Theatre of the Oppressed

A few weeks ago Katy Rubin, a BU CFA alumnus, came and did a ‘Theatre of the Oppressed’ workshop with us.  It was both enjoyable and thought provoking.  We discussed such things as the famous ‘This is not an Apple’ painting by Rene Magritte, and how our bodies respond to words without our minds even being aware. I was inspired to learn a bit more about Theatre of the Opressed.

Theatre of The Oppressed was created in the 1960’s by Augusto Boal, a Brazillian Doctor from Rio Dejanero who graduated from Columbia University.  Theatre of the Opressed,

“offers everyone the aesthetic means to analyze their past, in the context of their present, and subsequently to invent their future, without waiting for it. The Theatre of the Oppressed helps human beings to recover a language they already possess — we learn how to live in society by playing theatre. We learn how to feel by feeling; how to think by thinking; how to act by acting. Theatre of the Oppressed is rehearsal for reality…. The oppressed are those individuals or groups who are socially, culturally, politically, economically, racially, sexually, or in any other way deprived of their right to Dialogue or in any way impaired to exercise this right.” From the Theatre of the Opressed Organisation’s website

“The Theatre of the Oppressed is theatre in this most archaic application of the word. In this usage, all human beings are Actors (they act!) and Spectators (they observe!).”Augusto Boal, Games for Actors and Non-Actors

Or as Katy Rubin says on her Website:

“Theatre of the Opressed is an interactive, physical and playful tool used to investigate situations in which we are denied our basic rights, personally and collectively.  We use theatrical debate, through games and scenes, to uncover the many possible alternatives to these real life challenges.   By imagining and rehearsing solutions together onstage, we prepare ourselves to take action offstage.  Theatre of the Oppressed training and performance is designed to empower the participants to become catalysts for change in their own lives and communities.”

What is most intriguing to me about Theatre of the Opressed is forum theatre.  Forum Theatre is the “rehearsal for reality” described above.  The facilitator, called a ‘joker,’ asks the community if anyone wants to bring up a real life problem that they’ve been having.  Someone then explains a problem and acts it out with other people as needed.  The participant then does the scene again, trying out a different reaction to the oppression happening.  If they are not satisfied with this other response and they want input, other people who have different ideas of how to respond in that situation can get up and try it out.  The idea is to, without judgment of ‘good’ or ‘bad’ find possible solutions to problems that the participants are having.  Theatre becomes a tool to try out real life actions.  In this way wars could be avoided! Imagine if Bush had done some forum theatre about ways to handle 9/11!  But really, I think that this is a very interesting use of theatre.  We know that  theatre is important artistically, as a release, in community building, in telling stories that would not otherwise be heard, etc.  But this is interactive theatre at its most utilitarian.  This is a practical real-life application of theatre!  A testing ground for possible realities. Bravo. Another thing that I admire about Theatre of the Oppressed is the lack of judgement of any kind when analyzing the scenarios.  As Katy said, if someone pulls out a gun as a solution to being caught stealing bread, it is not for the participants to say that that is wrong.  We don’t know how much that person needs that bread.  The participants only point out that the police could come and jail or the death of a person could be the consequence. If the person does not like these possible outcomes, then the collective can help the person come up with a different solution, thereby creating group empathy and solidarity. Often we don’t want to act violently, we just have a strong need and no other solution.  Forum theatre gives us help with that.

Watch a Theatre of the Oppressed performance preview by the Jan Hus Homeless center actors and Katy to get an idea of what Forum theatre looks like in Perfomance.

The title of ‘Oppressed’ in itself makes me think.  Who do we define as oppressed?  Certainly there are dis-empowered communities who greatly benefit from this kind of theatre, but haven’t we also all been oppressed at some point?  Aren’t we all both Opressor and Opressed?  Couldn’t we all benefit from taking time to come together in solidarity and do some group problem identification and solving?

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