The May 1 death of Augusto Boal, founder of the Theater of the Oppressed, overshadowed the 15th Annual International Pedagogy and Theater of the Oppressed (PTO) Conference, held May 18-24 at Augsburg College and nearby locations. Boal, who spent a lifetime creating a series of techniques for using theater to create social change, was honored throughout the conference, which included a memorial service for him on Saturday night. Organizers of the conference, including his son, Julian Boal, discussed how to continue the work that Boal started.
Theatre of the Oppressed (TO) was developed by Augusto Boal in the 60s and 70s, in collaboration with Brazilian teacher and activist Paulo Freire, according to the conference’s brochure. The goal of TO is “to turn spectators into actors, all participating in breaking oppression together.” Specific techniques of TO include Image Theatre, which is creating images of oppression using bodies and trying to find ways to break it; Forum Theatre, which are plays where audience members can stop the action of an issue-oriented play and make changes to break the oppression; Rainbow of Desire, which aims to identify and break internalized forms of oppression; and Legislative Theatre, which is performed by citizens in concert with members of a legislative body with the goal of passing laws to lift oppression.
This year, PTO conducted a legislative theater session with the Minneapolis City Council. Council Member Gary Schiff said that he was invited by PTO organizer Shannon Gibney to a PTO workshop in February at Minneapolis Community and Technical College (MCTC), and helped to organize a session with the council members last Wednesday. While only four council members participated in the workshop (Cam Gordon, Ralph Remington, Robert Lilligren and Gary Schiff), Schiff said that he was happy with the session, because it got community members and council members dialoguing about timely issues.
The PTO group performed scenes about youth violence, immigration, health care, and police/community relations. The audience, which included nearly 100 people including the council members, voted to particularly focus on the last scene, which dealt with not only police brutality but with the upcoming issue of whether Minneapolis will close its Complaints Investigations Unit (CIU), sending pending and future cases to the state human rights department. Schiff said it’s an issue that “we’ll be voting on in a couple of months.” He was satisfied that the scene brought the issue into the community, and allowed people to get involved in the decision making process.
“What a great crowd,” said Council Member Cam Gordon. “Great energy.” Gordon said he had never heard of Theater of the Oppressed until he received an email about the workshop. Gordon too was happy that the group decided to focus on the status of the CIU because he hopes that it will be saved.
While the individual workshops throughout the conference required a fee, many of the keynote speakers and presentations, including the legislative session at City Hall, were free and open to the public. In addition, organizers of the conference provided Spanish translators for some of the events.
Accessibility is an important issue for members of PTO because the techniques are meant to “rehearsal for revolution”, as Julian Boal quoted his father saying. On the opening night convocation, Boal said that it was important to remember that his father didn’t believe TO should be entertainment for the oppressed, but rather the practitioners of TO should “identify ourselves as oppressed.”
Choreographer Ananya Chatterjea, who spoke on Friday evening and whose dance company “Ananya”, performed on Saturday night, said that accessibility continued to be a concern for her company. Her company conducts free workshops in local schools, and struggles to provide affordable presentations for the public.
“We’ve had a huge debate with the Southern Theatre, [where Ananya regularly performs]” Chatterjea said. “There’s an assumption that the more a ticket price is, the more prestige comes with it… We’re not happy with where we’re at.”
Mad as Hell?
The theme of this year’s conference was “Mad as Hell?” and encompassed such issues as massive defunding of public education, the broken health care system, the largest disparity in student achievement rates between black and white students, affordable housing, and police brutality. In her opening remarks, Shannon Gibney said “While no one can deny the enormous political victory [of Obama’s election], the grim facts that oppress the country, indeed around the world, cannot be denied.”
In addition, speakers throughout the conference spoke of issues that they were “mad as hell” about and wanted to be able to change. Waziyatawin, a Dakota activist, said that Minnesota has a particular legacy of genocide and ethnic cleansing of Native people. “Everyone who is here today is here at the Dakota’s expense,” she said. Waziyatawin challenged the audience to reflect on Minnesota’s history, and to fight for Dakota liberation and reclamation of its homeland. She spoke of decolonization not as tweaking, but rather as overturning every existing institution that continues to oppress all peoples.
Uwemedimo Atakpo, a Nigerian playwright, spoke about his plays, which deal with the oil industry’s disastrous effects on minority populations and the environment in Nigeria. In an interview, Atakpo said that he takes his plays to the “nooks and crannies” of Nigeria, in order to influence political thought. “I have written a play against military violence,” Atakpo said, “And some [militants] have read the work and decided against violence.”
Carrying on the Legacy
Throughout the conference, Augusto Boal was spoken of with reverence. Julian Boal, his son, who choked up in his opening remarks before the session at the City Council. He told of a woman telling him: “For me, your father is a God,” to which Boal replied that he was not Jesus Christ. “There’s no inheritance to be claimed,” Boal said. “There is only inheritance to be deserved.”
Francisco Arguelles, an attendee at the conference, said that in his work as a community organizer, he observed the power of theatre to create a connection between the mind, body, and community, but he thought, too, that intellectuals and academics could be “seduced by the technique”. He said that Boal’s work has value only when it is put into practice in a concrete way, as opposed to simply being a tool for educators.
A number of attendees attested to the success of TO techniques. Liz Quinlan, a professor from Saskatchewan, Canada, said her community used Forum Theater to create dialogue and cross-cultural healing surrounding this issue of sexualized violence against aboriginal women. “We were able to come together as a community,” Quinlan said. “We put pressure on police to change their practices, and establish Aboriginal training.”
Kathy Juhl, a professor from Southwestern University in Austin, Texas, said that in her community, TO techniques were used to create awareness of environmental issues, resulting in students voting that the cafeteria dispense with the use of trays.
Throughout the conference, a diverse array of young artist/activists showed they were taking the spirit of Boal’s work and carrying it on in their own art. Hip Hop spoken word artist Tish Jones gave a particularly breathtaking performance about identity and her personal struggle with finding truth in an oppressive society.
Activist Alejandra Tobar-Alatriz pointed out the poster for the conference was created by a group of young people through the Youth Design Committee.
Arts literacy educator Jan Mandell, from Central High school in St. Paul, summed up the process of passing on the legacy of politically informed theatre: “We all get our skills from our mentors. When our mentor passes on, it becomes our responsibility to pass on what they’ve given us.”
Sheila Regan is a Minneapolis theater artist and freelance writer. Email firstname.lastname@example.org