by Radu Ianoș
illustrated by Alexandra Mitruțoiu
Conflict generates progress. It also generates, above all, terror, pain, oppression, anger and victims. Ideally, it’s better without it than with it. However, indirectly, conflict always stands as a base for progress. Conflict always sparks up countless movements and ideas which follow it as a counter-reaction and that end up bringing about action, change and new conditions, which finally manage to better and reinforce the victim’s situation and to empower him/her.
As the military dictatorship came to power in Brazil following the 1964 coup, the social and political chaos broke out all throughout the society, the worst repercussions being mainly endured by the lower social layers, namely the working class, which found itself in a climate of utter uncertainty and constant oppression. Augusto Boal, the well-known theatre practitioner and drama theorist, at the time being outcast in Argentina, devises an instrument to be used in fighting against conflict, with and about oppression itself: The Theatre of the Oppressed (Teatro del Oprimido). A vigorous voice among civic activists back home, Augusto was powerlessly witnessing nation-wide civil unsettlement. His response was a creative one, giving birth to a new theatrical form that would work as an empowerment tool for the oppressed and that was meant to lay the foundation for change.
Theatre of the Oppressed is a brand new theatrical tendency but at the same time, a social exercise with civil movement connotations.
It is an umbrella term covering several forms of putting it into practice, all similar to each other by engagement and aims, but different by method. Among all, Forum Theatre is the most geographically widespread and the most intensely practiced.
Forum Theatre requires a team of actors, that are traditionally (in Boal’s method) amateurs, and an open public, generally coming out of less privileged communities, where oppression is a common, everyday reality.
The play is, by its nature, an interactive one, the whole purpose of the happening being to help identify the micro-social problems and to collectively build and retain possible solutions through the audience’s interventions.
The characters are few and the play is always conceived based on the same narrative structure. There is an Oppressor, an Oppressed, one or two allies on both sides and one or more neutral characters. The plays are made up of three or four acts that, all in all, last between ten and fifteen minutes. The script is always similar, the narrative forming the snapshot of a step towards decline as far as the Oppressed is concerned. From the initial standpoint, which is always illustrative for the social background thereby depicted, the Oppressor constantly puts pressure on the Oppressed, until the latter is pushed to an unfortunate decision or posture. What makes each play unique is the subject it approaches, always a hundred percent inspired by actual real life situations (making up a play involves thorough background research in person, about situations where people face oppressive behaviors), which are then picked and adapted to suit the audience before which it will take place. That’s because the purpose of the play is to make a lasting impression on the audience and to stand as an example for those who find themselves in similar situations . The vital essence is that the outcome is, no matter what, uncomfortable for the Oppressed, all the plays being, in fact, the tale of a victim.
Here comes in the social mobilization process. After the first time the team acts, one of the members, called the Joker (because of its neutral, impartial stand) or facilitator invites the audience to have a talk, the point of which being to identify the problem that has been portrayed. After that, the play commences once again, setting out from the previous premises, but this time, the public being free and even encouraged to interrupt at any given point for proposing a change in one of the characters’ attitude.
By clapping one single time, anyone from the audience is able to intervene after the characters have frozen, coming up with an alternative behavior for one of them.
The Oppressor is the only one that cannot be changed at any point, the process concentrating on the measures that could be taken in a real life oppression situation, where nobody could count on or hope for a change within the Oppressors mindset. Otherwise, the rules are kept simple: the participant comes up onto the stage and joins the actor regarded by his proposal, explaining how he should behave in his vision, and the show goes on accordingly. Violence and magical actions (ex-machina) are not allowed nevertheless. The solutions are required to be as realistic as they can be, within the boundaries of social behavior. Any number of interventions is welcome, and the play might even be played time and time again, depending on the diversity of the measures put on the table by the audience. The beauty, however, lies in the process of common experiment and work: after each proposal of action the audience being asked to judge the efficiency of the solution by casting votes, democratically. Should the solution receive the vote of confidence from the audience, the play goes on, otherwise it goes back to the last known point and resumes from there on until somebody thinks of an idea that seems feasible and suitable in the eyes of the public. What matters is that, in the end, the outcome be (less or) not at all unfortunate for the Oppressed.
The objective that is being followed through this whole process is the Transfer, specifically what the audience goes home with after the play is over. The purpose of a Forum Theatre session is that the public work together in order to find solutions to the relational problems that emerge with people that show abusive behaviors and habits, people with whom they or persons close to them have to deal permanently. In most cases, the interventions that are the most productive concern the behavior of the characters that play the role of the allies of the Oppressed or even of the Oppressor, rather than the course of action of the Oppressed him/herself.
That is because while it is not always so easy to confront oppression and abuse from the victim’s standpoint, there is certainly something that the people that are witnessing the abuse can do to support the abused.
At the end of the play, what most people leave remembering is how you can adjust your own reactions in order to prevent, stop or at least diminish the effects of oppression when you encounter it.
Besides Forum Theatre, Boal also envisaged several other variations in Theatre of the Oppressed, such as Image – Theatre, that somehow resembles live statues procedures, meaning that the method dictates that actors stand in certain postures that, together, work up to the contour of a scene portraying oppression, Newspaper Theatre, that requires lecturing out loud a selection of articles on a certain subject from the day’s press for pointing out situations of oppression and Invisible Theatre, similar to social experiments, in which the actors spark up an abusive situation in public, without cautioning the involuntary audience, in order to observe their reaction and to raise awareness on that specific subject. Two of the more intricate forms of the Theatre of the Oppressed are Rainbow of Desire, which centers on strongly personal experiences and which, by these means, takes place before a rather restrained group, which has to assume the role of an ad-hoc support group among which the participants are being encouraged to express the various forms of abuse they have been through and to discuss their feelings relating to it, and Legislative Theatre, a variety very cherished by the creator, which departs from a proposition in the field of lawmaking or administration which, under the form of more or less directed interactions, the part-takers can try on and debate before its actual implementation, most of the times in the presence of local (but not exclusively) authorities. Legislative Theatre is a very powerful, but at the same time delicate method, resembling participative or even direct democracy.
A concept that is proper and indispensable to the Theatre of the Oppressed is the spect-actor, the traditional border between audience and interpreter being weakened in a process of experimentation and creation. Aesthetics and artistic acting step down, making room for the theme and for the incentive to partake and work together towards finding a reasonable and sensible solution which in turn is meant to produce concrete change at an individual level and thus within the community.
Is this a form of art, though? My answer is no.
If we spend time analyzing it in relation to various criteria inherent to defining art, such as venturing to explain aspects of human condition in ways that trespass a strictly rational, conventional rhetoric, a means of communication destined to produce pleasure or, at the very least, a more or less profound impression on the spirit and a virtuous agent that makes all of these happen through his talent and sensitive perspective, it appears as obvious that the Theatre of the Oppressed lacks all of these dimensions. But that is due to the fact that it doesn’t try to attain it. At the extreme, the Theatre of the Oppressed relates to antic theatrical theory which, in favor of portraying and shedding light onto various human or societal flaws, neglects the impeccable performance.
,,Life is a game of gameplay’’ (Viața e un joc de-a joaca), as Ioan Gyuri Pascu used to put it.
After all, the Theatre of the Oppressed is a game, but one charged with rich social, political and cultural content nonetheless.
As happens with children when they arrive at the age to play mum and dad or cops and robbers, games that have dense social content through which the little ones arm themselves with explanations for various dimensions of the social reality they are about to immerse in and learn behavioral patterns that, by practice and training are cultivated to contain the socially accepted behavior for later, practices know as anticipative socializing, the Theatre of the Oppressed turns game-playing into a perpetual education instrument. Further on, education translates into veridic empowerment for those who are victims of abuse and oppression.
For the time being, Theatre of the Oppressed is a tool made to fight oppression. Why oppression specifically? We should inquire a bit more about the definition of the so-called oppression that makes the object of this method. Oppression is regarded as abuse of power. But not at a specific scale, but perceived as a phenomenon that is inherent to human disposition. As numerous works of political philosophy have explained throughout the ages, from the Social Contract itself onward, it is obvious that even once constituted into well organized communities, individuals remain in a great measure different and unequal, by ones being physically stronger than others, by having more authority, more economic power, higher social status or even richer common knowledge and culture or better cognitive capacity. It is these traits of inequality that translate into an ascendant of power that some people have over the others.
The thesis at the foundation of the Theatre of the Oppressed is that the existence of such a higher power ground will sooner or later manifest itself in an abuse, be it even involuntary.
It isn’t necessarily about malevolence or maleficence, although in a great number of cases these are the causes of unrighteousness, but rather about contrary interests that the stronger one tends to impose in his favor without keeping in mind the necessity to protect the weak. In this perspective, all social problems can be seen as oppression-related problems. This is why the themes at the centre of the Theatre of the Oppressed are various, starting from school dropout at the pressure of the parents in order to get a job to the gentrification and the abuse of voracious capitalism over minor economic actors. However, this is also why the plays always obey to a strict narative structure and character typology.
The Theatre of the Oppressed could be much more than it is. Its essence resides in its eclectic nature, comprising at the same time art (partially), game play and education.
Due to this specific nature, Theatre of the Oppressed could be revolutionary, by all means and by none in particular.
Besides treating oppression, the Forum Theatre method – interpreting a situation with negative ending and playing it time and time again with newer and more adequate modifications until the bad outcome is overturned – allows it to make deep changes in the social structure and insinuate itself in any area of human activity as a problem solving instrument.
Our civilization could utilize this method wide-scale, from having Forum Theatre from kindergarten to high-school in the educational curriculum for getting the kids used to and learning various social, economic, psychological and, why not, philosophical and religious matters of the society that surrounds us, to using it as a cohesion instrument within corporations for finding a means to get through work issues instead of endless meetings. Legislative Theatre could play the role of a vigorous public consultation and debate means for matters of public interest. Newspaper Theatre could be a tremendously active antidote against the plague of fake-news that brings more and more nuisance with each morning paper, while Rainbow of Desire could amplify its therapeutic role and could end up being utilized in any circumstance for physical and mental recovery of victims. The Theatre of the Oppressed could be a new means to address any kind of problem that makes its presence felt in our society.
What prevents it, at least for now, to leave behind this fringe stage of a cultural oddity is, somehow ironically, this same mixed nature. By not being art, nor education, nobody really knows what to do with it. Ana-Maria Ilie, the executive director of A.R.T. Fusion Association, one of the few NGO-s that put this methodology into practice in Romania, explains the remote place that Theatre of the Oppressed occupies nowadays by the fact that, whilst being a serious set of ideas, it is still a rudimentary theory (after Augusto Boal died in 2009, the only one assuming the mission to further and develop the elaboration of this kind of theatrical methodology is his son, Julián Boal).
Because of its rudimentary stage, those who enact across the world often understand and apply it in greatly various and different ways, not seldom unsatisfactorily, which can only undermine the prestige of the method and the spectators trust along with it.
In Romania, Forum Theatre is the most practiced, beginning in 2005, especially before audiences that come from impoverished communities which face countless forms of abuse and oppression, from gender violence to discrimination and racism, but they also work with Image-Theatre, Newspaper Theatre and even Invisible Theatre. A.R.T. Fusion Association is working as we speak at the implementation of Legislative Theatre, although this endeavor is a little more shy. Ana-Maria recounts that the audience’s reactions are widely different, depending on the feeling of the play before them, from surprise and refusal to interact to enthusiasm and pro-activity. The saddest is when the people don’t manage to arrive at a change, at a positive result for the Oppressed, but she also says that these cases are rare and that it’s most probably because the team did not quite succeeded in developing the play in a comprehensible manner. Anyhow, the fact that someone puts into practice the Theatre of the Oppressed in this area is really encouraging.
Personally, I am rather doubtful when it comes to the momentum that the movement could gain at the global scale goes, realistically speaking; at least, I believe that it will need a considerable time until it gets there. On the other hand, meditating at the simplicity of the concept, it seems almost ridiculous that no-one had ever thought of this before the ’60’s. The social and cultural heritage would’ve certainly looked a lot different if it would’ve caught on, say, during the Enlightenment Era. It took, in return, oppression and conflict (and to be honest, a certain level of theatrical theory development) for Boal to come up with this idea. It is as more beautiful as, by developing the methods for the Theatre of the Oppressed, Augusto Boal accomplished the very goal TO sets for itself, transcending the powerlessness of the exile and acting in favor of the oppressed wherever.
Este studentă la Arte și, în rarele ocazii în care nu este în atelier, o veți găsi cu nasul prin cărți de istoria artei. Cea mai proastă întrebare pe care i-o puteți pune este ce fel de artă produci?, pentru că nici ea nu a găsit un singur răspuns, încă. Iubește cafeaua, benzile desenate, scrisul și impresionismul. Ea se ocupă de ilustrațiile revistei.
Își pune întrebări despre problemele cu care lumea a învățat să trăiască bine-mersi ignorându-le. Pe el îl cauți atunci când te-ai săturat de dansat și băut la o petrecere și ai vrea să vorbești cu cineva și mai despre lume, secțiune de care se ocupă. Nu e neapărat cel mai priceput când vine vorba de noile tehnologii, dar noroc că nici nu o să mai aibă nevoie de ele când o să devină prinț consort, așa cum râvnește.