Written by Felipe Vieira de Galisteo*
Translated by Iona Macintyre
At the end of 2016 I walked into a bookshop in São Paulo. I wasn’t after anything in particular; I was looking for books that would help inspire me to create a new theatre show the following year. At the time I was a bit tired of traditional drama and I was on the lookout for other literary forms. That’s how I found myself in the graphic novel section browsing the aisle, just following my nose. I didn’t really know much about that kind of book so I didn’t feel confident asking a salesperson for help. Just by chance, I saw an image on a shelf that grabbed my attention. The book cover showed a girl in a red dress holding up a typical graphic novel speech bubble, but the bubble was empty. The title was Becoming Unbecoming and the enigmatic word Una was written in the corner of the cover. It took me a while to figure out that Una was the name of the writer. I thought: ‘An autobiographical graphic novel, well that’s different!’ Slowly I leafed through the book, taking in the drawings, and reading snippets of text and the reviews on the back cover. I shuddered as it dawned on me what it was actually about. One after another the images took hold of me and I decided to buy the book. I went straight to the till because there weren’t many copies left.
I got home and read the whole book that night, getting very emotional and, at the same time, reflecting bit by bit on its content. I felt I was reading a great work that managed to address, from personal experience, the social and political dimension of sexual violence against women all over the world. It was a strong condemnation of rape culture and structural sexism in society. It was a work that was also sensitive, poignant, and educational in just the right way. I realised that that book had the potential to be a great resource for my work as a drama teacher. I had six years of experience working in the city of Mauá on a project in the Secretariat of Culture called the Cultural Offices where teens and young people from marginalised areas do extra-curricular courses in the Arts.
There were always more female students than male students involved in the project. That’s usually the case with theatre in Brazil. In in the federal university where I studied in my home state of Porto Alegre in the South of Brazil it was normal to have one man for every three women on the course. In Mauá it was no different. Scenes reflecting violence against women, sexism and the patriarchy – all deeply rooted in Brazil – came up time and time again in the scenes improvised by my female students, and that had especially been the case during the previous two or three years. I knew that it was time to study these topics in-depth.
It’s important to stress that we had just gone through our first experience with a woman president. She was deposed that year in a terrible parliamentary coup in which the very issues I mention here constituted an important part of the plan to bring down the elected government. Dilma Rousseff, a former political prisoner who was violently tortured during the military dictatorship (1964-1985), had been re-elected in 2014. In the one and a half years of her second term she was attacked more than any other president in the entire history of the country. The extreme right and conservatism made great strides in the country. As they grew so too did the indices of violence against women. At the same time, protests against this situation grew, as did the struggles led by women’s and feminist groups in Brazil. This context could not be ignored in my theatre classes, just as I couldn’t ignore the fact that it was necessary for me to not just to rethink my condition as a man in this society but to make changes in the way I thought, and in my behaviours and attitudes. Therefore it was necessary to talk more and discuss the questions in-depth, work on them, and study! Luckily when I went into that bookshop that day I found just the right book.
The year 2017 began and I was responsible for seven theatre groups inside the Culture Offices. One of them was a large intermediate theatre class, meaning it was comprised of several students who already had some prior experience of drama. There were about 30 young people of whom more than 20 were girls between 13 and 20 years of age. Quite early on I worked with them on aspects of the theatre of Bertolt Brecht, looking at the epic poem ‘Concerning the Infanticide. Marie Farrar’ that portrays the theme of abortion and the social issues involved. It was an emblematic moment in that class that generated intense and healthy debates, including with the audience that took part in a work-in-progress. I then understood that the group was ready to go deeper and that was when I shared the book Becoming Unbecoming with them. The impact was immediate. As well as having practical sessions, we spent nearly two months reading and studying the work. We also decided together that it was necessary to read a lot on the subjects depicted in the book. Stories of traumatic experiences of sexism and violence were shared. The work helped to awaken a subject that should not be swept under the carpet. The young women began to talk about the issue. The group grew stronger and an enormous bond was forged. I tried to make the process as comfortable as possible, giving maximum freedom of creation so that we would manage to adapt the play for the stage but at that point that wasn’t the most important thing. The most important thing was that that work, the work that had made such an impression on me, would be accessible to more people, who having seen it, would also be encouraged to speak more about the serious problem of sexual violence. In Brazil more than half of all rapes are committed against girls the same age as my students. Many times it was hard going, it was difficult to speak, but all this was transformed into creative power and into, as one of the girls herself would say, the growing wish ‘to never keep quiet’.
At the end of the year we put on the show to great success. In an auditorium of almost 200 people, the piece deeply moved mothers, fathers, friends and colleagues. The group got together afterwards and we talked a lot about the need to continue performing the work because it had such great capacity to educate people on the matter. After some problems restaging the show at the beginning of 2018 we got together again in the second semester and staged it once again in under the auspices of the cultural office, this time in the city’s municipal theatre to more than 300 people. There were many changes in the team during the new process: many people left. It was even necessary to expel one of the young men (an adult) from the cast because of behaviours that weren’t appropriate given the process we had been undergoing for so long. Some girls also left because of other commitments. For them it’s a stage of life with many transitions, during which many difficult decisions are made: where to study, where to work etc. Because of that, at the end of that new period of the piece we got everyone together to talk about the need to grow the work beyond the Cultural Offices: we needed to create a theatre group. So that’s when Coletivo Rubra came into being.
Once we had set up Coletivo Rubra we had the idea of contacting the author of the book to talk to her about our experience of making the theatre show. We were really surprised at her quick reply which was so sensitive and generous about our work. Our message, written by many hands, arrived to Una via email and from her we received not just her blessing to keep going but also her extremely caring words and the shared wish to work together! So at the beginning of the new year we sketched out an objective that was quite bold for a recently formed group of young theatre practitioners in a city like Mauá: we would bring her to Brazil!
We spent 2019 rehearsing and modifying elements of the show to improve its quality and, at the same time, we tried to put the wheels in motion to bring Una to Brazil. We performed the show in the Belem Culture Factory in São Paulo and we were selected to take part in the Vamos que Venimos international youth theatre festival in Santo André where we presented in the SESC Theatre. We also kept up a dialogue with Una who began to look for a way to fund her trip to Brazil. We set up a crowdfunder to collect money for her stay in Mauá, we contacted the publishing house that brought the book out in Brazil and the book shop Ugra that specialises in graphic novels, and together with women’s groups like Sempreviva and Movimento Olga Benario, with organising by Casa de Referência para Mulheres Helenira Preta, we also organised a joint series of activities (with debates, a relaunch of the book, workshops and recitals) for the days that Una would be with us. Una managed to cover her flights thanks to the British Council and in October of that year we made a dream come true: as well as numerous other activities, we performed the show to the author in the Municipal Theatre of Rio Grande da Serra in front of more than 200 people. And she loved our work! It was an unforgettable experience that is difficult to describe! The whole story going back to 2017, when we adapted the work for the stage, and the process of bringing Una to Brazil for the experience that we had, was, for me, even after 21 years working in the theatre, without a doubt one of the most important experiences I have had in my career, and, without a doubt, the one that brought about the deepest transformations within me.
Since then Coletivo Rubra and Una have remained in contact with the aim of developing further projects and the group are also undertaking new research for other theatre performances. Coletivo Rubra has come a long way during this period, becoming more professionalised. At the beginning of 2020 we presented the show once again, this time in a housing association in Jardim Zaíra, one of the numerous favelas in Mauá. Our idea from then on was to take the work to other marginal places in the city and even to those in other cities. There was also the possibility of participating in the Vamos que Venimos festival again, this time in Argentina and in Chile. Unfortunately, the world was assailed by a terrible pandemic. In Brazil alone it has already killed more than 300,000 people due to the neglect of the population by the genocidal, fascist, sexist, racist, and homophobic Bolsonaro government. In spite of the enormous difficulties, we in the Collective keep up the fight, sharing our work, moving audiences and raising awareness. We presented the piece Dedicated to All the Others online at the beginning of the year 2021. It’s not the same as doing the show in front of an audience, but it’s better than not doing it all. All we want is for this terrible phase in Brazil to be over as soon as possible so we can get back to work and put new plans into action, side by side with Una, so that this literary work, adapted for the theatre, can be brought to more and more people.
*Felipe Vieira de Galisteo is a 39-year-old actor, director, drama teacher, poet and dramaturge who has written and directed more than a dozen theatre shows. Born in Porto Alegre, in the state of Rio Grande do Sul, since 2010 he has been based in the city of Mauá, in the state of São Paulo, where he works as a public servant in the municipal cultural centre. Apart from his work with Coletivo Rubra he is also involved in projects like the Popular Culture Committee and, as a member of Popular Unity for Socialism, he participates in workers’ movements and social movements such as the struggle for housing rights.