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I have been trying to post on here every couple of days. Thinking about what I want to write helps me to experience things more actively, and address those experiences to the themes of my research project. I had intended to write today’s post last night, but instead I fell asleep early with my toddler. When I was woken a few hours later, it was to the fury of a large crowd as it flowed past our apartment building on all sides.

Trying to make sense of that half-memory this morning, I found an article online about how the premiere of Cavi Borges’ film, City of God: 10 Years Later, which was supposed to screen in downtown Rio de Janeiro (near where we are) became the scene of a clash between police and striking teachers. You can read the article here.

That wasn’t the protest I heard (the screening eventually went ahead earlier this month). However, the discussion about the film seemed to resonate. City of God: 10 Years Later charts the fate of the actors Fernando Meirelles’s critically acclaimed film about organised crime in Cidade de Deus (City of God). At the heart of the film is the question of whether art can change anything, and what responsibility artists have to the subjects of their work.

In a 2011 documentary about TO by Zelito Viana, Boal speaks about theatre as a magic mirror. It reflects us to ourselves, but it also allows us to go in and change what we don’t like. He illustrates this idea with a moving story about a woman who participated in the TO group of maids, called the Marias. After one performance, he noticed one of the women crying. He asked her what was wrong. She answered that she had been taught to be silent, but here, on stage, her voice was amplified. Was that why she was crying? No, she had also been taught to be invisible, but here she was in the spotlight, with her employers in the audience. Is that why she was crying? No. She had just looked in the mirror. What did she see? A woman. What had she seen before? A maid.

All this week there has been a festival of theatre and performance at UniRio, celebrating 15 years of NEPAA (Centre for the study of Afro-Amerindian Performance). CTO has a longstanding connection with NEPAA, through Boal and now through Flavio (a curinga at CTO and post-grad researcher at UniRio), and has contributed to the festival with a workshop, a screening of the documentary mentioned above and a Forum Theatre performance.

On Tuesday night, I photographed the theatre forum about racism by the CTO group, Cor do Brasil (Heart of Brazil). Forum Theatre is another strategy of Theatre of the Oppressed whereby a particular social problem is presented to an audience, which is then invited to step into the play to act out possible solutions. In short, it literalises Boal’s magic mirror metaphor. For me, the incessant act of documenting was a problem (it was not only me, but others who were anxious to record the performance), distancing the audience from the immediacy of the act by implying another viewer. Forum Theatre depends on the audience identifying with the problem depicted, and experiencing the urge (not only the expectation) to intervene.

I am wondering whether there is a tension between the aims of TO and the documenting impulse. Whilst we prepared for the workshop, Flavio spoke about the significance of CTO’s connection with UniRio and NEPAA. He observed that most arts institutions still struggle to recognise the creative cultural value of TO, and suggested that this is because many arts professionals feel threatened by TO’s democratisation of art’s production. His comments reminded me of Claire Bishop’s gentle dismissal of 1970s UK community art practices in Artificial Hells. (You can read my review of Artifical Hells here.) Her main criticism regards the aesthetic shortcomings of many socially engaged projects, implying that art is only art that can be seen as such by privileged art audiences.

If TO challenges this tacit assumption, then what is at stake in bringing it (back) into an arts discourse? How far does the responsibility of the audience extend?