Interview: Always (K)new Director Alberto Tibaji

MFA Actors Marlon Burnley & Larry Cox, Jr. in rehearsal. 

MFA Actors Marlon Burnley & Larry Cox, Jr. in rehearsal. 

The UGA Latin American Caribbean Studies Institute (LACSI), Portuguese Flagship Program (PFP), Department of Theatre and Film Studies, and the UGA LGBT Resource Center have brought internationally-recognized guest artist Alberto Tibaji to the University of Georgia to create an original production based on LGBTQ+ stories form UGA, Athens, Colombia, and Brazil. Professor George Contini of Theatre & Film Studies interviewed Alberto for insights into his life, work, and the transnational theatrical piece Always (K)new.


Alberto: Hello, George!

George: So first – for those people who don’t know who you are and what brought you here – can you give a backstory on the kind of work you do, where you’re coming from, etc.

Alberto: Okay, I am a Brazilian professor in the state of Minas Gerais in Brazil. I live there since 1993 in a very small town in the state of Minas Gerais that’s called São João del Rei. This is a historical town in Brazil that has a lot of history about Brazil and also São João del Rei is a city where many cultural events like theatre and music so it is very important in this town’s history. So I work at the university as a theatre professor since 1993. I am still working there. I teach theatre. I also participate in the Portuguese flagship program, and this is a program from the University of Georgia. Professor Robert Moser is the director. He coordinates the program, and we receive UGA students in Brazil, and I am responsible for one class in Brazilian culture so I’m in charge of teaching American students Brazilian culture in general. So I came here and was invited to prepare a workshop with the graduate students here. It was last year, January 2016. Then I was invited back here to direct a show. Unfortunately, I couldn’t come in August because I had so much work to do in Brazil.  We just started a master’s program about theatre that I’m coordinating this program so I couldn’t leave the country so I am here now since the beginning of October.

George: Talk about the type of work that this particular show that we’re doing is drawing narratives. What we’ve done is conduct interviews with members of the GLBTQ communities not just here in Athens and UGA, but also in Brazil and in Colombia. But you have a background in using biographical/autobiographical narratives in performance. Talk a little bit about that!

Alberto: That’s true. I have been working since 2012 with autobiographical narratives. I have studied not only these narratives that are used in theatre, but also novels, memoirs, and interviews. I have directed a play titled Arasee (??). It was very important to me because this word is a name. Someone could be called “Arasee” in Brazil, but it’s a name that men and women could both have. We have some names in English that are like this as well, but in Portuguese, we have some names that you can have for women or for men. The play had this name so the audience wouldn’t know if it was about a man or a woman. First, I started working with autobiographies and biographies. I was preparing a show or a play about one person or about many people. Then I started working with LGBTQ issues. I gathered all these things and started working and interviewing people. Then from these interviews, we have some images, situations, or even some lines that strike us or move us. We just started working with this. So just to have an example, this past show, we had an interview – a man – who told us that when he was a teenager, let’s say sixteen years old, he told his mom that he was a gay man, and then she said that he was responsible for washing his own clothes and that he couldn’t wash your clothes with the rest of the family’s. So we took this image, and we did some scenes based on this narrative, but we would never tell this story exactly the way it was told to us. The scene had someone who was actually being washed with soap and water on stage. People understood it in different ways. I think we really have some powerful interviews from people in the US, Colombia, and Brazil. We also have different kinds of interviews or identities. We have bisexual men and women, we have gay men, we have lesbians, we have trans-people, and people who do not identify themselves such as pansexuals.

George: It’s really interesting here at UGA that there has never been a project like this. No one has really approached the LGBTQ community like this before. This idea of a non-linear presentation that we’re not necessarily going to sit back and hear somebody tell a story, but rather that you’ve done a mashup of all the stories that all kind of concurrently happening at the same time so that the images, the words, and the sounds – and I know you are bringing in songs and music. Will it affect us more like waves of things coming at us or someone’s going to walk away and say, “I heard the story about such and such.” It’s more of a feeling, using the word “tapestry.” We said collage before. It’s a bunch of different things streaming together. I think that it’s really important for people to understand how peculiar and unique a theatrical experience that is. We don’t do that a lot here.

Alberto: I think that we can use both those words, “tapestry” or “collage.” I love “collage” very much. And I keep thinking on some works like Matisse when Matisse was working with the collages. For me, there is a theoretical aspect. I think we should queer the aesthetics of the performance. That’s why I prefer to work with collages and also this idea of tapestry. There is something important for me. I told the grad students about this, we talked a little about this – is that for me the most important thing is to work with the actors and actresses. So I think that if we do not have images that are not important or have anything that moves these actors, I’m not interested in that kind of theatre. I am interested in this kind of theatre. Although part of the show, we are working with animations, and we have a group of grad students and technicians here at UGA that are working with these animations so we’ll have ten minutes of animations. The animation will be in dialogue with the actors and actresses. We also have a team working in Colombia that is working with animation too. They have already shared the animation with us so that we can use it. We are having professor Cecilia Traslaviña here from Colombia to talk with us and to show her work and to explain to us how she’s working. Although we have all this, I usually direct plays that are very spectacular with different effects. It doesn’t interest me. I am happy when someone leaves the theatre, and this person says, “Oh you saw that actor or that actress. He/she was amazing. I was moved.” This interests me so that’s what I’m trying to do here.

George: That’s great. The group came up with the title the other day. Always (K)new! What’s that mean for you? What’s the audience supposed to take away from this?

Alberto: I think that during the interviews we heard a lot of similar sentences such as, “I always knew” or “he always knew” or “she,” “my mother,” “my father” always knew. Or just the opposite. They never knew. They did not know. I’m waiting for the right moment to tell them. So this is really part of the LGBTQ+ universe or world.

George: Yeah! Because heterosexuals never say, “I always knew,” you know?  What really struck me about the title was how you never hear heterosexuals say, “Oh, I always knew I was heterosexual.” You hear the queer community say that all the time.

Alberto: I think that it’s also not just important for the LGBT+ community, but also the whole community. People are not aware of this, but this is something very important. We decided to have Always (K)new because it’s really important for the community or LGBT people, but we have the (K)new – the K that is in parenthesis – and New. We are not always the same person. We have a history, a story. Our identity should also be seen like a history and not only something that is fixed and that’s immobile. It moves; it changes. It’s always new! For me, these are the basic ideas that we have with the title. I know it’s very difficult to find an appropriate title, but I like it very much. I think we can have these two ideas.

George: I kind of just want to wrap up a couple of events that are happening with this. The actual shows are happening on December 1st and 2nd at 7:30pm in the Seney-Stovall Chapel. But we’re also having a panel discussion that the Wilson Center for the Humanities and Arts is sponsoring and that’s on Wednesday, November 15th at 4pm in the MLC. We’re getting the whole team of the production at this panel, and we’ll be showing a little bit how we developed the piece, the process. The final thing I want to ask you is: what are a couple Portuguese words that you can teach our viewers that will be important to know before they can see the show.

Alberto: This is a very good question! We will need some translations in the show, but usually for native English speakers, they are not used to people speaking multiple languages. English is almost a language that is universal. I would like people to just experience having to guess what we’re saying and trying to talk about. If I had to choose, then I would choose the words that we usually use as insults. It’s the same way here in the U.S. Some words that were usually insults for the LGBTQ community are not insults. If a gay man calls another gay man “faggot,” it’s not problem in Brazil. They are gay so they are a part of the community. They can say this. This also applies to lesbians. In Brazil, we have two words that are very aggressive for gay men. We do not have the word “queer.” Let’s just say that we have all the LGBT community in that. We have “veado.” It’s a very aggressive. “Veado” means “gay,” “faggot.” We also have the word “bicha.” It’s a synonym. It’s very aggressive to boys when they are at school. I heard this a lot. We also have “sapatão.” I think it’s very funny because it’s what we use to call “lesbians.” It’s also usually an insult, but among LGBT people there is no problem. And “sapatão” means a very big shoe. So it’s a women who wears or has a very big foot so she wears big shoes. But we also have a nickname for a “sapatão” that’s “sapa.” It’s the female frog. They are very popular words.

George: Alright. We learned three very important words. You “sapatão,” “bicha,” and “veado.”

Alberto: And in Spanish, they usually say “maricon” for a gay man.

George: So it will be an all around good experience for everyone, and it’s NOT JUST FOR GAY PEOPLE! This is for the entire community to come out and hear these wonderful stories conveyed in a very unique collage of theatre. So thank you, Alberto!

Alberto: Thank you!