Twenty six of twenty seven participants at the Theatre of the Oppressed (TO) workshop, held in Bangalore in end January 2011, had never participated in ‘theatre’ before. We were a motley bunch - NGO representatives (from different levels), doctors, writers, teachers, academics, priests, parents – of mixed ages and genders. We’d gathered to learn the techniques of the Theatre of the Oppressed - a tool that explores social change through personal change, as also to experience a new dimension of self-learning and discovery.

Putting bodies to work.. A still from the Mumbai workshop. Pic: Ravi Ramakanthan.

Theatre of the Oppressed was created by Augusto Boal in Brazil, about fifty years ago. Boal created it to help “marginalised people” help themselves to gain “more power” in their lives. The tool has taken on a life of its own and is used diversely by people in more than 70 countries across the world now.

When Boal was a ‘City Councilman’ in Rio de Janeiro, he created an offshoot of TO, called "legislative theatre." The objective was to open up a dialogue between citizens and institutional entities so there is a flow of power between both groups. Some 13 laws were created through ‘legislative theatre’ during Boal's time in government. The technique has since been used in other countries.

Marc Weinblatt, Founder and Director of Washington based, Mandala Center for Change, facilitated ‘Breaking Patterns, Creating Change’ - a series of TO workshops in south and central India through January 2011. The workshops were held in Pune, Mumbai, Hyderabad and Bangalore. They were organised by Radha Ramaswamy – a Bangalore based, educational and theatre researcher and trainer - with her team.

Twice during the Bangalore workshop, participants used personal experiences to create plays that turned out – we were told by the only theatre practitioner and participant in the group – quite “theatrical”. If the focus of the TO workshop was on enabling us to tune into our deepest processes and express them through our bodies, it started working, early in the workshop. People were ‘playing’ and acting, quite naturally, even by the second half of the very first of the six-day workshop.

Theatre games kept the energy flowing. Pic: Ravi Ramakanthan.

It certainly was a novel experience putting our bodies rather than our minds to work. The awkwardness and trepidation in doing so melted away in the face of exercises and games that almost seemed designed to stir inner energies. With names like Zip Zap Zop, Fainting by Numbers, Cat and Mouse, etc. the games ensured that our metabolism was revved up and that our attention to our inner and outer environments was on high-alert. Unobserved, the workshop became a container for the human concerns that had drawn us all to that space.

As I participated in the Bangalore TO workshop, what struck me as refreshing and significant was that we were exploring human behaviour and its change, trying to understand oppression and freedom, using ourselves as subjects. We had to move out of the realm of theory and put ourselves under the scanner. Even our experiments with creative communication had to be based on our recent experiences as human beings and not in the context of the roles we play in our lives.

The exploration threw up surprises about our own biases and triggers. Personally, I realised how detrimental my ‘position of privilege,’ as an urban, educated, middle-class woman journalist-writer, could be to my role as a reporter of people’s realities, unless I consciously recognised the position and dealt with it by developing sharper, more honest frames of seeing and listening.

During the workshop, we learnt to ‘make images’ about our concerns by “using people as clay.” Participants took to ‘image theatre’, as it’s called, like children to a bucket of moist clay. It seemed freeing to be able to make images talk for me. Inhibitions about expression loosened up substantially.

We ‘played out’ different structures of TO – like the Rainbow of Desire and Cop-in-the-Head. The Rainbow exercise was a prism that split open the different shades of emotion that are hidden in a typical life situation of conflict. It was almost scary - to come face to face with the shapes and sounds of thoughts and feelings lurking in ‘everyday’ or ‘common’ conflict situations. The exercise helped me to delve into the minds of both the parties involved in the conflict.

Columbian hypnosis - a game that explores solutions to oppressive control. Pic: Ravi Ramakanthan.

Cop-in-the-head explored “internalised oppression” or the voices of the ‘cops’ we carry in our heads, telling us what to do or what not to do. The exercise crystallised a vocabulary for a game people have been playing or been put up to playing, for centuries now.

Doing Forum theatre was another unforgettable part of the TO experience. Participants created four, short plays about the “burning” issues in their own lives. The plays presented only a problem. The onus of exploring solutions was on the audience.

Created and rehearsed over one day, the plays were enacted to a public audience – invited through participants’ and organisers’ networks and contacts, and the local media. (In the Mumbai workshop, the forum play on alcoholism was performed in Dharavi, tipped to be Asia’s largest slum.) Put up with minimum props and costumes, the plays by Bangalore participants were on gender equality, family violence, corruption and child rights.

The India TO workshops were held in Pune, Mumbai, Hyderabad and Bangalore. They were organised by Radha Ramaswamy – a Bangalore based, educational and theatre researcher and trainer - with her team.

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One play was chosen by the audience for a repeat performance in which the spectators were invited to become ‘spect-actors’. The play ‘Chase your Dreams’ was chosen for the Forum. Centred on corruption, the play was opened to the audience for participation. Anyone in the audience could stop, step in and change the play. The facilitator insisted that the spect-actor take the place of the person who, they felt, “lacked power” or was “oppressed” and not magically do away with or change the one who was perpetrating the oppression.

The audience - consisting of students, teachers, social activists, urban children, street children, professionals, parents, spouses and children of participants – hardly needed to be coaxed to stop the play and enter it. From a seventy something lady to a seven year old girl, the audience participated continuously and energetically. Such participation opened up discussions on dealing with government officials, policemen; getting past rowdies who stop people from living their lives on the day of a Bandh; the gender angle of police harassment and seeking entitlements, etc.

The Theatre of the Oppressed workshop activated our innate abilities to communicate with and through our bodies. It opened spaces for dialogue, internally and externally. It provoked active engagement with the subtext of emotion, present in every situation, but largely not addressed. It opened questions about the use of one’s real power and energy; about the source of one’s actions. To me, it almost presented social change as a chain of individual choices to find and make change. It churned emotions but left participants feeling fortified to search solutions.

Interview with Marc Weinblatt

Marc Weinblatt, a TO practitioner of over two decades, skilfully shaped and integrated the workshop experience. Marc, who believes that “facilitation is an art and not a science,” was unobtrusive yet firm as he guided the process. His approach was to “invite rather than impose.” His workshop rule of non-judgement secured many a participant on their journey of expression and discovery.

Theatre of the Oppressed seemed to choose Marc Weinblatt, when he had just quit his job as a theatre director, in the early 1990s. He wanted to be an “active parent” and the long hours at the theatre were not helping. He was at a pub for a friend’s performance when he happened to share a table with the Founder of Seattle Public Theatre – an outfit that used “theatre for dialogue.” She had taken Augusto Boal’s first TO workshop in the US and wanted to use Boal’s techniques in Seattle Public Theatre’s work. Marc was invited to be part of the Board of Directors. Though reluctant, he landed up opening up “a new relationship with theatre.”

“I was introduced to the work of Boal when I joined Seattle Public Theatre. I found that TO is a combination of all the things I am passionate about - the craft of theatre, activism, politics, personal growth… everything in one. I said we have to do this work. The outfit used to call it ‘theatre of liberation’. They’d been unable to get it off the ground. For me, it was a magic wand. Everything fell into place when I started working on TO,” says Marc.

In ten years, they’d created “the first grassroots and non-academic TO outfit in the US,” shares Marc in a short interview. Some excerpts…

What’s TO in a nutshell? Why is it relevant to people?

TO is – ‘using theatre to generate community dialogue’. It is experiential education – people learn by doing, not just sitting and theorizing. People use their bodies. TO works on the belief that everybody is born knowing how to do theatre. Theatre is not a professional form. Though it has become that, it doesn’t have to be. Through TO, we return to things that are inherent in us. TO is a form of popular education and of taking theatre back to the people who can then figure out what they want to use it for.

Tell us about your experience of working with Boal.

I worked with Boal on and off for many years. It was great. He was an amazing man. I disagreed with him regularly about things, though. My whole development of TO was more about working with the ‘oppressor’ or people of ‘privilege’ and it confused him. This was the opposite of how Boal was doing the work. Yet, as far as I am concerned, it serves the exact purpose. My way has just broadened the power of those involved in social change.

I don’t think Boal was the best practitioner of TO. I’ve seen workshops explode under his leadership. They’ve exploded under my leadership too. It’s the power of the work and what is coded into people’s bodies. I think Boal’s leadership was beautiful and problematic.

Yet, nobody has touched as many lives as he has. He is the ‘ultimate multiplier of the work’. He was a genuinely caring and loving human being. He loved people. He brought out the stories of millions and thousands of people over many many years, in many different contexts. It was beautiful to have touched him but other people are adapting his work and taking it further.

You’ve improvised on Boal’s techniques. You must face resistance from people who practice traditional TO…

I’ve recently written a chapter in a book on TO, describing the use of TO with ‘people of privilege’. A chapter by another high-ranking TO practitioner speaks of using TO only with “marginalised people”. The editors love the mix and are probably going to run the two chapters, one after the other.

I do use traditional Theatre of the Oppressed and sometimes the language of TO – ‘oppressor’ and ‘oppressed’. But I also let go of that language completely and use the language of “struggle”. I open up the palette of discussion to ‘people of privilege’ like social activists who are “male, white and middle class”. Activists are privileged. White men from the upper middle class or middle class – such as myself - are also part of the problems being discussed. That is very controversial. I believe that it is not enough to talk change with marginalised people. I am a counter-revolutionary. When I say that “revolution is a failed model of social change,” it really stirs up the TO fundamentalists. I know that…

You use an ‘anti-oppression theory’ as an integral part of your TO work. What is this theory?

In a nutshell, it’s a power based analysis of the ‘…isms’ (like Marxism, feminism, communism, etc). It’s based on the concept that there are dominant social groups and marginalised social groups. This theory is not based on the ‘oppressor’ and ‘oppressed’ model. It is about what is normal and what is ‘other’. In most places men carry social power but there are places where men feel very marginalised. In America, there is huge racial and ethnic dominance. If you’re not ‘white’, good luck becoming the CEO of the organisation. Yet, it is very difficult for a poor, white man to believe that he belongs to the dominant, social group. In the US, if you are Christian, you’re normal. Any other religion is other-ised or invisible-ised. If you’re able-bodied you’re ‘normal’. If you are disabled, you’re ‘other’.

So how does this play out? It’s not just about abuse and bigotry and oppression. It’s about somebody who’s in a wheelchair; he’s out of his house and has to think about where he’s going to pee. If you’re not in a wheelchair, you don’t ever have to think about that. You’re from a dominant social group.

So this is about having unearned privilege because of your social group membership. This is a very dehumanizing concept and is a large part of my methodology in every US workshop.

As a facilitator, how do you negotiate the barriers (cultural, racial, gender) and biases you might come up against while working in different countries?

I come in very humbly. I don’t come in as an expert. That is the theoretical framework of TO, anyway. I do, however, give myself the permission to come in with stronger opinions when I am doing ‘diversity work’ especially around the ‘anti-oppression’ theory.

You work with a lot of creative energy and emotions during workshops. How do you energise yourself?

Generally, the work itself is nourishing but I do get tired. It’s interesting how, as I’m getting older, I’m developing some skills where I sort of contain my energy. In a workshop, you sometimes see me jumping around like an acrobat and at other times I am way quieter, way slower. I am actually slowing the process down. In Mumbai, during the workshop, I was really sick. How I handled it was to ‘contain’ my energy. I go inward. I am basically doing an active meditation at that time.

TO Resources

1. Mandala Center for Change, , Director, Marc Weinblatt, marc AT

2. International Theatre of the Oppressed Organisation ,

3. Radha Ramaswamy , radharamaswamy08 AT

4. Jana Sanskriti ,