Mike Bartlett discusses his time working with 15 young playwrights in Brazil as part the Royal Court's International Work

Shortly before this picture was taken, I was attempting, in collaboration with 15 of the most promising young Brazilian playwrights, to keep the pictured yellow ball in the air for as long as possible. Shortly after the picture was taken, the entire group took part in an ancient ritual of Brazil that involved burning sage, some kind of dancing, and a drum. I was in Sau Paulo with Elyse Dodgson, Head of the International Programme, and director Lyndsey Turner, to work with some new Brazilian playwrights, and things had already got a little surreal…

The Royal Court World Record for the ball game was held by the Mexicans. In 2009, they had managed 130 hits, and the Brazilians were determined to beat it. However, it is a feature of writers in many countries, even Brazil, that they are perhaps not the most adept when it comes to hand/eye co-ordination. After five twenty-minute sessions, the most the group had achieved was 50. But as Elyse pointed out, the Mexicans only achieved such a high figure in their third workshop. This wasthe Brazilian’s first – there was plenty of time to improve.

The ball game, I hasten to add, wasnot just a way of warming up. It was, in fact, a useful metaphor for a play – everyone active all the time, with something urgent to achieve.(A writer once said to me there is only one thing you need to know about how to write a play – “keep the ball in the air”.)The workshops continued with more specific exercises about playwriting craft, and thenthe writers made a list of the most pressing issues in Brazil at the moment. Among some of the most interesting – a controversial new dam which will wipe out some of the remaining indigenous tribes, a obsession with appearance, identity and celebrity, and a scepticsm with Brazil’s “economic miracle”.

Brazil certainly does not appear, like almost every other country, to be tightening its belt. Food is expensive in Sau Paulo, but many seem to be able to afford it, and the skyscrapers and the helicopters landing on top of them reflect a city where growth and economic progress seem to be the priority. The city also has a thriving theatre scene, polarized between commercial mega-hits like Mamma Mia, and much smaller, experimental “post-dramatic” productions. One of these smaller productions was of my play Contractions. In our day off, LyndseyTurner (who had directed the original production) and I went to see it, and we were struck by the experimentalism. It was much more physical and visual than our original production -but absolutely committed to conveying the truth at the centre of the play. I was pleased our production was as I intended it to be, but seeing this much freer version made us wonder if we’ve become a little conservative in Britain. Our theatre culture is, despite everything, very healthy – perhaps we should take some more risks?

The discussion between the “post-dramatic” and the “dramatic” recurred throughout our time with the writers. Theory or practice? Theatre as performance art, or theatre as drama? Speaking of performance art, there was, at the end of this workshop, as I mentioned…an indigenousBrazilian ritual to look forward to…

Daniela, one of the writers, had discovered her indigenous heritage only a few years ago, and since then had investigated and grown to adore this side of the culture. She was going to lead us in a ritual. We would have to sing.And dance. Oh god, I thought, this is going to be very embarrassing for all concerned.

But we had no choice…we were in Brazil and we were polite. So. We stood in a circle, and closed our eyes, then Daniela began to hit the drum, close enough to our bodies, that you could feel the vibrations in your chest. Then the singing started, in a language I neither recognized nor understood, but I managed the collective vowel sounds and kept going. Then we started to move in a circle, round and round the room. Somehow, as this happened, the goodwill and laughter from the group melted my cynicism, which had been shared with some of the other writers before we’d begun, and soon enough we were all moving around in a circle, chanting and singing.

Unfortunately for the blog, no photos of this moment seem to exist, but, by the end of the experience, I had to admit I felt better – more relaxed and much freer. There was a real generosity from Daniela to share this with us, and it was wonderful for me to be forced to engage in it unironically and without embarrassment. It was what it was, and it worked. When we spoke to the writers at the end of the week, the plays they wanted to write sounded not altogether dissimilar to this – freer than the work we might write, less knowing and ironic, but just as engaged and passionate, if not more so.

I hope the writers had a good week. I had certainly leant a lesson. A play isn’t just a ball game. It also has to be something new. It has to be a risk.