Theatre of The Oppressed
Building communities through emancipatory theatre processes
– Metka Bahlen Okoli, May 2022
A society in which we live is glorifying competitiveness, consumption, superiority. According to the concept of ‘everyone is a blacksmith of their own fortune’, society continuosly imposes structural problems on the shoulders of the individuals. Besides it never seizes to communicate that every individual is responsible for their own rescue. In the Theater of The Oppressed we question these social premises and set them anew, by establishing cooperation and building communities. One of the main questions we ask ourselves is how can we work within the society by fostering power and not superiority.
With the Theater of Oppressed social injustices are thus addressed collectively, on the social level. The participants are in the process of connecting with each other and sharing and analyzing their own stories outlining topics that are not exposed enough in public. They are publicly spoken by the people who most often do not have a public voice. The story of an individual so becomes a broader story, a story of distinctive social groups that can be placed in a broader social context. This is the mission of the Theater of The Oppressed (TO) and projects such as If I Were in Your Shoes.
COMMUNITY BUILDING AND TO TECHNIQUES
In TO processes we create spaces where people can share their experiences of oppression. TO was founded in the 1960s by Augusto Boal, a Brazilian theater director, actor and activist. He was inspired by the ideas of Paolo Freire and his work Pedagogy of the Oppressed, namely criticizing the schooling system and promoting giving transformational power to the people through emancipatory learning processes. Boal understands theater in the broadest sense, where theater is for everyone and draws from an inexhaustible source of life (Fritz, 2012).
We enter the process with games for actors and non-actors, which are, among other things, the foundation of the methodology of TO, and we use them at almost all stages of working on social topics. They are games in the best and broadest sense of the word, indispensable in establishing a new community. Participants are supported in freeing themselves from the shackles of their social position, in expressing themselves, embodying how they experience themselves and their inner selves and the world around them. Games bring playfulness as well as new insights and critical views on social contexts.
There are several techniques within the methodology of TO that we can use in addressing burning topics, these are the main branches: image theatre, newspaper theatre, invisible theatre, forum theatre, rainbow of desire, legislative theatre. Within the Teaching, Training and Learning events of the If Were in Your Shoes project in Germany and Italy we used games, image theatre and newspaper theatre.
IMAGE THEATRE AND RHYTHM MACHINES
With this technique we show relationships, concepts, situations, events … without using words only by positioning our bodies and/or items. It is useful for addressing virtually any area of human life. The strongest element of the image theater is the embodiment, the physical realization of living dimensions that are otherwise invisible and difficult to understand or ‘point at’. In addition, when working with the body, we do not filter messages in the way we do with verbal expression. All we need for this technique is our bodies. By analyzing the position of the body and its individual parts (posture, position of legs and arms, facial expressions), orientation of the gaze, etc., we can extract contents that we did not think of or were not expressed and evident before.
We can do various excercises within the image theatre:
We can work in pairs or in groups, it is very important that the activity takes place in silence. In sculpturing, we shape the bodies of others that serve us as so called smart clay. What we want from a person who is in the role of the smart clay is indicated by moving his body part to a certain position, which remains so. If we do not achieve the desired shape in this way, we can also show ourselves how we imagine a position, and smart clay then depicts it. So we can make individual or group frozen images or statues.
– Frozen image
Can also be created by anyone without being created by another person. If we make group pictures, several people position themselves in it one by one.
– Dynamization and rhythm machines
In the group frozen image, we each find a simple movement that comes from this position in which we find ourselves. We repeat and make the movement so that it is quite clear how it starts and how it ends. The accompanying sound is then added to the movement. This is how one of the ‘gears’ of the rhythm machine is created, which will illustrate the entirety of the content we are staging. When we combine the individual elements (‘gears’), a rhythm machine is created. This can be played with tempo, volume, intensity, etc ..
This is a technique, in which we explore and question the media and general system landscape. What are the messages that surround us as residents of this society on a daily basis? What is their form, content? How are these messages visually supported? Who are the authors of these messages? How do these messages affect us? With newspaper theater we expand the understanding of t. i. micro situations, stories that happen to a person on a daily basis, on t. i. macro social level. This is sometimes also called to place ourselves in t. i. helicopter view. The story of an individual becomes a broader story, the story of a social group placed in a broader social context. By analyzing publications in the media and other documents that direct our lives (school textbooks, legislation …), we also develop an understanding of what causes, enables and maintains certain events in society in this broader social context.
We need material to be able to carry out the technique. These are usually different print media – newspapers, magazines, advertising pamphlets,… We can also use other printed materials, depending on the content we want to address – e.g. textbooks, legislation, including literature, religious writings, etc. Recently, we have increasingly used online publications and comments of the ‘people’ below them.
In the process we review the material we have in front of us. When reviewing, we think about our content. We cut out titles, subtitles, words and phrases from articles or. texts can also be sentences (but not long texts) that are related to our content. The amount of cut material is arbitrary. After a certain time (approx. 20 – 30 min), we look at the cut material. With various rehearsals of newspaper theater, we shape it into a performance:
– easy reading (all people in the group read their selection without accents and emotional connotations),
– cross-reading (participants have a choice in front of them, someone reads something from their choice, then someone else relates to some content from their choice, etc. – this is how statements are made, it can also be stories that reflect how attendees experience the content addressed),
– rhythmic reading (participants read their selection by rhythmicizing it, they can use their own words, add rhythm in parallel, etc.),
– parallel reading (we add pantomime or frozen paintings to the reading, statues we shape with our bodies),
– complementary reading (add information that has been omitted to the selected material).
Any set of the above techniques can be used. In this process, connections are made between the choices of individuals in the group. In the next phase, we can design a joint performance. We often use genres that are in some way representative of the content we want to express (eg advertisement, a pop song, TV news etc.).
HOW DO LAYERS OF CONVEYING A STORY CONTRIBUTE TO COMMUNITY BUILDING
When a TO performance is created, we tell the story in many ways. One of the layers is narrative, the performance has a ‘script’, it takes place in a sequence of events with or without dialogues, through which it is possible to understand what is happening. The second layer is intonation. This one gives us impressions, emotional basis, analogies … The third one is visual. Through scenography and costume design, we communicate the images of the story as experienced by the group (Fritz, 2021).
The creation of one’s own aesthetics has a unique role in creating a community of the oppressed, which is often an expression of resistance to aesthetics as dictated by elites. It’s about fighting for a world without ruling and creating a community of feelings that opposes the dead mechanism of the state to the living force, a community fueled by the sensual embodiment of its idea ”(Rancière 2012, p. 66).
This can go with a reciprocal emancipation process of the oppressed with the support of those who have not had a certain experience of oppression, but they understand it better, connect with it on some level and also participate in the process of emancipation. The whole process evokes emotions in the participants, which can be pleasant or unpleasant. We test and reflect new insights in new situations. In addition to recognizing existing angles we create new ideas, attitudes, values and actions and a new collective reality.
Bahlen Okoli, Metka. Navodila za uporabo videa ‘Vstani, deklica’. Zavod Bob, 2021. (Retrieved May 27th 2022 from https://drive.google.com/file/d/1pxGkWqCgH2YNuJW6mBWnBN8zAGOZGc9O/view)
Rancière, Jacques. Discomfort in Aesthetics, ZRC SAZU, 2012.
Fritz, Birgit. InExActArt. The Autopoietic Theater of Augusto Boal. Ibidem-Verlag, 2012.
image produced by Niklas Nieminen