Thursday, 25 April 2013

Cinderella & the Julio Otoni Project

WARNING - watching this Baile Funk video before reading this blog entry is essential.

Baile Funk = urban music from the favelas of Rio, with terrible but catchy lyrics and many gyrating bums. Cinerella's ball is located at the Baile Funk, and she dances Lek Lek Lek forever with her prince charming Thiaguinho (Brazilian popstar pictured below).


To direct a play is bound to be hard work. To attempt to direct a play in another language with manically energetic children from a favela is quite a different ball game. Nonetheless, the play was directed - and it seemed to be a great success, if the popularity of the songs is anything to go by. My reggae-Cinderella song seems to have stuck in quite a few heads, and even sprouted out to haunt me on my peaceful hike up the mountain today...

Julio Otoni

Julio Otoni is a small community (a euphemism for favela) which houses around 2000 people, many of whom are (or claim to be) related to each other by some degree. Its entrance is located a 5 minute walk down the road from my base in Rio, Casa guesthouse, proving a stark contrast with the beautiful colonial houses on the 'asfalto' surrounding it. (This is often the case in Rio - rich and poor, cheek on jowl. Sao Paolo's favelas are located mostly on the outskirts of the city, making the city centre appear more 'westernised' but no less dangerous.)

                                                            The entrance to the community.

As favelas go, Julio Otoni is tiny and, on the surface, idyllic. It was always a pleasure to walk through the community to the sound of samba blasting out of the shop speakers, treading dogshit through fragrant clouds of marijuana, past men who seem to do nothing but hang around the bar all day, brushing off the invariable comments that such men make when they see a 'gringa' passing by, greeting a child that I knew, saying 'bom dia, tudo bem?' to everyone I encountered along the route. I say it was a pleasure without being sarcastic- Julio Otoni. has such a strong sense of community, something which rarely exists in middle-class urban life. 

Although Julio Otoni is a tiny community, it also falls prey to the same vices as elsewhere. It is not unusual for children as young as twelve or thirteen to become involved with gang culture as well as dealing with other social problems such as teenage pregnancy, lack of schooling and illiteracy, and lack of professional qualifications. Living in a favela more than often means living with the drug trade - and its accompanying violence - on your doorstep. It's small size means that it gets overlooked, and is not provided with the infrastructure, investment and NGO development funds that larger favelas receive.

The Julio Otoni Project was founded in 2004 at a time when the favela was far from safe, and converted a run-down bar into a vibrant and colourful community centre. The focus of the project has always been the children of the community, providing alternative and enriching educational activities in order to keep them off the streets. It is currently attended by around 35 children.

Side of community centre. Sign reads 'safefy zone for heavy rains' - landslides are very common in Brazil, since many favelas are built precariously on steep hills without solid foundations. Over 30 people were killed in a landslide last week in Petropolis, Rio de Janeiro state.
Rehearsing in the music room. The colourful blobs on the wall are our handiwork - we repainted the music room and playground during the summer holidays.

The centre has two permanent employees from the community who help with management, sell mini-houses and paper made out of recycled materials and provide food for the children, but the rest of the staff are volunteers who come and go (both Brazilians and foreigners like myself). This unstable staffing situation is never ideal since it relies upon the will and 3-month visa restrictions of international volunteers. However, the recent wave of volunteers has helped revitalise the centre, which for a short time had shut due to lack of volunteers and management. The classes currently provided are English, Theatre, Photography, Music, Breakdance, Capoeira, Sport, Citizenship and Learning/ Reading Support. Casa is currently hosting volunteers and offers a hostel work/volunteer placement in exchange for free accommodation. At the time I arrived, the only classes were Learning support, Music and Capoeira - the centre was thus a blank canvas for us to fill up with activities according to our varying interests. This was great for me, since I was able to carry out a project that I had long been hatching - teaching English through music, theatre and movement to produce the play "Cinderella in the Favela". 

During the summer camp in February, we took the children on a trip out in the countryside to a museum of popular folk art, where they were led around by an enchanting pied-piperess who sung songs about all the artists. They were very excited to see the open sea - despite living so close, they rarely get to go to the beach.
Little Miss Posers!
Sport class in action. If I had a better camera, you'd see Christ looming on the hill in the background

Cinderella - the Idea

The story of Cinderella - a young girl from a broken family in a favela, forced to work day and night as a cleaner, who forgets her troubles for one night as she dances the night away at the Baile Funk Party  - rings true for the life of many young women in favelas. 

But since the story is a fairy-tale, a bit of make-believe must be part of the recipe: Lady Gaga appears as the fairy Godmother, and the popstar Thiaguinho is Prince Charming (the childrens' casting ideas).

The play involved the collaboration of all the volunteers and staff of the community centre, and combined elements from the English, Music, Breakdancing and Capoeira classes to create a show which combined all art forms. This is the first time such a project has been run at the centre, and I hope it will be start of many more to come.

Sticking posters up all over J.O...
Putting the Idea into Practice

First things first, Cinderella doesn't live in a 'favela', but a 'community'. This is one of the many delicate issues that had to be addressed - I talked through the idea with the women at the community centre, and they thought that the catchy title 'Cinderella na Favela' could be offensive, so the word 'favela' was eliminated.

I had originally envisioned the production to be a culmination of 3 months of English classes, but I did not foresee a crucial point: the 2 month-long summer holidays. This meant that the project had to be carried out in a limited period of 5 weeks: a hectic race against time when working in an environment in which everything - the children, attendance, the staff, the other volunteers, the language, the audience - was unfamiliar or unknown. I perhaps obstinately insisted that the project go ahead despite all adversities, and ran into a few obstacles (namely a marketing blunder) along the way. However, the play itself was a great success: the children and audience loved it, and we managed to raise some money for the centre. That the children gained something out of the experience is, for me, the most important part. Forget the organisational hinter-politics...

At first, the project was not met with too much enthusiasm. The children enjoyed coming up with their own ideas for the plot outline (we discussed ideas for the identity of the fairy Godmother, location, and prince charming), but when it came to concentrating during rehearsal time this was a different matter. The children were just about manageable when sat down with a pen in their hands (aside from the inevitable pen squabbles), but when asked to stand up and divided into groups, chaos ensued. The simplest excercise (A - B - A - B, As on this side, Bs on that side) resulted in heated arguments about unfair teams and, at worst, fights before the game had even been explained. I had ideally wanted the children to work together in groups of mixed ages and gender, but it seems that the girl/boy divide had been engraved into their heads from an early age. This meant that the working style had to be altered, and all aspects of the play had to be directed as opposed to developed from the childrens' work in groups. The result- a sore throat. 

Lessons were two hours long. Generally the first hour was spent learning vocabulary and completing worksheets in a classroom setting, and the second spent rehearsing and consolidating the vocab learnt through games, music and theatre. Myself and Suzie (my friend from University who came out to Rio to join me) wrote the script for the play, and we came up with the format of a narrator who would speak in Portuguese whilst the rest of the dialogue was in basic English. 

Here are a couple of extracts:

Narrator – Era uma vez uma menina que se chamava Cinderella. Ela morava com a mãe, o pai e o cachorro dela. A familia era muito feliz.
Cinderella - Hello. I am Cinderella.
Mother – Hello. I am Cinderella’s mum.
Father –  Hi. I am Cinderella’s dad.
Dog –  Woof woof. I am Cinderella’s dog.
Narrator – Eles moravam em Julio Otoni, e estavam muito contentes.
Everybody – We live in Julio Otoni, Julio Otoni is great! 
See that part in the performance, with Lady Gaga 'hello how are you' song 

When Thiaguinho meets Cinderella:
Thiaguinho: Hey sexy lady, come to my Baile Funk.   (yes, the kids picked up on the Gangnam Style reference!)
Cinderella: Yes I'd love to.
Stepsisters: You're not coming.

You get the picture.

One thing that proved extremely difficult to work with was the children's irregular attendance, and the fact that there were two classes so that there were two of each character. (School in Brazil is divided into morning and afternoon. The kids who went to school in the afternoon came to the centre in the morning, and vice versa). We ended up doing the first half of the play with the afternoon kids, and the second half of the play with the morning kids. This meant that the final play had 2 Cinderella's, 2 Thiaguinhos, 2 lots of Stepsisters etc, and roles would switch each week due to absence or refusal to participate (one family of three kids were locked in their house 2 weeks in a row since their father had gone out to work, so they just watched from their window). Confused? So was I, don't worry.

We also were lucky enough to have the two worst times:  Friday afternoon, when the kids were hyper with the weekend awaking, and Monday morning, with children as sleepy and grumpy as ever after a weekend of staying up until 2am. If the Monday children turned up at all, they would roll in 45 minutes late.

The morning children were far worse than the afternoon children. Anything deemed unfair or not to their liking would trigger either a silent rebellion by one of the trio of sulky brothers or a vocal/physical rebellion by Fabio*, the big boss of the show. Whatsmore, the whole class would laugh each time I pronounced a name slightly wrong - a common tactic for working up foreign volunteers, I discovered. One 7-year-old boy had the attention span of a goldfish and would break into Capoeira moves at any given moment, and a 7-year-old girl with an angelic face had the most devilish tendency to never EVER stop talking. 

Then came the afternoon kids. A lively bunch, but on the whole controllable and a brilliant fun to work with. The class clown Bruno adored being an ugly sister, as did tiny Paulinho adore being Cinderella's dog. Marco was a great and caring mother-come-ugly sister (he did a wig transformation mid play), Carlos - a mixed race kid with bright green eyes - did a stellar job as Thiaguinho, always listening attently and helping with crowd control. Fernando  was a solid narrator, and knew all the cues much better than I did, shooting me looks of exasperation if I failed to provide the drum beat which announced Cinderella's mum's death.

*childrens names have been changed

 Ode to Fabio

Fabio was a right character. He was the oldest and biggest of the group, and would frequently boss and bully the others around (yes, there was a penis-pinching incident). However, Fabio is the most hilarious kid I have ever met. He was chosen for the part of Thiaguinho, which instantly gave him the power to manipulate us poor volunteers, threatening each week to quit his part. We decided enough was enough, and gave the part to Walter, but when Walter missed class the following week, the part was reluctantly handed back over to Fabio  (Walter didn't turn up to the performance in silent protest.) With Fabio I felt like I was in an abusive relationship.We were dependent on him because he could be a bloody good Thiaguinho, playing up perfectly to his role as popstar-seducer. This dependence gave him power, and naturally, power is there to be abused... He would flip from being charming and hilarious to becoming angry and violent at a moment's notice, and threatened not to participate each week.  He once raided our costume supply and dressed up in women's clothes tickled girls with a cat's tail, moments before he was sent out because of the penis-pinching incident. His comments many times forced me to stifle my laughter - or simply crack up whilst standing up about to conduct a song. Oh Fabio.

The Rocky Lead-Up...

The final week of rehearsals was an emotional roller-coaster. As is usually the case when working for a huge event, it crept up on us rather too quickly. There was much to be done, and very little time. This led to an oversight / severe blunder in the marketing 'department' (me and Suzie). I sent a few emails out to guests who would be staying at the hostel to invite them to the event, and drafted 3 versions of the invite in English, Spanish and Portuguese. I naively sent the same email to the project manager hoping that although she could not make either event herself, she could at least invite a friend to watch it. I got a fuming email back. The reason: a mistranslation. Explanation: in the Spanish & English versions I had put that the owner of Casa  had 'helped to found' the project, but I had accidentally omitted the word 'helped' so the Portuguese version read that the Casa owner had founded the project. I had also failed to include the logos of the project's official funders on the email. BIG MISTAKE. Instead of planning for the following day's dress rehearsal, I spent the evening ironing things out with the enraged boss, who thought that I was using the event as a marketing ploy for Casa. 

We had barely rehearsed the scenes individually, let alone tried to piece them together. As it dawned on them that I was actually serious about this performance business,  for the first time ever the morning children got quite a lot done in class (albeit with a lot of me screaming at the human door because it would not behave itself). I stole the sport, music and dance classes and turned them into Cinderella rehearsals without warning the children (mean of me, I know - oh the moans and groans when they heard that there would be no football made me feel like the Wicked Stepmother).

Our masterpiece - Cinderella backdrop. You can see evidence of the paint fight splattered on the sheet...

However, excitement kicked in when their costumes and set-design came into play. The Sunday before the show was spent planning costumes and painting scenery with a few of the kids - until they were kicked out because of a paint fight. During the classes the children made bunting and stage decorations out of funky material, toilet paper rolls, coloured tissue and foil, all put together beautifully by our Dutch volunteer Annette.
The children raided the fancy dress supply on paint day. Fabio poses as seductress, above

The Dress Rehearsal - Lady Gaga Goes Gago

When working with children, you would ideally get to know the kids before throwing them into roles. We cast Matheus, an earnest and serious child who is an incredible percussionist, in the cameo role as Lady Gaga. Not ideal, but his English was up to the job. 

The dress rehearsal was mid-flow, the 'Gaga ooh la laa' keyboard entry and drumroll sounded, Lady Gaga was.... nowhere to be seen. We all waited expectantly, magic hands wavering. Musical cue sounds again, drums are rolling. The suspense is unbearable. Lady Gaga finally emerges, dressed in a tight black miniskirt, a glittery gold top, red fairy wings and a blonde wig. The whole cast bursts into laughter - he looked amazing. Poor Mathues failed to see the funny side, and started sobbing. Music teacher Vania took him to the side and gave him a few words of encouragement, and the cast were given the 'it's theatre - loose yourself, loose your inhibitions, respect each other' prep talk. Everyone was close to tears. Mathues agreed to try the scene again, one one condition: he was to loose the skirt and to be called 'Lady Gago', and was then to rip off his wig and take to the percussion. Problem solved. I just hope he isn't scarred for life by the experience.

The afternoon class had got it together, but the  morning class was worse than ever - it was late, the children were tired, I was exhausted. I knew, however, that I had done all I possibly could, and it was now all in the hands of the kids. I could only hope that the kids would rise up to the challenge of the stage.

The BIG DAY (well, the 2 big days)

To my relief, it was all alright on the night. It was more than alright - the two performances went really well. All the children (even the Morning kids, shock horror) behaved and performed impeccably in both performances: the Cinderellas were sickly sweet, Thiaguinhos were delightful dandys, the Stepmothers & Stepsisters oozed wickedness and the chorus of houses, doors and dancers managed to contain itself. The baile funk & breakdancing scenes were brilliant - these kids are certainly talented in the dance/percussion department. Delighted parents chimed in with the singing and lines - the challenge was now to get the audience to pipe down!

The first performance was on a Friday night at the Community Centre. There was a jumble sale, hot-dogs & popcorn for the kids (cooked by the lovely ladies at the centre) and a makeshift hairdressing salon where Robki (breakdancer-come-hairdresser-come-artist) was shaving the kids' initials onto their heads.

Nb. Watch this space for decent photos/ videos of Cinderella. Decent photographers seem to take a while to edit...

Finale - Tempos Modernos.

The cast of Act 1 (afternoon group) preparing for show-time. Cinderella has the pearls and work short.

Robki's makeshift hair salon

The second performance was at Casa, and was supposedly for a R$10 entrance fee (although we are not very efficient bouncers). Hosting an event at the hostel was slightly more complicated than I anticipated - an event had been hosted a few years earlier and there was a burglary a few days later. No fingers pointed, but the management decided that future events were not to be open to adults of the community. However, we didn't have the heart to stop parents from seeing their own children perform, so all were allowed in. Let's just hope that tales of a huge house full of laptops, iPods and rich gringos don't fall into the wrong hands...

Roda de Capoeira on the terrace

After handing out their certificates on the terrace and having a photoshoot with the photographer of the team, the children made their way back down to the favela. This was supposed to be done in small groups, only the remote-control door failed to close,and herds of hyper children galloped uncontrollably down the hill back home. Oh dear, health and safety sirens are sounding...

Handing out certificates after the performance

After all that preparation, the events seemed to pass in a frenzied whirlwind of song, dance & fancy dress and life quickly returned to normality. For the first time in weeks I could relax without Cinderella to fret over - yet it was a strangely empty sensation. That, I suppose, is the life of Theatre.

The children of J.O. are incredible. Manic, volatile and hard to manage they may be, but smart, hilarious, superb dancers and rhythmic geniuses they are for sure. True little artists! They taught me far more than I taught them - I have never had so much fun working with children.

And of course, Cinderella would not have been possible without the many hands involved - Suzie (assistant director and the world's best Cinderella drawer), Niger, Vania, Annette, Niger, Rachel M (yes, life is difficult with 2 Rachels in the house), Robki, Eliane, Karina, Kiri at Casa for agreeing to hold the performance, the list goes on - cheers guys, if you ever get down to reading this!

Also - thanks to Haringey Shed, an inclusive theatre company which works with disadvantaged communities in London, for sparking many ideas in this play. One day these kids should get to know each other!

Goodbye Rio, goodbye children of J.O., goodbye Casa. Next destination: The Great Unknown (teaching music somewhere near Belem in the Amazon) with Amazonart.

Saying goodbyes - last day at the centre

Two incredibly energetic children.
Almost the entire cast (there was a long line of kids with pre-show toilet necessities) posing for our professional photographer on the terrace of the Casa. Again, I will grab the photos off her one day!

Preparing for Act 1 at the Casa. One of the Centre's permanant staff, Eli, helped kids prepare. Top middle - Cinderella's mummy (who puts on stepsister wig half way through), top right -Cinderella's doggie, and bottom a dancer.
Check out the wickedness of this Ugly Sister (make-up was to come)

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