Theater matters. There are two points in my theatrical career that I can point to in which I have felt that those two words rang true. The first was my time spent as an assistant director at my hometown’s children’s theater. I will never forget the look on those kids’ faces as they stood up on stage singing about Robin Hood and forgetting about all their troubles. This was particularly rewarding for me because I was once that kid, too. I used theater to escape my life at home and forget about the things that were far out of my control as a 10-year-old boy. To be able to give that feeling back to other kids is something that continues to remind me that I have made a difference. But what do you do when you feel like your work is no longer doing that? This is the question I began to ask myself in my second to last semester as a college undergraduate.
My sister is a super genius. I always got better grades than her in Jr. High and High school without even really trying but somewhere between High School and College our paths took completely different roads. I threw myself into the abstract; into art. She threw herself into the concrete; into science. With a 4.0 in Pre-Med I can with great confidence declare she is embarrassingly more “book smart” than I. The two of us have almost identical social and political beliefs. When we are together, our conversations become a think tank of bleeding heart liberals planning ways to overthrow the patriarchy. Over my second to last semester in college I watched as my sister began to write papers on Bio-ethics and climate change while I wrote papers on Anton Chekhov’s relationship with Konstantin Stanislavsky. Being a rather self-aware and politically active person I found myself growing frustrated with my position in the world. I watched as the world became enraptured by the media circus of the Trump vs. Hilary plutocracy election and the subsequent downfall of American progressivism in the White House. As the semester went on I became unnervingly disillusioned with theatre. The world is full of injustices and I am running around playing pretend. Our planet is dying and I’m practicing a monologue from a play called “Fat Pig.” I always knew I wanted to make the world a better place and change people’s minds but I couldn’t for the life of me figure out how I was accomplishing that doing what I was doing. And then I found Theater of the Oppressed.
Augusto Boal is the author of the book “Theater of the Oppressed,” (T.O.) an account on the ideology and methods used to help people discover their oppression and activate themselves and others to alleviate themselves from that oppression. Obviously, this book drew my eye immediately. Before diving into it I knew I had to go back to the very beginning and read the book it was based off; Paulo Freire’s “Pedagogy of the Oppressed.” In reading Freire, I learned about how his concept of meaningful change, rooted in action, reflection, and action (praxis), was the pillar for which Boal would base his work. I noticed all around me the “information banking” Freire describes as the process of teachers depositing information into students without challenging or allowing them to think critically of it. It was at this point I decided to take matters into my own hands.
Boal began T.O. work in Peru after being tortured and exiled from Brazil in 1971. Peru at the time was facing an epidemic. With 3-4 of the 14 million people of Peru illiterate, the government began a national literacy campaign to “eradicate illiteracy in 4 years.” With over 40 dialects of just the 2 principle languages of Peru and hundreds of other languages spoken throughout the country, this goal proved a lot harder than initially thought. In 1973, Boal began experiments and work with the highly uneducated and illiterate people of Lima. He used T.O. to show how theater can be a universal language to express, grasp and discover new concepts with the goal being to activate the people to think critically of their surroundings and alleviate themselves from oppression. I quickly began to think of ways in which I could translate this into the world in which I was a part of.
The Hofstra University Department of Drama and Dance affords me the luxury of an independent production lab in which I may choose my focus of study with a professor. I decided to use my second and final production lab to explore the methods of Boal and see if I could re-energize myself to find theater that matters. I broke the once a week 1-hour rehearsal for 10 weeks into Boal’s 4-stage process; Knowing the Body, Making the Body Expressive, Theater as a Language, and Theater as a Discourse. I then sent out an e-mail blast to my department looking for interested actors to take part in the process. At first, I was severely disappointed and discouraged to find that many people did not seem overly passionate about taking on the project. Most students found it a cool thing that they “couldn’t wait to see” but did not want to take the time out of their week on a Friday afternoon to work on. I found myself in a state of confusion and exasperation as I looked at the interest I had garnered and realized I had acquired a list of only women and one man who were interested. Being a white, cisgender male, I already felt strange about heading this project. I may be part of the LGBTQ community but I am well aware of the privilege I carry with me. Feeling defeated, I called my advisor to discuss whether it was worth it to even hold the class anymore when the two of us came to the realization that 10 women and a black man expressing interest in a project about oppression spoke a lot about the world we currently live in. I decided then that there is truthfully no other way I would want to proceed than with the people I had. I decided that naming my privilege and being consistently critical of it, I could continue to serve as the director of the project. Moving into rehearsals, I adopted Boal’s mission to help these “passive spectators (passive beings in a theatrical phenomenon) [change] into actors, transformers of dramatic action.”
In Aristotle’s poetics, power is given to the dramatic characters by the spectator so that the characters in the show may think and act for the audience creating an ending that allows for a sense of catharsis, or purging of emotion. In Brechtian theater, the spectator delegates power to the character who acts in their place however, the spectators “reserve the right to think for themselves” creating an air of “critical consciousness.” The Poetics of the Oppressed however, “delegates no power to the character (or actor) either to act or to think in his place; on the contrary, he himself assumes the protagonic role, changes the dramatic action, tries out solutions, discusses plans for change- in short, trains himself for real action. In this case, perhaps the theater is not revolutionary in itself, but it is surely a rehearsal for the revolution.”
As I began in Stage 1 (Knowing the Body), I noticed a sense of lackluster enthusiasm within the group. Everyone seemed to be trusting in the process and pursuing the objectives I set out for them in each activity but a sense of urgency seemed to be missing. In Stage 1 the actors began to understand through various exercises how their bodies, as well as other people’s bodies” were reflections of their professions and life. Through these exercises, the actors were challenged to discover ways their bodies did not normally move or function to then reflect on what in their life has brought them to operate kinesthetically a certain way. In Stage 2 (Making the Body Expressive), the actors used their new knowledge of their bodies to begin to express, through movement, simple concepts, i.e. professions and animals. Stage 3 (The Theater as a Language), carried the objective of turning passivity into action. With three specific degrees to this stage and limited time, I chose to focus on the second degree, Image Theater. Through a series of tableaus, the actors were challenged to silently express a certain theme or statement of common interest through bodies. Down to the minute details, actors were prompted to make their opinions and feelings evident by presenting three specific tableaus. The first of which was a situation in which the actor had witness or experienced oppression. The actor was given the opportunity to pull bodies onto the stage and depict the scene. They were then charged with the task of depicting the way in which they wish the scene was, the ideal scenario. Once the original and ideal tableaus were viewed, the actors all worked together, one at a time, to move bodies and facial expressions around to present the transitionary scene. How do we get from the original problem, to the ideal? I noticed on my first attempt at this activity that the actors seemed to be both grasping for ideas and over-analyzing their decisions and feelings. A major critique of Boal’s, one that I heard consistently in my head throughout the process was “Play, don’t interpret.” I knew that I had to attempt this activity again with a solution to that problem. That was when Tuesday, November 8th arrived.
The election of Donald Trump seemed to be a surprise to almost everyone- including those who voted for him. A major critique of our time will undoubtedly be that it was only a surprise to those who weren’t really listening. Regardless, the campus of the Liberal Arts, Hofstra University located just outside of New York City in the blue New York State was all but silent the next day. It felt like one could hear a pin drop while walking from class to class. Some professors deviated from their syllabus to have intense and emotional discussions about the results while others grew frustrated at the lack of enthusiasm in their regularly scheduled programs and cut class short. It became clear at that moment the direction of my project was forever changed. I watched on Facebook as people wrote about how scared and helpless the felt while others rejoiced in their victory over the broken system. My advisor approached me that day and asked if I would take the last portion of her class that day to do Boal work understanding the need for expression and action on a day that felt so out of our control. This time, with a fresh new backdrop of events behind me, I was prepared. I began the class with a brief description of Boal’s work and the dramaturgy behind it. After a short lecture, I challenged anyone in the class to take a stand and express their feelings about the election through Image theater. This time, I deviated from Boal’s script and began to make my own. I plugged in my iPhone and began to play classical music with nature sounds in the background. My goal was to overwhelm the analytical side of the brain with emotional triggers to keep the actors focused on their feelings and impulses rather than their analyzation of the situation. The first brave soul stood up and began depicting their first scene. It became clear very quickly that this scene was incredibly specific and dark. The only young black woman in the class was deliberately placed on the floor face down with a young white man on top of her. Several onlookers were placed around her with no physical indication that anyone had any intention of helping the situation. Once the tableau was complete the room became very tense. I allowed the image to soak in the classes brain for a short time and then prompted the young girl in charge of the tableau to present her ideal scene. This tableau was much more light, with the young black woman standing happily alongside the rest of the actors in harmony and love. This clearly made the room feel a lot better. I then prompted the actors to go back to their original tableau positions. The room immediately grew tense again as it became clear that no one in the room was comfortable with seeing that image again. As if it were planned, nature began to mirror reality as the song on my iPhone began to play rain. Once in the gruesome tableau, I asked the original creator to sit down and invited others to get up and move the bodies into a transition scene. Explaining that this scene should be the way in which the situation could be helped, I saw clearly that no one knew what to do. I allowed the class to sit in the silence for a while and stare at the image. Whether it was because someone finally had an idea, someone just didn’t want to see the picture anymore, or because we millennials fear silence, someone finally got up and began to move bodies. The student moved a few bodies prompting some of the onlookers to begin to intervene on the harm being done to the young woman. It was then, like a catalyst that bodies began popping up, contributing to the solution. People would stand up and move an arm or change a facial expression to better solve the problem. The mood in the room began to change. It began to feel like a wonderful game of “Yes! And…” each person building off the solution before it. By the end of the class the image consisted of a wall of people, women and men in a chain link, blocking the attacker from the woman. I ended the activity, turned off the music and turned around to begin a discussion with the class when I noticed there was not a dry eye in the theater. The young black woman was hysterically crying and thanked the other girl for showing the tableau indicating that it was really hard to do but so important to be a part of. The class ended with a discussion about what the tableaus stood for and said about our society and world we live in. Later that day I received a personal message from a student in the class. The message was a long confession that the activity done in class personally changed them and allowed them to see the real fear that others feel. Something they originally had trouble understanding. I received another message indicating something of similar sentiment.
The sentiment that the activity done that day opened someone’s heart for the better is something that will always stick with me. We live in a world where passivity is no longer an option. Understanding, conversation, critique and action are key. I long to help people change their own minds and open their own hearts. I long for a world in which what I do leaves the world a better place. On that day, in that moment, a mind was changed. A heart was opened. A person was challenged to feel and experience something they maybe didn’t want but needed. On that day, in that moment, theater mattered.