Eat the words – ‘By Heart’ a performance by Tiago Rodrigues

October 29th, 2017  |  Published in October 2017

Tiago Rodrigues sits on a stool in the center of the stage. He has five chairs arranged on either side of him. Flipping through a book, he casually glances up as the audience shuffles in. They settle and he looks up at the staff to confirm it is time to start the show. He is wearing jeans, sneakers and a white t-shirt. He is casual and approachable.

Image: Magda Bizarro, contempoaryartscenter.org

Rodrigues addresses the audience and, pointing at the chairs, invites any ten people to fill them. One or two eager people get up. A moment passes and several more follow. They look back at their friends, making faces of embarrassment. Three or four chairs remain open. The audience members move in their seats, turning to the people on either side of them, shrugging. Some time passes and Rodrigues makes it clear, the performance is not moving forward until 10 people are in those seats. Eventually a few brave souls hesitantly agree and somewhat hunched, make their way on stage. Rodrigues is going to teach them a 14 line poem to recite by heart. People smile and hide their faces in their hands. He assures them it is possible however; no one can leave until it’s been done.

By Heart didn’t feel like a performance. It didn’t feel staged or predictable. It felt like watching your favorite professor give an impassioned lesson, consumed with the material. Rodrigues, who is quick and charismatic, explodes with information. He is a fountain of words. He possess encyclopedic knowledge in the obscure topics which create the framework of the performance. He remains the center of it all, despite the ten other guests on stage. He commands the room with his charm and comfort and counter balances the stress of the participants with casual conversation and jokes. He is instantly likable and someone you want to please.

The performance, despite its lofty goal, is at its core a story. Amidst the recitations he weaves together a collection of stories. Stories about himself, his family, literature, politics, and ultimately human nature. His monologues are collections of quotes, pulled from famous texts, oral histories, tv shows and his own lived experience. These excerpts, at first seeming disparate, center around the selection of this particular poem and the profound power of memorization. Rodrigues is fascinated by the unique intimacy of words that are protected in one’s mind. Words that we hold within us can never be taken away. Once memorized they are impermeable to the law, government, censorship- anyone who seeks to destroy it. If a group of people are able to commit something to memory, between them they can keep it alive. This piece is about preservation and perseverance.

The well- crafted structure of the performance brings the audience full circle, moving with Rodrigues through the light and dark subjects in this piece. The 10 guests on stage are punctuation in Rodrigues’ narrative. They are the constant repeating element we continue to revisit as he leads us through his philosophies. He spends some time coaching each person, sometimes devolving into a story about a Russian politician or a line from Ray Bradbury. Rodrigues is a master of reading people and seems to almost instantly respond to their demeanor. Like a good teacher, he knows how to coach each person, giving encouragement or tough love when necessary. He is able to establish a safe space between them to try and often times fail. He makes eye contact with each person, developing their own individual rhythm. He will make up movements to follow the words for one woman who is struggling; he jokes with another who keeps messing up the same line. Speaking to the audience often, he creates a causal atmosphere that we take advantage of by chatting and calling out to Rodrigues throughout the performance. The whole room seemed to bond over the unique situation we found ourselves in.

The people on stage are at times props for Rodrigues to position- acting as players in the scene he lays out between recitations. He delves deep into a passage from Fahrenheit 451, assigning roles to those seated on stage. He narrates the lines for them, like they are dolls he is playing with. Again, I am reminded of the best teachers of my life, not just explaining but bringing to life the material in front of us.

Image: Magda Bizarro, contempoaryartscenter.org

Rodrigues by trade is an actor. This is made clear in the way he moves across the stage. He is at home there. So much of the performance is Rodrigues reciting passages from memory. He seamlessly transitions between conversational banter to lines from George Steiner. Eventually I stopped trying to discern which words were his own. It ceased to matter, as he continued to more intricately weave his own thoughts with his most beloved texts. It becomes clear, once something is committed to memory, it becomes your own, it becomes part of you.

As the performance unfolds, one narrative emerges from the rest as both the most personal and poignant. He retells the story of his grandmother who lived in a small village in Portugal. Her entire life she had been an avid reader- working her way through hundreds of books. So in love with reading, she would pour over the pages again and again, memorizing her favorite passages, reciting them to herself over and over. Late in life she began to go blind and asked her grandson, Rodrigues, to select for her the last book she will ever read. She will read this book again and again until she can no longer see. She will commit it to memory in its entirety. When her sight is gone, she can read it to herself forever. This reveal is a turning point for the performance. There is a weight introduced to the room and we are reminded of the important task at hand. The performance has touched on heavy topics like the suppression of ideas and the dangers of censorship, but abstractly. Now this personal revelation brings the work into a different sphere, one of deep reflection. I have to imagine how the audience, like myself, considered the weight of this request and what they themselves would choose.

As the piece moves forward, there is a growing responsibility among the group to memorize this poem – a sonnet by William Shakespeare. It is just one of 154 sonnets his grandmother memorized after Rodrigues chose Shakespeare’s collection as her final text. There is a shared responsibility among both the players and the audience to get this right, once. Before the last recitation Rodrigues gives each participant an edible copy of the poem, printed on a thin rice paper. They are to eat the poem, finalizing its place within them and driving home the concept of this unique piece- keep what is sacred within you, within your mind where no one can take it away. He explains, if the internet failed, if all the texts of the earth were lost, these ten people could come together and save this one work. That together we can preserve our most beloved words.

By Heart has a simple concept. One performer teaches 10 volunteers to commit a poem to memory. Sitting together in a semi- circle, the ten move through it, one by one, line by line. What begins as an open room of strangers becomes a close knit circle. Ten people become a cohesive group knitted together by a common thread of words. Rodrigues expertly leads us through history, philosophy, literature – introducing us to the words that fascinate him, the words that run circles around his mind. Ultimately we land on something that is both so specific to Rodrigues but whose roots are deeply universal. Protect what is scared within your own mind. Eat the words, make them your own and you will have them forever.

–Chelsea Borgman

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