PPP’s artistic director Paul Heritage talked to Professor Simon Reid-Henry, director for the Institute for Humanities and Social Science at Queen Mary University of London about the interaction of research and cultural action, the role of arts and culture in academic life and how is academic career began forty years ago with a virus and multiple arrests.

Below are some excerpts:

SRH: You’ve been working at the interface of performance and academic enquiry for many years. You’ve done a huge amount of work in Brazil and the shadow of Paulo Freire – who was born 100 years ago this year – looms over much of this. You were Co-I on a project, Theatre of the Oppressed, that channeled his classic Pedagogy of the Oppressed. What have you learned by teaching and engaging with others?

PH: I only heard Paulo Freire speak once but I will never forget his gentility nor his curiosity. Freire revealed that even in his seventies, he always found at least 20 minutes every day to read a dictionary. Your question makes me reflect on where my curiosity has taken me in Brazil over the last three decades, because how I have learnt has been as important as anything I think I may have discovered.  Shakespeare is responsible for my first trip to Brazil when in 1991 I gave lectures in five cities to accompany Cheek by Jowl’s production of As You Like It.  In each city I asked to visit a prison, which led to a series of theatre projects in Brazilian prisons over the next 12 years. It was in the artistic processes that I set up with Brazilian prisoners and guards that I learnt how the process of making theatre can become a critical act to un-make social relations and institutions.

Por que, Brasil? (Why, Brazil?) was the title of a poem written by a 21-year-old inmate named Moises who participated in the first workshop I ran in the Federal Penitentiary of Brasília in 1993.  A group of 20 incarcerated men staged a theatrical enactment of Moises’ poem in the foyer of the Ministry of Justice, with Por que, Brasil ? inscribed across the Brazilian flag in place of Ordem e Progress (a naive act of transgression on my part as our stage design was technically illegal).  Moises died in prison 6 months after I had invited him and his colleagues to perform at the vertex of a system that had deprived him first of his liberty and then of his life. The theatrical process we initiated together, enabled Moises to articulate his consciousness and interrogate the social and political myths that sustain a brutal, racist and dehumanizing prison system, just as People’s Palace Projects sought to do by establishing theatre programmes in dozens of Brazilian prisons over the subsequent decade. But for all our successes, it is the death of Moises that has guided my enquiries at the interaction of research and cultural action.

I have gone on to create learning and cultural exchanges in Rio’s favelas, in Indigenous villages and sometimes even in theatres, but it was in prison that I first explored how those who have been dispossessed and excluded by social and historical processes can activate their personal agency through performance.  Brazil has become my way of asking critical questions about how far we can go as artists and academics. 

SRH: I liked your point about working “sometimes even in theatres”. It raises an issue that geographers often talk about, which is the significance of context in shaping the performance and reception of ideas. Is the theatre a place or is it a set of conventions that enable a certain sort of cultural exchange, as you put it, to take place etc.  Across the years what is it about the “place” of the university that is particularly valuable to you; what “set of conventions” have proven most important?

PH: My academic career began forty years ago with a virus and multiple arrests. In 1982 I was appointed a Lecturer in Drama at Swansea University in October and for the next six years I learnt to contest and construct a set of conventions for research and teaching on the frontlines between activism and academia. The first article I published was a chapter for a book entitled “AIDS and the Cultural Response” in 1987.  The essay reviewed five years of HIV/AIDS cultural production on the edges between academia, public health, professional arts practices and community activism.

My understanding of the university and its place in our lives comes from a fascination with how to re-invent the conventions of theatre every time it is made.

In Swansea I staged my research and rehearsed my teaching in classrooms and theatres, at festivals and conferences, on building sites and on the streets (which is where I was too often arrested).  This became my modus operandi. Performance, publication, protest and prison distilled the academic spirit that fortified my journey over the subsequent four decades.

It was at Swansea that I first entered police cells and began making theatre in prisons, initially as a response to the emerging AIDS/HIV crisis. I moved from being arrested and prosecuted (unsuccessfully) for AIDS activism on the streets to being invited to run safer sex workshops behind the neo-gothic façade of Swansea’s prison.  AIDS taught me the behaviours I would need as an artist but also as an academic to interrogate and interrupt a world in which silence = death. When I moved to the Drama Department at Manchester University in 1988, the cultural wars were less fierce for me personally (although I still managed to get arrested during the Clause 28 demonstrations) and I was able to set up what is today the UK’s first and longest running undergraduate theatre in prison course which allowed students to learn in a place called Strangeways or HMP Styal. Together with James Thompson (then one of my postgraduate students, now Manchester University’s Professor of Applied and Social Drama), I set up the Theatre in Prison and Probation (TiPP) Centre in 1992 which helped to establish codes and languages that the institutions of theatre, prison and university can learn from each other in order to make possible a cultural exchange of mutual learning. It is now 25 years since I moved to QMUL to set up the Drama Department and at the same time establish People’s Palace Projects as a research centre on arts and social justice.

I wonder if my failure to get arrested in recent years means I have retreated from the frontlines and I am no longer at the edges which I believed so passionately were necessary for the creation of theatre and the production of research.

Prison has receded as a site for my work since 2003, when my partner Carlos Calchi was assassinated working on a theatre project we were running in juvenile justice institutions in Rio de Janeiro. I have always been more interested in the cultural warriors than the cultural wars, so I turned my attention to community-based artists working in Rio’s favelas: territories subject to high levels of lethal violence and dominated by armed criminal organisations. What could we learn about how the arts operate in the face of such extreme contexts? That inquiry continues to drive my recent research on mental health, violence against women, civilian oversight of the police, cultural value, environmental risk and indigenous cultural exchange. The place of the university and the site of performance is in the favela, the mining community, the psychiatric hospital, the indigenous village – and sometimes on campus and at the theatre.

Forty years on I am learning from another virus. People’s Palace Projects has established seven research enquiries related to COVID-19, all of them funded by UKRI and supported by QMUL and Arts Council England. We won’t save any lives, but the experience has been transformative for the team of over 60 people that currently work on research at People’s Palace Projects. Many of them are at the beginning of their academic and artistic careers, and I like to think that what they are discovering now will be the foundation of how they establish their own set of conventions for making research and making art in the world.

SRH: (…) As someone who has been out there, who has gotten themselves arrested, who has been on the frontlines as you put it: what do you make of the modern, neoliberalised university and where it needs to go?

PH: A territorial understanding of the arts is one of my ongoing lessons in Brazil.  Almost invariably those lessons come not from artists who move into urban or rural spaces, but from arts organisations and cultural practices that emerge from those territories. What you refer to as a limitation of mandate seems most acute when the arts are called upon to exercise an external ‘intervention’.

Much of our focus at PPP is on creating knowledge-sharing collaborations between UK and Brazilian arts organisations that have common humanitarian goals but have very different structural relations with the territories where they operate.

In 1996, when the Barbican Centre wanted to set up local arts initiatives that addressed what were perceived as growing incidences of knife and gang-related violence in East London, I introduced them to Grupo Cultural AfroReggae – a multidisciplinary cultural organisation rooted in Rio de Janeiro’s favelas. So often characterized by violence, favelas  might more usefully be seen as spaces in which the arts are endemic. The power of AfroReggae’s cultural weapons to promise transformation comes from the very urban spaces in which they are forged. Our work at PPP seeks to produce and disseminate new knowledge about the social technology of the arts as developed by artists who have emerged from and are working within the specific places where they seek a humanitarian or social justice agenda that they themselves have defined.

Your question provokes me to ask myself if universities are capable of undergoing the same learning experience as they ones that frame our research with arts organisations.

Universities have always been a utopian space for me. Where else could I pursue one of my current projects to set up theatre companies in Karachi and Chennai made up of people with psychosis, their families and health-workers? Or be creating performances with slam poets on depression and anxiety in favelas? Or exploring the role of Cultural Heritage as a means of resistance, resilience and recovery in places devastated by environmental catastrophes?

I understand research as a transactional process, produced from exchange and not a single, authored enquiry. It is the people I have chosen to work with that have determined how and why I have made work within the modern, neoliberalised university.

SRH: You put that much better than me: there is indeed a need to acknowledge, institutionally, the collaborative and dialogic nature of learning that leads to new knowledge and insights. This is one reason we recently established a second IHSS Working Group on the climate emergency: a drop in the ocean and a fraction of the collaborative work that is needed to make any meaningful inroads in understanding and addressing this issue. But something nonetheless. You are one of the members of that group, of course. Do you see any lessons, a little as you were mentioning in respect of Grupo Cultural AfroReggae, that can be brought into frameworks such as this group, or that can provide bridges for common learning?

PH: In 2014, I brought together Simon McBurney – one of the most thrilling of British theatre makers – with the Brazilian filmmaker Takumã Kuikuro from the Xingu Indigenous Territories. I had travelled with Simon to visit the Kuarup ritual of death and re-birth which is at the heart of Xingu culture and cosmology. Takumã is from the Kuikuro, one of the 14 peoples that live between millennia in the Xingu territories of the Lower Amazon Basin. His films have been celebrated at European and North American festivals, are regularly seen in Brazil and have been featured on Netflix. Simon and I were visiting the Xingu as part of his research for The Encounter, a solo performance that opened the Edinburgh Festival in 2015 before touring the world for three years (including two seasons on Broadway). They are not only different artists in different societies, but, as you say, in different places within those societies. Takumã is the son-in-law of the Cacique (Chief) of his people and son of one of the most important Kuikuro Xamans or healers. He has a stature and significance for the Kuikuro – a tribe of less than 800 people – that will never be achieved by an actor in Western society, even one as honoured for his achievements as Simon McBurney. But it has been the way in which they have exposed themselves to each other as artists that has built an ongoing learning about what they need to do together and separately to address the climate crisis. We have been together again at many times since then: from the stage of the Barbican for Q&A sessions after The Encounter to joint arts-activism events at COP26 in Glasgow and again at the Roundhouse in London. They are currently working together on a film about the climate crisis that is part of a collaboration with 10 international filmmakers called In Time of Monsters.

Perhaps nothing is bridged in their encounters, but at least in staging the distance and proximity between each other they expose all of us to the distance we need to travel.

SRH: Our final question is always the same, though I will end it this time by noting that this is my last Five Questions as Director of the IHSS and to thank you, Paul, for your thoughtful and illuminating answers, which I have found inspiring. And so over to you: what are you reading, or have you read recently, that you find inspiring, or that has you thinking and why?

PHOn Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous by Ocean Vuong. If only that title could be my daily mantra. On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous was already an inspiration even before I read the book. Vuoug’s writing reminds me that it must always be about the poetry, whatever we do. Sexual, compassionate, fierce, this is a book that has insisted I look beyond what I know and who I am and that is what I always need most.

This interview was conducted in June 2022.

This interview was published on 4 October 2022 by the Institute for Humanities and Social Science at Queen Mary University of London as part of a series series with Humanities and Social Sciences faculty about what they are working on, thinking about, and reading. Read the full interview here