The theatre of the oppressed is a kind of theatre where the members of an audience participate onstage and take an active part in the drama. This form of theatre has a facilitator (the ‘joker’) who leads volunteers to create plays around problems from their own lived experiences. The audience members intervene by stepping up on stage and playing the role of the ‘oppressed’ in order to suggest alternative ways of resolving the issues the play has presented.
Augusto Boal, a Brazilian revolutionary and the founder of Theatre of the Oppressed (TO), defined oppression as one person being dominated by the monologue of another, having no chance to reply. For me, as a woman, a single parent and a survivor of invisible disabilities, both physical and mental, and being so far removed from the power centre, TO was an appropriate emotional release. It was a new way of finding my voice and I felt a deep connect with myself. Through it, I found empowerment and a new outlook to empathise with others or the portrayed ‘oppressed’. It also signified the importance of reclaiming agency in decision-making as the issues taken up in the play did not have definite resolutions. Therefore, a multi-dimensional way of thinking emerged from the performance about issues that are faced by most marginalised people.
Another participant in a one of its kind TO workshop held in Bangalore, India in 2011 said: “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 a change. It churned emotions but left participants feeling fortified to search for solutions. (sic)”
The practice of using theatre performances to enhance health and expression isn’t new. The ancient Greeks had rituals that were performed in the Asklepios theatre aiming at this. In the 1920s, a Romanian psychologist Jacob Moreno observed how experimental theatre and role-play can enable people to reveal their thoughts and feelings. To this day, psychodrama continues to be practised as an effective technique to help people work through otherwise traumatic and difficult emotions and experiences.
Theatre has thus come to be known as an effective tool for community building, therapeutic purposes, activism, conflict resolution and/or change in legislation. However, it is still not being used as much as it could be for advocacy and awareness.
Central/South Asia’s 1st Regional Theatre of the Oppressed conference took place in Kabul, Afghanistan in November 2013. Most participants there observed that the core efficacy of this form of advocacy is that the survivors themselves started perceiving situations with possible resolutions which could actually be later translated into actual social action.
How is Theatre of The Oppressed performed?
TO requires a neutral person to conduct the proceedings. This individual is called the ‘facilitator’ and/or the ‘joker’; they are responsible for the logistics of the whole theatrical process and to ensure a fair proceeding, never intervening verbally or otherwise in the content of the theatrical performance.
There is no divide between ‘actors’ and ‘spectators’. Everyone becomes a ‘spectactor’; meaning you watch as well as act and change the narrative by ‘intervention’.
The intervening ‘spectactors’ then need to “show, not tell” by intervening on stage and offer new resolutions to the situation to try and break the oppression. No intervention can include any kind of violence (real or imagined) or the invocation of magic or the supernatural.
Theatre of the Oppressed and Mental Health
In the abstract of his thesis, Madness in the Making: Psychosocial Disability and Theater, Scott Matthew Wallin at the University of California asserts, “How does theatre influence our perceptions and responses to psychosocial disability? While plays and productions often reinforce dominant social views that stigmatize and oppress people who are considered mad or labelled mentally ill, theatre attuned to these concerns can also critique such treatment by offering fuller, more complex depictions that encourage us to rethink psychosocial disabilities.”
Practitioners across the world have been using TO in mental health recovery groups actively. Centre for Community Dialogue and Change (CCDC) in Bangalore, India is one such group using TO for mental health. Radha Ramaswamy, the founder of CCDC, says, “I have been using Theatre of the Oppressed and particularly Forum Theatre to work on mental health issues from 2012…. My first forum play on mental health ‘There’s Nothing Wrong with my Mother!’ was born out of a workshop I was doing with a group of senior citizens. One of the stories shared in the group was about dementia. The relationships within a family, and how they encourage or impede honest dialogue, social structures and practices that determine who carries out caregiving, fears, denial, and the stigma around mental health, and how little support there is for families coping with it – our play sought to address all these.”
Incorporating psychosocial or neuro-diverse scenarios in TO is much more complex than using it for other disabilities or medical scenarios because the issue of agency and consent is often a huge grey area for survivors. Radha adds, “I encountered my first challenge as a Joker. In the classic Forum, there is a single protagonist (the oppressed) and an antagonist (the oppressor). When you work in mental health, this dichotomous model becomes problematic. Almost every character in the play is experiencing a struggle, because of the presence of another ‘oppressor’ (the mental health crisis). It becomes important then to look at the different struggles around mental health, including societal or environmental factors, without letting the story become too diffused.
A person struggling with mental health needs a responsive community around her. And yet, we do not wish to suggest that she has no agency. Similarly, we are working in a field where there is no consensus even among mental healthcare professionals about the best approach, where an increasing number of professionals seem to be gravitating towards non-biomedical or non-institutionalised models of treatment, and even diagnosis (or labelling) is being questioned.”
The dilemma “to create spaces for conversations around mental health, and exploring ways to initiate these difficult conversations within families, with friends, and in workplaces” is faced by many practitioners of TO in the mental health space especially in communities like India and several other South-Asian societies where stigma and taboo induce silence around psychosocial disability.
People with traumatic memories and experiences often get stuck in repetitive patterns of behaviour, more so those struggling with intellectual disabilities. TO offers them effective tools that assist in the process of unfreezing these patterns and find new ways of expression, defeating the mind-body dichotomy.
So many times, people labelled derogatorily as ‘mental patients’ by institutionalised setups are able to re-create positive self-identities as ‘spectactors’, and many times, repressed mental health trauma gets reflected and hence addressed in these performances. The participants reclaim their agency and control by deciding possible outcomes and how those can be fulfilled by fellow-survivors or caregivers.
Practitioners say this practice has the potential of empowering people who struggle with psychosocial disabilities, particularly communication difficulties. It assists the forging of relationships, enhances their self-confidence and creates a sense of community. This can also be a mode of developing self-esteem and self-worth as it helps people reclaim a sense of control over their narratives and experiences in a safe and supportive environment.
Theatre of the Oppressed thus becomes an instrumental device in re-examining and reinterpreting normative practices, ideas, and approaches towards psychosocial disability.
Pooja Priyamvada is an author, columnist, translator, and blogger based in Delhi. She has authored an e-book on Mental Health and is a survivor and activist. Her writing across digital platforms is mainly focussed on Mental Health, Sexual Health, Gender, and Marginalisation. She tweets @Soulversified.