An Interview of Debora Balardini: Performing Arts Director & Producer On Her Relationship With Her Mother and Being Sexually Abused
I met Debora Balardini this past summer during Mend: Listen Now and Listen Good, a women’s anthology on gender, age, culture, motherhood, and being a woman. The event took place at Punto Space, a performance and cultural hub in Midtown, Manhattan, co-founded by Debora herself, where I had the pleasure to watch 12 women in the arts, spanning from theater and comedy to acting and music, perform personal stories highlighting some of the goods and bads women face throughout their lives. It was laughters, tears, and at the end many hugs, as we found ourselves in that space of oneness in womanhood.
Debora Balardini came on stage to unfold a unique mother-daughter story. One of a daughter, whose passion for the performing arts and unshattered convictions led to her own mother self-discovery. This was particularly fascinating to me, given my African background. I dare you to have an African mother perform at 71 years old. Debora was brought up in a traditional household, where unconventional careers were as misunderstood as in African households, but also many conversations such as sex were as taboo. At age 7, she was sexually abused by a 65-year-old man, and like many of us, fear led her to live in silence for nearly 23 years. Though a tragedy, from which recovery is quite impossible, she stood up, spoke out, shared her abuse with her family, which brought them closer and created a mesmerizing dynamic with her mother, sought therapy, found her own voice, and is unwaveringly pursuing her calling for the performing arts.
Debora Balardini is a Brazilian entrepreneur, artist, mother, and wife. She is the Co-founder at Punto Space alongside Sandie Luna, who I interviewed a few months ago. Also the Founder at Group.BR, New York City’s only Brazilian theater company, an award winning ensemble, and the co-founder of Nettles Artists Collective, providing authentic, global voices and multidisciplinary collaborations of visual and performing arts and training workshops. Debora is a 2017 SheRocks Art Innovator of the Year Award winner and a 2017 BIPA nominee for Best Actress and Best Theatrical Performance for Inside the Wild Heart. Her credits as a theater director include The Serpent by acclaimed playwright Nelson Rodrigues in honor of his Centennial in 2011 as well as Infinite While It Lasts in honor of Vinicius de Moraes’ Centennial in 2013 and 2014, nominated at the Innovative Theater Awards in 2013 for Outstanding Choreography and Movement, as well the International Brazilian Press Awards for Best Show.
With 30 years of commitment to the arts, expression and movement, Debora Balardini has traveled beyond craft to her calling as a performer, educator, director and producer globally. A creative and cultural career, which began in her native home of Brazil has extended through Japan, Argentina, France, and Chile before making its home in New York City.
Fatima: Tell us about your upbringing and how you landed in NYC
Debora: I was born in the city of Curitiba in the state of Paraná in Brazil. My father, who is Afro-Brazilian, was a bank manager and my mom a housewife. I was brought up in a middle-class family and have one older sister. Following work that called me, I went to a performing arts university for a major in Ballet and Modern Dance, as well as Arts and Letters for Portuguese and Spanish languages. I was introduced to theatre as early as 12 years old, and have ever since been passionate about the stage. After many years studying dance and theatre, I auditioned to perform in Japan and was hired. So I moved to Osaka for 6 months, and then decided to visit New York. As you can see, my visit is taking a little longer then I thought: about 24 years now.
Fatima: How did you get your start in Theater?
Debora: I heard an announcement on the radio in Brazil for a beginners workshop at an organization near my house and decided to give it a try. From there, I became part of the amateur troupe of actors in that organization and then audition for a professional project at a bigger theatre in my city. From that project, I became part of the union in Brazil, moved to Japan, and came to New York. I finished my studies at William Esper Studios; took MANY workshops with different teachers and that is how I started. It hasn’t ended. I still travel and work with Pantheatre Company in Paris, which I consider my master teachers. As a lifelong learner, I always find a way to see opportunities to grow and learn as if I’m in a classroom.
Fatima: What specifically attracts you to this form of storytelling?
Debora: What attracts me to storytelling in the theatre is that it is alive and forever pulsing. There is nothing, in my view, that can substitute a live performance. Having a human being experience with real emotions serves as a funnel and reflection that moves other human beings in a room. It is a true exchange of compassion, constant learning, and teaching that gives people permission to feel.
Fatima: In a Forbes article on Women Leaders On Their Mentor's Best Advice, you stated: "he taught me how to find my own voice [...]” What has this translated into, and why was this important to you?
Debora: Finding your own voice can mean so many things depending on the context, but mostly and more importantly, your “voice” means your “point of view.” An actor that does not have a point of view about anything will be completely lost on stage, as we are constantly making choices as we act. One needs “to voice” out opinions, views, feelings, emotions, and physicalities, because guess what? That is exactly what we do on a daily basis as humans.
We need to find our voices in order to find our place in art, but also in life. Be it a spoken voice, a singing voice, an opinion, a behavior. To me, it is imperative that we voice our positions. One doesn’t need to shout out, but rather act on what they believe, voice out their political and social opinions through their medium. Mine is theatre. That is where I find my voice.
Fatima: You are a sexual abuse survivor, who experienced the horror early on in life. How old were you, who did you tell, and how did you come to the realization that it had impacted your life?
Debora: I was 7 years old. I did not tell anyone until I was 30 years old in a therapist’s office in New York City. After beginning the difficult journey of unpacking how my life was forever changed, I was able to see the painful cycles of avoidance and how many people I had hurt by trying to completely block out my trauma. But mostly, how much I had continually hurt myself and the ones I loved the most. About a year into confronting very complicated feelings and emotions in therapy, I had to tell my sister and my parents.
Fatima: What are the reasons you remained in silence?
Debora: As a 7-year-old, I was confused about what sexuality was as many children are: was I pretty and that is why this 65-year-old man did what he did? Was I a bad person and that is why he hurt me? What happened and why? As the years passed by, denial replaced confusion. Children don’t understand how such a violation quietly evolve. I didn’t understand the scars were immediate, already engraved in my soul. It took years to be able to begin the process and make sense of what happened to me. Most of all, it took time to forgive this sick man.
Fatima: Has your family and friends been supportive? What were the differences between your mother's and father's approach in accepting the abuse?
Debora: My family has always been there for me even though I came from a traditional and very moralistic background. Talking about sex was always taboo. So they were supportive as long as it didn’t go too deep. Although the man was already dead by the time I told my family, my father, like any parent, had murderous rage. My mother blamed herself for trusting this man. It took me a long time to convince her that she didn’t know better and it was not her fault.
But, they admired my art and supported me as much as they could. It, in fact, deepened my relation with my parents, mainly my mother, who started wanting to know me more through my art and what I do as a performer, which can be a little intense at times.
Fatima: You are a special person, for your relationship with your mother is as unique as its evolution. Please tell us about the relationship in the early stage of your life?
Debora: My mom was a stay at home mom. Always working in the house, very crafty with her crochet, needle stitching, knitting, painting, and other arts and crafts. I learned how to do all of that as well at an early age. At 8, I could knit a whole sweater if you asked me to. My mom and I had a somewhat complicated relationship. She saw the world through rose-tinted glasses that were the perfect shade of “pink.” I was always reserved and didn’t like to talk about my life too much - my lens, colored by my life experiences and adoration for theater and the arts, was different. I always had the impression that I was not very understood by my family. That passed after I realized I think more like a democrat than a republican. Nonetheless, my mom and I love and miss each other. She used to say that, with me, she could talk about things she couldn’t talk about with my father or sister. Little by little, we started to notice that we had a lot in common. It’s like we got to meet each other again.
Fatima: What was the turning point?
Debora: The turning point was when I was doing a show in Chile and my parents came to visit and see the show. Right after, my mother said “it must feel so good to roll around and scream as you do on stage. I think I will try to do some theatre.” She went back to Brazil, enrolled herself into acting classes for senior citizens and, currently, she has an agent and works! I see it as a full circle: the end of a cycle and the beginning of another. By seeing me she found herself - by seeing my mom, I understood my fascination and love for the freedom and liberation the arts and theater afford me.
Fatima: Where are you today, and how does the future look like?
Debora: Currently in development is a show with my mother slated to premiere in May 2019. After seeing my work in Santiago, Chile, at age 71 she made a decision to take some acting classes as a hobby. She ended up finding herself. Now, at age 79, she is an actress and works in commercials, film, and theatre. She says "I found myself through you, my daughter." Her becoming an actress feels like a closing of a cycle for me as I always tried to solve the puzzle of loving the theatre so much and have not been able to find anyone in my family who I could identify with. Now, my mom found herself through me and I found myself through her. Our story is always evolving which is exciting! The future is bright. And, I am as active as ever with PUNTO Space, Group .BR’s Inside the Wild Heart and Nettles Artists Collective. I am at peace with my career and accomplishments. I still want more as I believe one must never stop, BUT I’ve done a lot and so I have many good stories to tell my grandchildren.
Fatima: Has speaking out about the abuse brought you closer to your family?
Debora: Yes, I am very lucky that speaking about the abuse brought me closer to my family. I know that is not always the case for a lot of people in the same situation. But nonetheless, I always advise people to do it, because if your family does not understand, or blame you, or don’t give you support, at least you voiced it out and voicing it out is always good for the soul; it is a healing ritual. I’ll say it again, once you are able to find your “voice” you are able to find your “place”… in art… in life. People will know where you stand and you will also know where they stand. Things become clearer.
Fatima: As a wife and as many women fear the reactions of their spouses, how has this dynamic been unfolding?
Debora: My husband is absolutely amazing. He was present and loving throughout the entire process of confronting this piece of my personal history. He didn’t just assume the journey and process were mine alone. He understood how these affect a couple, a marriage. I am very blessed to have him in my life on so many levels. It’s been 17 years of ups and downs, but we have strong trust and so much love.
Fatima: Do you believe that someone ever recovers from a sexual abuse? Why, and what advice can you give other women in a similar situation?
Debora: I think the word is not recover, but rather strengthening. We become stronger. A Swami once said to me “sexual trauma is like a plane crash trauma, where you are the only one who survived.” Your senses will always remember what it was like, but it is up to you to find the strength to understand that is has passed. I would also say, even though we were victims of this horrendous act, we don’t have to identify as victims. As we become stronger, we can help other people, who are still trying to restore their strength.
Fatima: What are your thoughts on the current political and cultural context in relation to women's social condition, and how is this portrayed in your work and theater at large?
Debora: The current political climate is just terrifying in different contexts, especially with the recent Kavanaugh situation. It is just unbelievable to me that we still minimize and normalize the acts of abuse, assault and cruelty, and put women down when we try to step forward and tell the truth. So many people take pains to avoid the issue rather than allowing us to say what we need to say. We are still in a patriarchal white male society. It is a shame and an embarrassment. As a woman, latina, immigrant, entrepreneur, artist, mom, and wife, I try to stay strong in my beliefs and help whomever is around me. Not only women, but also the people who need someone to believe in them, and at the least offer them inspiration.
Fatima: What future projects and partnerships are you working on?
Debora: I just closed a month long production, Inside the Wild Heart. My focus now is on the production with my mother early next year. It's a tender venture and full-scale production that will demand our undivided attention. My term as Director at Large for the League of Professional Theater Women also has my attention as we continue to promote and inspire #OneMoreConversation, which encourages dialogue about hiring women producers, directors and professionals in theater. With so much changing in politics, the arts, and also my life as a result of my work, this is the time of the year I want to reflect and unplug with family.
Fatima: What lyrics have you written from your past, and what song are you chanting looking forward?
Debora: The past was a great teacher. The present is. The future will catch up with all my aspirations.
Author Fatima Bocoum. Cover photo courtesy of Andressa Furletti