The street is a theatre

At the Lina Bo Bardi-designed Teatro Oficina, we met with the company's animator-in-chief — a Tropicalist convinced that all architecture could become a space for performance, if it allowed itself to be cannibalised by theatre.

An entire afternoon at the Oficina , the fantastic space for experimental theatre in São Paulo, Brazil, designed by Lina Bo Bardi . The heavy wooden seats are gradually arranged in a circle at centre stage. We sit down. Photographer Pedro Kok is roaming around the theatre with his equipment when José Celso Martinez Corrêa appears dressed in a turquoise suit and white T-shirt.

In the 1950s, he was one of the founders of the company that revolutionised Brazilian theatre, and is probably the person who best embodies the meanings of, and the various controversies surrounding, Tropicalism . He is also arguably the most complete cannibal among all those who have been inspired by Oswald de Andrade. Known as Zé Celso, he is the centre of activity for more than a dozen employees: young directors, actors, actresses, artists, engineers, designers, journalists and architects, including his brother João Batista Martinez Corrêa and his granddaughter Beatriz Pimenta Corrêa, who together were responsible for the recent project to expand the theatre. We came here in the company of curator and writer Daniela Castro and José Lira, an architect and university professor who also worked as editor on the interview.

Domus : Tell us about what Oficina meant for Brazil in the 1960s.

José Celso Martinez Corrêa : In 1967, the performance of Oswald de Andrade's play O Rei da Vela decolonised this theatre of ours. In 1928 he wrote his Manifesto Antropófago ("Cannibal Manifesto"), re-establishing our relationship with the South- American Indian cannibals and with the Africans, who created Candomblé, samba and funk. The 1967 production turned out to be the catalyst for a full-fledged movement that sprung up spontaneously around the same period: from Glauber Rocha, who was filming Earth in a trance at the time, to Caetano Veloso, with his release of the Tropicália album, to Hélio Oiticica, who set the stage for art to come alive, complete with earth, plants and television. So that's how the Tropicália movement came into being and how Brazil freed itself entirely of all colonial ideology.
Top: The white-haired José
Celso Martinez Corrêa
sitting with members of the
company, his brother and his
nephew from the São Paulo
studio JBMC — which oversaw
the theatre’s expansion — and
correspondents from Domus. Above: Galleries and technical
systems appear to be a
modular superstructure
added to the external walls of
the original building, where a
large section of the roof can
also be opened
Top: The white-haired José Celso Martinez Corrêa sitting with members of the company, his brother and his nephew from the São Paulo studio JBMC — which oversaw the theatre’s expansion — and correspondents from Domus. Above: Galleries and technical systems appear to be a modular superstructure added to the external walls of the original building, where a large section of the roof can also be opened
Domus : What about the theatre's physical space?

José : This is the third theatre that has been built here. The first, designed by Joaquim Guedes, had two seating areas with the stage in the middle. It took eight months to build in 1961, and was burnt down in 1966. The second project was by Flávio Império. At the time I was very interested in the theatre of Bertold Brecht , and Império designed a very pristine theatre with a revolving stage and concrete tiered seating. It took a year and a half to build, and opened in 1967 with the production of O Rei da Vela , and that was another "blaze"! Lina Bo Bardi had arrived before then, to work with me on the production of Brecht's In the Jungle of Cities . It was the period when they were tearing the neighbourhood apart building the so-called Minhocão , or "big earthworm", the Costa e Silva elevated expressway named after the dictator. Lina would bring in all the garbage she found outside, put it on stage and we'd use it for a scene. We even used the trees that had been chopped down during construction. Each act was like a round in a boxing match.

Domus : Does your relationship with Lina date back to that time?

José : I remember that I did some LSD with a friend of mine, my companion. It was good acid. We went outside and started running around the theatre when suddenly we came up against a wall and we realised that there was something else beyond it... It was a very difficult time. The police were coming and we didn't know where to run. We found ourselves in front of this huge wall. When the police raids began, we began to get worried, so I went to talk with Lina. She said: "I'm an architect! I can't go through walls! I'm not a witch! All I can do with walls is break them down." And that's how Lina came up with the idea of turning the Oficina into a kind of street running all the way up to Anhangabaú da Feliz Cidade, in the region of Vale do Anhangabaú (the district where the theatre is located and where public meetings and events are traditionally held), in Viaduto do Chá to be exact. Then she designed a very nice project in that area. She had big metal trees built and placed an overpass on top of them, so that Anhangabaú would be green again.
From the large main
entrance off the <em>Minhocão</em>
expressway, the theatre
descends within the city
block. On the right, the large
glazed surface with the
flower bed in which the tree
that grows outside is planted
From the large main entrance off the Minhocão expressway, the theatre descends within the city block. On the right, the large glazed surface with the flower bed in which the tree that grows outside is planted
Domus : What is your view on Lina's project for the Oficina?

José : Lina wanted to build a space that had a bond with the earth, so we made this underground passage beneath the stage where there is a small plot of ground. She always put water and fire in the shows. We had always wanted to stage Os Sertões — Euclides da Cunha's 1902 book, which we've been making into a series of montages since 2001, with 25 hours' worth so far. Lina said: "The sertão , the backland, is here." And just like in the backlands of Candomblé, throughout Brazil there is always a sacred tree. We have ours, too. It was this tree that won the fight, because it represented our vanguard; this tree was the first thing to invade the land next door, understand?

Domus : From the War of Canudos for the destitute settlers of the Northeast to the struggles against Silvio Santos, the owner of a very important TV network.

José : Ah yes, our troubles with Silvio Santos. Thirty years spent punching holes in the walls, just like a real family feud. After the Ministry of the Environment ruled in our favour, they threw up a concrete barricade to block our access to the grounds. It has been a 30-year struggle to keep our neighbours from building first a shopping centre, which would have destroyed this entire window, and then a series of apartment towers. The surrounding area was completely developed; there even used to be two houses protected by the cultural heritage commission and an age-old synagogue. When Silvio Santos approached us, we were preparing Os Sertões .
The theatre’s arched
openings give onto
a clearing of Silvio Santos’s
adjacent property.
This is where the Teatro
Oficina company sets up
temporary structures to
attract large audiences to
its shows
The theatre’s arched openings give onto a clearing of Silvio Santos’s adjacent property. This is where the Teatro Oficina company sets up temporary structures to attract large audiences to its shows
Actress : We had begun studying Os Sertões , trying to decipher it along with the sertanejos from São Paulo, the construction workers who were staying in boarding houses around here. Later those same housing blocks would be swept away by real-estate speculators. We started on the first projects with people who were semi-literate. By day, they worked in the shipyards and in the evenings they worked with us, teaching us the Northeastern art of ciranda rhythms, and about their typical cuisine... This was, rightfully, the influence of the theatre on urbanisation.

José : Fortunately Silvio Santos finally gave up. Our theatre was placed under the guardianship of IPHAN (Instituto do Patrimônio Histórico e Artístico Nacional), which also imposed the statesponsored expropriation of the surrounding land.

Actress : We were doing Dionisíacas .
At the centre, the large
tree that was the first thing
to invade the neighbouring
property. As José Celso
peers around the site, he
remarks that the theatre
“continues to look for an
opening! In the atrium of the
street-stage, mobile stages
will parade back and forth.
And the Bacchae, gods of the
theatre, will open up paths
towards Oswald de Andrade”
At the centre, the large tree that was the first thing to invade the neighbouring property. As José Celso peers around the site, he remarks that the theatre “continues to look for an opening! In the atrium of the street-stage, mobile stages will parade back and forth. And the Bacchae, gods of the theatre, will open up paths towards Oswald de Andrade”
José : That's right. But after decades of battles with Silvio Santos, I have now become his friend. Today he says: "I don't want to hinder your work, but I don't want yours to get in the way of mine either. My proposal is to exchange your land with another one owned by the government." Right now, however, Brazil is going through a crisis, with a very weak minister of culture and the absence of any cultural direction from Dilma Rousseff . We have already been waiting 180 days for a response to Silvio Santos's proposal, and almost certainly they'll leave us hanging until sometime next year. We're going to have to fight with all our might. For many years the show advertised on the bill was "Oficina against Silvio Santos". Now things have changed. It reads: "Oficina against the bureaucracy of Dilma's government".

Domus : So the current struggle is different than before.

José : We're already occupying the land and we have done some shows. We asked Silvio Santos to lend us his land and he agreed, although at present we're on tour around Brazil staging everything under a huge 2,000-seat tent, performing a Japanese Noh-style drama, another play titled Cacilda about a very important Brazilian actress, as well as The Bacchae and The Banquet . We've set up a game of "snakes and ladders" and opened up a passage in the wall of the backdrop. There were some beautiful ruins out there and we staged Macumba Antropógrafa Urbana , a show that meandered its way through the entire neighbourhood, the bairro . It passed by the house where Oswald de Andrade died, then turned down a dangerous street and finally entered the grounds via the door of the destroyed synagogue... We're actors: an actor acts for himself, for the public, and for the spaces of the city. Not only the urban space, but also the cosmic space. Sometimes we do the shows in the afternoon, others in the evening by moonlight, and sometimes even when it's raining. The Minhocão is always there, with that constant noise of cars that sounds like the ocean to us. [laughter]
In 2005, the studio
JBMC presented a project
called Anhangabaú
da Feliz Cidade as
an expansion of the
Teatro Oficina
In 2005, the studio JBMC presented a project called Anhangabaú da Feliz Cidade as an expansion of the Teatro Oficina
Domus : What led to the decision to break with Lina's project?

José : The space had become too small. For the performance of Macumba , there were twice as many people in the audience as allowed. Lina's theatre met our needs when it was built. When I returned from exile in 1979, the first thing I did was break through the walls to see what was on the other side. I already noticed that there was this space all around it. I came with an engineer; if there hadn't been any arches, the whole place would have collapsed. We reinforced the seating area and the foundations. It was an emergency job, a stop-gap solution. We weren't allowed to demolish the facade because it was protected by the municipal cultural heritage commission. But Lina forced us to install an iron anvil, because she was Candomblé and said: "If you put an anvil in plain sight, as a kind of symbol, you'll never lose this space."

Domus : Has there always been such an intense relationship between the theatre and architects, who have been very different from each other, such as Guedes, Império, Lina and Paulo Mendes da Rocha?

José : I've always thought of architecture as a performance space. I'm very grateful to the architects. Paulo Mendes was also very important. He started developing the project for the Agora (that's what we call the space we've occupied under the Minhocão expressway) and for the adjacent land. His project was confined to a very small space, so he designed two narrow towers: one for production with a small dormitory for the actors, and the other for our digital archive.
Their design includes a
“stadium-theatre”,
the Anthropophagous
University open
to everyone, and the “Forestry Workshop”
for the integration of
vegetation into the
areas used for open-air
performances
Their design includes a “stadium-theatre”, the Anthropophagous University open to everyone, and the “Forestry Workshop” for the integration of vegetation into the areas used for open-air performances
Domus : And what about the theatre-stadium project?

Beatriz Pimenta Corrêa : The idea is to build a stadium on the site next door. The Oficina would act as the Greek skene of the future stadium. The two arenas will have to be integrated with the tree. It's not about ignoring the Oficina, but rather about building something else. In Lina's project, the stadium was supposed to be built at the end of the original building. But when Silvio Santos started stirring up this whole battleground scenario, demolishing everything, we thought we'd enlarge the project. We decided to put the stadium here, the Oficinas das Florestas over there, and the Universidade Antropófaga further up.

José : For all these years, since 1967, we've been producing knowledge based on experience. Through anthropophagy, we have reviewed virtually the entire repertoire of world theatre, the Greeks, Shakespeare, Gorky, Tennessee Williams, Nelson Rodrigues, Brecht. Everything was done with choirs and music, because we wanted to do choral theatre. It's impossible for this direction not to be attributed to Lina Bo Bardi, in the same way that the Teatro de Estádio can only be attributed to Oswald de Andrade. Debris as resources. I see the walls, I see the floor.

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