Theatre of the Oppressed: It Works

I learned Theatre of the Oppressed from the socialists. Hippie commies, with shared bathroom duties and mate mugs, in the West Village overlooking the Hudson. We were earnest, we fully dove into each theatre game, and we sat at the feet at Augusto Boal, beloved founder of TO. We cried together. Some even bled; whole dissertations, books even, could be written on the game called "Fainting at Frejus."

The consensus building, some years, would become too much; when you've paid for a three-day clinic with a man who was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize, you want time to learn from him, and I recall one year pleading, on the afternoon of the last day, that we stop debating and voting twice per person and actually let the man who invented the technique we paid to learn teach it to us. I recall lying down onto the floor and maybe even writhing a bit while saying this.

We would go home to use TO with varying populations. Those times were learning for the sake of learning, but also with an eye to teaching, which colors your participation somewhat. You're thinking how to use this with your group.

My group, next, would be homeless women. Often my preparation would lead me to sneaky warm ups that just might get them woken up at 9 at night, just enough to build enthusiasm and a willingness to participate. Always, I think I can safely say, we'd gain momentum and build to something meaningful. TO always works its magic in some form or another, and yet in the shelter it was a bit of work for me to get to that point.

Following these experiences I would teach other adults how to lead TO. This would always involve a mix of "let's do this game" and also "here are some other ways you can do this game, now that you experienced it this way" with a touch of "I said this to you as a coaching aside, but sometimes it's helpful to say something more like this." Again, the participation is not unadulterated, but it's still effective.

Now I'm with former felons. And they eat this up. I appreciate now the effectiveness of TO in new ways; TO has always been meant for homogenous groups who share the same concerns, and as these guys encounter a whole set of issues very particular to the fact that they once did time, they benefit not only from their own participation in the games but also simply watching another's.

Yesterday I led a Rainbow of Desire scene, which is a recreation of a true story involving conflict and some hope for success. One man shared his frustration at being denied an apartment, despite having the same job and income as at least two other residents. He was sure the manager's decision was based on his record.

When he reenacted this scene, this large man made himself small, with hands folded in front of him, shoulders bowed. He was defeated before he began. Too, the manager hadn't asked him to sit, so he was the child standing before the principal's desk, shamed.

A few people mirrored his posture for him, as he was unaware that his timidity was showing physically as well as verbally. They stepped into his role for him, performing the scene while holding an exaggerated posture and allowing it to color the content of the original scene.

One woman played it frightened, moving back and away. Another man, a former prisoner who now hosts ex-offenders in houses he buys and fixes up, played the role with his head down to the floor the whole time, so full of elegant, resigned shame I could have wept. (He mentioned later that even playing this role brought back a host of memories of his own similar experiences.)

When faced with these representations of his backing down, the man gave an explanation of why he did this, as if this was the only option in the situation. I mentioned that some people would react differently--with anger, or perhaps steadfast confidence. The head-down man said that had he been off parole, he might have hit the guy. It's an option.

I had him talk to these versions of himself, tell them why they're that way and give them some advice.

"I've got a job, I'm doing things, but this dude holds the future to my living in this place. I feel on top of the world, but why is this thing going on in me, this backing down. It's just...I'm not at the top of the world no more. I'm still 187436. That scares me."

Talk right to them, I said.

"Don't give up," he told himself. "Keep fighting."


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