The practice was developed by Brazilian theatre practitioner Augusto Boal and influenced by the work of the educator and theorist Paulo Freire. The practice is a means by which men and women are able to become more fully human by dealing critically and reflectively with their reality; acting it out and listening to others do the same. Put simply, it is dialogue. This process invites a deeper awareness of how we all, each day, are part of participating in the transformation of our world, for better or worse.Theatre of the Oppressed (TO) recognises each human being as theatre – a person sees the situation and sees one’s self in the situation – we are always at once actor and spectator. Once we realise this, we realise the power that our actions have in our world, and so with that our power to help ourselves and others. If we cannot exercise this right to act and to have dialogue – to allow others to understand us or our cause then we are oppressed. If we deny others their chance to speak, or refuse to listen to them, we oppress them.
With this the Theatre of the Oppressed is a space in which we are invited to realise who we are and the roles we play in situations of oppression in our world. It is also a place to think and feel our way into acting in a way that overcomes this. TO is a rehearsal for reality which itself is reality also.
I’m conscious that as I have been reflecting on this, the riots and peaceful protests continue in Baltimore. Martin Luther King once said that riots are the voice of the voiceless. So many of the people, mainly young people involved have felt that their voice has gone completely unheard. One youthworker described going into a school in Baltimore recently and asking in an assembly who in the school had lost someone they knew to violence in the city: everyone put up their hand. The youthworker then asked the young people to put up their hand if they had been on a protest or been represented on a protest against this injustice: no hand went up. Theatre of the Oppressed is just one, very simple way in which those who feel voiceless can discover their voice, and its clear that these methods are needed, not just in Baltimore, but in all of our communities, for the injustices that lie unspoken.
Jeremiah articulated to me the ways in which the Theatre of the Oppressed’s own philosophy and principals are actually those of the Gospel. There are principals that seek to building a world where all are invited to ‘participate in human society as an equal, to respect differences and be respected’ and to become more fully human. Here dialogue prevails and work is for peace. TO allows people to be acting subjects of their own lives and its intention is always to develop societies that flourish and are just. The more I reflected on this the more I wonder that if these principles do not seem familiar to our church life, we probably need to take more action than we thought.