Since he started out as an actor, 20 years ago, Tiago Rodrigues has always looked at theater as a human assembly: a place where people meet, like in a cafe, to confront their thoughts and share their time. Either mixing true stories and fiction, rewriting classics, or adapting novels, the theatre of Tiago Rodrigues is deeply rooted in the idea of writing for and with the actors, searching a poetical transformation of reality through theatrical tools. Parallel to his theatre work, he wrote screenplays for film and television, articles for newspapers, poetry, and essays.
What was your first experience with the performing arts?
As a spectator, the family with whom I lived for a part of my childhood would take me to see typical Portuguese variety shows including a lot of humor, chorus dancers, and costumes with feathers. My adoration for popular theatre comes from those first experiences.
As a practitioner, I first experienced theatre in high school, where there was a theatre club. They were the strangest, funkiest kids in school directed by a crazy Mozambican sociology teacher. I had no particular interest in theatre, but I wanted to hang out with those people. I was not that happy with school during weekdays, but Saturday morning I would go to school to rehearse with a smile. Theatre was there for me much before I was there for theatre.
What did you want to become as a child?
There were two businesses in my family. Cars and restaurants. At first, I wanted to be a car mechanic. It was my first job, as a kid. I was lousy at it. Later, I also thought of being a journalist or lawyer. I ended up in theatre and I am truly passionate about it, but sometimes I still think of having a small restaurant next to a train station, like my grandparents.
Which performance kept you awake at night recently?
Aurora Negra (Black Dawn), by and with Isabél Zuaa, Cleo Tavares and Nádia Yracema. It’s a combative, touching, and funny performance about the invisibility of Black Women in Portuguese society, stages, and cultural spaces. It kept me awake for its intensity and quality, but also because of a historical inequality that should keep everybody awake. And not only at night.
And which performance is unforgettable?
The first time I saw the Belgian company tg STAN on stage, in Lisbon, in 1997. They presented a series of performances. JDX – an enemy of the people, after Ibsen, and One 2 Life, after George Jackson’s letters, are among those performances that I won’t ever forget, I think. I was 20 and a first-year Conservatory student. It blew up my mind and opened a world of possibilities for me. I was thinking about quitting theatre, as most of my teachers were advising me to do so. After having watched these performances and met the people of tg STAN, I started thinking that maybe my teachers were wrong. In retrospect, maybe they weren’t wrong. But being an artist means that sometimes you have to trust that most of what people think about you is wrong. That was the first time I thought so. Watching tg STAN I realized that theatre could be about freedom on stage, thinking together, and openness to the world. That energized me to continue doing theatre and I was lucky enough to be invited to work with STAN one year later. I quit school and never came back.
What is your favorite place to be?
I love cafes where you can spend half a day, drinking coffee, reading alone, working, talking to friends or strangers, having a glass of wine, falling in love, conspiring failed revolutions. I love theatres, but my favorite place in a theatre is the cafe.
Where would you like to show your work once?
In a forest.
Who taught you the most in your life?
Magda Bizarro, a scientist turned into theatre organizer and programmer, with whom I collaborate for almost twenty years now, has probably been the person who has taught me the most in my life and I’m confident she’ll remain in that position for many years. Anton Tchékhov is also a great teacher.
What does your workplace look like?
Do you have a ritual before you go on stage?
Before I perform, I always go on stage before the audience comes in and sing the same song by Brazilian songwriter Chico Buarque. It’s my voice warm-up, my “getting in the zone”, my superstition, and my way to relax alongside the people who work in the theatre and are also getting ready to start the performance. If we are talking about the premiere of a performance where I don’t perform, but might have directed or written, I always spend the day working on ideas for my next projects.
What is the best thing about your job?
Learning. Each project is about learning about new subjects and the people involved in the project. It’s such a wonder to be able to learn about such different things as cooking, the rise of fascism, jazz, Cleopatra, neurology, or the right moment to plant your coriander seeds.
Do your parents like your work?
My father was a journalist and he was not one for small talk or easy flatter. Everyone who knew him told me that he was proud of me and my work, but he never told me so and he would only come to see one of my pieces every now and then. My mother, a medical doctor, is a loving but demanding woman, who will always come to see everything I do. I know that, after the performance, she will always have some constructive ‘don’t always agree’ and arguments can become lively.
Does theatre have an impact?
At the National Theatre D. Maria II, in Lisbon, where I work, we started collaborating with all the public kindergartens of the city. Thousands of kids from 3 to 6 years old. We take shows to their classrooms and bring them all to see shows at the theatre. For most of them, it’s the first time they see theatre or enter a theatre. After a couple of years, a teacher from one of the kindergartens told us her children had a problem with our performances. Most of the children in her class came from emigrant families and didn’t yet speak Portuguese very well. She had about seven languages being spoken in her classroom and Portuguese was among the less spoken. She was unable to engage the whole class in common activities, let alone a Portuguese-speaking theatre performance. So, at the National Theatre we started doing shows in an invented language, a mix of several languages. After we presented those shows, the same teacher told us that, for the first time, she could have all the kids enjoying the performance. More even: they adopted the invented language of the show, adding their own invented vocabulary, and now they spoke it among them and used it for common class activities. So, yes, theatre does have an impact. Maybe it’s hard to know what kind of impact and how much impact, because it really depends of the theatrical experience each individual and community goes through. But if thousands of years of theatre would not be enough to prove it has an impact, this little story would be proof enough for me.
With whom would you like to collaborate once? Are there certain artists you feel related to?
I’ve been fortunate to collaborate with many, many artists I love and admire, with whom I would love to work again. The list is long and I’m afraid of naming them and forgetting someone. Of course, tg STAN is on top of that list because it is also my theatre family. I’m also inspired by many artists from the past and the present. I don’t know if this connection always has to translate in artistic collaboration. Maybe just getting closer to some artists would be enough for me. I think of Marlene Monteiro Freitas, Christiane Jatahy or Tim Crouch, whose stage work I really love. I would also love to collaborate with Indian writer Arundhati Roy, for instance. But I’m also fascinated by scientists, chefs, or journalists. And I also love to collaborate with less visible people, like I did with the prompter of the National Theatre, Cristina Vidal, when I asked her to be on stage for the first time and be the protagonist of a performance. Once again, it’s about learning and there are so much people in the world to learn from. I would love to do a performance with car mechanics.
Who would you like to see collaborate on a piece?
Nina Simone and Anton Tchékhov.
Did you ever have a special encounter with an audience member?
In one of my works, By Heart, I invite ten audience members to come on stage and learn a sonnet during the performance. It’s always a very special experience, to help ten individuals become a collective with the tools of theatre and literature. With By Heart, I’ve had wonderful meetings, made friends, and had tough arguments with audience members.
What is the most recent note you made?
“The music should invade the stage as if it was a train arriving at the station”.
Is art your life?
It’s not my whole life, but a very big part. Among all the people alive, there are very little of us who have the rare privilege to work on what they love. I’m part of that group. I could imagine quitting being an artist in the name of something or someone really important for me. I would probably pursue the idea of having a restaurant. But I can’t imagine excluding art from my life, even if I’d work in the restaurant.
If you had the chance to start again and choose a new career, what would you do?
I would do exactly the same, but differently.
Do you think the theatre will survive in the future?
I’m sure. Theatre will exist as long as we survive as a species (although I don’t know how long that will be if we don’t radically change a system that destroys the planet in the name of profit).
Since he started out as an actor, 20 years ago, Tiago Rodrigues has always looked at theater as a human assembly: a place where people meet, like in a cafe, to confront their thoughts and share their time. His encounter with tg STAN, in 1997, when he was still a student, definitely confirmed his attachment to the absence of hierarchy in a creative group. The freedom he found when he first started working with this Belgian collective would forever influence his future works.
In 2003, he co-founded with Magda Bizarro the company Mundo Perfeito, with which he created and presented about 30 performances in more than 20 countries, becoming a regular presence in events such as Festival d’Automne à Paris, METEOR Festival in Norway, Theaterformen in Germany, Festival TransAmériques in Canada, kunstenfestivalsdesarts in Belgium, among others.
He collaborated with a large number of Portuguese and international theatre artists, as well as choreographers and dancers. He also taught theater in several schools, namely the Belgian dance school PARTS, directed by choreographer Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker, the Swiss performing arts school Manufacture, and the international project École des Maîtres. Parallel to his theatre work, he wrote screenplays for film and television, articles for newspapers, poetry, and essays.
His latest performances granted him international recognition and a number of national and international awards. Some of his most notable works are By Heart, Antony, and Cleopatra, Bovary, The way she dies, and his latest piece, Sopro, created at the Festival d’Avignon. Either mixing true stories and fiction, rewriting classics, or adapting novels, the theatre of Tiago Rodrigues is deeply rooted in the idea of writing for and with the actors, searching a poetical transformation of reality through theatrical tools. That desire is obvious in projects such as Occupation Bastille, an artistic occupation of Théâtre de la Bastille, in Paris, by almost a hundred artists and spectators in 2016.
In 2018 he was awarded with the XV Europe Prize Theatrical Realities. Director of the Teatro Nacional D. Maria II in Lisbon since 2015, Tiago Rodrigues has become a builder of bridges between cities and countries, at once host and advocate of a living theatre. He was awarded the Prémio Pessoa in 2020, one of the most prestigious Portuguese awards for Arts and Science.
This article appeared on E-tcetera.be on April 1, 2021, and has been reposted with permission.
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