Theater of the Oppressed
Amidst all the papers, meetings and phone calls that make up nonprofit work, one can forget that drama and emotion are at the center of social justice work. Is tending to drama and emotion really necessary to push the social justice needle further towards progress, though? The Theater of the Oppressed argues that it is and it can be the fuel vital to creating change.

What is the Theater of the Oppressed?

The Theater of the Oppressed is equal parts performance, activism practice and educational forum. It is a rising form of activism that refugees, homeless, minority groups and other populations are using to fight issues of oppression that can cause poverty. The Theater of the Oppressed is definitely not like a typical play or musical where the cast rehearses for weeks on end to create a perfect show. It is very improvisational and involves audience participation, thus transforming a passive audience into an active one.

The Theater of the Oppressed is an umbrella term for many different techniques such as forum theater, image theater and legislative theater. Brazilian visionary, Augusto Boyal, invented these techniques during the late 1950s. The application of these techniques initially happened with workers and peasant worker populations in Latin America. Forum theater is the most popular theater of the oppressed technique around the world. In the forum theater technique, a story plays out in front of an audience that discusses one of the issues of poverty and human rights at hand. After actors perform the story, they perform the story again. When the actors perform the story again, individual audience members can then say, “stop!” to interrupt the scene. Once someone has interrupted a scene, they can then replace an actor in the scene and improvise how they could change the situation in the story for the better.

Fighting for Human Rights

Combatants for Peace is an egalitarian, bi-national, grassroots organization in Israel and Palestine. It is also just one of the many nonprofits using the forum theater technique to fight for human rights. When it started in 2005, this theater group helped mitigate violence between Israeli and Palestinian civilians and it has performed in cities such as Tel Aviv. Israeli fighters and Palestinian freedom fighters decided that there was a better way to resolve the Palestinian-Israeli conflict than violence, causing the organization’s start.

The forum theater includes stories such as those about mothers dealing with the despair of their sons living in war zones. Other stories include one from the Palestinian side about a 12-year-old little boy who formerly took part in the theater group. He and his friends were playing on the playground one day when some rock-throwing began suddenly in the background. Someone fired a shot and it accidentally hit the friend, causing his death. Through forum theater, audience members had a chance to interrupt these scenes after the actors performed them and were able to fill in for the actors to try and solve the issues in a more peaceful way.

The Jana Sanskriti Centre for Theatre of the Oppressed

The Jana Sanskriti Centre for Theater of the Oppressed is the longest-running forum theater company in world history. This group started in 1985 in the small village in Sunderbans, India. Now, the theater company has grown greatly and there are 36 satellite theater groups in districts such as West Bengal and New Delhi. Its theater teams reach many spectators every year and it has a bi-annual forum theater festival called Muktadhara, which has been going on since 2004, and noted Indian theater personalities visit.

Alongside forum theater, it uses image theater, where actors recreate images of their own reality through consensus. It views the reality objectively and analyzes it through “real image.” Actors proceed to make the image of a situation they desire (the ideal image) that does not include oppression. Participants then turn back to the “real image” and come up with different scenes to represent transitions from the “real image” to the “ideal image.” The image technique, like the forum technique, allows participants to introspect on how social change can happen.

In an interview with The Borgen Project on Jan 15, 2020, Theater of the Oppressed organizers like Ann Admon from Combatants for Peace discussed how these programs truly give people hope, something that can be hard to come by in war-torn zones. As she says, this form of activism “opens the door to have a glimpse into seeing that everybody’s a human being and everybody has a story and everybody is suffering,” amidst all the continual separation and stereotyping.

The Cardboard Citizen’s Theater Group

The Cardboard Citizen’s theater group, a London-based theater group working with homeless populations that is one of the leading practitioners of forum theater in the world, has helped empower the homeless through forum theater as well. Donovan, a participant of the group, stated that they “turned his life around” after he received a release from jail and lived in a hostel. The group helped him stay out of trouble by keeping him busy with going to drama practices and he has since become a member of the board of directors for the group.

Practices of Theater of the Oppressed show no signs of stopping any time soon. Continuing practices of this form of activism are sure to further strengthen communities at the grassroots level. Theater of the Oppressed brings to light how people are not alone in their oppression and can work as an empowered collective to spark the fire of change in a form like no other.

Emily Joy Oomen
Photo: Pixabay

sierra leone
Sierra Leone has adopted a new method to facilitate discussions about corporal punishment and the violence it perpetuates. Supported by UNICEF’s Learning for Peace program, groups of performers write original plays that deal with the consequences of violence.

One theater performance is titled “The Stepson.” The lead character is a young boy who is beaten by his stepmother before going to school and being physically punished again there. This leads him to run away from home. The goal of the play is to educate and open up dialogue about corporal punishment in Sierra Leone, while providing alternatives for conflict resolution.

Performances like this are not new to development efforts. Other programs around the globe are using theater to effect change in their communities. The Bedari Theatre Programme in Pakistan builds on the Punjabi tradition of street theater to facilitate conversations and change in regards to child marriage. A group in Timor-Leste, called Damas, consists of an all-female ensemble that challenges gender stereotypes through their subject matter and by turning Shakespeare on his head to cast women in male roles. The Theater of the Oppressed, which has spread from its Brazilian heritage to the far corners of the globe like India and Australia, works to give marginalized persons a voice through performance.

In all of these participatory programs, education is key. In Sierra Leone, school is part of the problem. Corporal punishment scares children away from the classroom; a group of students enlisted by the rebels in Sierra Leone’s civil war came back after fighting and killed their teachers because of the violence inflicted on them in school. Theater provides a way to educate the population in a safe and engaging way that challenges the conventional classroom culture.

The performances also educate the performers. PETA, a Phillipine group, found that when children who scavenged in the garbage to survive were involved in theater workshops, they became more confident and articulate. Often, the cast of a performance will include local volunteers, and groups will interview community members to create a realistic, relatable script. This allows the performances to be culturally appropriate and to open up dialogue.

The community will often not respond well to people in authority, but a grassroots conversation fostered by entertainment creates opportunities for people to engage with each other on a topic.

There are other advantages to using theater for development. It is portable, recordable, and cost-effective, particularly when enlisting volunteers from the community to help write and act. It is also public, so people do not feel invaded by the message, but instead volunteer to come see the performance. A major advantage is that understanding and engaging with the performances does not require literacy, so performances are accessible to all.

Theater binds communities together in appreciating each other’s talents and having conversation. It is fun, so people want to be involved, which allows more advocacy efforts to reach more people.

Despite the good work theater does in initiating change in communities, there are some drawbacks. One drawback is the time involved in creating a work. When volunteer writers and actors get together, it can take a lot of time to construct a coherent, rehearsed play. This is a disadvantage when a new topic becomes immediately relevant. The large groups involved can also sterilize the message in order to please everyone.

The government can be another issue. Since governments often provide funding, they sometimes attempt to use theater performances to push their own agendas. Or, in the case of Ghana, the government will shut down programs out of fear the performance will not support current political systems.

People also expect theater to make drastic changes on its own. Theater works best when coupled with other advocacy efforts, like the dialogue sparked by the Sierra Leone performances.

The 20th annual conference for Pedagogy and Theatre of the Oppressed began on Thursday, July 3. Hosted by the University of Nebraska, the conference will aim to improve the development work done by theater performance and give marginalized people a stronger voice.

– Monica Roth

Sources: Oxford Journals, UNICEF Girls Not Brides, Jana Sanskriti, ActNow,
Photo: Girls Not Brides