Picturing the New Year

Happiness. That's what he called it: Happiness.

I love Augusto Boal's names for his Theatre of the Oppressed exercises. English crashed into his native Portugese and resulted in names such as "How Many 'A's in One 'A'?'," "Natural and Ridiculous," and "The smell of hands" (which is exactly that). Part Two of Boal's "Legislative Theatre" is called "The No One Here Is An Ass Book."

In June of 2007, Boal ended a New York workshop with "Happiness," and introduced the game this way:

This is Theatre of the Oppressed, not the Depressed, so the goal of any and all workshops is to end with optimism. We are often good at identifying our oppression but not at identifying our dreams.

He asked us to sculpt images of happiness, of our dreams and ideals. Groups of six or more gathered, creating what was often a picture of freedom, or release from some oppression--this was a room full of activists, after all. My group, as I recall, was comprised of New York Zapatistas.

After creating the image, participants broke away to observe other groups. We then resumed our original positions, and with each clap of the facilitator, took a slow-motion step to enter another picture of happiness we found appealing.

Details of the images have since escaped me, but I remember the process of moving between them. I wanted to sit on a bench with some folks nearby, but even as I reached, slow-motion, for the friendly, outstretched hand of a man who would go on to head an MA program in Applied Theatre there in the city, I found obstacles.

A person in the way. One of my limbs still entangled in the previous picture. Finding my bliss meant, sometimes, that I had to alter my original plans. It was a group effort, this happiness. Each of us had to adjust to each other, help each other, if we were going to find any bliss at all.

This past Monday, after some warm-up exercises with the women at the homeless shelter, I asked them to write a few words summing up their experiences this past year, as well as their hopes and dreams for 2010.

For '10, I knew that many would write "apartment" and leave it at that, so I asked them to consider their personal goals and resolutions, as well. We talked about these for awhile, and then I asked for a volunteer to sculpt members of the group into two pictures: one of her 2009, and another of her dream for 2010.

Esther offered first on the condition that I help her with her English. Having come from Africa some ten years ago, Esther spent 2009 jumping around from job to job and shelter to shelter, she said, but finally "free from the government." Based on other conversations we've had, I believe that Esther spent time in prison for attempted murder. Her husband had threatened their young daughter, and Esther was willing to be "put in the ground," she told me, to protect her.

She sculpted 2009 as a central image being pulled around. Kara became Esther, standing center, and Pat and Carly pulled at her from every which way.

2010: Esther wanted to be stable, grounded. She placed Kara seated on the floor. I asked what would come of these forces pulling at her this past year, uprooting her security. One would be far away, she said, though still trying to reach her. The other, we learned, represented her daughter, who happens to be coming into town next week to stay with Esther at the shelter. Eventually, they'll move into an apartment together--Esther made it onto a waiting list.

So she placed Kara firmly, contentedly on the floor, and Pat far off, reaching. Carly she positioned somewhat near Kara but in a neutral position.

"But isn't that your daughter?" someone asked, to clarify.

Esther had mentioned her daughter multiple times already that evening, perhaps trying to prepare everyone for her arrival, and for the existence of their now strained relationship. It seemed she would need a team to help her through this family affair.

Her 2010 resolution, she had said, along with being grounded, was "for everything to work out" with her daughter.

It took some time to convince Esther that this picture of 2010 she was creating should be her idea of perfection. Happiness! It should show the new year exactly how she'd like it to be. But she was afraid to hope beyond "everything working out" with her daughter. She was afraid to dream big. Aren't we all, sometimes?

She moved Carly closer to Kara. She tentatively positioned Carly's arms for an embrace.

I then asked everyone to move back into the first position, with Kara--representing Esther--being pulled in every direction. I explained how we'd slow-motion morph from 2009 into Esther's dream for 2010.

Slowly, Pat let go of Kara's leg and moved away. Carly came closer, no longer pulling and prodding, but instead open and vulnerable to Kara. When mother and daughter embraced, Esther audibly cheered.

Yes! Yes! she cried, applauding, absolutely joyful.

The picture of happiness.


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