“I was for a while in a far away land, by that time that land had magic.”
This is the first line of the performance the Prisoner, directed by Peter Brook, a play in which the Mexican actor Omar Silva performed. When I met Omar I didn’t realize at first that I had already seen him a year before, when I saw the Prisoner in a theatre in Amsterdam. The performance made a huge impact on me, and I was thrilled to have come across two of the members of the cast: Omar and Vasanth Selvam. I decided to interview them both for Portrait of the Artist.
I spoke to Omar twice, once before and once after the pandemic. About the meaning of being an actor, working with one of the most renowned theatre directors in the world, facing prisons inside oneself, and how theatre helped him to transform a past life full of rage and violence.
June 2020. A phone call with Omar, who is in Mexico City.
“This isolation, this period of lockdown, has taken away all unnecessary things. What remains is essential. Which will be in certain cases: myself. If I look inside myself I find all the people I met in the world. All the memories come back to life. I can re-enter all the feelings that were generated, and bring them back to the present.”
When asked about what Covid has taught him so far, Omar answers without hesitation. Even though it didn’t make his life as an actor any easier – he is just as driven, vibrant and full of vision as when I met him ten months earlier. Due to the pandemic he had to change his plans somewhat: a Shakespeare workshop in Oxford he was going to attend got cancelled, and because he was tied to his home he started writing music, and scripts that he captures on camera. He also contacted people he met in the past, and started musical collaborations with them.
“Of course there are moments of anxiety”, Omar says, looking back at the last couple of months in which he lived in isolation. “Doubt appears: what am I going to do next? What’s going to happen? But these questions always remain. It’s better to be in the present, to face what there is in the moment.” About whether he could continue living his passion was never any doubt: “If I know something it’s that I will always be an actor.”
Omar Silva speaks to Peter Brook and Marie Helene Estienne about the Prisoner
The opening line of the Prisoner – the far away land that has magic – says a lot about the place I met Omar – the Constellations Camp in Turkey. It’s this place we refer to in our conversations. The camp, which was a gathering that spanned for over three weeks, was organized by the Open Program of the Workcenter of Jerzy Grotowski and Thomas Richards, and hosted by the Turkish Tiyatro Medresesi. The daily routine of the camp consisted of workshops and gatherings in theatre, singing, dancing, physical training, philosophy, psychology and religion.
During these three weeks people from all over the world came and went, and we witnessed a universe being formed in the midst of olive groves with a group of people devoted to one or more of the crafts mentioned above. The Constellations Camp was a mesmerizing experiment in the art of being together – of sharing a space. An art that has gained a new dimension of relevance through the isolation of the pandemic.
“I think art will play a very important role in the transformation of society we’re in right now.”
How does Omar reflect on this experiment – that suddenly feels so out of reach in the current state of the world? “For me those days were food for this period of isolation. To be with many people from all around the globe. It was a miracle of meeting people.” I point out that in the conversation we had in Turkey he stressed how difficult it was to find space for oneself amongst so many people – while the last couple of months he was forced to be by himself. He answers: “In this moment it goes in the opposite way. We go back to the necessity of human touch, of human meeting, of human sharing. In Turkey it was difficult to be by myself. But the Constellations Camp and the lockdown are about the same thing: the necessity to be with others.”
Like most countries, in Mexico everything that’s in the realm of art and theatre is considered non-essential, and therefore under threat. “They will start to cut the budgets for art”, he says, referring to the Mexican government. “Maybe it will disappear. It will only become more difficult to keep doing art. Art is a way to build a bridge between audience and artist. To help people to face themselves. In this moment people are trying to find a way to make contact with someone else. So we realize that contact – to listen and be listened to – is essential to being human. I think art will play a very important role in the transformation of society we’re in right now.”
Ten months earlier, September 2019, The Constellations Camp. Şirince, Izmir, Turkey
You are involved in theatre: you’re an actor. What does that mean?
(laughs) Oh my god. I don’t know if someone can explain what that means. To be an actor is a way to face life. A way to share what you love with others. It’s the way you act with others, the way you perceive others. The way you perceive the world.
So it’s not something that’s limited just to a stage?
Theatre needs a stage. But to be an actor is another thing. An actor must be able to be in the present. To be aware. To build relationships and make connections with others. And that’s exactly what we need in these current times. We’re not able to listen, to bridge gaps, and to make connections with others. That’s exactly what I’m trying to do in my daily life. The clue of being an actor is to develop empathy, instead of having sympathy.
To develop an awareness of the other person.
The other person, yes. Without judgment, without condemning.
“Everyone has their own process in life. That’s a vital thing.”
Is that difficult?
It is. And that’s another reason why this place is so special for me. Because there are so many people who are on the same path. We’re facing life in the same way, even though we have so many different nationalities. That’s why places like this are so important. It’s a moment of calm, where you can realize: what I’m doing is worth enough. I can keep going. It’s like healing from the world you see outside of these walls.
That implies that the world outside of these walls carries some disease.
Yes… I think the disease in the world is a lack of listening. And to put sympathy over empathy. That’s the worst disease that we have. Sympathy is seeing someone and thinking: ‘he is wrong, because I’m not like that’. That’s bullshit. You are not that person. You cannot judge someone in that way. You will never understand what someone is going through or feeling.
Empathy is like observing and listening to what’s happening to the other person. And you understand that you cannot understand. But you accept their own way, and you respect that way. Everyone has their own process in life. That’s a vital thing.
“Maybe the only way to know yourself, is being with others.”
You say that this is a healing place, but that it’s also challenging to be here. What’s the challenge?
The challenge is to be with yourself! (laughs) The challenge is to be honest with yourself. Theatre is like that, that’s a challenge for the actor. It’s a work, it’s not holiday. Because you have to be honest with yourself and accept what’s happening to you. What you can control – and what you cannot control.
What does it mean for you to be with yourself?
To listen to yourself, and to accept what you are. In order to find what you really are.
And does being in a place with so many people help to listen to yourself?
Of course it helps, because through the others you can see yourself. The other person is a reflection of yourself. What you like or dislike in the other person is something that you like and dislike in yourself. Maybe the only way to know yourself, is being with others.
Do you have examples of what you recently learned about yourself through others?
Many things. At the beginning everyone here was very excited. It was like a party (laughs). After a few days everything changes. I saw that some people started to take their place, started being more honest. Without these masks. Sometimes in particular examples they start to be in silence. With more distance. I realized that this is something we have to do. It’s so easy to be extraverted. But it’s not the point of this place. You have to act according to the place in which you are. And this is a place to be honest, with yourself and the others. You have no choice, you have to be here for three weeks.
“We actors are very lucky because we have the opportunity to train all the time. In every single thing we do.”
Is it a danger for a professional actor to become absorbed in the world of theatre?
Yes of course. And it’s dangerous, because you can become artificial. Because there is no way to escape when you become a ‘theatre person’. All your life will be through that lens. But theatre is something so much bigger than just a stage. You can’t say theatre is: ‘this and that’. But you can say: theatre happens when: ‘this and that’. There are a lot of definitions. For me theatre happens when you’re on stage – but also when you’re doing the dishes.
How is the actor present when you’re doing the dishes?
On the stage you have to be present. What does that mean? You have to be aware of what’s happening in the moment. You can’t think about what’s happened yesterday or what’s going to happen after. When you’re chopping vegetables in the kitchen you have to be aware of what you’re doing. You can do it mechanically – but when something distracts you – you can cut your hand. So in that moment you’re not aware, and not in the present. Listening to the sound of the chopping, smelling the food, is all part of that. You’re aware. That’s what an actor does as well.
The way you describe it, it’s a huge obligation. It basically asks to be present all the time, not just when you’re on stage.
Yes. We actors are very lucky because we have the opportunity to train all the time. In every single thing we do. Now I can start to train – and you’re right – it’s my obligation to do so.
So right now, as we’re having this conversation, you’re training?
Yes, for example: it’s difficult for me to speak English. I have to concentrate and focus on what I want to say, because I’m responsible for my words. It’s complicated. (laughs)
What’s funny is that when I met you here I thought it was for the first time. It was only until later I realized that I saw you a year before too in Amsterdam, in ‘the Prisoner’, a performance directed by Peter Brook and Marie Helene Estienne. You were playing the character of the man from the village. Now you’re playing Mafuso, the main character. What is this performance about?
The story is in a way really simple. A man is condemned to stay at the summit of a hill facing a prison until the prison disappears, because he committed an unspeakable crime. In a moment of rage he killed his father. It’s something that comes from the duality of crime and punishment – as Dostoevsky says. When you only have two faces of something, you’re always in conflict. You have to find the third way, in the middle of those two things. That’s why they don’t put him in prison, because they know a punishment is not enough to heal Mafuso. It won’t make him a better person. To be in jail won’t help him, but he must pay and repair, and he must understand what he did.
“In art mystery must prevail.”
It’s a fascinating performance. It was so simple and clear. I remember coming home from the theatre and not being that impressed, but the same night I had very vivid dreams about the play. It was only until then I realized the effect it had on me. I was used to see theatre that had a sort of grandiosity, and this was nothing like that.
I think I understand what you mean when you say a ‘simple’ way of acting. It’s not so common because in our current times we are not used to listening. It’s part of the disease I told you about. But we are used to seeing, so we have to be shocked in the first second of a performance. After that the image has to be changed immediately, or else we get bored. So a performance that’s different is not easy to find.
Your dreams are a good example of the quality of the performance, because even though you weren’t aware of it in the first moment, something powerful happened inside of you. Because you could listen. And when you can listen you can feel, and be aware that something else is going on that you can’t explain. That is what I call mystery – when something unknown starts to appear in you. Something that is a trigger for something new. You can’t explain it, and maybe it’s better when you don’t. You must go out and live, to find out what happened.
Omar performing in the Prisoner. Photo: Tobiasz Papuczys
Yes. I know what you mean. And to describe the acting simple is also the wrong word – English is not my first language either. A better word is true – it’s not acted out. In the performance nothing is exaggerated, nobody is dressed up, and a prison is made out of four wooden sticks. Out of this normality, mystery can appear.
Mystery is something all humans have in common. All the cultures. You can see it as well here, people from Korea, Europe or America. When you witness another culture you can feel that something is happening between them, and you also feel that you’re not part of it. You feel a strong presence though. That is mystery. When you witness this, it’s a trigger – a trigger for something else. It’s linked with the sacred things. In art mystery must prevail.
Is it something spiritual for you?
Spiritual is a tricky word. Especially when you talk about spiritual in combination with art. It quickly becomes something else. But if you refer to spiritual as to working on your inner world as a human being, something that is unknown, then art is a way of finding that thing inside of you. To develop your inner self.
So it’s a dual thing. It’s communicating something, as you said earlier. But it’s also a work on oneself.
It’s interesting, because with the performance of the Prisoner we do many lectures in different cultures. Here another question arises: can we communicate? In London they understood something about the play totally different than in the United States, or in France. So I don’t know if it’s about communication. It’s about putting something on a stage, a stage where people gather to see something. On the stage you put out ‘threads’. And people decide which thread they pick up. And this says a lot about themselves.
“In the end I realized we are dealing with our own prisons, with our own punishment.”
Do you have an example of which cultures respond to certain threads?
In Paris I spoke to a couple of Mexicans who saw the play. The lecture of the French people and the Mexican people were very similar. They told me that the play is about freeing yourself: The prison is inside of us, so we must accept what we have done and through that we’re able to be free.
In London they said that the play was about the female character, which is Nadia. They thought that Nadia should have had a bigger part in the play – otherwise it was a patriarchal thing. In the United States they thought the play was about incest. What’s interesting is that all the things that were addressed were taboo topics. If you want to face your prison as a culture, you have to face your taboos. And when you do you’ll get angry, because the taboos are saying something about what you’re not ready to accept.
That’s fascinating. When you’re saying that I’m realizing that prisons themselves are such big taboos in societies. Take for instance mass incarceration in the United States. Could it be that American audiences see the incest because seeing the prison is too much of a taboo?
Absolutely, I think that’s so true! So people are facing their own prison in the play. And that’s great! That’s the point of the play.
“The prison is inside of you. Accept it. And when you embrace the prison inside of you it will disappear.”
When you’re speaking about this I’m thinking to myself, what did I project on to that play? What’s my prison? I guess when I left the theatre my first thought was: there is a lack of intensity in that performance. And one of my topics in life is that I’m always searching for intensity. So I guess what I saw in the play – or rather what I didn’t see – relates to my own prison.
That’s amazing. And it’s really linked to when you just asked me what I learned about this place. When I see the others I see myself. It’s the same.
Trailer of the Prisoner
So when it comes to your story – what do you ‘project’ on to the play. What’s your prison?
The work with Peter Brook and Marie Helene Estienne is always a work on oneself, so the story must touch you in a personal way. They don’t tell you how the story relates to you, they just tell you to be honest. So when you start to work on the performance, you start to find things out. I remember a very important moment in this play for me was when we performed in a real prison in front of actual prisoners. The first time we did it I asked myself: ‘oh my god, what can we say to the real prisoners?’ We are not supposed to speak about this, we don’t know about this. They were sentenced for their whole life. They committed unspeakable crimes.
When we did a Q&A with the prisoners after the performance, it turned out they were really touched, and they said really interesting things. I think real prisoners see the deepest point of the play. They don’t see cultural borders. What they see is: ‘deal with yourself man’. One of the prisoners said: I’ve been in many prisons before but this is the worst. Here they are helping us to deal with what’s inside of us. And that is the worst prison I’ve ever been. But it’s also the best because I feel hope again. Even if I know I’ll never get out and I’ll die here – I can be at peace with myself.
In the end I realized we are dealing with our own prisons, with our own punishment. Most of the times it’s us punishing ourselves. We have to deal with that every – single – day. The prison is inside of you. Accept it. And when you embrace the prison inside of you it will disappear. Then you can leave. But before you can’t. In the current times it’s very easy to escape and not to face the things. We say things like: ‘let it be, just let it flow.’ No! Face it. It’s a fact.
We treat prisoners as different from us, as people who are ‘put outside of society.’ But what you’re saying is that basically we’re all prisoners.
Yes we’re all prisoners. And the thing with imprisoning people, is that we just want to punish someone. We don’t want to heal or help them. We’re not looking for redemption. I don’t know if that’s the right way.
Did you embrace your own prison?
That’s very difficult. But since I worked with Peter Brook and Marie Helene Estienne I always think: where is the prison here? In this situation, where is the prison? What did I do and what do I have to face? If I figured that out I can embrace it. After that I feel relaxed, like I can continue. At that moment I also realize it’s not such a big deal. Once you embrace it, it’s fine. But up to that point it can be a hell.
You work with Peter Brook, one of the most respected and influential theatre directors in the world. What is this like for you?
(laughs) In the beginning I could not believe it was happening. They were in a tour with a play that’s called Battlefield, which is an extract of Brook’s Mahabarata. They went to Mexico and they gave a workshop in my drama school. At the end of the workshop they called me and asked me if I wanted to be part of this project. I could not believe it. I read the mail three times because I thought I was mistaken. But it was true and it changed my life a lot. I remember the first time I met Peter he was in a rehearsal room, with a friend of his, chatting in a chair. When I saw him all my ideas I had about him disappeared. I was like: ‘Wow. He is a human being.’ (laughs)
Did you think he was some kind of god?
Yes! His name is his name. He is a big man. But he’s not an idea. He is himself. I came to him and he stood up. He told me in Spanish: ‘I’m very glad you’re here. And I’m very glad we will share this experience together, to make this our play, because it’s not my play. It’s the play of all of us. And I hope we will work together for a long time.’ And then he said: ‘Now I have to change to English because that’s all the Spanish I know.’ (laughs)
After that he was my director. But the relation with him was very different from other directors I worked with. Many times when you’re working with a director you feel a big distance. A huge gap. With Peter it wasn’t like that. He was always with us, next to us, walking with us. If Peter didn’t come to the rehearsal, there is no rehearsal. He’s very passionate and full of life, even though he’s in his nineties.
When you were selected to work with Peter, did you also ask yourself: why me? Was it clear to you why you were selected?
It wasn’t clear to me at all. Once I told Peter: ‘I feel so lucky to be here with you.’ He told me: ‘It’s not that you’re lucky. It’s just that destiny works.’ Since that time I told myself: ‘Ok it was destiny.’ (laughs) Since that moment I knew I had to be there. Why? I don’t know.
If you elaborate on that a bit further, is there something specific about you that makes you belong in that play, or in that group?
When I started to work with the cast I could really feel that there was something that all of us were sharing. Something that each of us had inside. I don’t know what it is, I think it’s mystery again. I know that Peter and Marie Helene are looking for something in actors, but I couldn’t say what it is. It must be something particular because it’s Peter Brook. They can call anyone in the whole world and they will join the play.
Did it relate to the topic of the play, the prison?
Yes… I think so. We were searching… Searching for something. It was hard for the whole cast, but also helpful to find that thing that we were looking for since the beginning of the process. I remember after the first year of touring we met with Peter and he asked us: how do you see the play now? Each of us started answering. And the answers were really deep. As a member you could feel it was true. We were all facing our prisons, and started embracing our own prisons.
Is that something that can be achieved?
Maybe. We can never know. Maybe with the passing of time you can become someone with very strong human qualities. But this is not the point. The point is the act of facing what you did, facing you’re prison, and trying to embrace it.
How did the rehearsal process with Peter and Marie Helene look like?
You have a lot of freedom. And sometimes that’s the hardest thing ever. Because maybe we have to learn how to be free. You can propose everything. Peter and Marie Helene direct what you introduce and say: ‘that’s perfect, put it here’. Or: ‘that color can work, or maybe instead of this do that’.
“The opposite of beauty is not ugliness. It’s fakeness. Pretending.”
Can you be a bit more specific? You were hired and what was the first step? Did you get a script?
Yes, I remember when they sent me the script I thought: what’s this? This is not a play! But I could feel that there was something really strong in that story. Not something specific, but an overall feeling. I remember the first line: ‘I was for a while in a far away land, by that time that land had magic.’ It caught me. But at the same time there were a lot of holes in the script. A lot of silence and a lot of sudden changes of scenes, without any clear way of changing them. During the rehearsals we found those ways.
The first rehearsal was to meet the other people of the cast. We sang a song together. It was that moment I understood I was in another world. As an actor in Mexico you’re told that when you sing, you have to do it with presence, with support in your voice. You have to project, and use your technique. So I did that. Peter told me: ‘very good, but now more quiet. As if you’re whispering’. When I did it in that way I found another world inside of the song, and in myself. When I heard the songs my partners sang I felt something so powerful. Then I knew I was in a place where I had to sit down, listen and learn. And do, of course.
“When I was young I was full of rage.”
So what was asked of you in that moment relates a lot to what’s asked of you in terms of acting. To let go of the technique, of force – of everything you know maybe.
Absolutely! The second rehearsal Marie Helene said: ‘did you receive the script? And did you read it? Good. Do the play now.’ I wasn’t expecting that! I thought we would sit in a circle with chairs, read the script, and talk about the meaning of the play.
So we did the play. I was astonished because we could do it. It was then I realized the team was really good. Even the actor Donald Sumpter, who is a lot older than us, was in a state of playfulness. Of freedom. But at the same time he was very gentle with us. I didn’t know who he was until I looked him up on the internet and I realized he was a big deal. He helped me a lot. I started learning English two years ago by myself. I didn’t know anything about pronunciation. Donald was helping me with that all the time. I felt like I couldn’t act because there was a wall between my speed of thinking, my Spanish and my English. I was stuck. Donald always told me I could do it, that I was a good actor. There were no big ego’s in our cast. I remember we finished the structure of the play within a week. And after that we started clarifying, and started going deeper in the structure.
What does that mean: going deeper?
To be as honest as you can be. No lying. I had a great teacher once: Aurelio Tello from Peru. He used to tell us: the opposite of beauty is not ugliness. It’s fakeness. Pretending. Those are true words. If you play in a superficial way you focus on make-up, dressing up and props – but there is nothing in the core of the acting. As an audience you feel cheated.
I guess that’s the strength of the Prisoner. Because the acting is so true, as an audience you can relate to the people on the stage, because they’re not so different from you. Usually when we go to theatre performances actors are acting ‘theatre-like’.
Yes. But if you do it in that way, if you’re putting up a show, you’re not making this link between actor and audience. Then the gathering is not happening, and theatre is not happening.
“What makes you powerful is to be yourself, to be truly yourself on the stage.”
Where did you grow up?
In Mexico City.
Can you tell me something about your youth?
When I was young I was full of rage. Now that I can look at that from a distance, I think I felt there was something really wrong with the world. I didn’t want to be part of it. I just wanted to destroy it (laughs).
That’s so hard for me to imagine. How did this look like?
I used to be with gangs. I did bad things, like making graffiti on the walls and fighting with someone every day. A very aggressive environment. But then I discovered theatre, and that became a way of focusing my rage. In the beginning the theatre was a place for me to spit out the truth I felt about the world. A place of freedom to say: ‘there is something really bad about the world and you are part of it. Fuck you!’ (laughs)
Photo: Javier Morales
There must have been a great urge to escape the environment you were in.
Yes… When I started to see what was happening with my other friends who were in the same situation I started to think: I don’t want this for me.
What happened to them?
Many things. Some of them are dead. Others are in jail, or they are in the same way of living. It’s difficult. I didn’t want that for myself, nor for the people around me.
Maybe it was an escape. At the same time it was my decision to walk that path. We always have a choice. Always.
“Sometimes the pain is necessary.”
Was it a specific moment when you made this decision?
Once in a fight I got a kick in my right eye and I lost my vision: I cannot see with my right eye. After that I knew I was walking the wrong path, that I had to stop. I rarely tell anyone this, I think you’re one of the few people who knows. But now that you’re asking I must be honest.
Is there a reason that you don’t often tell this story to people?
I think it’s something that must be told in the right occasion. Like I said in the beginning: I am responsible for what I say so I must be as honest as I can.
I appreciate that. Are these memories painful to you?
Not anymore. I embraced that prison. (laughs) All those memories made me into what I am right now. And now I am here, with you in this wonderful place. Sometimes the pain is necessary.
Do you feel like that boy filled with rage still lives inside of you?
Absolutely. I remember when I was in the first year of my drama school. This whole first year is about knowing yourself, and to be honest with yourself. One of the first assignments was to bring a photograph of ourselves as a child. We showed it to everyone. Then the teacher told us: ‘now your goal is to go back there’. Then I started walking that path. Now I can feel that my inner child is alive again, and that I had lost him for a long time. We feel like we have to protect that child, and in that way we create an armor, and a certain attitude. Like: ‘I’m dangerous’. But the child is coming back, more and more.
To what extend do you still feel that anger?
(long silence) When I see all the suffering and the injustice that’s happening in the world; the immigrants in Latin America that have to go through Mexico. How everyone is saying: ‘we don’t want them.’ When I see those things I can feel that rage again. It’s like a beast inside of me.
Is anger constructive in acting?
I don’t think so. When I was a young actor I acted with a lot of anger: shouting all the time, showing off. When I’m acting now, I can feel that coming up again. It’s what we call ‘overacting’. I must be aware of that.
What’s the biggest challenge for you as an actor and a human being?
To be honest. To know that honesty is enough. It’s like to be naked. What makes you powerful is to be yourself, to be truly yourself on the stage. It means taking off all your masks.
But this requires an incredible vulnerability. For most people this is a very dangerous territory. Can you relate to that?
Of course. That’s why Stanislavsky says: an actor must be prepared.
And how does one prepare?
First of all: as an actor you have to see who you are, and what you have. And after that you have to accept it. And after that you have to play with it. Seeing is like, seeing that there is fire somewhere. Then I accept there is fire. Then I can play with the fire – without forgetting that I can get burned.
What is the potential danger? Can you lose yourself?
I think you can get stuck. When you’re playing something you have to get in by will power, and get out by will power. But when you’re going into things that are hard for you, you must know you’re able to go back. For instance when you are singing a song, and there are vibrations. They open doors inside of you, some frequencies are key to opening a door. Each door is getting you deeper inside yourself, and suddenly you open a door and you find something you didn’t want to find. And then you are trapped. It’s something like that. Great actors can get to that place instantly, without having to open all these doors one by one.
The last Prisoner tour is in India, in February 2020. I this an era that comes to an end?
I found something very precious in the Prisoner that I carry with me, and that nobody can take away from me. I also know I have to develop it further by myself. I do feel sad because I’ll miss working with Peter and the cast. Once I asked Peter: ‘Peter, if someone in Mexico asks me: who is Peter Brook? Can I reply: he is a friend of mine?’ Peter said: ‘Of course!’ (laughs)
At this moment Omar works on a theatre production with a couple of people he met in the Constellations Camp, about the ‘myth of the white man’: how colonialism works in Latin America and influences it’s culture and religion.