Social change under the Chapitô

When people talk about Chapitô, the first image that usually comes to their mind is the stunning view of Lisbon they get from the terrasse of the restaurant, Chapitô à Mesa. But the project of Chapitô goes beyond the simple borders of its restaurant: Chapitô reunites education, justice, arts and culture in one historical project. Through its different aspects, Chapitô has built a sustainable ecosystem which successfully addresses the issue of marginalized youth and social exclusion, while standing as a landmark in the cultural agenda of the main Portuguese city.

Starting the visit at the local store where I met Catarina from the communication department, I went from the bar to the youth house through the restaurant, the library, the day care, the oficinas, the classrooms, and the offices. I followed Catarina on a very enthusiastic journey throughout the history of the project, discussing its various aspects to better understand how Chapitô has been using circus arts as a tool for social change for more than 30 years.

Chapitô. Photo Credit: Julie Villain

A pioneer in the Portuguese social economy

The project of Chapitô is a pioneer in the small world of social economy in Portugal. The story and success of the project invariably arise from the leadership of its charismatic founder, Teresa Ricou. First woman clown in Europe, Teresa Ricou was also known as Tete since the 1980’s. When working in the historical neighborhood of Bairro Alto, Lisbon, she started exploring the potential of bringing circus arts into the streets for helping kids at risk. Soon after, working in collaboration with the Ministry of Justice, she convinced the administration of the benefits of her innovative approach to address social exclusion. Chapitô was born, it was in 1981. Five years later, another agreement with the Ministry of Justice granted the organization of a building located on Costa do Castelo, the former premises of a prison for girls. This agreement also supported the development of Chapitô’s activities in two juvenile detention centers.

Building a sustainable ecosystem

Throughout the years, Chapitô extended its spectrum of activities, developing opportunities to generate income without compromising its commitment to social change. The financial stability of Chapitô relies on a solid ecosystem in which the Animation department and the theater company,Companhia do Chapitô, exert a primary role. The Animation department sells animated shows and circus-inspired activities to both public and private organizations that want to associate their products with positive values or target a specific audience. On the other hand, the Companhia do Chapitô has developed its own repertoire since 1996, featuring today more than 30 original productions that were sold nationally and internationally. To a lesser extent, students at Chapitô have access to a “recycling and eco-design atelier”, also known as the oficinas comunitarias, to work on their own creations. These can then be sold or exhibited at the local Chapitô store. The innovation not only touches the activities proposed but also the space and the physical environment of the organization. For example, from a restaurant on evenings and weekends, Chapitô à Mesa is used as a canteen for the school during the day; while Bartô turns from a library to a famous bar at night.

Teresa Ricou, aka Tete. Photo Credit: Chapitô

Justice, education, culture: dynamics and intersections

Every person you will meet at Chapitô will be as enthusiastic as the previous one. If you ask them about their work, their mission, their impact, they all give you a smile first, and then explain to you, either in French, Portuguese or English, but always in their own terms, how Chapitô has built an innovative approach to bring together justice, education, arts and culture. The justice aspect of Chapitô brings us back to its very beginning and its intervention in two juvenile detention centres; the education aspect is related to the professional circus school; and the cultural aspect refers to Chapitô as a major cultural center in Lisbon.

Starting with justice, a team of about 15 project workers and animators have been working since 1985 with young inmates of the Centres of Bela Vista and Navarra de Paiva proposing different workshops of circus arts, capoeira, plastic arts, music, oral narration and focusing on collaborative practices, self-esteem and personal development. Chapitô also welcomes and accommodates up to 6 children at Casa do Castelo, a youth residence that fosters both autonomy and collaborative practices, and tackles social exclusion at its earlier stage by offering access to a nursery center.

Chapitô’s educational aspect lies in the creation of EPAOE (Professional School of Arts and Crafts) in 1991, the first and still unique professional circus school in Portugal. The school welcomes more than a hundred students and provides two programs over a three-year curriculum: Interpretation and Circus, or Scenery, Costums and Props. Once the course is completed, Chapito’s graduates are ready to start their career in the large entertainment industry. In addition to this professional curriculum, a wide range of arts-related classes are offered for free to the community. Young people come to enjoy a friendly social and cultural space while discovering and practicing different activities. In all these classes, all kids learn, practice, rehearse and work together, there is no distinction between students, there is no classes for former inmates. As Catarina simply said:

“They came here as vulnerable kids, they come out as artists, it’s fantastic”.
Circus arts. Photo Credit : Chapitô

From all the people I conversed with, each of them described their personal experiences observing the kids changing and growing at Chapitô. All of them mentioned their smile and self-confidence only getting bigger as the school year went on.

Finally, Chapitô has become a major cultural center in the Portuguese capital. Through its rich programming at the bartô Tent, its worldwide productions, and local animations, Chapitô’s activities foster active citizenship and civic empowerment, stirring up the civil society through the arts.

Untapping the potential of arts for social change

When raising the vital question of the social impact of Chapitô, various numbers and figures can be looked at and interpreted: not only Chapitô has been active for more than 30 years, it employs about 100 people, provides education to more than a 100 students a year, has sold more than 30 original productions through the world. Yet, these numbers might not give justice to the work done by the organization. Instead, we could measure Chapitô’s impact by looking at the number of “lives we saved”. The absolute values don’t matter that much when you look at kids’ smiles at the end of their curriculum. “What we do at Chapitô, it is saving lives, building hopes and brighter futures”, that’s what I heard in the financial department.

Targeting art, education and justice, Chapitô provides a holistic answer to a complex issue: the marginalization of youth at risk. Different initiatives and actions hence intertwine to provide an innovative solution to social exclusion. On that Friday afternoon, I also had the chance to exchange a few words with Américo Peças, advisor for education and social affairs at Chapitô. As it may be difficult to summarize Chapitô in a few words, it becomes very clear when you ask him the question:

“Chapitô is about empowering people. Chapitô is not welfarism, it’s neither a cultural only nor an elitist vision, it is an empowering experience for marginalized kids”

For more than 30 years, Chapitô has successfully used circus arts as an effective tool for social change: circus calls for teamwork and a combination of strength and intelligence, it helps people develop a sense of belonging, it allows creativity and freedom, and it requires perseverance as well as discipline. Starting at the youngest age, this empowerment process through arts and collaboration is at the core of Chapitô’s mission and social business model.

Chapitô. Photo Credit: Julie Villain