This past Saturday, I had the opportunity to participate in an intensive all-day Theater of the Oppressed Workshop. Sparsely dampened with flurries, I entered the Brecht Forum welcomed by the aroma of Nag Champa and a group of about 20 people from various walks of life. Sitting cross-legged on the floor, we were asked to introduce our names, where we live and what we hoped to gain from the day’s workshop. Many of the attendees worked in nonprofits and were interested in using Theater of the Oppressed (TO) in their work. Some of the attendees were actors seeking ways to make their work more empowering. Others were familiar with Freire or Brecht and followed a path of curiosity that led them to explore the workshop.
Between exercises, we were given an introduction into the founding concepts. We were told that our instructors were facilitators and not leaders, because TO is non-hierarchical and we are all present to learn from one another. Revolution is a word not to shy away from and that, in fact, this type of theater is training for the revolution. Given the nature of the world we live in and the messages forced upon us, we are all oppressed but we should not define oppressed as being a passive recipient of a burdensome structure. For Boal, ‘oppression’ refers to a struggle or resistance against this structure. Boal began working in states with military dictatorships where the oppression was very apparent. As he began working in France, he realized that although there was no apparent oppression the people were still internally oppressed by the messages they had internalized. Today was about cueing into those restraints and ‘rehearsing the revolution’ to incrementally overcome them.
We agreed to a set of expectations of conduct, which included: being open, restraining judgment, staying for the duration of the training and being respectful. We were told to feel our way through each exercise and think about how each challenge present in the exercises might relate to a critical issue within our lives. We were told to act with awareness and intention. It was that piece of advice, which I found most resonant, because it gave each action purpose and transformed the act of walking backward in slow motion with our eyes closed and hands wrapped around our elbows (this was, in fact an instruction) into an exercise in self-awareness, perception and overcoming challenges (the ‘ walking’ exercises ranged in difficulty, which I interpreted as a reminder that everyone is dealing with their own set of challenges just to ‘keep moving’).
In one exercise we were told to close our eyes, imagine a social issue that affects us personally. We were then to hold a pose representative of that issue and open our eyes. Looking around the room, we were then told to move into groups with people whose pose connected with our own. In groups of four, we assembled our individual poses into a sort of structure. We were then told to find a representative motion to match our pose, then a representative sound, followed by a representative word, followed by a representative phrase. Looking around the room, it was incredible to see a group of predominantly non-actors giving the most moving performances of an issue that was up to your mind’s interpretation. There is a unique sense of connectivity and instant empathy you gain from seeing a stranger connect to a real source of pain in their lives. We were then instructed to slowly move into a position of resolution and then accompany that sense of resolution with a gesture, a sound, a word and a phrase. Looking around the room at this point offered a huge sense of relief to the tension of the previous scene.
By the end of the day, I think everyone was pretty well spent. After eight hours of pushing ourselves beyond our comfort zone and testing ourselves physically and emotionally, we were in need of some rest. To me, it felt a little like deciding on a path of research and being handed a giant stack of books. I was confronted with something new, exciting and varied that would ultimately make more sense in time. I must say though, somehow a day that involved using jungle animal noises to guide my partner around pillars, and yelling/whispering/singing my name to close a whole in the core of the earth, somehow left me feeling more at peace with my life.