Theater of the Oppressed: A Generative Method for an [Authoritarian / Populist] Paradigm?

This week, the renowned ‘Theater of the Oppressed’ (ToTO) practitioner Jiwon Chung generously led a workshop in my UC Berkeley ‘Populism, Art, and the City’ course. Chung has had a long career studying and applying Agosto Boal’s methods of  ToTO / ‘forum theater’, in which the human body embodies power and oppressor / oppressed through movement, dialogue, and metaphor.

Through several curated exercises, Chung illustrated different power geometries – some that were physical, some emotional, and some more situational and dialogue-based. Through the practice of assuming certain shapes, uttering single words and making sounds, participants were able to embody and perform interpretations of power dynamics and different tactics / methods for resistance, subversion, and co-opting.

20180319_164538In the exercise above, Chung (pictured) asked participants to arrange the chairs (pictured) in ways in which one chair was more powerful than the others. Hinting at Foucault’s (1980) ‘circular’, rather than hierarchical view of how power operates, Chung noted the multiple ways of reading power in any given architecture. If one chair is placed ahead; it has all the power and yet none. If the chair is placed on top of the others, it has power that can be removed if the base becomes precarious.

20180319_161552In another activity, (pictured above), participants played the roles of student (facing) and teacher (back turned). The student was asking for an extension on an assignment; the teacher was attempting to stand firm on “no”. The difficult negotiation of playing (even non-deliberately) the role of ‘oppressor’, and the many contradictions inherent, made this challenging for both players.

20180319_161138Other activities involved movement only:  a participant in the center of a circle, hands outward, led two others, who then led two others, and so on, until the whole room became a swirling mass of human movement which was more chaotic at the circle’s outer edges. This, explained Chung, represents the power dynamic of a society, an institution, a capitalist economy, or a State (a school of fish? A complex adaptive system? a digital network?). The point being that the individual at the center can dictate a mass of related actions / reactions by relatively small movements; those at the outer edges must fight harder to stay with the circle.

Where, within these power dynamics, are the spaces for resistance – for upending, for changing the dynamics and erasing the boundary between oppressor, oppressed? Participants had differing ideas and creative visions, from slight variations in movement, to ‘tickling’ to induce laughter, empathy to disarm, strength to make weak, taking photos to expose (Wikileaks exposes tyranny!). Through the 3 hours of activities and conversation, the group of participants came to understand not only Foucault; but the nature of power; institutions; and resistance in practical and applicable ways not possible in a normal theoretical discussion.

The afternoon left me thinking about the tremendous generative potential of such theater in today’s divided paradigm; one that is increasingly re-shaped and re-framed along both authoritarian and populist lines. Digital networks circle around the guiding hand of powerful ‘tech’ titans. Yet, micro-interactions online are capable to ricocheting upwards to transform the tech companies themselves.

Groups divided along partisan lines – red state, blue state, green state – come together in populist fervor around shared sentiments of oppression, even if “the oppressor” is not always tangible (globalization? the EU? immigrants? the police? the gun lobby? the tax collector?). The ways that solidarity can both unite – and liberate – deserve broader exploration in the age of identity politics and neoliberalism’s fetishizing of the individual.

What potential is there to use ‘Theater of the Oppressed’ – long treasured by activists, mostly on the left, as a mainstream tool to bridge these divides and further conversation, facilitation, cooperation, transformation? The power of such theater has been recognized by governments such as Singapore, who first banned the practice after it was associated with Latin American Marxists but later re-instated the practice as a useful tool of nation-building. This brings up further questions – can ‘Theater of the Oppressed’ be used to coerce, to solidify, to divide, and to reify oppressive power systems and structures?

Image result for forum theater in Singapore

Above – Forum Theater in Singapore (Courtesy of the TheOnlineCitizen). 

What is the implication of a center-right, authoritarian government like Singapore frequently deploying forum theater to help build nation and national harmony – is a fascist state a sort of macro-scale performance of Boal’s theater? Can the ‘Alt-Right’ use such methods to gain solidarity around white nationalist causes, twisting conceptions of oppressed / oppressor?

Larger questions such as these generate intrigue for further study, or further performance-based dialogues as we (as a society) continue to reckon with, and struggle to define, a global landscape of power that is rapidly shifting in both emancipatory and repressive directions. *

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