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Antunes Filho: in search of a national identity.

To be around theater director

Antunes Filho is to find oneself in the presence of a piercing, intense artist who prefers the search for "pre-mythical language" to the sound of "polished, empty talk." In 1988, Filho's artistic trajectory was recognized by the Association of Theatre Critics who honored him with the International Trophy for Revealing Brazilian Theatre to the World. The Award was a long deserved recognition. Since 1978, Filho's stunning production, Macunaima, had become an anticipated, highly successful staple at most international theater festivals in countries as widespread as France, Italy, West Germany, Belgium, Australia, Spain, Mexico, Venezuela, England, The Netherlands, Switzerland and the USA, among others.

The original tale of Macunaima was written by Mario de Andrade, a member of a polemical modernist group composed of Brazilian poets, artists and writers whose aim, between 1920 and 1922, was to denounce the stagnant quality of art that reinforced the myths of the past and the imposition of values from abroad. Andrade was one of the few writers in this artistic vanguard with an extraordinary social consciousness. He adopted a posture of resistance to Brazil's self-image as a dependent, colonized country and through humor and irony, poetry and popular traditions rediscovered the potentiality of a nation rich in cultural individuality.

Antunes Filho's own quest for the recognition of Brazil's identity through theater gave birth to the four-hour-long stage version of the novel. The episodic montage follows the fantastical adventures of the young Macunaima, a member of the Tapanhumas tribe who refuses, out of laziness, to understand himself and to assume an identity as a man of the Americas, the son of Vei, the Sun Goddess. After a series of trials that involve battles with dragons and encounters with snakes that turn into the moon, the "hero-anti-hero" falls into the demands of Sao Paulo's "civilization" where primitive values meet the urban world and clash. By the end of his journey, all that is left for the now mature Macunaima is to turn into the guiding star of the Great Bear constellation, shining over the chosen Amazonia. In the epic dramatization conceived by Filho, the stage became a wondrous environment for mysterious transformations, apparitions of mythological figures, and symbolic objects which transport us through time and space. The genuineness of the director's own connection to magical realism turned the fabulous into the natural, while projecting a vision that was deeply Brazilian and yet surprisingly universal.

The repertoire of Macunaima and Filho's production of Nelson 2 Rodriguez (two remarkable works by that renowned Brazilian dramatist) as well as the innovative staging of Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet, established the Center for Theatre Research SESC Vila Nova as the most exciting home of experimental theater in Sao Paulo. The Center was founded in mid-1982 at the invitation of The Social Service of Commerce (SESC) and was comprised of the old Center for Theatre Research (CPT) and the Grupo de Teatro Macunaima, all under the direction of Antunes Filho. Almost immediately, Filho proposed giving a free course in acting to thirty individuals who were selected through an auditioning process.

But the goals of the theater school went beyond the conventional Stanislavskian interpretation courses taught at any of Brazil's acting institutes. To this day Filho continues to emphasize the need to develop the actor's consciousness and their responsibility as social beings. In the training, he instructs the young actor to have "above all a philosophy and ideology as a man of the theater, a clear point of view in your approach to realities."

Filho's opposition to any display of narcissism on stage is twofold. On the one hand, it is a natural reflection of his artistic manifesto: that Art must not be viewed as a luxury item for the elite, but as an accessible tool that can guide Brazil to its national consciousness and empower people to think about their reality. On the other hand, it is a consequence of his rigorous technique classes where actors are instructed in the development of their instruments. The training incorporates exercises based on Zen principles and on the writing found in the "Letter Concerning Motionless Comprehension" by an anonymous Japanese author from the seventeenth century, as well as techniques developed by contemporary Japanese director Suzuki.

Being both a research and experiment group, the members of the company (sixteen of whom are permanent) work six days a week for an average of fourteen hours a day on exercises that include dancing, music, swimming, circus techniques, capoeira (Afro/Brazilian martial arts), tai chi chuan and theory classes. Rehearsals and performances are scheduled in the afternoon and evenings. All courses are free and although an average of 200 people apply annually for selection, only ten percent are accepted.

As a recent and educator of the theater, Filho arrived at his strong theoretical point of view through practical experimentation. His technique is complex in its attempt to reach a level of simplicity and truth. He fights against naturalism which he perceives is an extension of television acting, one where the actor "fakes at being natural but can never be that." Filho favors the actors who have developed their cultural sensibility over those who are adept at experiencing their emotions and projecting them on stage. His goals are to prevent all voids between the voice and the body; to propose a discussion through theater and to share that experience with the community.

Not one to be content with previous success, Filho continues taking new risks. In his latest theatrical proposition, the innovative director uses the tale of Red Riding Hood as what at first seems an innocent starting point for Nueva Vieja Historia. The production, which was greeted with great enthusiasm by New York critics when it was presented at Repertorio Espanol (Spanish Repertory Theatre) as part of the 1991 International Theatre Festival, is much more audacious than the simple retelling of a child's tale. In an exploration of the universality of the problems and themes inherent in the fable, the actors enact Filho's version of the story speaking an invented language described by the director as "pre-mythical"--that is, non-literal sounds which have been rigorously explored in rehearsals but not preset. Therefore, the dialogue, monologues and even songs may change with each performance, although always within the confines of the story line. The production attempts to take the audience through the same journey of a play that might have been performed in a comprehensive language. After all, the story is still contained within a traditional dramatic structure involving a beginning, middle and end. Then why struggle for the meaning of the sounds? With a passion that is reflected in his work, Filho indicates that "Once the actual text is left completely open to interpretation, the audience is invited to project their own fantasies and to establish their own dialogue with the piece. For once in their life, members of the audience are enabled to be their own authors of the play."

Susana Tubert is editor of the theater/dance section of Mas magazine in New York and a 1991/92 Theater Communications Group/National Endowment for the Arts director fellow.
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Copyright 1991 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Title Annotation:Brazilian theater director
Author:Tubert, Susana
Publication:Americas (English Edition)
Date:Jul 1, 1991
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