The theatrical praxis of the MST

Glauco Rodrigues, drawing 1948.


Considerations on the militant cultural experience of the Brigada Nacional de Teatro Patativa do Assaré

One of the experiences that perhaps deepened and explored the organic relationship between theater, social organization and class struggle in Brazil is that represented by the Brigada Nacional de Teatro Patativa do Assaré, of the Movimento dos Trabalhadores Rurais Sem Terra (MST). There are dozens of groups that organized themselves throughout the country during two decades of theatrical action. The work is the result of a training process that involved hundreds of peasant men and women, with the collaboration of professional artists from Brazil and abroad and resulted in the production of dozens of plays, films and songs, among many other forms of aesthetic interventions.

The MST's theatrical praxis is closely related to the organization processes and the formulations of a project for society elaborated by the movement throughout its years of existence. A practice in which social struggle, popular organization, aesthetic investigation, training and cultural policy are closely linked, complement each other and influence each other in the performance of what is considered one of the largest social movements in Latin America.

The Movement of Landless Rural Workers

The Landless Rural Workers Movement (MST) had its origins in land occupations carried out in 1979, still during the Brazilian military dictatorship (1964-1985), and was formally founded in 1984. lands organized by the MST, occupations that bring together hundreds and sometimes even thousands of families, have expanded across practically the entire country and today around 300 families have gained access to land through these occupations and tens of thousands who still live in camps. make up the social base of the Movement.

The emergence and formation of the MST are part of the historical context of the late 1970s, which saw the birth of new social forces and popular movements in Brazil. Among the most prominent movements of that period, we could mention the different unions that sought autonomy in the face of dictatorial state control and articulated in the Central Única dos Trabalhadores (CUT), the wide and varied network of Base Ecclesiastical Communities, linked to the progressive church linked to to Liberation Theology, the new indigenous organizations also strengthened by the action of the church and, as a result of the convergence of all these social and organizational experiences, the Workers' Party (PT). The political inventiveness of those years marked the birth of the MST, a peasant organization that faces one of the structural issues in the formation of Brazilian society: the concentration of land and the large mass of people historically excluded from access to land, the first of which are indigenous peoples and the millions of slaves brought from Africa. The origin of the abyssal social inequalities that still persist in the country, as well as the authoritarian and violent culture that characterizes its politics and sociability, is found in the colonial and slave-owning formation of Brazil. The concentration of land was the pillar of this economy and still determines, to a large extent, the place that the country occupies in the international economy.

an organizational invention

In order to better understand, in its breadth and complexity, the meaning and reach of the theatrical action developed in the MST, we have to take into account the innovation and foundations of its conception of social organization. Before moving on to a presentation and analysis of the MST's theatrical practices, we will briefly highlight some of the elements of this conception of organization that will help us to better measure the meaning of the movement's theatrical practice and cultural action.

The MST bases its project of agrarian and social reform on access to land, the elimination of social injustices and the overcoming of the capitalist mode of production, having as reference the broad and diversified tradition of socialism. One of the basic elements of the organizational program designed to achieve these objectives is the full and comprehensive, omnilateral training of human beings. The process of organization and self-organization of workers is the first moment in the implementation of the MST project. It already begins in the processes of occupations, when they are organized in the so-called core groups, organizational cells where everyone must participate and from which collective decisions are elaborated and taken. Starting from this basic organizational structure, the processes of political coordination expand to contemplate the coordination of states and national coordination. A result of this mobilization process is also the organization of sectors, among which we can mention those of production, education, communication, political training, gender and culture, in which everyone must also be involved. This organizational structure aims to provide the greatest possible access and participation in decision-making and elaboration of political projects.

In the definition of the MST, the organizational process is the main means of human formation, of developing forms of social conscience and subjective transformation. Analyzing and systematizing the experiences of years of construction and experimentation, the MST formulated the conception of a pedagogy for the Landless Movement, composed of formative matrices of the human being. The notion was elaborated that the main means of training members of the Movement was the movement itself through struggle and organization. The pedagogical dimension that the Movement has is based on “formative matrices”, the main ones being struggle, organization, history, land and culture. Culture appears from the first formulations as a structural element of a project of society and political organization, not as a merely thematic issue, but as one of the foundations of the very conception of organization and human formation, as well as the understanding that the Culture is linked to class struggle processes.

Precedents of the MST's theatrical action

One of the most original cultural, political and aesthetic experiences of the MST is the mystique. Coming from a broad Latin American tradition, developed by Liberation Theology and the base ecclesial communities, mysticism acquired a secular character in the MST. Difficult to define, mystique is an attempt to provide a sensitive experience linked to the project of society that the Movement proposes. One of its forms of materialization is aesthetic interventions, types of performances or dramatizations, carried out and organized by the members of the Movement themselves in different situations. These aesthetic interventions are made, for example, at the opening of meetings, gatherings, congresses, the beginning of school and training activities, marches and also in occupations and settlements. Among its formal elements, the most varied, we can mention songs, stagings, sets, costumes, poems, dramatizations, choirs, projections, etc. The mystique seeks to provide a sensitive and subjective experience of the project of society, history and a perspective of the future, creating a field of action and experience beyond discursive or exclusively conceptual practices.

The formation of the National Brigade of Theater Patativa do Assaré

The theatrical experience developed by the MST has as a decisive moment the formation of the Brigada Nacional de Teatro Patativa do Assaré, created in 2001 and which completes twenty years. The Brigade was constituted in the second stage of training carried out with Augusto Boal and the members of the Center of the Theater of the Oppressed (CTO) – RJ. There were dozens of MST militants, from different sectors of activity such as education, political training and culture who participated in the work and had the task of creating groups in the different states where they came from and acted. It was in this way that the multiplication of theater groups across the country began.

Although it represents a decisive milestone, the MST's theatrical experiences and the relationship with Boal did not begin with the consolidation of the National Theater Brigade. In addition to the links with the mystique itself, as we saw earlier, another significant example was the experience that took place a decade earlier, in Rio de Janeiro, when in 1990 the Peasant Theater group was created in the Sol da Manhã settlement. Augusto Boal had just returned from his exile and was starting his experiments with Legislative Theater, one of the forms of Theater of the Oppressed that he developed after his return to the country. Boal established contact with this group, which soon became part of the collectives that operated around Boal's term as councilor in RJ. The experience lasted about eight years.

The National Brigade was structured based on the continuous work process with Augusto Boal, representing a qualitative leap in production, organization and training in relation to all previous theatrical experiences of the Movement. There were five stages in which some techniques of the Theater of the Oppressed were worked on, among them the Forum Theater (the most practiced), the Newspaper Theater, the Rainbow-of-desire and, in the last meeting held in 2005, the creation of a Teatro Procession with around 270 MST militants performing. Theater of the Oppressed techniques were passed on to camps, settlements, schools and various groups were formed as a result of this work. At each new stage, the processes developed, the production of organized groups, limits and new demands were evaluated. The organization of the Brigade provided a dialogue between the groups, exchange of experiences and productions, combination of joint actions, monitoring of work and complementary training.

The productions carried out especially with the Forum Theater techniques allowed the approach of issues that did not find due space in other instances of the MST. In this way, mainly issues such as racism and gender could be widely debated by theatrical means. Image theater processes began to be used in schools as a means of evaluating the educational process, teachers and school coordinators, providing other forms of dialogue about pedagogical accompaniments. In camps and settlements, themes related to power, personalism or other organizational and political limits were also discussed in the forums.

Dramaturgy and interventions

In the field of dramaturgy, we find plays produced by the peasants themselves, addressing themes of their political situation and problems of everyday life, work, gender issues, racism, among others. The theme of the international economy, guided by the free trade negotiations that defined the political debate in those early years of the relationship between Augusto Boal and the MST, appears in several pieces. Boal closely followed the produced plays and contributed to the dramaturgical revision, as well as to the staging processes, dedicating special attention to the construction of props, costumes and scenography. Some of Boal's own pieces were reproduced, such as There is no imperialism in Brazil, adapted by the MST under the name of Pay Zé.

Adaptations were also made by Brazilian and foreign playwrights. In Rio Grande do Sul, in settlements carried out on lands where the Guarani wars took place in the XNUMXth century, involving Guarani Indians led by Sepé Tiaraju against Spanish rule, the group Peça pro Povo adapted the text death to white people, written by Cesar Vieira, a historical Brazilian playwright with over fifty years of experience. The work had the collaboration of an important street theater group in Brazil, Ói Nóis aqui Traveiz. The aesthetic language of the street scenes, the musicality, the construction of costumes and props, characterized the adaptation that the group made.

The São Paulo group Filhos da Mãe… Terra adapted the play For these holy estates, text by the Colombian playwright Guilherme Maldonado Pérez that addressed the struggles for land waged by indigenous people and peasants in Colombia. This play, probably presented for the first time in Brazil by the MST, was awarded by Casa de Américas de Cuba in 1975, in the Latin American dramaturgy competition promoted by the Cuban cultural center of continental reference. The play was presented by the group at Teatro de Arena, the historic place where Boal had started his activities in the 1950s.

In addition to Forum Theatre, several other forms of Theater of the Oppressed were developed by the MST. Invisible theater techniques were widely and diversely used, interventions being carried out on buses, trains, banks and even in MST spaces, such as courses or meetings. An invisible theater intervention was carried out at a meeting with parliamentarians addressing issues of land reform that took place in the Legislative Chamber of the Federal District. The intervention marked the themes of subsequent debates. Interventions were also made at meetings of agribusiness associations, such as, for example, at the UNESCO RJ+20 Conference, held in RJ. Works with newspaper theater were also used on several occasions and by different groups.

The MST's greatest theatrical experience was conceived together with Augusto Boal at the last training meeting held in 2005. It is a procession theater intervention that had the participation of 270 MST militants from all over Brazil. The piece was presented at the arrival of the National March of the MST in Brasília, held that same year, a march that brought together 12 members of the MST. In addition to the Procissão Theater play, dozens of other plays that made up the Brigade's repertoire were presented by the groups during the twenty-one days that the march lasted. After marching an average of fifteen kilometers in the morning, the marchers participated in study and training processes in the afternoon. Theater plays were part of these training processes. The same happened during the 2007 MST Congress, which brought together 17 people and during which several pieces were presented.

The training meetings with the CTO and Augusto Boal were combined with the study of other theatrical references, mainly the history of political theater and the theory of literary genres. Recovering the tradition of Brazilian political theater, whose relations established between artists and progressive social forces resulted in one of the best moments of formal experimentalism and aesthetic invention, the MST assumed as one of its paradigmatic references the experiences of the Popular Centers of Culture - CPC and the Movimento of Popular Culture – MCP, the latter with the participation of Paulo Freire.

Augusto Boal himself had carried out important work with the numerous CPC's spread across the country and with the MCP, until the 1964 coup, when these cultural organizations were exterminated by the Army due to their strong link with workers' and students' movements. Ligas Camponesas, an important peasant organization of that period, on which the MST is inspired, established an important work with the CPC's, with the MCP and with Boal. The work developed between the MST and Augusto Boal also had this symbolic dimension of resuming a model experience begun in the XNUMXs and interrupted by the military dictatorship. Boal always mentioned the significance of this historic experience in his meetings with the MST.

One of the most symbolic works of this resumption was the montage made by the MST of the play Mutirão in new sun, text by Nelson Xavier and Augusto Boal, written in 1961, and presented that same year at the first national congress of peasants in Minas Gerais. The text was missing for about 50 years. The MST managed to recover the text, publish it and produced a performance presented at the Unitary Meeting of Workers, Workers and Peoples of the Countryside, Waters and Forests, held in 2012, in a presentation for 5 thousand people. This text was also worked on in several MST schools, there was a radio theater version and a documentary.

Formal surveys

The need to go deeper into formal issues came from the practice itself with the various forms of interventions carried out by the members of the movement. At the beginning of the Brigade, the militants involved in the creation of the interventions reported difficulties with a certain formal reference that had been constituted until then, mainly around some Forum Theater techniques. A wide process of studies and research was then developed on the dramaturgical structures and formal experiments carried out in the tradition of political theater, the analysis of the conceptions of epic theater, the understanding of the historical and social dimension of the form, the critical analysis of the implications of dramatic form and the scope and impact of the cultural industry, themes that constituted a set of theoretical foundations that provided a deepening of theatrical practices in their multiplicity.

It is worth noting that analyzes of aesthetics, the social and ideological dimensions of artistic forms, the dialectic between form and social process became part of the study program for the MST culture sector as a whole. Thus, both in the plastic arts and in music and literature, as well as in the MST's audiovisual production, research took place with the same orientation and convergence and joint work between the different artistic activity fronts that make up the MST's culture sector provided a collective accumulation. Debates on aesthetics expanded to the MST as a whole and began to encompass not only artistic experiences, but several other formal dimensions of direct actions, organizational and training processes, educational activities in schools, etc.

The presence of Brecht's theory and works in the movement also contributed to the formation of the MST's aesthetic and cultural conceptions. The works of Hanns Eisler, Brecht's musical partner, also influenced the MST and its musicians. Some groups made adaptations, montages and works with the materials of the German playwright. In São Paulo, there was an adaptation of Horatios and Curiatios and in Brasilia an adaptation of Caucasian Chalk Circle. Companhia do Latão, one of the main theater groups in Brazil, staged a Caucasian Chalk Circle of which the prologue was recorded with the theater group from Assentamento Carlos Lamarca, from São Paulo.

Brecht's didactic pieces provided a productive working model. The proposal of training experiments with the participants themselves through theater were widely exercised. The piece Saint Joan of Slaughterhouses it was worked several times with the methods of Brecht's didactic pieces in political economy courses. On one occasion, this experiment was carried out in a course with representatives from different Latin American countries. The piece A rozhodão was worked on at different times with members of a base course that lasted six months, addressing the internal contradictions of militancy. Other experiments were done with the one who says yes and also with the piece The bakery.

historical challenges

The most recent political events that took place in Brazil profoundly affected the field of action of social movements and also had an impact on their cultural production. The far-right mobilizations that began in 2013 and were followed by legal and parliamentary processes resulted in the ousting of President Dilma and the subsequent imprisonment of Lula. Themes about culture wars and cultural Marxism, the threat of a new military intervention, the presence of extreme right-wing sectors in the streets, some with neo-fascist orientations, gained relevance in the political debate and remodeled the political and cultural history that had been unfolding. constituted since the eighties with the end of the dictatorship.

In this historical context, the MST expanded its theatrical action of interventions by agitprop and training in the field of culture and aesthetic debate. Experiences and research with the forms of agitation and propaganda that had been developed since the Brigade's early years gained greater strength and importance. In addition to research on Brazilian traditions, investigations into the traditions of agitprop German, Soviet, French, American, among others, developed between the twenties and thirties of the last century, constituted an important collection of references of the link between artistic vanguards and social movements.

Since 2013, dozens of brigades of agitprop, in training processes involving hundreds of people who participated in the various demonstrations that took place in the country during this recent period. The MST managed to deepen its joint work with urban organizations, unions and student movements, mainly the Levante Popular da Juventude. The accumulation of the MST in the theatrical and cultural field became a reference for other popular organizations.

There was also, in the same period, an important development of Schools of Political Theater and Popular Video, in which the MST participates as one of the organizers. These schools take as a reference the Nuestra America Culture Workers Front, founded in the early seventies by Augusto Boal, Enrique Buenaventura (Colombia), Atahualpa del Cioppo (Uruguay), as well as other important names in Latin American theater. There are currently nine schools operating in Brazil, Argentina, with connections in Mexico, Uruguay and Spain, which articulate social movements, professional theater groups and universities. These schools also played an important role in the recent political situation.

The theatrical action developed by the MST, mainly in the last twenty years with the Brigada Nacional de Teatro Patativa do Assaré, constitutes an experience of great significance for having guaranteed that hundreds of peasants, in their process of organization and struggle for agrarian reform, incorporated art and culture as part of their conquests and projects for society, becoming creators of various theatrical forms and scenic interventions. An appropriation of theatrical tradition that went beyond the concept of a closed work, established contacts with sectors of the population historically deprived of access to traditional cultural goods, stimulated a deep reflection among male and female workers on the aesthetic and cultural dimensions of their struggles and existence, and contributed for the deepening and development of the emancipatory political culture proposed by the MST.

*Douglas Stephen is a doctoral candidate in Philosophy at USP.


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