Hands-on and Group Work: Online Theatre Criticism in Brazil

Daniele Avila Small*

Abstract

The essay examines Brazilian theatre of the last ten years, with particular emphasis on its critical coverage. It underlines the collective aspect of the websites dedicated to critical thinking, reflecting and writing. It argues that these websites, as independent art groups with a proactive attitude towards the contexts in which they operate, function as a game-changing proposition to a long-term reformulation of the country’s practice and understanding of criticism.
Keywords: criticism, Brazilian theater, collective of critics, online criticism, artist’s criticism 

It is a daunting task to discuss Brazilian theatre as a singularity, given the size and diversity of Brazil as a nation. The city where I live, Rio de Janeiro, along with São Paulo, forms the center of the country’s cultural circuit. São Paulo, in particular, has also enjoyed considerable financial support for the arts, as evidenced by the numerous theatrical activities and public policies for the arts, which have been close to nonexistent in Rio for many years now. Being in the center makes it almost impossible for those who live there to see the big picture; however, I cannot help but try. In what follows, I consider the scope of the theatre in Brazil, while focusing on specific aspects of its practice and production circle, criticism, and identifying critics who have been working and networking on the web for the last ten years.

Criticism is a part of the culture of theatre, yet it is often thought of as a journalistic problem or an academic debate. But if we take a brief look at history, it is not difficult to realize that criticism has always been something artists do. In literary criticism, it is even more noticeable. For instance, in the history of Brazilian theatre, Machado de Assis, possibly one of the most celebrated Brazilian writers, was one of the first critics of realistic drama in the country. Nowadays, criticism is clearly an artistic practice with regard to online critical activity, and it includes the work of Clóvis Domingos, Daniel Toledo, Diego Araúja, Diogo Spinelli, Francisco Mallmann, George Holanda, Heloisa Sousa, Henrique Saidel, Ítalo Rui, Laís Machado, Rodrigo Dourado, Sergio Maggio, Thereza Helena, and many others.

Machado de Assis (1839–1908), possibly one of the most celebrated Brazilian writers, was one of the first critics of realistic drama in the country. Photo: Web/Wikipedia

The fact that we are releasing the website of our national section of the IATC-AICT has also prompted me to write about the role of criticism in the theatre. We have approximately forty members right now, and geographical distances which imply expenses have always made it difficult for us to do things together. Maybe the drastic pandemic shift to online networking could motivate us in this matter. But, more significantly, I see the exciting number of theatre websites in Brazil as a fundamentally political movement which deviates from the anti-intellectual affects that haunt the national self-image.

We have been colonized in a broader sense to believe that the best thing about Brazil is that we are joyful, all body and emotion, and that intellectuality is dull and snobbish, for our intelligence is pure intuition. The presidential elections in 2018 proved that we are not joyful at all, but rather a country full of resentment and hatred. We must dedicate our efforts to critical thinking to engage people in serious debates about language.

When I started writing reviews in 2006, it was evident that it would take some effort to break the ice between artists and critics. In Rio, the culture of distance had become a characteristic of criticism, especially during the 1990s. This culture of distance, objectivity and impartiality had engendered an abyss. To write reviews and have them read at least by theatre practitioners would require a shift in language, a close-to-home perspective. This would imply some kind of complicity, to use a word associated with Décio de Almeida Prado (1917–2000). 

Décio de Almeida Prado (1917–2000). Photo: Web

What kind of program can prepare someone to be a critic? Working together, reading each other’s work, sharing our ideas, even before writing, could be a method to achieve this goal. This essay, for example, was written with the help of my friend and colleague Renan Ji. My ideas about theatre have changed and gained complexity with the frequent conversations among the jury of Questão de Crítica Awards, composed by Renan and myself, Daniel Schenker, Patrick Pessoa, Paulo Mattos,and Viviane da Soledade. The kind of collaboration I envision is not equivalent to perfect agreement with each other on all matters. On the contrary, for me, collaboration implies a conversational space where disagreement and discussion are welcome, and competition is not an issue.

Brazilian critics and scholars at Mostra Internacional de Teatro de São Paulo. Photo: MITsp, 2014

Many of the websites dedicated to critical thinking on contemporary theatre in Brazil are collective initiatives. Each has its dynamics of commitment, hierarchy, responsibility, agenda and means of support, but they seem to function as independent art groups. Furthermore, they have a proactive attitude toward the contexts in which they operate. Of course, individual blogs are essential, but I do not believe they can serve as a movement or a game changing proposition for a reformulation of the practice and understanding of criticism; such an undertaking requires group work.

In one way or another, this is the method of groups such as 4 Parede (Recife), Agora Crítica Teatral (Porto Alegre), Antro Positivo (São Paulo), Arte Documenta (Manaus), Bocas Malditas (Curitiba), Caixa de Ponto – Jornal de Teatro (Florianópolis), Cena Aberta (São Paulo), Farofa Crítica (Natal), Horizonte da Cena (Belo Horizonte), Parágrafo Cerrado (Mato Grosso do Sul), Questão de Crítica (Rio de Janeiro), Revista Barril (Salvador), Satisfeita, Yolanda? (Recife), Teatrojornal (São Paulo). I am not sure if all of them see themselves this way. Even in the case of those websites formed only by two partners, I still believe it is a radical proposition not to work alone.

Of course, collectivity is not new. Magazines, for example, require a collective. In Brazilian history, Revista Clima in the 1940s was a significant collective project connected to the University of São Paulo. In Rio, Yan Michalski’s (1932–90) independent magazine, Ensaio/Teatro, also marshaled collective efforts in the late 1970s and 1980s. Even though the publication was short-lived, it gathered several well-known figures in theatre, such as Fátima Saadi, Angela Leite Lopes, Macksen Luiz and Mariangela Alves de Lima.

Another project created by Valdemar de Oliveira (1900–77) in Pernambuco, 1946, also came together through the participation of many intellectuals. However, these three projects were very diverse and related to different contexts. Nowadays, simultaneity and mutual visibility make quite a difference. The websites of contemporary groups can genuinely help both their own members and other parties, if only through their existence, by promoting the importance of criticism and experimenting with other ways of presenting critical thinking.

In my view, these websites in Brazil are committed to different forms of cultural mediation. Reviews are included, but they no longer function as cultural mediation alone, as this mode may not be effective on its own. Due to the widespread crisis in journalism, people feel that they no longer have access to the public sphere. Perhaps the current generation of theatre critics requires more hands-on effort to influence a given community’s theatrical culture.

In January 2021, the website Teatrojornal, created by journalist and theatre researcher Valmir Santos, published a series of texts on contemporary Brazilian websites dedicated to criticism in scenic arts (All texts are available in Portuguese at teatrojornal.com.br/biocritica/). In this project, with which Teatrojornal celebrated its 10th birthday, a few researchers were invited to analyze the chosen websites and provide constructive criticism. The result was invigorating and convinced me that the movement of theatre criticism, which I have seen and experienced from within, is also visible from the outside. That is how I felt when I read the article written by Fátima Saadi, dramaturge and scholar from Rio de Janeiro, editor of Revista Folhetim, referred to as A vida do teatro (The Life of Theater).  Having focused for many years on the state of theatre criticism in Rio, Saadi elaborates on the changes in criticism, considering printed newspaper reviews from the 1980s and online texts from the 2010s. Saadi believes the most crucial transformation concerns the range of activities and interests covered by these sites:

Everything that concerns theater or serves to reflect on it, as well as the social, political, and cultural context in which it is inserted finds space in these new vehicles. Each of them has its own approach and choice of agendas due to its horizon of interests. In general, they favor works off the mainstream and initiatives from groups and companies whose work offers stimulating articulations about the moment’s trending topics. It is important to emphasize that this kind of work had practically no space in the printed media. Besides, reviews of performances by students of theater courses and newly created groups are included in the editions, along with theoretical articles (Brazilian and foreign), news coverage of plays, festivals, seminars, and meetings, some organized by the sites themselves and having the practice of criticism as a motto.

Saadi presents a cartography of the many aspects of the current scenario. In what follows, I will address some of these aspects and also add my own comments. The author acknowledges a point of intensification in 2016, the year of the coup against President Dilma Roussef. Theatre criticism and public debates around the theatre in general became even more committed to identity movements and political agendas. She points out that a broader theoretical framework was brought to the discussions to help us unread official narratives. The myth of impartiality falls apart when this generation assumes there are no objective, neutral universal criteria for dealing with artworks.

Fátima Saadi giving a lecture on Yan Michalski at Encontro Questão de Crítica. Photo: Questão de Crítica, 2011

Within my own circle of artists, critics and scholars, it has become clearly evident that the term neutral is synonymous with colonial. Consequently, we can see that critics are no longer trying to hide their particular subjectivities and cultural backgrounds. On the contrary, they foreground identity as a part of their own connection, as well as the spectators’ connection, to performances. In this sense, Black critics are especially engaged, for example, Lorenna Rocha, Guilherme Diniz, Marcos Alexandre and Soraya Martins. The transgender movement in Brazilian theatre is also represented in criticism with the writings of Dodi Leal.

Searching for a juste milieu between journalistic intelligibility and academic depth is another characteristic of Brazil’s current practices. This is quite noticeable in the writings of Julia Guimarães Mendes and Luciana Eastwood Romagnolli, for example. The diverse academic qualifications of most of these critics allows for interaction across disciplinary boundaries and thus provides a complex background from which to approach contemporary creations.

Saadi does not forget to ask questions about the readers of the websites, observing that the ideal of an average reader or spectator is no longer taken as a given. These websites do not have many readers as compared to the printed newspapers. However, a change in reading practice is currently in progress, and this change informs a more extensive and long-lasting social transformation in contemporary society. The very definition of the public sphere is a changing landscape. Furthermore, it is unclear how these professionals are being paid. None of the theatre websites in Brazil have continuous funding, but their owners eventually manage to get support from public campaigns and cultural institutions. Critics are left to their own resources, as are the vast majority of artists in the country.

On the other hand, it is important to note that festivals played a crucial role during the 2010s, as some started hiring groups of critics to write and to debate performances. Clearly, financial instability is a problem that must be confronted. The lack of monetary security makes production dependent on seasonality. However, this is not a specific problem for artists and critics; the same difficulty appears in various professions. The neoliberal economic agenda that is rapidly advancing has undermined stability and permanence in labor relations in many areas, and the pandemic has further exacerbated economic hardship. 

In the near future, I believe that efforts made by Brazilian critics to promote oral communication will be evident. Saadi mentions media forms such as podcasts and videocasts which webmasters are currently utilizing. Clearly, a range of media forms are needed to provoke and stimulate critical thinking about the arts and their close relation to the world we live in. At the same time, though, I do not recommend the cessation of writing and publishing texts, as longer, more thoughtful reflections on theatre are needed. However, audiovisual channels are there to be explored. Recently, Leandro Fazzola started a YouTube Channel, Cadernos Cênicos, which strongly appeals to younger audiences, and Edelcio Mostaço started sharing video classes on aesthetics via his Facebook page. Fazzola is a young actor who lives and works at the periphery of Rio, whereas Mostaço, a university professor, is a scholar who has been very active in Brazilian theatre since the 1960s, and also wrote reviews for a widely circulating newspaper in São Paulo.

In the passage below, also excerpted from Saadi’s article, the author analyzes online reviews of theatrical productions:

The critics are concerned with production modes, the composition of the crew, the group’s background, staging premises, seeking to create an interplay between those who write, who produce, and who read. The critics’ work evolves according to a score that is not previously composed. In the most successful analyses, it starts from the game established between two parts: on the one hand, the performance, its production/creation, and enunciation conditions, on the other hand, the availability and repertoire of those who watch it. The purpose is to refract the performance, throwing it into a chain of connections and meanings that informs it without translating it, that questions it without judging it. Although it proposes a judgment that is open enough to promote or welcome dissent and personal enough for us to recognize a new work in articulation with the work from which it started.

Her analysis is encouraging, and hints at what might have happened in Brazil to allow for such promising theatre criticism.

Brazilian critics at IDIOMAS. Photo: Elenize Dezgeniski, 2016

In 2016, right before the coup, in a meeting with a little more than twenty critics and a few representatives from a section of the now extinguished Ministry of Culture, we discussed our intention to participate in the internationalization of Brazilian theater. We wanted to collaborate in order to spread the word about our national production. This meeting was arranged by several groups through the platform DocumentaCena, formed at the time by teams representing four websites who were working together: Questão de Crítica, Horizonte da Cena, Satisfeita, Yolanda? and Teatrojornal. The vertiginous political crisis in Brazil forced many of us to put our plans on hold. However, I clearly remember the moment when we were feeling very enthusiastic about the performances and the possibility of a national exchange among critics. In 2016, the first year of our national affiliation with AICT-IATC, we organized the first edition of IDIOMAS, an Ibero-American encounter of theater critics.

Brazilian critics at IDIOMAS. Photo: Elenize Dezgeniski, 2016

The sophistication and complexity of theatre criticism in a given locale is possible to the extent that performances give us substantial matter to ruminate. So, if theater criticism in Brazil has become auspicious, it is due to the richness of contemporary Brazilian artworks. However, to present an overview of Brazilian theatre, a series written by multiple voices would be required.

Unfortunately, Brazil is going through great difficulty at the present time. The pandemic has swept through Brazil with a president who condones genocide and a democracy in ruins. With such great challenges to confront, theater professionals are demonstrating their fighting spirit and imagination through possibilities offered by the Internet. When I finished writing this article, we had just experienced the loss of more than 350,000 lives because of denial and necropolitics. In closing, I offer my deepest sympathy to all those who lost their lives, and my heartfelt condolences their loved ones who survive them.

Bibliography

Saadi, Fátima. “A vida do teatro.” Teatrojornal, January 2021

Websites

*Daniele Avila Small, born in Rio de Janeiro, 1976, is a theatre critic and curator. She has a PhD in Scenic Arts, from The Federal University of the State of Rio de Janeiro, and she serves as editor and founder of Questão de Crítica, an electronic journal of theatre criticism. In 2020, she was a curator for the Thematic Exhibition of the 14th CineBH, dedicated to online theater.  From 2018 to 2020, she served as the curator of Olhares Críticos, Mostra Internacional de Teatro de San Paulo, and prior to that worked on editions of Encontro Questão de Crítica.  Daniele Avila Small also served on the FIT BH 2018 curatorial team, 6th edition of the Drama Window (CCBB-BH) and worked on the local selection of FIAC, Bahia International Performing Arts Festival. In 2017, she directed the production There Is More Future Than Past: A Docufiction Play. At the present, she is President of the Brazilian Affiliate of the International Association of Theatre Critics (AICT-IATC) and collaborates with the international theatre news website The Theatre Times.

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