I Laughed, I Cried, It Was Better Than Catharsis

When I teach at the BuildaBridge Institute for Arts in Transformation in Bryn Mawr, PA, I'm sent to work in shelters with at-risk teens, while the adults registered for the institute observe, participate, and debrief with me after.

I use this description of the work in my handouts:
Bodies and voices become instruments for change as participants explore societal concerns in a deeply personal way. We’ll call what we do “sociodrama,” though in truth we’ll borrow from a variety of excellent techniques to make a safe, enjoyable space for improvisation and image-making. Participants will try on roles and appreciate multiple viewpoints on issues as they "rehearse for reality," to borrow a phrase from Theater of the Oppressed founder Augusto Boal. Each session will aim to be complete in itself—a necessary goal when dealing with transitional populations—though subsequent days will build on what has been previously accomplished.
The simplest way to distinguish between sociodrama and Theatre of the Oppressed (TO) is to start with the word catharsis, which is the act of releasing or purging one's emotions. Getting it all out. Ahhhh. It's one of the goals of sociodrama, according to pioneer Patricia Sternberg, along with insight and behavioral practice.

On the other hand, here's Augusto Boal on catharsis:
Forum Theatre [a branch of TO] does not produce catharsis: it produces a stimulant for our desire to change the world. ...Let them create it first in the theatre, in fiction, to be better prepared to create it outside afterwards, for real.
I studied with Boal on two occasions before he died, and I can tell you that he's okay with emotion. If one of his theatre games brought you to tears, that's perfectly natural and fine and good. What he won't do--in my experience--is stop everything to comfort you. For Boal, a Brazilian, tears are a natural expression accompanying our search for change in this world. Channel those tears to find out what needs to be done; don't halt the whole process to wallow.

A few of my fellow classmates would protest what they saw as insensitivity, requesting "containers" and such that they felt needed to be in place before he should be allowed to break us down in such a way. But these protests ignored a basic fact: our teacher was a man who, as a political prisoner, was strung up by his ankles and shocked with an electric charge because of his efforts to improve life for those who needed it most. Boal cared deeply for humanity. (My favorite memory is the last one: I approach him to say thank you after our final day of class, my hand outstretched for a formal shake. He cups my face in both hands and kisses me.)

Forget containers; I agree wholeheartedly with the Brazilian. We should be sensitive, but not waver in our work with every blow of the wind or tear from the eye. Neither should our goal be to make someone cry, though there's a time and place for everything, including catharsis.

On Monday nights when I lead theatre sessions with homeless women, I keep a variety of sociodrama exercises in my bag of tricks. Sometimes they're effective, sometimes they fall flat. My crowd is tough, you must remember; any game I choose immediately passes through the women's mental checkpoints, making sure there's not a hint of manipulation, or, worse, a waste of time when they could be taking a free shower after a day on the streets. Even with solid, time-tested exercises, if I falter slightly in my presentation, I may lose half the crowd, which is often already quite boisterous. I draw on about every skill I have in me, and I need to have many ideas ready at hand--sociodrama, TO, or otherwise.

But last week I worked almost exclusively in sociodrama, and I left feeling like I'd chosen vitamin-enriched cereal over the option of steak. So this week, I returned to Theatre of the Oppressed for what I hoped would be a hearty meal.

I started with the game "Columbian Hypnosis." One person holds her palm level with the face of her partner. She moves her palm slowly and fluidly, wherever she wants, and her partner keeps her face level with and the same distance from the palm.

That's it.

Doesn't sound like much, does it? But this is not your average party game; all sorts of dynamics show themselves.

When I did this game in New York, my partner, a man from the Soviet Union, all but wrestled me to the ground. Somehow "fluid" translated to "volatile," for him, and I couldn't wait to be done.

When I led one of the women on Monday night, ours was a beautiful dance.

Does the leader simply command, or is she sensitive to the needs of her partner? Kim, I noticed, wasn't figuring out how to move downward with me, so I had to adjust my moves to slowly teach her what I wanted. Almost as if she were leading me, though that was my role.

And the participants? What I love about being led in this exercise is a feeling of release, that I need not worry about anything but the hand in front of me. Kim said she didn't even notice me after a while. Angie was dazed and confused when it was over, but in a good way. A few months back when I led this exercise, Tanya had become angry that someone was telling her what to do. This led to a discussion of why that's a problem for her, and how people can abuse power.

The game becomes a platform for discussion of all sorts of life lessons, as many TO games do. Yes, emotion comes to the surface, but we channel it toward learning some basic human skills.

Esther, however, wasn't buying it.

"Maybe it is because I come from another country, but I do not understand this 'wave a hand in front of someone's face.'" She waved her own a bit dramatically and with condescension.

"Maybe you should try it," someone who had tried it said.

"I do not need to try it. I do not need this"--again the waving.

"Look, this releases stress for us. It's been a long day. It's hard out there," another woman said, though she herself had looked pretty skeptical of a few of my requests.

"It's hard for me, too," Esther said.

Kim said, "Esther, remember earlier when music was playing downstairs? You closed your eyes and danced, and forgot everything around you. That's what this is to us."

They kept at this for awhile. I probably should have defended myself a bit more, but here were these women--including those who tend to watch more than participate--verbalizing why I show up week after week. So I stood back and listened.

Esther remained somewhat unconvinced. I stepped in to assure her that even disagreement is why I'm there, and what TO is designed to facilitate. We squeeze every drop of meaning out of these exercises which work on you in ways you'd never quite expect.

The last TO game I chose to do before closing with a AS game--that is, one of my devising, as one must have a full bag of tricks--is called Emily's Morph. Three people begin by doing a sound and movement of their own choosing, and by the end they are to have morphed into unison without any discussion.

My Soviet partner had told the story of leading this exercise in his country. The participants come to the end and they're all still doing their own thing, no morphing at all. When he asked them what happened, every last one said that as citizens, they were tired of being told what they can and cannot do; they were not about to let their ideas be taken from them.

At the shelter, the first round was quite like the Soviets', but for a different reason: Kim, Angie and Pat had dutifully begun with their little sounds and moves, but Maxine was singing an entire Al Green song. Kind of hard to mash up with that.

AMY: Could you sing maybe just the "love" part?
MAXINE: But Al's my brother!

Maxine is a head taller than me, about thirty pounds lighter, and has one tooth. She might be 40, or she could be 60. Clearly inebriated this evening, Maxine would periodically interrupt to hug me, tell me what I do is beautiful, and show me pictures of herself at a gas station. You can't help but love Maxine.

The group asked to try morphing again, and what happened was a beautiful thing.

In the time span allotted, the group--without talking, just keeping up with their sounds and moves--made some quick decisions.

Angie, who was near Pat, decided to incorporate her moves; Pat caught on and adjusted to her.

Kim was near Maxine, who was still singing the entire Al Green song. Kim quickly realized that if any morphing was to be done, she had to do it. If Maxine was ever going to be included and welcomed into the group, Kim would need to sacrifice her own ideas.

So there's Angie and Pat, doing a little song and dance in unison. And there's Kim and Maxine, singing "Let's Stay Together."

Our life lessons wrapped up with laughter, which felt perfectly natural and fine and good.


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