This summer, the University of Michigan School of Music, Theatre & Dance took part in an exploratory adventure in Brazil that is expected to yield an exciting ongoing exchange program in summers to come. The excursion is part of a new campus-wide exchange program with the Universidade Federal do Estado do Rio de Janiero, or “UniRio.” Part of “The Brazil Initiative at Michigan,” the new theatre program is sponsored by President Mary Sue Coleman’s office and administrated by the Center for Latin American and Caribbean Studies (LACS).
Coordinating Michigan’s side of the exchange, Professors Elizabeth Martins (International Institute) and Jesse Hoffnung-Garskof (LSA) invited SMTD theatre professor Ashley Lucas to spend 15 days in Rio this July to explore the ways in which SMTD’s Department of Theatre & Drama can partner with UniRio’s various theatre departments, which specialize in directing, acting, theatre education, dramaturgy, and design. Ashley, who joined U-M last January, specializes in Latino theatre and prison theatre programs and is the new director of U-M’s Prison Creative Arts Project (PCAP), now housed in the Residential College, where she also teaches.
Four Michigan students joined Lucas in this pilot phase of the theatre exchange: theatre & drama acting major Liz Raynes and directing major Hector Flores Komatsu, who attended acting and directing classes at UniRio; design and production major Liz Williams, who worked on lighting design for an outdoor production directed by one of UniRio’s faculty; and LSA women’s studies major and PCAP member Renee Gross, who participated in a variety of social justice theatre workshops facilitated by UniRio faculty and students.
“We are still in the planning phases of the exchange, but we very much hope that in the years to come faculty and students from UniRio will be able to spend time on the Michigan campus participating in our theatre activities and classes,” said Lucas. In the meantime, she added, the Brazil Initiative at U-M has committed to sending Lucas and a handful of students back to UniRio for a few weeks at a time for the next two summers.
UniRio Professor Renato Icharahy, head of the directing department, served as the inaugural group’s Brazilian host, connecting Lucas and the participating U-M students to other faculty and students on his campus. They enjoyed a spectrum of performances, rehearsals, and classes, and also took part in social justice theatre workshops, which many UniRio faculty offer as part of their classes. Brazilians refer to these as teatro em comunidade, or “theatre in the community.”
“The Michigan students and I had the joy of participating in workshops in a variety of off-campus settings,” said Lucas. “We went to a hospital in the neighborhood of Tijuca where Professor Carmela Soares and her students work with elderly people and Professor Ana Achar’s students dress as clowns and entertain patients as they wait to receive care. Professor Marina Henriques took us to the Maré favela (one of Rio’s impoverished neighborhoods) to engage in three different workshops that her students facilitate with children, including one that is developing an original improvised play about the history of Rio de Janeiro. It was remarkable.”
An important part of the trip was participation in the UniRio equivalent of U-M’s PCAP, called Teatro na Prisão, which took the U-M group into Brazilian prisons (one women’s facility and one men’s). Here they joined Professors Natalia Fiche and Viviane Narvaes and their students to conduct theatre workshops and view early versions of current productions. Both workshops take the plot and characters of a masterwork of theatre and improvise their own versions of them. The incarcerated women are rewriting Romeo and Juliet so that the title characters avoid the tragic deaths that Shakespeare inflicted upon them, and the imprisoned men are working on a very lively version of Maxim Gorky’s The Lower Depths.
In the years to come, the plan is to deepen this aspect of the exchange program significantly, sending Michigan’s PCAP students and UniRio’s Teatro na Prisão students to work with one another for extended projects in each country’s prisons.
Throughout their trip, the Michigan group maintained a blog where they posted photos and wrote about their experiences and impressions, providing a rich record of their residency.
Current Michigan undergraduates interested in participating in the Brazil Initiative exchange (in any field, including but not limited to theatre) should visit the LACS website for more information.
PHOTO TOP: Liz Raynes (in front of Shakespeare image).
PHOTO TOP RIGHT: LSA student Renee Gross, SMTD Professor Ashley Lucas and UniRio Professor Carmela Soares.
— From U-M School of Music, Theatre & Dance