Collective Encounters Youth Theatre Director, Matthew Elliott is a Winston Churchill Memorial Trust Fellow, undertaking a research trip exploring youth arts practice in South America. Below are some blog posts he’s written whilst there.

23rd September 2014 – Uruguay

It was invigorating to go to a theatre festival where there are 4-6 performances a day and not once do you stand in a formal theatre space and nor is there a desire to have one. With performances in the street, schools, community centres and a range of other settings, spaces were transformed. Spaces where participatory and professional theatre companies from five different nationalities share the bill. Community workshops and forums were also intertwined in to a very busy programme. This is Perimetral festival. A festival covering two areas of Montevideo; Las Piedras and Ciudad de la Costa in Uruguay.

Who organised the festival? In Ciudad de la Costa, the festival is organised collectively by Teatro Acuarella; a theatre group of 15-17 in total and age between 18-20. A group of young people who have been creating theatre together for 9 years and have performed at youth theatre festivals all over Latin America. No one oversees, no one pulls strings behind the scenes, there is no false empowerment of control. The group members are the sole organisers of the festival.

The theme of continuity rises again. A way of collective working has been discovered and seized within Acuarella. This way of working has developed with a genuine empowerment at its core. Group members haven’t been empowered to merely express opinions/desires for the group but have been empowered to own the group. As a youth theatre director, it certainly clarified that these ways of working are possible and helped me to develop ideas for future practice.

As well as seeing, there was doing. I collaborated with Penelope Glass (Colectivo Sustento) on various workshops in a range of settings;

  • Proyecto Minga; An innovative project for street children in Las Piedras. An all encompassing project which provides a space for young people to get support for education, work experience, housing and any issue imaginable. The young people are at the centre of the organisation, planning schedules, activities and offering peer support. The workshop was an exchange of exercises and experiences with theatre being the medium.
  • Hogar Desafio (Challenge Home); An equivalent to a Children’s secure unit. Alongside Uruguay’s progressive reforms in a range of areas, youth justice seems to have slipped the net with bodies such as the UN condemning the state of such institutions as the Hogar Desafio. In the midst of this, there is a range of artistic opportunities including theatre. The young people describe this as their ‘space of freedom’. Two workshops were delivered focusing on collective working, image and improvisation. The following week we were invited to attend a rehearsal of their recent show which travelled outside of the Home, a short piece provoking questions about self-determination and destiny. Similar to proyecto Minga, the theatre workshop demonstrated the possibility to create a space of resistance in some of the most oppressive environments.
  • Hogar Paulina; A children’s residential unit for girls in Montevideo. The workshop was opened up to other artists at the festival and became an ‘international workshop’ with each artist delivering different parts of the workshop. The workshop included a range of exercises, improvisations and finishing with a range of Brazilian dance and songs. A unique opportunity that doesn’t happen very often. The varied skills and opportunity in the room enabled the workshop to have a very fluid nature that responded ultimately to what the participants wanted to explore.

This was the 9th Perimetral festival. A festival that was developed in response to a community need, which is commited to maintaining and intends to strengthen, with many more Perimetral’s to come.

What does it take to do? What needs to be present to create socially committed theatre? Money? Organisation? Conformity? Passion? Resistance? Space? People? Or to be really radical, love?

I certainly leave South America asking more questions than I came with. This is my final blog that will be followed by a short film in coming months. It has been an experience that has left me inspired and reinvigorated for my return to the UK. I am forever indebted to those that have made this happen. Special thanks to Colectivo Sustento, Tercer Cordon, Perimetral, Collective Encounters and the Winston Churchill Memorial Trust. All have been fundamental in the development and delivery of this trip. Thank you.

6th September 2014 – Argentina

Clowning with Politics

Thursday night, Moreno; Buenos Aires. One of Tercer Cordon’s participant groups is settling down to their evening session. The session begins with a short discussion about a conflict within the group. A participant states eloquently ‘this is a problem for the whole group, which we need to resolve. We want to make theatre together; we must overcome this problem’. The group continues the discussion and agrees on a solution. No leader overseeing and guiding the process. Evidently, a group accustomed to debate, organisation and conflict resolution. A dynamic that appears to have been developed for many years.

This is the group for 9-12 year olds. The session continues and the group collectively devises a small apocalyptic scene with zombies and the like.

In numerous discussions and observation of all participatory groups, the approach is the same. There is no different approach between the children’s workshop to the theatre laboratory for emerging artists, an approach which avoids hierarchy at all times whilst developing the dialogical relationship between facilitator and participant. This is a pedagogical approach which is similar to that advocated by a range of theatre for social change companies within the UK and internationally.

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The work of Tercer Cordon differs when the question of technique is posed. Technique and performance discipline is fundamental to the company’s own performance and participatory programme. The work is derived from a hybrid of Grotowski/Barba discipline with clown technique. The technique is the platform for the social critique. Tercer Cordon believes that political theatre should be of an aesthetic that is of a high quality, challenging and fun for its audiences and participants. A harmony of critical pedagogy and performance technique is struck in the rehearsal room.

My time with Tercer Cordon has included three separate performances, four participatory groups and preparation for a 10-day theatre festival. A busy schedule. A lot of time spent in the rehearsal space as opposed to the office desk. Administration was practically non-existent.

Similar to Colectivo Sustento, no financial support is provided by the state/funding bodies and income from participation groups is minimal. Collaboration roots this work solidly in to the ground, collaborations with other artists as well as political and social movements.

Just like Santiago, Buenos Aires has been a tornado of activity and discussion. It has left me with a desire to rediscover the ability to ‘play’ and not to leave certain theatre principles at the roadside.

From the Dirty War to the 2001 uprising and with the recent debt crisis, Argentina has long been subject to a raft of political and economic crises. Tercer Cordon rejects this as a predestined script for the future.

An example of this occurred when a short ‘punk clown’ sketch was performed at a recent political/cultural event. The three clowns embark on a dialogue to make sense of the recent crisis. Amidst the comedy and satire a serious message is being laid out; the need to change the recurring crises. As the final line of the sketch states ‘Lets build a punk nation’.

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23rd August 2014 – Chile

In the back garden of a home in Santiago, there is a resistance happening: resistance to a system that perpetuates reoffending, advocates food dependency and produces illusions of freedom.

Colectivo Sustento (CS) is a ‘fusion of long-term community theatre experiences within and outside prisons’. The work has continued and developed since 2002 and in 2012 CS was formed. Theatre projects have matured and are now accompanied with another important component; a community garden. A collective that recognises that theatre is not the ‘be all and end all’ for social change. A multitude of alternatives are present.

I have spent a short 10 days in Santiago and each day has been crammed with conversation, workshops, rehearsals and meetings. The volume of experience is overwhelming at present and impossible to digest in to a blog. However, I would  like to offer two reflections;

Continuity: CS state ‘Continuity is the heartbeat of this work’. CS demonstrate a commitment to the work that is inspiring. This commitment has enabled relationships to transcend the superficial change that results from many parachute projects in applied theatre. “Modecate”, a show devised by members of Fenix & Ilusiones (prison theatre company, Colina 1 prison) with CS, challenging methods of social control, now tours to youth offender institutions in the Santiago region. The tour is a means to discuss social issues, challenge preconceptions of crime and allow prisoners to exercise agency. Former members of Fenix & Ilusiones form a crucial part of the tour and of CS, a clear symbol of continuity.

Autonomy: After applying to Fondart (Chilean equivalent to Arts Council) on numerous occasions and identifying the need to exist without waiting for state support, a decision was made to self sustain. The work is not restricted by the funds and the conditionalities that come with a cheque from the funder. The produce from the garden, personal investment, donations and a small amount of funding sustain CS. Autonomy as an ethical decision has enabled the work to propose a radical agenda for social change. An agenda that has a life beyond the outcomes and outputs, which offers an alternative in a system where there is apparently no alternative. However, it would be romantic to suggest this comes with absolute ease. It is a battle that continues but it appears to be a battle worth fighting.

The work always speaks louder and clearer, to finish this blog is the closing monologue of Modecate, a clear expression of the social action that is needed beyond the theatre space;
“I stop talking because I had to much pain in my throat. But who cares about that? Who cares what a person like me thinks? What one of us thinks? Who really cares? No one cares. I could take advantage of this moment to say important things I could talk about world injustice, my peoples pain but why say so many things if no one is listening and if they listen, they don’t care. I am not intelligent, I am not a good person I have nothing…..but I know what’s going to happen. This is going to end, and we won’t see each other again. And everything will go back to normal. You will go back home, you will sleep and tomorrow you won’t remember anything. And I’ll still have this huge pain here in my throat. Everything that has been said did anybody hear it? Will anyone be different after this? What happens after the lights go out and the applause dies down, will depend on you. So that when someone speaks, someone also listens, really listens. “

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