In recent years, the most powerful thing I’ve experienced that made me think “wow, this can actually change how people think and act” was a series of Theatre of the Oppressed performances and workshops.
One time was observing 4th graders in action during Theatre Action Project’s “Courage to Stand” (a five-day interactive performance residency that explores the role of the courageous bystander in a bullying situation). Another was a Voices Against Violence performance-workshop about how to support/help friends in abusive relationships. Finally, I participated in a one-day “Intro to Theatre of the Oppressed” facilitation workshop with Julian Boal, son of Augusto Boal, who started the whole Theatre of the Oppressed method. During the workshop, we tackled gender stereotypes.
—> Watch TAP’s intro to “Courage to Stand” video
One crucial element of why Theatre of the Oppressed is powerful is that it’s nearly impossible to remain passive during one of these “plays.” The shift from “audience member” to “actor” in a safe space for creation is what is so empowering—and unsettling because it definitely jostles your current ways of looking at the world—and difficult because taking action is so much harder than sitting back or even just thinking about an issue.
As we talk about moving toward “designing with” instead of “designing for” and co-creation with other people, the shift from “user” to “co-designer” will be parallel-lically empowering—and unsettling—and difficult.
Here’s an excerpt from my position paper about the topic of “designing with”:
What Theatre of the Oppressed Looks Like
Theatre of the Oppressed as developed by Augusto Boal typically involves a theatre troupe, a group of actor-facilitators, leading participants through a theatre experience that helps them to question their assumptions and rehearse solutions to social problems. More intensively, this would also involve the theatre troupe going into a community and working with participants to define the social issues and problems within that local context that the theatre experiences will address. The process looks something like:
- Theatre games to get to know each other.
- “Priming” activities/games to build trust.
- Theatre games, methods, and image-work to collaboratively define a local social justice issue.
- Theatre troupe creates a play or scenes that addresses the social issue that includes the roles of: oppressor, oppressed, and by-standers.
- Theatre troupe performs a play once, with a negative ending indicating current conditions.
- Actor-facilitators stop the action and discuss the scene and issues with the audience.
- Theatre troupe performs the scene a second time, with the added factor that at any time, an audience member (who Boal termed a “spect-actor”) can yell “stop” and take the place of an actor on stage to try to change the course of events.
- Continued discussion of whether interventions worked, why or why not.
- Repeat scenes as necessary. (Over short-term and long-term.)
Theatre of the Oppressed Goals
The goals for the “spect-actors” are not that they will necessarily that they will also become actors (although some will be inspired to that course of action). The goal is for people to be able to practice and rehearse revolutionary actions that they can use in real life. The goal is to present scenes that have real-life correlations, so people can practice the actual words they might use or how they would actually act in a future situation. I have seen a TAP “Courage to Stand” production where fourth graders stepped up to the stage to realize that confronting a bully would only make them another target, whereas power in numbers, befriending a target, or distracting the bully might be better tactics. UT’s Voices Against Violence productions allow “spect-actors” to detect warning signs of abusive relationships, to question their own role in preventing abuse, and to rehearse methods of supporting friends who may or may not be aware of their own abusive relationship. We can only learn these things through experience and practice.
So what does this have to do with Design?
Compare both the process and goals of Theatre of the Oppressed to Emily Pilloton’s Studio H initiative, where she is co-teaching a design studio shop class to high school students in rural North Carolina.
- Both necessitate local investment and engagement of the facilitators with the local community in both defining the problems and working toward solutions.
- Both shift the role of the traditionally passive observers to active participants throughout entire process.
- Both empower participants to rehearse skills they may need later on in life: With Theatre of the Oppressed, it’s revolutionary words and actions. With Studio-H, it’s critical thinking and design thinking.
- Both necessitate a shift in the role of the creator, a power and control shift, and a shift in mindset.
When we reach toward designing “with”, we also aim to inspire change and empowerment among the people we are collaborating with. It’s a position that humbles the designer: no you cannot solve the world’s problems, but you can collaborate with others to leverage our collective creative capital to put a dent in those same problems.
Jana Sanskriti is a pretty good documentary that shows the work of the Theatre of the Oppressed in India.
Theatre for Community, Conflict, and Dialogue is a good resource book of theatre games to build community, resolve conflict, and foster dialogue. I think there are probably parallels to Gamestorming, a book of games for better communication and generating insights during the business and creative processes…but I haven’t read the latter yet.
My full position paper as PDF: Designing “with” to leverage collective creative capital