A nomadic approach to life. Interview with Tiago Rodrigues

Translation by Federica Defendenti

Triennale Milano ended its theatre season with a solo show dedicated to an exceptional guest: Tiago Rodrigues. Birdmen Magazine decided to dedicate him a critical speech in four episodes. Below the last one with the interview, granted for Birdmen exclusively thanks to Triennale Milano.

Born in 1977, actor, playwright, director and, since 2015, Artistic Director of the Teatro Nacional D. Maria II in Lisbon, Tiago Rodrigues is among the most important artists of the contemporary theatre scene. In 2003 he founded the theatre company “Mundo Perfeito” with Magda Bizarro, which in over ten years has produced more than 30 performances, performing all over the world.

First, I would like to ask you what do you think of theatre critics. Do you happen to read it? Have you ever had experience in this field?

I find critics very important. I read it often, not only the Portuguese one, but I also try to read critics from other countries. Obviously, I read all critics of my works and I am sensitive and open to them. Often, either I agree or don’t agree I never find that the most important I find that sometimes it generates thinking, not necessarily about that work, but for the future, which is extremely important. I look at critic as an accomplice of the artist.

Tiago Rodrigues reading Birdmen

In Portugal, as National Theatre, we have been collaborating a lot with the Centre of Theatre Research from the University of Humanities of Lisbon so that there was a space for debate, writing and critical thinking in theatre. I think that the mission of public institutions is to support critical thinking and collaborate with those who produce it. Therefore I believe that the future of critics lies much in theatres, universities and cultural centers, more than in newspapers or radio.

However, it remains important not to lose connection with the media world: opinion articles will continue to exist also because people write them for free, certainly. But a deepened reportage, furthered journalism with investigations is more and more possible in the independent field only, with cooperatives, collectives and websites. Spaces that are generated sometimes with the support either of universities, cultural centres or public spaces. So, we try to play our part in that and defend the critics of theatre.

Personally, I had a brief experience with theatre critics at 17 years old: it was one of my first jobs, right after high school. I worked for a local newspaper in Amadora, a city in the suburbs of Lisbon. I’m glad that these texts are hard to find (the newspaper wasn’t online!) because they were really naive. However, when I reread them they remind me of the immature but deep admiration I already had for theatre, although I was still quite ignorant about certain things. And even today, in the things that we love, ignorance persists. Knowledge is infinite and you realize that you grow more ignorant every time you experience something new, every time you start writing differently, thinking about theatre in a new way.

The privilege of having critics from different countries who write about my work has allowed me to identify what I still could not articulate. Critics, therefore, allows me to understand effects, but also reasons, of my praxis, with a theoretical background that I lacked. This is why I see critics as accomplices.

Tiago Rodrigues in By Heart
Tiago Rodrigues in By Heart

What is the connection between memory and coincidence for you?

Coincidence requires an explanation. Every day, and sometimes very strongly, we meet and leave coincidence behind us, which means that we are asked for explanation. Many times we don’t know how to explain them and that’s where fiction starts, where imagination begins. It’s not only the beginning of art to me, but also the beginning of science, of civilization, of thought. It’s an animal [man, ed.] who someday faced a coincidence and suddenly said: “Oh, maybe it could be like this…”. Here begins civilization, politics, thought. In the multi-nuanced society in which we live, where everyone has to face with so many narratives, stories, facts, information and knowledge, coincidence is the closest thing to transcendence.

And I have to answer these questions with something. Maybe that’s what I started doing when I realized that I wanted to be an artist. When I started answering to coincidences without really caring about what was true, preferring instead what could be true.

And then, of course, there is the extraordinary power of all the literary connections, from Borges to Auster, to Calvino. Connections, like labyrinths, speak highly about transgressing the usual path. So, you have the road and you have the labyrinth and suddenly you get lost. Coincidence is as if you have in front of you A, B, C, D, E, F, G… What? No, is there an A again? What does it mean? It’s not normal! This type of click that makes reality appear different and pushes you to look for another way, another perspective, is for me the power of coincidence.

Tiago Rodrigues

What concerns memory, its beauty, is that memory relates to the past, but I find that it is an exercise of the present. Many people say that I’m obsessed with the past when I talk about memory. No, the past is past, but memory is a present exercise of today, of how to use the past to be useful, important, relevant today. When you use memory, the past becomes something else: you are not sure if it was Monday or Thursday, what happened before and what happened after.

It’s not that coincidence really exists, at a certain point you start inventing them, seeing them. And they also ask you new questions. All these layers excite the imagination and I think they lead you to thinking differently. When I say “differently” I simply mean getting out of the way we usually think. Coincidence leads me to reflect on the fact that I can think differently than I usually do.

Many times the coincidence is at the origin of the performances I create, the texts I write, always returning during the actual show. My way of writing down coincidence I live and asking myself questions about them corresponds to my way of creating theatrical performances. When my grandmother recited by heart Shakespeare’s sonnet XXX to me I thought it was connected to Pasternak. Somehow, they coincided, in a different geography. I thought about the power of words through time and space. Reflecting on this connection, I thought of making a pièce about it: I had to try to better understand its meaning.

Sofia Dias e Vítor Roris in António e Cleópatra di Tiago Rodrigues
Sofia Dias e Vítor Roris in António e Cleópatra di Tiago Rodrigues

You have talked a lot about books and real presences, in your life and in your work. Do you also find inspiration in cinema and in series?

Oh yes, absolutely. Books are closer to theatre to me than to cinema or television because of the amount of imagination required to the reader. With books I get closer to that feeling of intimacy I experience in theatre. In theatre it happens because the scene, the actors are really there, and I am with them. In books because I am alone with the writer and sometimes it seems that he wrote just for me.

Of course, cinema and TV, which are areas I have often worked in, are very interesting media and to which I love to go back as often as possible. They inspire me a lot and have been formative for me. I’m a great consumer (even if I don’t like this word), a great spectator, of cinema and television, series and documentaries in particular. Furthermore it’s a cliché, but it’s true series represent today an extremely creative place of narrative research.

Peter O’Toole in Lawrence d’Arabia, del 1962

Cinema is one of my great references. I’m one of those who always return to the same film, like Lawrence of Arabia. I’ve probably seen it hundreds of times. I am very impressed by this “epic cinema”, by great narratives. There’s something in myth, about the monument to the myths, in the great landscapes of these films that really works for me. I love Mankiewicz‘s films: Julius Caesar (1953) or even Cleopatra (1963), which is not an extraordinary film, but represents this sort of megalomania of the great and ancient golden age of cinema. And then, of course, the Nouvelle Vague.

There are also many independent directors who are really powerful in my imagination. John Cassavetes is a director that I find very stimulating, also in how he relates to actors and writing, in a collaborative way. I learned a lot from him: even today I sometimes look at him as he was giving a masterclass, to be seen to take notes… I don’t live Cassavetes only as a spectator, but as a student. A director I often go back to study.

John Cassavetes

In your shows you often don’t use the language of the country in which you perform, preferring rather English, French or Portuguese. Your use of languages ​​gives you the opportunity to communicate something more, but can it also become a limit for the audience?

What I like about languages and I think it’s important – is the immediate contact with the audience. I try, if it’s possible and interesting for the performance, to work in the language of the audience so that people can simply watch. In some countries I can’t. My Italian, for instance, doesn’t allow me to perform totally in Italian in order to manipulate words as I prefer.

Sometimes I resort to subtitles because it’s important to use the original language for dramaturgical reasons. We always play Sopro in Portuguese because many times we are recreating or remembering a scene that was performed in Portugal and translating it wouldn’t fully allow this re-enactment: it’s very important that you can listen to Molière or Chekhov in Portuguese, even if you know the text in your language. I think it’s a show where it’s essential that people listen to the Portuguese language.

Sopro di Tiago Rodrigues
Sopro di Tiago Rodrigues

But even the subtitle operation has to face reality and the performance has a different rhythm every time, so… The person who writes the subtitles is really like another actor, we work a lot together and we try to do it in the most delicate way possible. It becomes part of the performance.

To me, the interest of working with another languages, besides the possibility of the immediate contact with people, is that on one hand you create obstacles, because you are not as confident using a different language from yours, but at the same time you have a certain freedom, a new one, so you don’t completely control the translation and tradition of words. When you say a certain word in Italian you know what it means, but it means something else too, and in your personal story it can againg mean something else. But if you say the same word in English, you’re just saying that word.

Playing with this freedom is very interesting and sometimes, for instance, it happened that French people said to me: “It’s like listening to my language for the first time, because you’re not transmitting all those stereotypes that we associate with words.” Suddenly, since you don’t have the tradition of some words, you are freer and this also gives more freedom to meanings.

On the other hand, I have, not only on stage, but generally in life, a tendency to the multiplicity of words because I believe that a polyglot world is more interesting than a monolingual one. A polyglot world considers the other equal, recognizes the voice, culture and thought of the other. It’s a world that doesn’t consider a language, a country or a people as the center of civilization, but accepts that we live on a planet where there is a multiplicity of philosophies, ideas, people and cultures, and that they can not only coexist, but also mix. The beauty of being polyglot is that you are always in a beautiful confusion of translation.

Tiago Rodrigues

The problem with translation in the polyglot world is that it creates new meanings, it creates errors. Sometimes we are unfaithful while translating, we create neologisms. While when you are monolingual it’s like… you know, when you are child, you are walking and you always follow the same path from home to school? Every day you pass by that road, but you never go there. So, that road doesn’t really exist to you. One day by chance you go through it and you feel that the world opens and it’s like: “Oh, oh, oh…”. 

This opening of the world, I think, when you are monolingual, when you speak one language, when you decide to speak one language only as a way of life, you cannot have it. You will only walk the same path for the rest of your life.

A last question. What does traveling and carrying your shows around mean for you?

I have had the privilege to travel as an actor since a lot of time, but also as a director and a writer, and to see my work presented in different cities, countries and continents. And it really shaped me, this really nomadic approach to life is a big part of who I am. You depend a lot on people and it’s a beautiful experience as it continuously strengthens your trust in humanity. People are inviting you because they want you to share your artistic work with their community. This, since I am at the Lisbon National Theatre, has made me very attentive to how I invite and how I receive people.

Lisbon has a very international programme, at least since the late 90s. It’s quite normal for me to go to a country and be a foreigner, because I have seen many foreigners doing the same in Portugal. It’s nothing new, I mean, theatre is ancestrally a nomadic art, that has always been practiced in public spaces, in amphitheatres, but also in the squares by troubadours who stayed few days and then continued their lives elsewhere. I think the needing of a house is in the genetics of theatre, but yet an ephemeral house.