Based in Porto, Portugal’s second city, PELE works with community groups, in prisons and with deaf communities to make theatre and multi-disciplinary art. Funded on a project-by-project basis since it was established in 2007, it hasn’t yet developed a paid organisational structure, and so all operational work is conducted on a voluntary basis. It is led by Maria João Mota as president and co-founder Hugo Cruz, who assumes the artistic direction of most projects.
Mission: using art to empower communities
For the first five years of its life, PELE was seen as doing strong social work, but felt to be instrumentalising art. It wasn’t until 2012, when the company first applied for national arts funding, that its work was “recognised by the artistic context too”. That shift, say Hugo Cruz and Maria Joao Mota, has been “really important: the aesthetic of our work has been strongly empowered on an artistic level”.
But PELE’s directors do describe the arts as “creation instruments” – and point out that many people, particularly those at the margins of society, such as “prisoners, deaf people, or the most vulnerable and peripheric communities, usually don’t have access” to them. The company uses performative arts, especially theatre, with the participatory, dialogic tools of Augusto Boal’s Theatre of the Oppressed as its ethical inspiration, “to empower the individuals and the collectives of more vulnerable communities, to promote participation and citizenship”. It works with these communities over long periods of time, not only to create performance but to encourage social change, as well as offering training, and programming a biennial festival.
As the company’s work has developed, its dialogue with communities has changed, such that: “We have a less paternalist logic. We think the people know about things, and the people make change in the process.”
Ethics and aesthetics
All PELE projects, regardless of the community participating, begin in the same way: “with the question, what do you want to say? The artistic process starts from that question – and we are committed to be truthful to the answer, and deal with that consequence.” It also begins with the company building relationships with the institution(s) relevant to that community, “creating conditions and working on the end of the project from the beginning, because the idea is to create continuity. We cannot work for social transformation, or social change, if we only think about one show, one experience. So there is always this balance between the group and the institution, and being ethical and truthful to both.”
Each project will have “a core group that is the centre of the creation and with whom we spend a lot of time, sometimes one year”. And those core groups will have one of three contexts:
PELE oversees projects in three different prisons, working with incarcerated people to create performances and documentaries, and where possible bringing that work to the attention of a general audience. Initially, this work was met with resistance, but time and trust has made “the relationship with the guards more flexible, so we’re able to work with bigger groups”.
2: Deaf communities
A desire to establish a dialogue through theatre – which it describes as “a universal language” – between deaf and hearing people led PELE to begin working with the Deaf Association of Porto in 2008. The partnership has generated several performances as well as a local deaf theatre group.
2: General communities
Moving across the city, PELE makes large-scale participatory theatre projects – sometimes gathering and integrating up to 100 people from across a community – with the intention of building legacy. A two-year project starting in 2009 with a social housing neighbourhood generated “a number of actions and allowed us to work with different groups: social workers, teachers, the staff of all the different institutions, families, young people and women.
After participating in the project, the people that live there created an association for that neighbourhood.”
Although its funding was cut, PELE continued the project, in particular maintaining its collaboration with one of the women’s groups.
Another project, MAPA, made in 2014, drew on other long-term collaborations with community groups PELE had already been working with for more than a year. Staged at the National Theatre, it inspired one group to create a cultural association, through which “people have been working with music and theatre in a more autonomous way, also in their community. And we have been working with this institution since, which allows the work to have that continuity.”
In all its work, PELE faces three key challenges:
1: A lack of core funding
Although the company’s work is “really distinctive, based on the ethics and on the aesthetics of the processes that we’ve developed”, it is also “hybrid: we are not a traditional artistic company, and we are also not a social institution”. This creates difficulties in terms of funding – with the effect that company receives no core or continuous funding, while the directors are paid only for their work on specific projects. The financial shortfall is made up in voluntary work, both “to give continuity to some projects”, and to fulfil “all the logistic and general work of the organisation”.
2: Traditional attitudes
Institutions, PELE argues, have a “traditional logic – and when you make artistic creation, you make another kind of logic in the world. You think and you feel and you construct, you make the impossible possible, and this is very strange to traditional situations. Our work is not wholly artistic and community: institutional change is also our work.” As an example, when PELE first approached the National Theatre with a presentation of a prison project, it raised “some questions and issues that the theatre was not used to, and the negotiation was more difficult, because this kind of work doesn’t quite fit in their frame-work”. By the time the company returned to stage MAPA there, with a cast of 100 people, that change had taken place: “we felt it was a mutual negotiation process – there was a huge difference in all the staff”.
3: Political resistance
Over the decade, the company has become “more publicly political, because we feel that it’s a way to empower the groups”. As a result, “social institutions have felt that our work was too much, too much in every level, especially the political engaged level.
We don’t have any support from the local political power – consciously they are friendly but unconsciously it is not the kind of work they want. Our work is not partisan but it is politically engaged, and at the moment in our city they want everyone to agree. Maybe because of that they feel that we will say some things or do some things that are not good for the image of the city.”
At present PELE is in a period of reflection: having existed on “lots of high energy and a big necessity to make complex actions”, it is slowing down, and looking at the outcomes of its work as a way of deciding what to do next. “We did a book about art and community, and began to think about what is important to PELE. We’ve realised that we cannot be responsible for everything: we are a small, small part in the process of change. We have to think more about the consequences of the work that we are doing. We will start going forward, but we need to focus on what’s important and strategic for us, and the conditions we need to do that work.”