He Speaks Theater’s Language (and Many Others, Too)

LISBON — Theater knows no language barriers for the Portuguese actor and director Tiago Rodrigues. At the Brooklyn Academy of Music, where he will make his American debut on Oct. 12, he will perform “By Heart,” a solo show with audience participation, in English.

Since it was created in 2013, he has also staged it around Europe in the three other languages he speaks: French, Portuguese and Spanish. And because the premise of “By Heart” is that Rodrigues, 44, brings 10 audience members onstage to teach them a Shakespeare sonnet, he has also learned the poem in Greek and Russian, for shows in Thessaloniki, Greece; Moscow; and St. Petersburg, Russia.

Midway through a recent interview at the Lisbon playhouse he has directed since 2015, the grand-looking Teatro Nacional D. Maria II, he recalled the first four lines of the sonnet — No. 30, which begins, “When to the sessions of sweet silent thought” — in Russian, with obvious delight.

“I really love to see what happens to a play when you did it in one language, and then you do it in another,” he said. “I always ask someone from the country to help out. I’ve visited a lot of embassies in Portugal.”

Rodrigues, center, performing “By Heart” in 2013 at O Espaço do Tempo performing arts center, in Montemor-o-Novo, Portugal.Credit…Magda Bizarro

One embassy has recently been less amenable. In September, the United States Embassy in Lisbon denied Rodrigues a visa to perform at BAM, advising instead that he “travel to a country outside Europe to apply for a visa to enter the U.S.,” Rodrigues said in an email on Wednesday. So he will go to Canada before traveling to New York, pushing the “By Heart” premiere back by a week: The show will now run from Oct. 12 through Oct. 17.

At least American theatergoers will still get a glimpse of the work that has made Rodrigues a widely appreciated figure on Europe’s stages — and led to his appointment as the next director of the Avignon Festival, one of the continent’s biggest theater events, starting with the 2023 edition.

Over the past two decades, Rodrigues’s output has spanned multiple genres, including classic dramas like Shakespeare’s “Antony and Cleopatra” and Chekhov’s “The Cherry Orchard” and less formal and more personal works like “By Heart,” which is a loving tribute to his grandmother Candida. A voracious reader, she tried to learn a favorite book in its entirety when she found herself going blind at the end of her life.

“The moment I say her name onstage, it’s a way of perpetuating her presence, somehow, and to share this invisible connection that literature creates,” Rodrigues said.

What Rodrigues’s productions have in common is a Pan-European, multilingual outlook and a loose, collaborative directing style. His wife, Magda Bizarro, has been a frequent collaborator from the start of his career, and will oversee international programming in Avignon.

Artists who have worked with Rodrigues describe him as gentle to a fault. Océane Cairaty, who played the role of Varya in “The Cherry Orchard” at Avignon in July, said that he “completely trusts the actors — he believes we also have our vision of the play and the role, and he welcomes it.” (In an interview in Lisbon, Bizarro explained with a laugh that it doesn’t mean Rodrigues doesn’t have an end point in mind: “Tiago hears everyone, but if he has an idea about a text, he keeps it until the end.”)

Rodrigues’s approach stems in part from political principles, he said. A child of the young Portuguese democracy, he was born in Lisbon three years after the “Carnation Revolution” in 1974 that abolished the country’s military dictatorship. His father was an antifascist activist who spent several years in exile in France in the late 1960s, and later worked as a journalist.

“I never want to work with someone and, when we disagree, play the authority card because it’s my job,” Rodrigues said.Credit…Ana Brigida for The New York Times

“Democracy for me is a big thing. I try to work the way I try to live,” Rodrigues said. “I never want to work with someone and, when we disagree, play the authority card because it’s my job. If I ever do it, I hope I’m brave enough to say sorry.”

“Knowing him has been one of the privileges of my theater life,” Jean-Marie Hordé, the director of the Théâtre de la Bastille in Paris, where Rodrigues has presented many of his works, said in a phone interview. “His talents are manifold, and he is an extremely honest man.”

Rodrigues himself took an unusual path to the stage. When he applied to the Lisbon Theater and Film School as a teenager, he was rejected — “I was the first of the non-admitted, the best of the refused,” he recalled — yet ultimately, he got in after someone dropped out. “I did one year, and by the end, they were sorry they had called me,” he said. “They said I was just not talented. I’m not sure they were wrong. I probably grew much, much better, just to prove them wrong.”

The school advised him to focus his talents elsewhere. Instead, Rodrigues enrolled in every workshop he could find after the school year, including one with the Belgian company tg STAN. By the end of the summer, tg STAN, a director-less collective that Rodrigues described as “my school of theater,” offered him a role in an upcoming production.

“It was really love at first sight with them,” he said, adding that when he turned to directing, he was heavily influenced by the collective’s philosophy. “The idea of a creation is shared by all, collectively, and is based upon the freedom of the actor onstage.”

To keep working with tg STAN, Rodrigues pretended he could speak French to land a role in “Les Antigones,” a production that premiered in Toulouse, France, in 2001. “I said in English that my French was great, and they never doubted me,” he said.

His now excellent French will no doubt improve further when he moves to Avignon, in southern France, full time this winter. In Lisbon, Rodrigues leaves behind a rejuvenated Teatro Nacional — Portugal’s “symbolic temple of theater,” as he puts it.

“When I came in 2015, it was perceived as a bit old-fashioned,” Rodrigues said. “Sometimes it didn’t allow for the great work being done here to be perceived as great work.”

A production of “By Heart” at the Teatro in June 2020, shortly after the theater reopened following a coronavirus lockdown.Credit…Filipe Ferreira

Under his leadership, the theater introduced outreach programs aimed at residents of central Lisbon who had never been to the Teatro Nacional. The resident ensemble, at that point downsized to only a handful of actors because of funding cuts, was supplemented by young performers on fixed contracts.

While bringing in new blood, Rodrigues also honored the theater’s long-serving staff members. “Sopro,” a work he created in 2017, is based around four decades of backstage anecdotes from the theater’s prompter, Cristina Vidal. She whispers her stories to actors onstage, who relay them to the audience.

“He took a sleeping beauty, and woke it up,” said Hordé of Rodrigues’s tenure in Lisbon.

The Avignon Festival — in another country, and language — will present new challenges, but Rodrigues said he would apply the same convictions there. It might also mean “doing less” than the current, sprawling event, he added.

The vast scale of the job might mean he has to do less, too: Avignon will most likely keep Rodrigues too busy for many stage appearances of his own. “When I started directing and writing more and more, I understood that acting is the hardest job for me,” Rodrigues said. “I’m exhausted by it.”

Yet eight years after the “By Heart” premiere, he said he hadn’t tired of sharing Shakespeare’s sonnet around the world. “Every performance, 10 new people come onstage,” Rodrigues added. “And it’s a totally new adventure.”

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