It was once considered one of the most dangerous neighbourhoods in the capital city of Portugal, Lisbon. Today, it is home for theatre group Casa Conveniente/Zona Não Vigiada.

By Luciana Leitão

“Can you return the beach umbrella you used for the show? My mother keeps asking for it,” says one of the neighbours. At Zona J, in Lisbon, the theatre group Casa Conveniente/Zona Não Vigiada integrates the local community in the shows and acts in the streets. Rehearsing in the debris of their headquarters, they even had to use, occasionally , the neighbours’ electricity during performances.

Founded in 1992 by director and actress Mónica Calle, the Portuguese theatre troupe started to set grounds in a former prostitution bar, in Cais do Sodré, Lisbon, called Casa Conveniente – hence, the group’s name. In 2014, they created the association Zona Não Vigiada and moved to Zona J, in the district of Chelas, Lisbon, after gaining a space to perform.

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In “O Livro de Job”, Mário Fernandes is the lead male actor.
Image by Bruno Simão

It all started in 2009, when Casa Conveniente was working with prison inmates. “Some people working with us from Vale de Judeus prison facility were from Zona J. They started working with us when they were inside [doing time] and they kept doing so outside,” Mónica Calle tells mART. As a result of this working relationship, Mónica Calle and her group started going frequently to Zona J. “We got to know the neighbourhood,” she recalls.

Moving from Cais do Sodré meant a creative and artistic change. In 2012, they asked the Municipality for a theatre in Lisbon, but had to wait two years for a positive reply. In 2014, it finally came. “It ended up being a natural change that came from within,” she emphasises. “And, even though Cais do Sodré was also a very marginalised place, there are deeper issues here, at Zona J. It is a poor neighbourhood.”

After the Portuguese Revolution, on April 25, 1974, Chelas, in the eastern part of Lisbon, was used to house people from slums and individuals coming from former Portuguese colonies. Without any urban plan to connect Chelas to the city centre, it ended up becoming a sort of ghetto for its inhabitants.

For several years, Chelas was divided into different Zonas (Zones, in English), but in the 1990s these gave room to Bairros (Neighbourhoods, in English). But, even though Zona J is, since the nineties, Bairro do Condado, it is still known by its original name.

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“Drive-In” featured five unknown stories from Portuguese authors. 
Image by Luís Fonseca

Community related

Ms Calle’s work with Vale de Judeus started with Mário Fernandes, a former inmate. He introduced the group to other people, who had no professional training. “He brought other actors, that had no training or acting background, and we started integrating all those people in our project.”

Even though community work is not the goal of the project, it ended up being a part of the daily life at Zona J. “By coming here, we do not intend to work for the community, that is not our place. We want to build a new theatre,” she highlights. Yet, Ms Calle realised there is a series of “artistic moves” within the neighbourhood that added value to the work Casa Conveniente was already doing.

Using the streets as a stage for their performances is not new for the group. “In Cais do Sodré, there was also a connection to the street. I always think of the work as part of the surroundings I’m involved in and the dynamics that can be created with the audience,” she says.

“Ensaio para uma Cartografia” is Casa Conveniente’s latest show
Image by José Miguel Vitorino

Yet, Cais do Sodré is just a street, while Zona J is a whole neighbourhood. “The work with the public space here is more ambitious and more complex. It involves deeper issues, like music and dance.”

So, since they arrived at Zona J, they started working with teenagers, which is something new for Ms Calle. “There are many children here, this is a residential neighbourhood. Children are the first ones to interact and gradually they’ve been integrated.”

The same thing happened when Mário Fernandes brought a series of street dancers to the rehearsals. “I started integrating them in our shows,” she adds. Last year, they even joined forces with the Portuguese association Filho Único and organised a music festival in September, which brought in some famous names like the British musician Skepta. “I had never thought of this event, it has to do with the dynamics of Zona J,” Ms Calle says.

With the purpose of bringing Zona J’s inhabitants closer to the project – and vice-versa –, Casa Conveniente/Zona Não Vigiada has organised several activities focused on the neighbourhood. For instance, the show Mauser was created to reveal to the audience and the inhabitants the beginning of the construction work of the new venue. Opened to the general audience, there was a workshop combined with the performance.

Other shows from the theatre group included “A Boa Alma” (The Good Soul, in English), based on the work of Bertolt Brecht – considered in 2015 the show of the year by the magazine Time Out Lisboa –, or “Esta Noite Improvisa-se” (This Night We Improvise, in English), based on Luigi Pirandello’s work, in which professional actors joined forces with amateur ones from Zona J, after a workshop.

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In “A Boa Alma”, songs and lyrics are from Jp Simões.
Image by Bruno Simão

“Drive-In” was also among their most popular shows since they moved to Zona J. Created by actress Mónica Garnel, the show was set in the parking lot in front of Casa Conveniente/Zona Não Vigiada’s new space.

The fact that the theatre house is still waiting for the construction work to be finished doesn’t stop them. They practice in the debris, they improvise with no windows or doors, and they perform in the streets. “In December 2014, [during the show “A Boa Alma”], it was zero degrees [Celsius] outside. We had no doors and no windows, it was tough”, she says.

In the meantime, Casa Conveniente/Zona Não Vigiada has re-adapted an old show previously called “Sete Pecados” (Seven Sins, in English), naming it “Ensaio para uma Cartografia” (Essay for a Cartography, in English) and is performing in seven Portuguese regions. “It’s a new project that will last the whole year.”

The workshops will continue, so will the new projects. For now, the group has already started gathering information about all musical roots of the neighbourhood, which will later be available in an online platform. They have also started teaching classical guitar in the primary school of Zona J. In the meantime, they hope the construction work of the Casa Conveniente/Zona Não Vigiada theatre would be finished by the end of March.