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Impro in Brazil: Rio de Janeiro

“I know of one acid test in the theatre. It is literally an acid test. When a performance is over, what remains? .... When emotion and argument are harnessed to a wish from the audience to see more clearly into itself—then something in the mind burns. The event scorches on to the memory an outline, a taste, a trace, a smell—a picture. It is the plays central image that remains, its silhouette will be its meaning, this shape will be the essence of what is has to say” ~ Peter Brook (The Empty Space, 136)

Last week, Dale and I were in Rio de Janeiro, and what now remains for me is a wish to have more time in this vibrant country, to understand Brazilian culture more deeply, to unpack the many burning questions and images planted in my mind. I was invited to Rio to teach two master Impro System workshops, one at Cia de Teatro Contemporâneo and the other at UNIRIO (Federal University of the State of Rio de Janeiro). We scheduled another five days to sightsee, and it is hard to believe how much we packed into that short time. Like improvisers, Dale and I said “yes” to so many unexpected offers, e.g., ending our week seeing a production, directed by celebrated film and theatre director Bia Lessa, that definitely passed Peter Brook’s acid test. Not since I saw Robert Wilson and Tom Wait’s Black Rider at the Ahmanson in 2006 has a theatrical event scorched on to my memory so many images, sounds, and traces. What follows is a brief outline of our splendid weeklong journey through Rio de Janeiro.

We arrived on Friday, October 11, and the lovely Aline Bourseau, co-founder of Cia de Teatro Contemporâneo (, hosted us at her home for the first two nights in her Botafogo neighborhood. My workshop was on Saturday. Dinho Valladares, the other co-founder, and about 20 delightful students attended. All were improvisers and several were teachers who helped with translating, although most of the students spoke English. The theatre building itself is charming. The main theatre on the first floor seats about 100 or so and other performance and rehearsal spaces are on the top 3 floors, accessed by narrow metal staircases with ornamental iron railings. Architecture here and in other parts of Rio often reminded me of New Orleans and Paris.

One student from my workshop, Zeca (José Luis) Carvalho, is a professor, actor, and improviser, who recently finished his post-doc at the University of Lisbon. I was thrilled to find out that Zeca’s dissertation, O Corpo no Teatro de Improviso ("The Body in the Improvisation Theatre"), cites my work throughout, and my concept/definition of the “Impro System” was instrumental to his research. If you read Portuguese, you can access Zeca’s entire dissertation (for free!) on the University of Lisbon’s library site: O Corpo no Teatro de Improviso

After Aline and Dinho interviewed me for their online video channel, Dale and I attended the first round of the 15th Carioca Improvisation Festival at the theatre that evening. Although in Portuguese, it was obvious that the players competed with good nature and the audience was entertained. I, personally, would have liked to see more physical impro (given that I couldn't understand the dialogue) and players that were less anxious to get somewhere. Many scenes felt rushed. It probably had something to do with the structure of the games and the time restrictions applied. This was also the first night of the festival which lasts all month long, so I'm sure it gets better and better as the competition moves forward.

On Sunday, Aline and Dinho drove us to the north side of Rio to see the home of their future theatre/impro training center. It will need a lot of remodeling, but this cool building will offer large rehearsal spaces and storage on 4 levels and an outdoor performance space (where a swimming pool is now) for students who may not be able to afford to travel to Botafogo, in the more upscale south side. Then we all went to an outdoor food and wine festival on the grounds of the beautiful Palacete Linneo de Paula Machado, and I had the best vegan “fish” tofu sandwich ever! After lunch, Dale and I moved over to Arena Copacabana Hotel, smack dab in the middle of Praia de Copacabana!

On Monday morning, we did the obligatory tour up Pão de Açucar ("Sugarloaf Mountain"). We were on the first cable car to the top, before the crowds arrived, and it was glorious! Dale’s father, John Dudeck, was on this mountain in 1953, representing Michigan State University on an international swim team. John passed away in April, so this moment for both of us was bittersweet. We stayed at the top for several hours, soaking in the magical views of Rio de Janeiro. Later in the afternoon, we attempted to take the train up Corcovado mountain, through the Tijuca Forest, to see Cristo Redentor ("Christ the Redeemer"), but the train lost electricity halfway up and so we had to descend slowly back to the station. Dale successfully made it up on Tuesday morning, while I stayed at the hotel prepping for my next impro workshop.

On Tuesday afternoon, I taught an intense, 3.5-hour impro workshop for students of Professor Christina Streva at the Escola de Teatro at UNIRIO, located in the wealthy neighborhood of Urca. The theatre program at UNIRIO is one of the hardest to get into with, on average, 1000 students auditioning for only a handful of spots each year. I suppose studying in Rio de Janeiro only minutes from Leme and Copacabana beaches is part of the attraction! This year, however, because of the economic recession, fewer students auditioned. Nevertheless, my 26 first-year theatre students were amazing! Their bodies moved like dancers, they had the stamina of athletes, the generosity characteristic of most Brazilians, and the passion and curiosity of children! Professor Streva’s expertise is in cabaret and her cabaret version of Marat/Sade called Cabaré Sade is coming to Belo Horizonte next month. I can’t wait to see it!

That evening, we ate dinner at Nosso ( in Ipanema. We met the young chef, Chef Bruno, of this trendy restaurant (with the tallest entrance door I’ve ever seen!) at the food and wine festival on Sunday, and he prepared, just for us, a 4-course vegan meal.

On Wednesday, we took an organized tour to Arraial do Cabo, a coastal town 164 kilometers east of Rio. A tour boat took us to 3 different islands with white powdered sand and teal-colored water reminiscent of the Caribbean. The only negative was when our tour guide, on the bus trip over, talked/sang/yelled for an hour, non-stop, in Portuguese then in Spanish and with an angry edge to his demeanor. Furthermore, the only speaker that was working was above our seats, and it was blown, making headache-inducing, crackling sounds. I finally had enough and told the tour guide he had to continue without amplification (which he really didn’t need on this small bus). The two lovely ladies from South Africa, sitting next to us, appreciated my intervention. I only wish I had intervened about 45 minutes sooner! After that, the trip was quite pleasant.

On Thursday, we decided to explore downtown Rio de Janeiro. We were dropped off by our Uber driver (Uber service is excellent in Brazil, by the way) in front of the Theatro Municipal do Rio de Janeiro. Built in 1909 and inspired by the Paris Opera, this is one of the most important theatres in the country. Phillip Glass’s opera Orphée opens this week in this spectacular performance space. In the same square along Av. Rio Branco, we discovered the Fundação Biblioteca Nacional (built in 1910, but established 100 years before under the Kingdom of Portugal). Unfortunately, we did not have time to do the full tour of this neoclassical-style library, but at least we saw the main entrance and atrium, with an internal staircase leading up to a large stained-glass window/dome at the top.

Next, we made our way to the Confeitaria Colombo, founded in 1894 by Portuguese immigrants. We ate a buffet lunch on the second floor “tearoom” added in 1922. Even though Brazil is known for its meat dishes, most buffet and self-serve restaurants offer plenty of vegan options for us. And there is always feijão e arroz (“beans and rice”)! Considered one of the most beautiful cafes in the world, we sat at a table just a few feet from the favorite table of former Brazilian president Kubitschek (1956-1961).

Born in Minas Gerais and an alum of UFMG (where I’m teaching), Kubitschek was much beloved in Brazil, although not without controversy. He was a bit like our JKF and brought economic prosperity and stability to the country. When Kubitschek was mayor of Belo Horizonte, he developed Lake Pampulha (where we live) and called on famous modern architect Oscar Niemeyer to design several buildings around the lake (c. 1941) including Kubitschek’s country home, which we toured about a month ago. Niemeyer is best known for his design of the civic buildings in Brasilia when it became the capital in 1960. He was also a key architect of the United Nations headquarters building in NYC.

Our next stop was Igreja da Candelária. This Roman Catholic cathedral was built between 1775-1811 smack dab in the middle of Rio, only blocks from Praça Mauá and Rio’s waterfront port. It is one of the most magnificent churches I’ve ever seen, rivaling those in Italy.

Later in the afternoon, we met Bê Telles, a former engineer turned actor/improviser who was in my master impro workshop at Teatro Contemporâneo, at Bar Luiz for an early dinner. Established in 1887, Bar Luiz is one of the first cervejarias (brew pubs) in Rio and it is German-inspired, although surprisingly, they were out of sauerkraut that evening! Because not much has changed about this place since its opening, Bar Luiz is not getting the business it needs and is on the verge of closing. The neighborhood apparently pulled resources to save it once. I hope it survives. I felt like we stepped back into time for a few hours, with our waiter, Pedro, sporting traditional waiter attire—white jacket, blue lapel, black bow tie and all. At Bar Luiz, Bê gifted us with two Flamengo Clube jerseys, the most popular soccer/futbol clube in Rio, currently ranked number one in Brazil. Bê is the epitome of benevolence! I am sure our paths will cross again.

After dinner, we walked to Teatro Carlos Gomes, established in 1868 and now located in Praça Tiradentes. Dale and I were invited by a UNIRIO student/producer, Felipe Black, to a performance of Macunaíma: Uma Rapsódia Musical, directed by Bia Lessa. Macunaima, originally a 1928 novel by Mario de Andrade, is considered a founding text/myth of Brazil’s modern culture. From my brief research on Google, here is a bit of information about Macunaima: Andrade considered his story a “rhapsody” and representative of the melting pot of cultures in Brazil. Indigenous stories underpin the folklore in the narrative. The protagonist, Macunaima, goes through constant metamorphoses that represent the juxtaposition of differences between Brazilian ethnic groups, regions, and religions. Macunaima is “above all a vision of mythical Brazilian consciousness, a picaresque epic of birth, triumph, decline and death” (NY Times, 1985 article). Macunaima, the antihero, is absent of character and a sort of collage of various types of men. As he moves from his Amazon home to the city of São Paulo and back, he struggles to find himself in a new world but the old world, and its gods, continue to be a force to be reckoned with.

As I said above, Bia Lessa’s production passed Peter Brook’s “acid test.” Dale was allowed to photograph the second half of this 3-hour production. Not the first half, which took place in the Amazon, because the characters were almost entirely naked (and simulating a lot of sex!). The opening scene, Macunaima's birth, is forever scorched into my memory. Using a large tarp of plastic, the cast, hidden beneath, began growing and throbbing like a large black blob until Macunaima is thrust through an opening, fighting desperately to be born but then sucked back in again. This repeats until finally this bloody man/baby is thrown into Brazil at the juncture when the indigenous past collides with a desire to move into a modern future. The cast of 14, plus 3 professional musicians (who also wore little to no clothing in the first act), could do absolutely everything with their bodies and voices.

Dale and I are still processing what we saw that night. Overall, the stage pictures Lessa created via bodies, contorted faces, instruments, lighting, and rudimentary set pieces was spectacular, and often nightmarish. Again, like Robert Wilson’s work, Lessa created images underpinned by a juxtaposition of rhythms, tempos, and sounds with many moments pushing me outside my zone of comfort, in a strangely satisfying way. I need to see this production a few more times to give it the review it deserves. Meanwhile, for those who are interested, here is a link to an interview with Lessa and a few clips from the production:

On Friday morning before our afternoon flight back to Belo Horizonte, we took a long walk from the north end of Copacabana all the way to Ipanema. It was a perfect ending to a magnificent week. Rio de Janeiro, I hope we return to you soon.

(Photos by Dale Dudeck)

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