‘A gift for fiction’

Theatre changes people. Mostly, it does so in small ways by rearranging our mental furniture, hanging around for a bit and leaving odd things behind when it’s gone, with the result that we perceive things differently. Sometimes, its effect is much more dramatic, making us reassess our fears, desires, understanding, or our sense of others, at a fundamental level. That’s much rarer, but when it happens it can be literally life-changing.

It does all this through the licensed use of techniques which are in principle banned from normal life: deceit, manipulation, emotional pressure, pretence. Theatre lies constantly, deliberately and ingeniously and its only justification is that it does so to show a truth which otherwise could not be seen or, perhaps, faced. Then, as an unscrupulous film director says in David Mamet’s State and Main, ‘It’s not a lie; it’s a gift for fiction.’

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Nothing but the best

I’ve often heard that high artistic standards are unattainable, or even unimportant in socially engaged work. Nothing could be further from the truth. Two experiences during my visit to Lisbon last week reminded me why.

ChapitôChapitô - 1 is a circus theatre school established over 30 years ago by Teresa Ricou, better known as the clown, Tété. It now occupies a former prison and orphanage, close to Lisbon castle and has 120 students who complete their high school education while learning circus skills. Chapitô’s remarkable story will be a case study in due course, but for now it’s their commitment to high standards I want to highlight. Some of teenagers at the circus school have had a very difficult start in life. Chaotic family lives, drugs and crime have all taken their toll. In such circumstances, it’s natural to make allowances, to have some flexibility in how you work with people trying to overcome huge struggles.

But that’s not the same thing as lowering your artistic standards. The fact is that it’s not possible to learn aerialism or acrobatics without discipline. It is physically and intellectually demanding: carelessness might lead to injuries or worse. Clowning may not be dangerous, but it only works when it is beautifully and rigorously performed: anything less and it can be a bit embarrassing. Whatever troubles affect a young person’s life, circus training demands the highest concentration and commitment. Chapitô’s success lies in inspiring young people with a desire to learn that is strong enough to help them find – in themselves –the commitment to be the best. The discipline of circus becomes a self-discipline. The social change that has transformed the lives of so many students here is inseparable from the demands and excitements of great circus performance.

Next day, I met with members of the Gulbenkian Music Department and orchestra to talk about community engagement. Among other things, I heard about a rehearsal concert given by a string quartet in a disadvantaged neighbourhood of Lisbon. It was a new departure for musicians and audience alike and there understandable nervousness. In this uncertain atmosphere, the leader instinctively felt the need to break some concert hall conventions by inviting each musicians to introduce themselves and talk about what they were offering before they began playing. This small, human, but respectful, gesture was enough to lay a foundation of trust. It opened a space for a performance of Borodin and Tchaikovsky. And far from vanishing during the hour as the musicians had feared, the audience stayed and talked enthusiastically with them afterwards.

Gulbenkian Orchestra - 1

A three year professional training for teenagers and a short performance by a string quartet might seem to have little in common. It’s true that, in approach and duration. they are at opposite ends of the spectrum of socially engaged arts. And yet they share a commitment to the highest standards of art in their very different forms. On one level, that should go without saying. After all, if you believe in the value of art, why would you offer a second or third rate version to people who have little or no access to it?

The people you’re working with may face huge everyday challenges. They may have no experience of the art that is your life’s work and expertise. It doesn’t follow that they can only cope with some watered-down version, like children learning to have wine at table. All community and participatory art depends on relationship – and a relationship that is based on inequality has no future. To decide on their behalf and without their knowledge that another person can only manage second-best is patronising. An artist who thinks like that is unconsciously raising themselves above the people they hope to involve by believing that they know best when, of course, they just know some different things. The person they are working with knows different things too. Relationship, trust, co-creation, art, change – these things happen only when there is a level space in which people can meet.

We respect each other when we offer the best we have, not some insipid version that is all we think someone can manage. But it also lies in understanding that, in offering our best, we must also be willing to receive another person’s best and that means listening – really listening – to who they are.

Chapitô - 2

Against the odds: Opera in a Portuguese prison

PARTIS Ópera na Prisão - 1

The old carpentry workshop looks like something from Piranesi’s Carceri, which seems appropriate since it’s in the Youth Prison of Leiria (Portugal). The cavernous hangar is littered with old timber and unused machines: austerity means that no one learns woodwork here any more.

But on this wet Saturday afternoon, the place is packed. Two or three hundred people are crammed into one end of the hall; some of them have stood for more than two hours now. Between them and an improvised stage a chamber orchestra is playing a rhythmic, repetitive melody that underpins a riveting rap by thirty of the inmates who have just sung Mozart. The music builds insistently as they hand microphones to one another and perform in Portuguese, Creole, French and a little English, moving with the beat and savouring this moment that cements their two hour performance of Don Giovanni. A couple of young men have children on their shoulders, because wives and girlfriends have been allowed to join them on stage. There is a strange joyfulness, hard won and attenuated by suffering. Right now hope is strong, for these men, their families and for societies in need of reconciliation. One man waves a flag with the word ‘Liberdade’, freedom. With the performance’s climax comes a roar of applause and everyone is on their feet. Breathtaking. Unforgettable.

SAMP Don Giovanni Leiria 17

Artists often speak of the risks in their work and it’s true that creativity can be exposing. But if vulnerability may be more public for artists who read other people’s opinions of their work in the papers, it is familiar to every human being. One of the things that makes participatory art especially risky is that artists are asking others, including people who may live in situations of great vulnerability, to share in that process of exposure. These risks are taken on by people who may not know, at the outset, quite what they might be doing, how it might change them or what it might eventually cost.

PARTIS Ópera na Prisão - 4

The idea of putting on a Mozart opera with untrained singers in a prison is, on the face of it, ridiculous. The technical demands of the music are huge; the participants have no experience of staging musical theatre, or the language of opera; the facilities are negligible, the security issues immense and the politics fraught. The list of what could go wrong is very long and the risks taken by those inmates who take part largely incalculable. It is a tribute to the courage, imagination and professional abilities of SAMP and project director Paulo Lameiro that all those traps have been avoided on the path to this performance. (The openness of the Prison Service and the Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation to the proposal should also be recognised.)

PARTIS Ópera na Prisão - 5

Months of workshops and rehearsals have enabled the participants to build the vocal skills to sing together the role of Leporello, the amoral Don’s servant. Some men even take on solos within the choral group. The staging, in modern dress, has been brilliantly imagined to make the site’s limitations part of the experience. The audience enters through a redundant ceramics workshop whose darkness is exploited to evoke the hell to which Don Giovanni is destined. Dissonant wails of brass, and writhing figures create an unsettling atmosphere reminiscent of the best of Punchdrunk’s work. For the opera itself, the principal singers and orchestral musicians are professionals, but the Commendatore, assassinated in the first scene and returning to haunt Don Giovanni, is played by the prison’s director. Prison officers take minor roles or perform with the orchestra. This story of crime and retribution is played out by people who know its realities at first hand and from both sides.

PARTIS Ópera na Prisão - 7

In most participatory arts projects, the performance would be the culmination of the project. Not here, not today. Lameiro’s vision is not simply to put on an opera in a prison but to open new creative paths for all those involved. The workshops will resume after this performance, giving participants the chance to build on the experience. And dialogue is beginning with arts and cultural organisations in each person’s home town so that, as a man approaches his release date, there is a chance to continue working outside. What form those opportunities may take is still unknown: it may not be in opera or even classical music. But there will be support, interest and a possibility of inclusion.

So this project is only half way through and I shall follow its development in the months to come. My glimpse of the work and brief conversations with some of those involved have convinced me that –against the odds – something extraordinary has been happening here. There is a fuller account to be given, and much more to understand about how the work is being done, and that will follow in time. For now, I’m just grateful to have had a chance to experience the performance and meet some of those involved. Against the odds, they succeed triumphantly and I am full of admiration.

There’s a short introductory video to the project here (it has English subtitles and the images in the post are from the film):