Combing the traditions of Forest Theatre and Street Theatre

Brazil’s Vivarte

Zeca Ligiéro

Forest Theatre is alive, because the forest is alive. Like the forest, it is in constant transformation.” 

Dani Mirini, Director, Vivarte

Rio’s poor Black communities have long suffered under violence, stigma, poverty, racism and the lack of opportunity. But one theatre is putting pride back into the communities with work that is built on the voices of the favela.

Key takeaways

  1. Forest Theatre
    Built on the traditions of indigenous people and rubber tappers, the plays are rooted in the mythology of daily life.
  2. Street Theatre
    Vivarte performs free on streets and in parks to make their shows accessible to ordinary people. Performances respond to live events, like animal noises and smells, and involve audience interaction.
  3. Avoiding appropriation
    Community groups, elders and shamans are key collaborators to ensure that cultural stories are not misrepresented or reduced to stereotypes.
  4. Immersive exchange
    Performers learn the ceremonial requirements for performing the stories, including how to cleanse the audience with incense and warm up games, like the Monkey Game, which help performers achieve the right state of mind.

When Vivarte finishes its performance in a Huni Kuin indigenous community from the south of the Amazon, they are not met with applause, but shouts of greeting.

The audience sounds a cheerful ‘ííííí.’ People get up, raise their arms and dance. Like the actors, made up and dressed in traditional costume, the audience also wears body paint and is dressed to share that moment.

For Vivarte, a forest- and street-theatre group, it’s a common way to end a show. The group works with indigenous and riverine people in the region of Acre, Brazil, investigating the relationship between the forest environment and its enchanted beings, in the face of contemporary threats.

Vivarte started in a school classroom in 1998, and since then has been focused on research and promotion of Amazonian traditional cultures. It works with the storytelling and mythology threaded through the daily life of indigenous communities and their environment. Over the years, the group has developed 19 plays and set up its own headquarters in Rio Branco, becoming one of the oldest theatre groups in the state of Acre.

Vivarte workshop with Huni Kuin people, photo Talita Oliveira, 2019

The plays are inspired by stories from the region, gathered during free art workshops that engage with local communities. The costumes and characters in these plays are familiar in the daily life and mythology of communities in the Amazon.

Touring its shows, mainly in the north of Brazil, the group performs on various stages, including outdoor asphalt areas and dirt floors, and develops new audiences among distinct ethnic minority groups.

Forest Theatre

Vivarte’s ‘Forest Theatre’ enacts the stories of forest people, while challenging the conventions of traditional Western theatre. It’s influenced by street theatre as it incorporates surrounding sounds, smells and the interventions of animals and other forest beings.

Vivarte director Dani Mirini is studying Forest Theatre for her master’s degree at the Federal University of the State of Rio de Janeiro. ‘Forest Theatre is alive, because the forest is alive. Like the forest, it is in constant transformation,’ she says.

‘For me, it’s this theatre formed a long time ago here, when the night comes and the rubber tapper or riverside people who don’t have a television will gather around the fire and tell stories about how the hunt was, how it was fishing, what agriculture was like, what it was like a while ago, how they got there.’

Vivarte was founded by Maria Rita Costa da Silva, Mirini’s mother. She was a teacher at Zuleide Pereira High School, in the rural area of Rio Branco, capital of Acre. Most of her students were children of rubber tappers or indigenous people. Realising that many were ashamed of their origins, the teacher created a play from the stories told by the students’ parents and grandparents.

Watching these stories play out, some of which the children didn’t even know, helped them to value and respect the traditions of their elders. The performance, called The Stories and the Myths of the Forest, became the first project of the Grupo Experimental de Teatro Vivarte.

Dani Mirini em Kanarô, Teatro Sesc, Rio Branco, Acre. Foto Ícaro Passos, 2022.

Street Theatre

In each isolated community, audiences react enthusiastically, and this interaction is also characteristic of street theatre in large Brazilian cities. Vivarte turned to street theatre as a way of reaching low socioeconomic communities and guaranteeing excluded people full access to art and culture.

This decision recognises the reality of the northern region, specifically in Acre, which is one of the states with the fewest cultural offerings in the country due to the socioeconomic context of inequality and social exclusion. Street theatre makes art accessible to communities by bringing it to villages, streets and public spaces such as squares, bandstands and parks.

Avoiding appropriation

In all phases of its work, the group emphasises care and respect to avoid appropriation, misrepresentation and, above all, association with ‘folklore’ stereotypes and labels placed on these communities by the consumer society.

In the process of creating their plays, Vivarte invites chiefs, shamans and important members of the indigenous and local groups portrayed in the stories to share their training, and legitimise the work. They point out any problems or mistakes in the ongoing production.

The group’s work also serves as an archive of the region’s traditional narratives. Scripts, photos and footage from the shows are carefully recorded to ensure that little or no documented history is lost.

Immersive exchange

Exchange with local communities continues to feed the group’s artistic activities. For example, Mirini received an invitation from Shaneihu, a Yawanawá popular composer/singer, to create a performance. He was launching his CD featuring the legendary story of the Kanarô, a yellow-feathered macaw that carries news and nostalgia between the living and the dead.

Based on the experience of singing and dancing the story of Kanarô, Mirini’s group asked for — and received — authorisation from Vô Yawa, the elder shaman to transform the story into a play. The montage was always carried out with the participation of a Yawanawá in the rehearsals.

In her creative process, Mirini learned with the Yawanawá – first, about the traditional song along with the proper prayers, and then, the use of a special incense taken from the sacred tree for healing the audience before the storytelling session in order to prepare for the ancestral story.

Vivarte performed Kanarô in cities in the north and in the villages around the city of Rio Branco. In all activities, it seeks to incorporate traditional knowledge learned in order to disseminate modes of awareness of nature. Forest traditions are constantly under threat – the neo-liberal policies of local, state and federal governments encourage the devastation of the forest.

‘When we go to more distant communities, taking a group show, we also leave there with other stories. Inside the forest, this encounter between one human being with another, the conversation, is still very much preserved. So, it’s that sharing, that exchange of ideas, of stories, and it is in these exchanges that we formulate our works,’ says Mirini.

Monkey Games

In the Forest Theatre workshops, Mirini includes a game popular among many indigenous communities from Acre, which she learned with the Yawanawá people. It’s called Tuykú, a monkey game.

‘So we see that the monkey game is an artistic expression of the Huni Kuin people; we found it interesting and during our process we also incorporated it into some of our exercises: there is the monkey hour,’ she said.

‘First we talk about this whole story, explain how this game is and then we shout: Tuykú! From there, we leave it up to the person to create their artistic expression, usually we do this with the acrobatic fabrics, also mentioning the moment they climb the trees.’

‘And that moment is the moment of creation, of letting this call of the forest spirit, the monkey spirit, come and play. After all this, we stop and realise what movement this body that was created has, what movement these grimaces have, what presence this actor’s body has.’

Vivarte Headquarters in Isaura Parente, Rio Branco, Acre, foto de Dani Mirini, 2022

Zeca Ligiero  
Zeca Ligiero is director, author, visual artist, Ph.D. at NYU and Post-Doc at Yale University and Paris 8; co-founder of the Hemispheric Institute of Performance and Politics, New York. As director, he staged in other countries and languages: The third bank of Rio in New York, 1987; Noticias de las cosas pasadas, Colombia, 2009, Mama Africa, Senegal, 2010 and Mariana, Princesse turque d’Amazonie, France, 2016. Among his most important books are: Divine Inspiration from Benin to Bahia, 1993, USA, Iniciación al Candomblé 1993, Colombia, Corpo a Corpo, 2011, Performance e Antropologia de Richard Schechner, 2012, Augusto Boal: Arte, Pedagogia e Política, 2013, Teatro das Origens, 2017. 

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