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Embracing Cultural Exchange: Maria Atália’s Collaboration with the University of the Arts Helsinki, the Theatre Academy 

Homa, a master’s student in Directing and a student ambassador, interviewed theatre director and teacher Maria Atália from Mozambique.

The EDUCase Camp, organized as a collaborative joint course, was an exciting initiative that brought together participants from Finland, Tanzania, and Mozambique. The course was a part of the larger effort by the Finnish Ministry of Education and Culture to foster collaborative practices between institutions in Finland and Africa. 

The University of the Arts Helsinki actively participated in this initiative and hosted the EDUCase Camp in various locations, including Helsinki, Kallio-Kuninkala, and the Hanko Theatre Festival. The camp in Finland was a follow-up to the initial pilot camp that took place in Tanzania in October 2022. Over the course of ten days, participants engaged in intensive workshops, discussions, and practical activities aimed at fostering cross-cultural understanding and artistic exploration. The diverse backgrounds and expertise of the participants added richness and depth to the collaborative projects, resulting in unique and innovative artistic expressions. The success of the EDUCase Camp underscored the importance of international collaboration in the arts, showcasing the power of collective creativity and its ability to foster understanding and appreciation among diverse cultures. 

During the EDUCase Camp, I had the incredible opportunity to interview one of the teachers from Mozambique, who shared her experiences of the collaboration in both Tanzania and Finland. Her insights shed light on the transformative nature of this cross-cultural exchange. 

Maria Atália

Can you please introduce yourself? 

My name is Maria Atália, and I am a theater director from Mozambique. I also work as a teacher in the drama department at Eduardo Mondlane University, where I teach directing studies and contemporary theater. 

Could you tell us about your experience as a directing teacher at Eduardo Mondlane University? 

It’s a pleasure to meet and interact with different people every day, as I have the opportunity to learn from them. My approach to directing is not about imposing things, but rather about negotiation and sharing experiences, emotions, and life stories. Each day, I have the chance to learn something new from diverse individuals, which helps me grow both as a director and as a person. I discover aspects of myself that I had never even considered before. Directing is an integral part of my life, and I cannot imagine doing anything else. 

What courses have you taught, and what are your areas of expertise? 

I have taught courses in directing and contemporary theater. Contemporary theater involves exploring what is happening in theater in other countries nowadays. It includes traveling, researching performances on the internet, attending festivals, and rediscovering elements from our past that were discarded, bringing them back to life. It is about giving new life and new approaches to theater and teaching the audience how to engage with this new world. I believe in involving the audience, provoking their emotions, challenging the way they perceive and experience a performance. It is more than just delivering lines; it’s about connecting with the audience, looking into their eyes, and making them feel my presence, emotions, and intentions. Through this process, I hope to evoke their own feelings. To achieve this, I conduct extensive research, not only on what I am going to present but also on the individuals I am addressing. 

What motivated you to collaborate with the University of the Arts Helsinki in Finland? How do you envision this collaboration benefiting both institutions? 

The motivation behind my collaboration with the University of the Arts Helsinki in Finland stems from a sense of curiosity and the desire to learn more about Africa. As an African, I acknowledge that I don’t possess all-encompassing knowledge about my own continent. Through this collaboration, I have the opportunity to learn more about Africa from other Africans and also from Finnish individuals who have their own unique perspectives on Africa. It is interesting to hear and understand what others think about us. This collaboration propels us forward, allowing me to see myself from different perspectives and incorporating those insights into my own understanding. Additionally, this collaboration allows me to delve deeper into various cultures. As individuals, our motivation lies in continuous learning. It is not sufficient to remain stagnant; we must strive to progress. This opportunity to engage with diverse cultures and gain knowledge from others is what drives us. It is essential to experience interactions with different cultures and learn about them. 

How do you plan to incorporate Finnish directing techniques or methodologies into your teaching at Eduardo Mondlane University after this collaboration? What changes or improvements do you hope to bring about? 

Fortunately, I have had the chance to spend several years in Finland as a theater practitioner and directing student. During that time, I had the opportunity to work with Finnish directors and gain valuable insights. So, incorporating Finnish elements into my teaching is not a completely new experience for me. I would say that I am revitalizing my knowledge and skills that I acquired years ago.

The key lies in finding similarities between Finnish techniques and my own directing style. When I read a script, I search for commonalities between the script and the environment I belong to. I believe in a type of directing that incorporates what is inherent within us. By adding my personal experiences, fears, desires, and cultural background to my directing, I create a unique performance that reflects my own identity. This distinctiveness arises from the fact that we all come from different backgrounds, with unique perspectives shaped by our own lives. Therefore, although there are certain similarities in our education, for example, shared readings of Grotowski, each director adds their own individual experiences. It is about merging these elements and creating a performance that reflects who I am as a director.

Naturally, there are differences between directing education in Mozambique and Finland, primarily influenced by the different environments. I can only direct using what is true to me and what I have lived. This includes my fears, my environment, my country, my relationships, and everything that has shaped my journey. The success of my directing may vary depending on the context in which I am working. It takes time to make Finnish people understand me, just as I need to understand them. Establishing mutual understanding and trust is a gradual process. This is why I cannot simply come here and, within a short period, create a piece with a limited timeframe. I need time to familiarize myself with the people and for them to become acquainted with me. Together, we can embark on this process and ultimately create something tangible. 

What are the main challenges you anticipate facing during this collaboration, and how do you plan to address them? 

One of the main challenges I foresee in this collaboration is the diversity of classes and disciplines involved. We have dance, music, visual arts, and other disciplines, while I primarily come from a theater background. So, it will be crucial for me to understand how people from different disciplines react and approach collaborative work. I need to be sensitive and ensure that I take everyone into account, going step by step to bring all individuals together and create something cohesive. This challenge requires me to be mindful, patient, and inclusive, fostering a sense of unity among the participants. 

How do you see the potential for cultural exchange and cross-cultural learning between Finnish and Mozambican students during this collaboration? How will you facilitate this exchange of ideas and perspectives? 

I believe there is great potential for cultural exchange and cross-cultural learning between Finnish and Mozambican students in this collaboration. It is an enriching experience for all of us involved. As a Mozambican, I am not here to impose my own culture on others but rather to be open and receptive to everything that comes my way. By allowing myself to fully embrace and experience the Finnish and Tanzanian cultures, I will leave here with a wealth of knowledge and new perspectives. It is important not to deny or constantly compare cultures but to accept and appreciate them for what they are. I see the value in accepting everything that comes my way, whether it’s trying new foods or participating in cultural practices like going to the sauna. By immersing myself completely in the experience, I will be transformed and leave this collaboration as a different person.

This openness and willingness to embrace different cultures is crucial in fostering understanding and empathy. When Finnish individuals visit Mozambique, for example, I will have a deeper understanding and empathy for their experiences in a hot climate. This exchange of ideas and perspectives is a way for all of us to go beyond our boundaries and grow as individuals. It is about broadening our horizons, accepting new experiences, and truly understanding one another.  

Can you share any notable success stories or achievements of your previous collaborations with international institutions? How have these collaborations impacted your teaching and the development of your students? 

One notable success story of a previous collaboration in South Africa. I studied Master’s degree in applied thaetre. I was placed in a school that was facing significant challenges, with students involved in drug and alcohol consumption and exhibiting aggressive behavior. Teachers were exhausted and had struggled to make a positive impact. I used the techniques I had learned in applied theater to address the situation. 

There was a particular incident where a student approached me aggressively with a large rock, seemingly intending to harm me. Instead of reacting with fear or running away, I started singing a song in my mother tongue, a language the student couldn’t understand. The melody was beautiful, and it caught her attention. She stopped, started crying, and the entire class joined in singing and crying. From that moment, I began telling stories that were positive and uplifting, steering away from drug-related narratives. 

In the following week, I observed a significant change. Only one student continued to consume drugs, while the others showed improvement. I believe that theater, in this case, had a transformative effect on the students’ lives. It saved them from the destructive path they were on and opened doors for them. Thirty of these students eventually joined the university where I was studying. The head of my department created a space for them, providing an opportunity to read, listen to stories, watch movies, and engage with positive influences. 

This experience demonstrated to me the profound impact theater can have on individuals. It goes beyond entertainment; it can save lives and shape futures. Even if we only succeed in helping one person, it is a significant accomplishment. That person’s story will be shared, inspiring others and creating a ripple effect of change. As theater practitioners, we hold a powerful tool, and it is essential to use it with compassion and persistence. 

Looking ahead, what are your aspirations for the future of directing education in Mozambique? How do you see international collaborations contributing to the growth and evolution of this field? 

My aspirations for the future of directing education in Mozambique are optimistic. I believe that everything we do has a purpose and impact. When people witness the work we do and experience joy and happiness, it will inspire others to follow in our footsteps. It is crucial for us to continue doing good work, nurturing our creativity and imagination, and looking forward to the future. 

International collaborations play a significant role in the growth and evolution of the directing field. I believe it would be beneficial for one or two directors from each country to attend international festivals and witness the work of others. This exposure opens our minds and allows us to reflect on what is being done globally. It stimulates our thinking and helps us understand how we can progress and move forward. The opportunity to observe and learn from directors worldwide can be transformative, enriching our own artistic practices. 

I am personally excited to have recently had the opportunity to see a play at the Theater Academy. It was a fulfilling experience, and I look forward to witnessing more performances and learning from the work of other directors. These international collaborations and exposure to diverse artistic perspectives will contribute to the development and advancement of directing education in Mozambique. 

Do you have any advice for younger directors who are just starting to study directing? 

Absolutely. They need to believe in themselves and constantly challenge their own abilities. They shouldn’t settle for mediocrity. Instead, they should always strive for more and ask themselves, “What if?” It’s important to bring people together and not be afraid of criticism. When someone says, “This is nothing,” use it as motivation to improve. Never be complacent or think that you know everything. Directing is a complex art, and you must constantly work, read, and learn from others around the world. 

Apply for festivals and immerse yourself in the global theater scene. Don’t limit yourself to your own city or country. Explore what others are doing in different regions and cultures. Even if you don’t understand the language, observe the body language and facial expressions. Sometimes, when directing a play in a foreign language, you can focus on the intention and the actors’ physicality rather than the actual words. It’s all about being open, stepping out of your comfort zone, and expanding your horizons. 

Also, remember to stay true to yourself as a director. If you don’t know something, admit it and seek answers. Collaborate with your actors, trust them, and provide support. Be a guiding presence, but also maintain a balance between being strict and allowing creative freedom. Reading is important, but it’s even more crucial to find your own directing style and voice. Embrace your fears and experiences, and use them to inform your work. Utilize everything at your disposal, from the environment to music and dance. Ultimately, knowing yourself and bringing your unique perspective to your directing will make your work truly impactful. 

Thank you so much for sharing your insights. It was truly inspiring. 

You’re welcome. It was a pleasure to discuss these topics with you. I hope it was helpful, and I wish you the best in your own directing journey. 

Life of an art student

In this blog, Uniarts Helsinki students share their experiences as art students from different academies and perspectives, in their own words. If you want to learn even more regarding studying and student life in Uniarts and Helsinki, you can ask directly from our student ambassadors.

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