Interview with Barbara Santos

Interview with Barbara Santos, core member of CTO Rio, Theater of the Oppressed Kuringa, co-founder of the Berlin based organization “Kuringa” and founder of the international Madalena network

September 2013 by Robert Klement

Theatre alone is not enough


Robert: Which experiences led you into working with TO?


Barbara: That’s not so easy to say. Originally, I am a teacher and sociologist; I was working in a multidisciplinary team of sociologists, ecologists and pedagogists. Every year, we organized a seminar for more or less 1500/2000 teachers. One year, we were supposed to organize a seminar on the democratization of schools. In my city, Rio de Janeiro, the government wanted more participation of the community in the schools. That was in 1990. Teachers got the impression that they’ll lose power when the community would come too strong into the school and start to take part in everything. We were talking for months about how to make a seminar on this issue with our colleagues.

One of our colleagues saw Boal and his group present a Forum Theatre. No one of us knew what that was. He was amazed how Boal worked with the group and that inside the school they were talking about early pregnancy, communities, and many different issues. So we called Boal’s team and asked them to make a play for us. They came, had a meeting with us and told us that they couldn’t do it. They didn’t know how to discuss this kind of issue. But they told us that we should do it. I was a bit surprised because we just wanted to contract a group of theatre to do a play. And this group asked us to do a workshop. So we thought “Why not?”

It was amazing for our colleagues to see us on stage, not as experts telling them what to do; and for us to see our colleagues as audience that takes part in the discussion. From this moment, we started going to schools with our play and work together with communities, students, teachers and workers of the schools in a way that they’d really dialogue. One year later, I started to go frequently to all the activities that CTO (Centre for Theatre of the Oppressed) promoted.

I got to know Boal in 1991 when he was a candidate of my party – I was an activist in the worker’s party at that moment. In the beginning, I tried to be both, teacher and activist, but when Boal went for the parliament everything changed and I stopped being a teacher and became really part of the worker’s party in Brazil. I was changing step by step and chose to stay with Theatre of the Oppressed.


R: TO was born in Brazil, in a specific political, social and cultural context, which, apparently, is very different from Europe. You moved to Berlin a few years ago. Do you see any big differences in working with TO in Europe and South America?


B: I see a lot of differences. When we work in South America you feel directly connected with reality. Here in Europe, people are convinced by the system that they are really the first world. They become blind. They imagine they don’t need to change anything. It is really heavy and difficult to work on this, in this context. It’s worse than working in a context where people see that they need to change things. The system here works so nice; Capitalism really convinced people that they are superior, that they are in a better situation, that there is nothing to be changed. People think they can’t get any better; that they have already achieved the top and should protect the things they have. It’s more difficult for people to find out the motivation to fight and to open their eyes because they are convinced that they are really ok.

The other thing in Europe is that people have much more preconceptions about themselves. “Here in Europe we are a bit more cold than people from the South.”

“Here in Europe we are more mind than body. We are more rational than emotional.”

As if body and brain were separate.

Sometimes women ask me about the difference for me to work in Rio and in Berlin. In Rio, we have much more flexibility and much less opportunity. In Berlin, they have much more opportunity and much less flexibility. People here have much more boxes – a box for this and a box for that. This project should be about this, this project should be about that. But that’s not it.


(At this point of the interview, I told Barbara about my experience in Italy and the feeling that things in Italy are changing, that people are more critical about their reality.)


People from Italy feel something different now because they are losing a lot. In social work, people think they are the experts and the others are the objects of their work. When you’re a migrant, I work FOR you. But your problem is not mine because you are the object of my work. And now people are losing everything and they become like the object of their work. There is no more difference. This is like forcing them to open their eyes and I realize “I’m like you”.

In Germany people have the impression that the crisis is not there. Of course, they have better conditions. The government has more power, economy is more powerful. But on the other hand economy is so weak. Germany’s economy is totally dependent on exportation. In Brazil, we have an internal market that is really strong. We didn’t feel much of the crisis from 2008. These are the Capitalist contradictions. Here, people have the feeling they are protected. Like when you go in the underground and something bad happens. Everybody just pretends that they don’t see it. I think this is what happens. “If I don’t see it then, it doesn’t happen.”


R: You have been creating the Madalena network – what is the Madalena network?

And do you think theatre can really change something on the issue of gender roles, gender oppression, sexual abuse, etc.?


B: I think theatre is not enough. We should start from that. Theatre has a position that can help us to open our eyes and ears, to smell and to see what normally we’re not able to see. Sometimes we need the metaphor; we need the representation of the reality. We need reality to see reality because we’re becoming blind. When you see the same thing every day, you don’t really see it anymore. So you need an artist to represent it, so you can see.

It’s like passing every day on the same road. One day a photographer takes pictures of this road, catching a moment, angle, light. This reveals to your eyes what normally we are not able to see because we are mechanized. We are mechanized to survive. And here, theatre can help.

The Madalena Laboratory is a work that we only do with women. But why do we just work with women? From our experience, it is really difficult to talk about the women issues in a mixed group. Sometimes you are in a mixed group and these issues just don’t appear – or if they appear, women take a role and feel the need to justify. “I am sorry, this happened.” There is a lot of justification. Among women we don’t need to justify anything. Because when you say something, immediately the other person can somehow understand. This is the reason to do it. It’s not the desire to be amongst women. Women will not change the society alone.

When we make images and metaphors, we can reveal the sound of the silence. Silence is a really deep issue for women’s oppression. There are lots of things they are silenced by – saving the family, saving family relations. It’s related with shame, it’s related with guilt. Theatre helps a lot to hear the silence, to see the image of the silence. Theatre is a really good way to become conscious, to see things that we are not able to see, to listen to things that we don’t hear anymore. I think this is the role of theatre, to help us to see reality. We make a metaphor of reality and try to understand it. But then we should also investigate what we can do to change reality because if you don’t do it, theatre does nothing, only our personal lives. Sometimes people say: “You changed me a lot.” This is not true. When I do a workshop and you come to join it I am not doing any change in your life. We are together as a collective and you see and listen to things that you normally don’t pay attention to. Something inside yourself opens. But this will just have consequences if you keep on working on it. This will be your work, not mine. If you don’t work on it, it’s just catharsis.


R: One last word – your favorite word in German?


B: Scheisse.


R: Thank you!