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209 Chapter 6 Total Theater and Missing Pieces During the early days of 2005 a perplexing rumor began to wind its way through the artistic community in São Paulo. For over two decades José (Zé) Celso, the notorious director of an avant-​ garde theater company now nearly half a century old, had waged a relentless campaign against the even more notorious Sílvio Santos, a TV variety show host and entrepreneur who was systematically buying up the historic neighborhood of Bixiga. In interviews Celso stressed that the land where Bixiga stood had once been inhabited by Tupi Indians; during the colonial period it served as a refuge for run‑ away slaves, and in 1961, when Teatro Oficina built its first theater, it was still a working-​ class district made up of descendants of Italian immigrants. A few years later the theater was destroyed by fire, and in its place the group constructed a theater in the round with a revolving stage, where in 1967 it created history of its own with its controversial production of O rei da vela (The Candle King), a never-​ performed play from the early 1930s by Oswald de Andrade that raised the ire of the military dictatorship and helped spark the counterculture movement known as Tropicália. By 1979, Teatro Oficina had outgrown this structure, and so Celso enlisted the modernist architect Lina Bo Bardi to design a new corridor-​ like addition resembling an alleyway or a narrow city block. This building was now protected by its status as a national historic landmark. Yet the theater, one of several in the area, found itself hemmed in on all sides by properties belonging to Grupo Sílvio Santos, a vast conglomerate with interests in banking, agribusiness, cosmetics, hotels, and media whose owner was eager to further diversify its portfolio by build‑ ing a vast shopping and entertainment complex—­ right on the doorstep of Teatro Oficina. Imagine, then, the shock of Celso’s supporters when the wizened rebel announced he had cut a deal: Mr. Santos would build his megamall, but he would also fund the construction of a thousand-​ seat “stadium theater” inspired by Walter Gropius’s 1927 design for the TotalTheater in Weimar, complete with a ceiling made of retractable movie screens opening up to the tropical sky. Here, in the heart of Bixiga, Teatro Oficina would fulfill its direc‑ tor’s dream of developing a new mass dramaturgical form based on Oswald 210 Chapter 6 de Andrade’s O homem e o cavalo (Man and the Horse)—­ another unper‑ formed play from the 1930s, described by Celso as the “total surmounting” of Russian constructivism “blended with the Great Rituals that shape the Brazilian Mixed Races culture.”1 The deal between Celso and Santos quickly collapsed, and it is possible the whole thing was just another “performance.” In an interview at the time, however, Celso betrayed no hint of irony. After decades of neoliberalism and defunding of the arts, the country was on the cusp of an economic and cultural renaissance with the socialist president Lula at the helm, the Tropicalist musician Gil Gilberto was the new minister of culture, and Brazil was at the forefront of a movement to create “another kind of capitalism . . . a revolution within capitalism itself [uma revolução no próprio capitalismo].” Imperialism still had to be defeated, as the U.S. inva‑ sion of Afghanistan and Iraq showed. But in Celso’s ecstatic vision,“it is only through a total cultural experience, an experience that is not just cerebral but of the body and lived, the experience of another dimension of the individual human and collective human body—­ all of which the stadium can provide—­ that this revolution will be achieved.”2 This specter of a “total,” radically transformative performance dogs almost every discussion of and attempt to create “avant-​ garde” theater, and it shadows the very title of this book. In the opening scene of the first chap‑ ter, José Vasconcelos surveys a rehearsal for the inauguration of a “theater stadium” far more immense than anything Zé Celso could ever hope to construct (even with a little help from corporate capital). Using strikingly similar language, the founding director of the Secretariat of Public Educa‑ tion in Mexico also evoked the idea of a synesthetic experience in which the division between mind and body blurs and all the races converge as actors and audience become one. The actual performance he oversaw at the stadium’s inauguration fell far...


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