On a trip to the formerly-radical-now-hipsterized capital of cool Berlin, I dropped in to the Koepi – a squat-turned-housing-project – to attend a session entitled Anarchist Improvisational Theatre. I had high hopes, having experimented with anarchist theatre forms in my own praxis. My heart sank when I saw that we were to be subjected to an extremely traditional, conformist and unimaginative approach to the possibilities of theatre. The audience was assembled in chairs before a space occupied by three to five actors, improvising witty and hilarious responses to suggestions from the crowd with the slick experience and confidence of automatons at a theme-park ride.
So I got drunk, and subsequently angry, and afterwards assailed the ‘lead actor’ about the appropriation of the word ‘anarchist’ by the mainstream in order to deprive it of its radical capacity. My point was most definitely lost in translation – or at least in inebriation.
My own praxis during the previous years had led me to an exponent of radical theatre that I would truly call anarchist in execution. It was in Malaysia – a consumerist theocracy blending the major racial lineages of Asia – that I was involved in the presentation and facilitation of theatre pieces using Augusto Boal’s Theatre of the Oppressed. Based on the earlier review of education practices by Paulo Freire – Pedagogy of the Oppressed – both approaches emphasize the difficulty of avoiding recreation of the models of domination and control that are hegemonic in our society, be it in education, arts or our lived experiences. Rather than rigid, predetermined roles, such as oppressor/oppressed, teacher/student or actor/spectator, these methods foreground the interchangeability of our position in relationship to one another: the teacher can become the student, the oppressed the oppressor, and the spectator can become a spect-actor.
Boal has no interest in a mute, passive, uninvolved audience, and warns against the dangers of creating forms that exclude and oppress outsiders. When we watch a movie, or a traditional play, or a fight in the street, we are conditioned through practice to remain uninvolved, mute, impassive, to receive the messages and information, and through an emotional journey with the characters and story, receive a catharsis that allows us to stumble out into the street afterwards with a sense of something achieved. In reality, nothing has been achieved except the continuance of the status quo.
Against this passivity, he pitches forum theatre. In brief – a problem is presented theatrically, where a protagonist fails to achieve his desires, and suffers an oppression – the negative impact of power applied by an oppressor. The play concludes without catharsis – our hero fails. Then, the scene is repeated, this time with the opportunity for any member of the audience – our spect-actors – induced to cry out ‘stop!’ at any moment, and take the place of the protagonist in the play. The piece is then played out again, each character acting according to their desires, and a truly improvisational piece of problem-solving is attempted. This process is repeated in variations, before the audience is called upon to review and assess which of the solutions to the problem they would feel was most effective and plausible.
The magic is in the moment a spec-actor decides to act. Non-participation is always a choice, but it must be a conscious choice where we choose not to act. A good piece of forum theatre will always induce action, for if it does not, it has failed. In three years of practice with forum theatre, we never had a session where someone did not cross the boundary and dare to attempt to solve the problem through an improvised intervention.
Our core group was a team of recovering drug users – mainly heroin addicts – some of whom were living with HIV, and our audiences ranged from school groups to student nurses to refugees and large groups of the general public. The themes were around addiction issues, sexual health, peer pressure, exclusion and gender.
At one teaching hospital in Kota Kinabalu, we presented a true story of mistreatment of a person living with HIV by a steward, and had a half dozen young nurses leap up to try to prevent his suffering. Many different techniques were tried, but each was flawed with a basic misunderstanding of best practices with infectious diseases. Eventually, one timid girl who had been chewing her lip and perching on the edge of her seat, leapt up in fury and took the role of the nurse in the piece. She demonstrated, compassionately and perceptively, a sensitive and intelligent way of preventing the oppression to the patient, whereby he retained his dignity and received the medical attention he required.
In the review, the supervising doctor of the class announced that he would be changing the curriculum to include more comprehensive and in-depth education and awareness of best practices with infectious diseases, particularly HIV, for the students that year and in subsequent years. I have no doubt that those students remember that session as clearly as I do to this day.
So, how is this an anarchist theatre practice? The facilitation of such work relies on a character known as a ‘joker’ – a wild card – whose job it is actually to ‘difficultate’ the solutions and expand and develop the theatrical discussion through the posing of choice questions and dilemmas, ever watchful for instances of ‘magic’ that might solve things too easily. In essence, the theatre serves as a physical as well as verbal dialogue, a manifest discussion of problems that relate to us all. This idea, that the personal is the social, that if I experience a problem then someone somewhere else must also have the same problem, is a powerful unifying and humanizing tool. The ability to interpose yourself into the action, to act to protect others and ourselves, is an empowering ‘rehearsal for life’, whereby we get real, emotive experiences of difficult situations in a safe environment – a training we can then impart into our later reality. It is because of this feature, as well as the dynamic, interactive nature of forum theatre, that I advocate theatre of the oppressed as a tool for a horizontalist discussion of social issues and empowerment for social change.
For more information, videos and reports from the project in Malaysia, please visit www.reboottheroots.org.uk
Tags: theatre of the oppressed