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Héctor Álvarez: theater as social acupuncture

Still Point Interim Managing Director Héctor Álvarez received a Watson Fellowship in 2008 to study community theater companies in Mexico, Argentina and Brazil that served populations who had suffered from trauma. I recently asked Héctor to share in greater detail about the nature of the work that he did as part of this fellowship. Please enjoy his personal reflections and insights in this Still Point blog. – Anita

By Héctor Álvarez

The Watson Fellowship allowed me to spend a year researching what I call social acupuncture. This idea explores how certain interventions in a community that has suffered trauma can act as catalysts for change, growth and learning. I was specifically looking at performance, which is a field that covers many things beyond traditional theater including dance, ritual, political demonstrations, parades, storytelling, busking, performance art – and also large-scale public events like a New Year’s Eve celebration on a beach under a fireworks display, or Carnival in Rio de Janeiro. I was studying how performance can become social acupuncture and what the best practices and interventions in the field might be.

One of the great things about a Watson Fellowship is that you have total freedom to structure your research; but that also means that you are totally responsible for finding out who the key players are, meeting them and building relationships that will allow you to witness their work and collaborate. Luckily, I found that people were very open and willing to help once they knew what my topic was. I spent most of my time observing and participating in as many “community-performance” events as possible. I found myself in rehearsals in the middle of favelas, public schools, human rights advocacy centers, and criminal psychiatric wards. I worked with blind actors in Mexico City and danced down the sambodromo (a gargantuan stadium-like structure in Rio de Janeiro that hosts the annual Carnival parades) together with over a thousand kids from an underprivileged community. I attended candomblé rituals, listened to storytellers from all over Latin America, and taught Spanish poetry to youth at risk. In some cases these collaborations resulted in performances. For instance, I facilitated creative writing and acting workshops for two months with children and teenagers in Argentina who were part of a cultural group called Quijotada. At the end of my time with them, they performed a delicious and crazy gender-bending parody of “Little Red Riding Hood” and a selection of poems and spoken word pieces for their community.

One major take-away from that Fellowship for me would be this feeling of tension between two opposite forces; this acute tension that seems to mark the work of artists who hope to make the world a better place through their art. On the one hand you have this bleak but clear-eyed notion that Mexican theater director Sebastián Liera put to me like this: “In a time of brutal globalization, genocide and environmental destruction to say that theater can change the world is stupid.” On the other, there is the realization that your humanity only finds true expression when it’s challenged by what you find in the margins of society and, as an artist, the best way (perhaps the only way) is to engage with the margins through the making of art. In a sense, making art together with those who inhabit the margin is like building a hearth. The margin is another form of exile. Communities forced into the margin are banished from the big umbrella of the establishment. They stand on the edge and therefore are not sheltered. Yet, through theater and performance and ritual, communities can build spaces where, to borrow Bakhtin’s concept, the carnivalesque can happen, where people who are disempowered and marginalized can actually subvert power dynamics and find liberation and healing. At this hearth, regular conventions are broken or reversed. It liberates normally suppressed voices and energies; it makes genuine dialogue possible. But we also should be very careful not to romanticize or idealize any of this – which takes us back to square one of this productive tension.

I studied at the Center for the Theatre of the Oppressed (CTO) in Rio de Janeiro during the fellowship. Boal is, if I can put it this way, the high priest of social acupuncture. He was no stranger to trauma. When the military dictatorship took over Brazil in the 1960s, Boal was arrested and tortured. This was a pivotal experience and when he managed to go into exile he started using theater to address the problems of marginalized communities. The first thing he did was to smash the proverbial fourth wall that traditionally separates actors and audience. He wanted the spectators to become spect-actors, active audience members who, after seeing a play about a particular issue affecting their community, are invited to go onstage, take the part of one of the characters and improvise solutions to the problem. That’s how Forum Theater was born.

My experience at CTO was a central part of the fellowship, and it still is an important part of my artistic practice, including my work with Still Point. One of the gifts of Theatre of the Oppressed is that it gives you tools to become more aware of your privilege and the ways in which many of us are complicit with large-scale systems of oppression. It helps explain how power functions. I think that if you don’t have that awareness it is very difficult to do effective, honest work with people in the margin.

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