Brian Sonia-Wallace attended this year’s 20th Annual Pedagogy and Theatre of The Oppressed Conference.
Here follows his report.
Every year, a group of theatre artists and educators following in the tradition of Brazilian thinkers Paulo Freire (Pedagogy of the Oppressed) and Agosto Boal (Theatre of the Oppressed) meet to discuss and play with theatre and teaching for social change. This past week, the 20th Annual Pedagogy and Theatre of the Oppressed Conference was held at the University of Nebraska, Omaha. The theme, in honor of the 20-year anniversary, was “Where are we? Where have we been? Where are we going?”
The conference had over 200 participants attended from as far as Australia and Liberia, with a smattering of US coastal attendees and a lot of academics from the middle of the US. I attended in part to lead a workshop using theatre for urban planning and city-building, exploring practices I have been devising in Los Angeles.
About Pedagogy and Theatre of the Oppressed (PTO)
The school of radical leftist thought and theatre behind the conference emerged in the 1960s and 70s in Brazil and throughout Latin America in response to repressive dictatorships. Paulo Freire’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed argues against a ‘banking’ model of education in which ’empty’ students are ‘filled’ with knowledge, in favor of education as a dialogue between student an educator in which both learn and grow.
Agosto Boal’s Theatre of the Oppressed brings this thinking to theatre, making his audience into actors by, in his best-known work in ‘Forum Theatre’, creating plays that show conflicts but leave it up to the audience to resolve them through role-playing. Boal calls it ‘rehearsing for the revolution’, and this form has been used to help people think about they can take action in everything from peasant revolts and union labor disputes to counter-racism/sexism/homophobia movements. In the US presently, Theatre of the Oppressed is largely used in schools and at universities to work through student and community issues, especially with regards to minority rights. This context is controversial, especially for work that was designed to be revolutionary and now exists mainly as part of a syllabus.
This all sounds great, how do I get involved in my city? In Los Angeles, USC’s new Applied Theatre Masters program provides students training in PTO methodologies under expert practitioner Brent Blair. Cornerstone Theatre Company and the Los Angeles Department of Poverty on Skid Row (LADP) create community-based work that has roots in PTO. I have seen several community organizations use this methodology in their organizing – if you are a practitioner, please get in touch to be added to this list. And I myself, of course, teach PTO techniques for social justice professionals and create community workshops in English and Spanish (I’ll even give my e-mail as a shameless plug – email@example.com).
For those interested in attending the conference, it is put together annually in different cities by Pedagogy and Theatre of the Oppressed, Inc. Travel scholarships and stipends are available, and I have to thank the organization for partly funding my trip this year and making it possible for me to attend.
The 2014 Conference
At the beginning of the week, I attended a pre-conference session in Legislative Theatre, using Boal theatre methods in conjunction with government to create legislation. The session was led by two exciting practitioners, Barbara Santos, an original Boal company member from Brazil, and Jose Soeiro, the youngest ever Member of Portugese Parliament and PTO practitioner. I was excited for this work given my current interest in linking my theatre work with local government in Los Angeles.
For three days, we worked to create a piece on the topic of education issues, which we then presented to the full conference and a panel of ‘experts’. After a forum session, in which the attendees role-played solutions and problematized the scene further, attendees were asked to write a concrete rule or law that they thought would solve the problem. These were passed up to the expert panel, who consolidated them into actionable laws, which were read out loud and voted on by all attendees. The process was exciting, but what struck me was that the theatre portion was really just a jumping-off point and thought experiment rather than something that deeply informed the legislative portion of the piece. Those who had more ability with writing and argumentation, I thought, would still be very much privileged in this process despite the egalitarian role-playing session that preceded it. Finding better ways of soliciting legal suggestions for the experts to finesse would help.
From this session, we moved into the conference, which consisted of three days of break-out sessions (mostly concurrent workshops) and group discussion panels for the whole conference. The first day, Jesse Hagopian gave a stirring keynote speech about the teacher’s movement in Seattle to boycott state standardized testing and the national solidarity it had inspired. I had an emotional reaction that made me realize how deeply the issue of testing in education has affected my life – and that it’s something I can do something about! Hurray for activist awakenings and empowerment.
Because of the dual nature of this conference, pedagogy and theatre, there is a strong educational focus to much of the theatre work and a lot of educators in attendance. This bothered me somewhat last year when I went – what could I learn about theatre from these non-theatre teachers? This year it all seemed much more clear. The theatre in the conference name, and the pedagogy too, are tools, means to an end, and fit together because both are seeking to affect the same change: to transform a world of passive consumers into awakened, empowered producers of knowledge and social change. Theatre, in this context, is one teaching tool, in a world where ‘teaching’ is not about recitation but about sharing and mutual exchange. This excites me very much.
The theme, “Where are we? Where have we been? Where are we going?” was mentioned several times and perhaps led to a few more critical and experimental workshops than would have been present otherwise, but I did not see it as a strong unifying factor. This may have more to do with what break-out workshop sessions I attended than anything else, though, and certainly it was impressive to listen to and speak with many practitioners who had been with the conference from the start. The conference also marked the retirement from the organizing board of Doug Paterson, a longtime PTO champion who first brought founder Agosto Boal to the United States.
Critiques from the Conference
Julian Boal, the son of Agosto Boal, was in attendance at the conference (his father, who passed away in 2009, was a regular attendee during his life). Julian’s role, it seems, has evolved over the years to be the foremost critic of his fathers work at a gathering where much of it is held sacred. His critique, expounded at a large group session, is worth taking a moment to re-iterate. Having attended many workshops at this conference and at the conference last year, and finding them all exploring much the same work, the most interesting piece of the younger Boal’s critique to me was that PTO was created in response to the political situation in the 1970’s and has not been evolved to match present political realities. The issues and venues seem to change, but the games and exercises are the same. Moreso, due to the professionalization of PTO practitioners, particularly within academia, there is an incentive for them to become fossilized and not to change. I even found myself questioning during my session, which used only a few Boal games, if what I was doing could accurately be termed PTO.
The issue of an un-evolving practice is particularly problematic, the younger Boal espoused, because society is evolving in a way that means that some practices that were revolutionary in the 1970’s now duplicate societal problems. First, all around the world, we see a rise in the cult of the individual and movements against representation (think the Tea Party in the US). Because of role-playing, PTO work seems to overemphasize the individual and makes it hard to find collective action, because interventions in scenes always come from one individual’s ideas. Individual action, Julian Boal claims, can be expressive but not emancipatory. After discussion, the younger Boal even offered up the idea that this private choice itself could be a form of oppression, in a world where we are expected to choose between an ever-growing array of marketed consumer products that are virtually identical without the possibility of meaningful reflection and consideration. PTO’s call to action, in which audiences are expected to come up and act out their suggestions on the spot rather than discussing and considering them at length, seems to mirror this societal ill rather than correcting it. In a world with too much action and too little thought, more action cannot be the answer.
We also exist in a society that increasingly celebrates diversity and the uniqueness of diverse perspectives – or co-opts them to preserve the status quo, depending on your view. Bound up in the idea of anti-representation is the idea that groups in PTO work are expected to act as themselves. Since a mother knows more about being a mother than, say, a man, mothers should step into those roles to solve problems related to mothers onstage. But this logical and originally anti-oppressive belief (“let’s not let the men think they can solve everything with no lived experience” in this case) can be itself limiting, as it traps groups within their narrow categories and denies potential empathy and alliances. The senior Boal apparently used to say, “the oppressed are those who are denied the right to make metaphors”. And indeed, one of my most ‘aha!’ experiences at the conference was being asked by a black female community worker to play her charge, a black teenaged girl, in a scene – something that challenged and problematized everyone’s perceptions, including my own, and created the only point in an emancipatory theatre conference that I had to step outside of my own white, bro-looking skin. This brings us to the younger Boal’s third point – PTO in the US is usually done by grouping communities (ie ‘the homeless’, ‘trans youth’, ‘underprivileged children’) in a way that re-enforces such oppressive groupings rather than questioning and challenging the society that creates them. By claiming to celebrate these differences, therefore, we end up celebrating the status quo.
In a revealing turn of events, following the critique session, several young community activist attendees expressed frustration at not feeling they could understand or contribute to the heavily academic debate. I agree with them that it was unclear what this session would entail, but I think there may be a cultural barrier at play here, as much as anything else. My experience with Europe and Latin America lead me to believe that, while in the US we relegate words like ‘proletariat’ to the ivory tower and have a strong strain of anti-intellectualism, even in schools, in other places ordinary language is much more at ease with philosophy and cultural movements. Somehow, I felt, in Paris or Brazil, Julian Boal’s talk would never have been pegged as elitist. A question that came up at a post-conference discussion was that of what common ground participants could be expected to share, coming from such a diverse range of experience with PTO from the perspective of academics, students, theatre practitioners, activists, teachers, and international folk. Workshops were labeled ‘beginner’, ‘expert’, or both, but the labels seemed pretty arbitrary. Perhaps a clearer, more deliberate ‘path’ through the conference and sessions would help with the development and expression of ideas.
I, being me, advocated for the role of the expert in the context of some of these discussions. After all, some people have devoted their lives to figuring this stuff out, and I think we should pay special attention to what they have learned. The trick is to do so in a way that doesn’t cede the authority of lived experience and therefore become silenced by the ‘expert’ view. The things Julian Boal said ranked among the smartest things I heard at the conference, and I was glad to take a moment to sit down, listen, and reflect.
So, where are we, where have we been, and where are we going?
I am back in LA, re-energized and raring to go! I am very excited about having formed a few ideas for future work that do not rely on Boal’s techniques but follow in his spirit and mission.
I’ve been to Omaha, Nebraska, which is not something I ever expected to say. A nice local named Mike, who I met over couchsurfing.com, let me stay on his couch for a week for free and eat all his eggs, so all gratitude to him.
More broadly, PTO has been a revolutionary line of thinking that continues to inspire educators, and a practice of art making that has become a little too sacred and needs to continue evolving and growing to meet our needs for it in this time. But as a way to go beyond political theatre to make theatre for politics, for justice, for social change…well, you can’t beat that.