an encounter with Theatre of the Oppressed

Last Thursday I broke my routine threefold: (1) I left work early, (2) I squeezed awkwardly aboard the jam-packed 1 train to the Upper West side, and (3) I witnessed a revelation. Concerning (3): Brazilian community activist and writer Augusto Boal gave a brief lecture and demonstration, in front of more than three hundred curious folks including myself, gathered in a Riverside church basement. The topic was Theatre of the Oppressed, Boal’s method for social awareness, therapy and action which has become a worldwide phenomenon.

I want to briefly sum up what he was talking about before I forget…

OK. So Boal started off with the story (apparently from Dostoyevsky?) of the bureaucrat who did not save a baby that was being attacked by a dog on the grass in a public park. The rule was “Don’t walk on the grass” hence he was legally unable to do anything without seeking approval from the park ranger, by which time it would be too late to save the child. The idea is that we’ve been desensitized. We’re trained by society not only to follow the rules and trust the experts, but also to be atomized, profoundly isolated and self-serving and pathologically unsympathetic towards everyone else.

The bureaucrat is so in tune with the ‘letter’ of the law that he has no feeling for the ‘spirit’ of keeping off the grass — such a thing is irrelevant to him. In this example, Boal says, words are the crucial instrument of oppression. Now I was silly enough to major in English at a liberal arts school, so I’ve heard this kind of theory before. The general idea is that language, this stucture for symbolic communication that we use, tends to conceal its power for stucturing our minds as well. Consider the paradox that powerful men invented the word “justice” to justify their crimes. Or that the word “democracy” never truly described government for and by the people, certainly not in ancient Athens where women and slaves were barred from political participation.

So perhaps, according to Boal, we should move towards aesthetics –> communication through the senses. Theatre of the Oppressed is the aesthetic expression of needs rather than the verbal description of them. In order to make this theoretical jump you have to maintain, as Boal does, that every human being is an artist. The goal of this particular form of art is to regain our sensibility; first to see ourselves and then to try to change.

If your goal is to play the piano perfectly, you practice. If your goal is to regain your sensibility, you pay attention to what you are feeling. For Boal, the next step is to act out your emotions.

Boal used the group to demonstrate one technique, among the many that Theatre of the Opressed calls upon for this purpose, called Rainbow of Desire.  Basically you (the protagonist) select an incident or recurring situation in your life that causes you great feeling. This invariably involves conflict, hence a second party. Then you try to isolate the different elements of your own desire in the situation. (If you pause to think about it, desires are always complex — never pure.) Choose a member of the audience to act as the second party, along with a few others to physically represent your various desires with respect to that person. Position them around the second party in whatever way seems correct. Allow the scene to play out as it will, calling on your second party to speak their mind, as each of your various desires also articulates their distinct point of view in whichever sequence you choose. Keeping this in mind, you ask yourself: how has the second party seen you up until now? How would you want him or her to see you in the future? In response to these questions you change the scene to what you’d like it to be, rather than what it is now. The audience is encouraged to participate as much as possible in this process. So rather than being passive spectators, we must become “spect-actors” both observing and shaping our own lives.

Why employ theatre for this kind of change? Boal says: “Theatre is both concrete (physical) and very abstract. The beauty and danger of theatre is that you must go deep inside yourself. Sometimes I don’t see myself. The multiple mirror of the regard of others allows me to see myself. Theatre can be a mirror in this way.”

We have to be protagonists in this process. And to be a protagonist is to run a risk. Boal points out (along with other gurus I admire like Chomsky, Eve Ensler and J. Krishnamurti) that Western culture in general and American culture in particular is obsessed with security. Contrary to what your TV tells you, you will get neither immediate nor complete relief. But you and I know that we *can* become much more than what we are, and of course it’s by doing that we become.


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One Response to “an encounter with Theatre of the Oppressed”

  1. erika jacobson Says:

    I was there and although it was not an appropriate group to go deep into the Rainbow of Desire techniques, I agree with you, it was poignant and moving and has inspired me enormously.

    I actually travelled from Australia to New York and Nebraska to take part in Boal’s workshops and training this year May/June. It was fabulous to work with someone who has been around the block so many times and yet does not show any signs of cynicism or surrender, at least I did not see any!

    I want to continue using these techniques to work with perpetrators and believe that they (oppressors) are also able to see themselves better on the aesthetic space, see themselves as they are seen by others, feel themselves as they are felt by others.

    Maybe it leads to transformation, maybe it’s just for entertainment. In any case, once there has been a physical experience of the oppression, from either point of view, it cannot be NOT known. That is the first seed in transformation and that is on of the many gifts that TO offers. The revelation is not only for those oppressed but for those that do the oppression, whether unwittingly or not.

    I know it is a long time since this entry but would love to keep th dialogue going.

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