts Centre’s Christie Hill, this is one of the reasons they were keen to bring the show over for two weeks. A longer run will allow more time for workshops, for Coletiva to meet other young people. “We want people to be inspired by the show, to think what can I do next?”
‘When we were in Leeds it felt like we could be in Brazil. When we looked into the audience’s eyes, I could see my friends out there’ – Coletiva member Abraão Kimberley
To help address this question, BAC is also co-hosting a national symposium on ‘Young People, Art and Activism’. Beginning on February 28, the symposium will bring together young artists from across the UK, including 100 young people who will sleep over in the building’s Grand Hall, in an act of occupation of their own.
As well as opening the protestors’ eyes to their collective potential, Kimberley gives an example of one of the concrete results of the occupations. His school was supposed to be receiving free school meals, but since 2011 this had not been the case. After the direct action, it was reinstated, and they received the meals to which they were entitled. In Brazil, he stresses this is significant because “hunger is a real issue”. For many young people the school meal might be the only meal they have.
Both Kimberley and Verissmo are very excited to bring the show to London, to meet other artists and activists. They both make it very clear that Meghan, the Duchess of Sussex would be welcome should she want to come along, laughing as they say her name in unison.
Theatre has the capacity to empower, Kimberley says. “It’s really important that people hear our story, but also that we hear the stories of other people in the places we go to. It should be a space for discussions and conversations. It’s going to be a time of learning.”
It’s clear that the occupation, and the art that resulted from it, had a transformative effect on both young men. “School was never the same and I was never the same,” explains Verissimo. “I started to see the world in a very different way, to relate to the world in a very different way. It was like an avalanche.”
When It Breaks It Burns is at Battersea Arts Centre, London from February 19-29. Details: bac.org.uk