“I like to go backwards in order to push myself forward.” Interview with Sara Barros Leitão

by Beatriz Catarino*

Sara Barros Leitão, born in Porto, 1990, is the 2020 recipient of the Prémio Revelação Ageas Teatro Nacional D. Maria II, an annual award which aims to acknowledge and promote young Portuguese theatre and performance artists; with her award money, she founded Heróides, a feminist book club. She is a board member of the Association for Workers of the Performing Arts (PLATEIA), and has founded the artistic structure, Cassandra, in 2020. Sara Barros Leitão initially studied Acting at the Contemporary Academy of Performing Arts and then started a bachelor’s degree in Classic Studies, School of Arts and Humanities, University of Lisbon. She went on to start a master’s degree in Women’s Studies, Open University.

Sara Barros Leitão currently works as an actress, playwright and director. She began her acting career in 2007, at age 16, as a performer in a Portuguese soap opera. This experience prompted her to move to the national capital, where she remained for ten years, appearing regularly in soap operas, theatre, and cinema. Her background in television increased her awareness of workers’ rights, a cause which she has strongly and consistently supported over the years.  At the present time, Sara Barros Leitão is working on a staged reading for the National Theatre of Catalunya.

Monólogo de uma mulher chamada Maria com a sua patroa. Photo: Teresa Pacheco Miranda

How did you become involved in the theatre, and why has theatre remained in your life?

I didn’t go to the theatre very often as a child, but even so, it was always attractive to me. In fact, I believe it’s possible to like things even if we haven’t yet experienced them directly.  Theatre is very similar to playing, and I grew up in an environment where my imagination was strongly nurtured. The process from playing to performing professionally was very organic. In my teenage years, I participated in theatre clubs, and when I had to choose what to do with my life in terms of my studies, I chose to study in a theatre school.

I remember my first class, Theatre Aesthetics, taught by Zeferino Mota, a teacher who was fundamental in my growth and way of thinking. At the time, I didn’t understand anything and I found that strangeness wonderful. I decided that theatre was what I wanted to do for the rest of my life. Nowadays, however, I’m not so sure. There are days I’m sure I won’t always be working in theatre and other days when I can’t see myself doing anything else. Either way, I always end up working through paths that either cross or walk alongside theatre in some way.

You’ve described memory as a space of intimate freedom, but at the same time, any headline that concerns you will include the term “activist.” Where do you place memory in the production of urgency? 

The way I was described a few years ago didn’t include the word “activist.” I slowly realized that journalists, when writing these types of profiles, usually search the artist’s biographies. That means the way you refer to yourself gets perpetuated in the media. Therefore, I altered my biography and described myself also as an activist, which began to be repeated in a very pronounced way. Most of the time it’s not about the work we develop, but the way people perceive it. When it comes to the link between memory of the past and urgency of the present, I think they are deeply interconnected. Problematizing the present requires looking back, and understanding what caused us to get where we are now. But I try to do this without much nostalgia. I like to go backwards in order to push myself forward.

Teoria das Três idades. Photo: Filipe Ferreira

Among the set of traits that are associated with you, where do you place feminism?

Feminism might be one of the most problematic labels in terms of how people perceive my work. If, on the one hand, feminism is present in my work, it is because feminism is part of who I am; on the other hand, by being labeled “feminist,” that leads to a demand for all my work to be focused on feminism. Feminism implies an urgency to make change on a structural level, but there are things that don’t require change: love, or missing something or someone, for example. I recently wrote a play about the moment when lockdown was imposed, from the point of view of the theatre, in which ghosts inhabit closed theatres and create their own performances. What does this have to do with feminism? Nothing. With activism? Nothing. My focus is on theatre and my enchantment with it. I’m creating a play that is not going to change the world.

Todos os dias me sujo de coisas eternas. Photo: Dinis Santos

How did you arrive at your first project as director, and how would you describe the experience?

It’s hard to determine first experiences. I’m not sure if the plays I directed in my grandparent’s garage count or not, or if the ones I directed in school are relevant. I think that my first directing experience is actually spread across multiple instances and temporal frames. For example, Teoria das Três Idades wasn’t my first project in staging, but I consider it to be my first creation. I wrote, directed, and performed in it, after an extended period of research. I was working as an actress and co-creator in Teatro Experimental do Porto when I came across the company’s archive, and I devoted many hours to reading it. The next year, when the company celebrated its 65th birthday, I was invited to develop a play from that same archive.

Teoria das Três idades. Photo: Filipe Ferreira

What I created still continues to resonate within me. In fact, this year, I’ve come back to it, and in revisiting the text, I see things that I no longer like as much as I did when I first wrote it. But in general, I can identify lines and aesthetics that I have continued to explore. I usually start by investigating a certain theme or archive, and then spending a long period of time reading and researching on my own. In the next stage, I collect my thoughts in the rehearsal room with the team, improvising and writing during rehearsals, and creating shows with somewhat artisanal solutions, which include conflict, action, and game.  At the end of the day, I really like theatre, so I don’t attempt to escape it.

Teoria das Três idades. Photo: Filipe Ferreira

Last year you were one of the artistic directors of the Teatro Oficina Guimarães. In retrospect, how would you describe this experience? 

It was a brief experience, a year, which is not enough to conduct a truly transformative project. Artistic direction is based on dialogue with the territory, which includes the people, and the place, and it requires building relationships. At the time, I didn’t feel like an artistic director, nor do I now; for the most part, I would sign documents as the artist director.  Being an artistic director is knowing how to take a step back, without placing ourselves in the equation. The equation is the totality of the place, the budget, the ideas, the urgencies, and what I can do with that totality. It is about how I can contribute with my workforce. It’s very different thinking of it in these terms, as opposed to how I think when I’m overseeing the artistic direction of my own structure, which is mine, and the work I want to develop. In Teatro Oficina I was performing a public service.

How would you describe the inclusion of the sign language interpreter in Monólogo de uma mulher chamada Maria com a sua patroa? You insisted on including her in the staging, which was and still is unusual.

I’ve had experiences doing shows where the interpreter was placed in a corner of the stage, sometimes even off the stage, and it always troubled me.  It made no sense to pretend the interpreter wasn’t there. She was there, on the stage, with me.

Monólogo de uma mulher chamada Maria com a sua patroa. Photo: Teresa Pacheco Miranda

So we got her a costume and set markings for her. We arranged things so that she could always be seen, sometimes balancing out the elements of the space, so that we were interacting with each other. The deaf audience was able to watch everything I did without choosing where to look. That’s true accessibility. And we carefully considered how this would affect the hearing audience’s experience because there’s always the notion that they’ll get distracted by the presence of the interpreter. But they accepted it as it was.  My younger brother told me, “Now, it’s complete.”

Monólogo de uma mulher chamada Maria com a sua patroa. Photo: Teresa Pacheco Miranda

You’ve written and shared a report concerning the project in Teatro Municipal do Porto, (Des)ocupação, which didn’t ever materialize. Assuming that a career in the theatre can also include projects that don’t ever get to the stage, what role do you ascribe to that experience?

It’s part of a negative curriculum, the one people don’t see, and marks a fundamental moment in my growth. Artists always find a way to make things work, even if everything goes wrong. But if we’re being boycotted, we shouldn’t premiere. When a series of production terms are constantly altered, when basic conditions like artistic freedom are threatened, it’s fundamental for people to position themselves. I decided to make my case publicly available because it came to my knowledge that the same institution was repeating its abusive ways with another artist, one who didn’t have the possibility of walking out.

Courage is not the only requirement to say “no.” I wasn’t financially dependent on that project, nor was my career. That’s not always the case. It was necessary to expose the systemic mismanagement of artistic objects by that institution. This all came about at the end of January 2020 and in March there were articles and news pieces written about it every day. Then, by the 13th, Covid arrived, putting an end to what could have been a very transformative moment. But it taught me what I wanted and what the limits are. It was a great lesson.

Until now, you’ve written almost exclusively for yourself. But in December you’ll debut a play with two actors. What changes when you write for others?

I’ve written for others, but maybe not as frequently nor with as much impact as when I write for myself. As Coisas Pelos Nomes started out as a monologue for two actresses, I also wrote and directed Agora como Nunca and Há ir e voltar. Soon Não sou como a Figueira will premiere, a play written for actresses that weren’t previously selected. That was probably the first new thing for me: writing without knowing who was going to interpret the text. I’m currently staging a reading of Regras para um beijo for the National Theatre of Catalunya with three Catalan actors, written specifically for this purpose. Writing for others is a path I’m starting now, and I find it truly difficult not to stage what I write. I see my writing as half of my staging. However, I think it’s easier for me to write and then have someone else directing, as opposed to staging something I didn’t write. I directed Gil Vicente’s concert Trilogia das Barcas, and William Shakespeare’s King Lear and it was a huge challenge to fill them with life and ideas.  Somehow, I’m starting to feel more confident as a playwright than as a director. 

*Beatriz Catarino is currently finishing her bachelor’s degree in Artistic Studies at the College of Arts and Humanities, University of Lisbon. She has previously studied props, figurines, and set design at a specialized art school. During the past year, she co-founded and organized a Lisbon-based theatre festival, Teatro Quadrado, which operates without the circulation of money and welcomes creators from all stages of life.

Copyright © 2023 Beatriz Catarino
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