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Writing Without Words: An Introductory Workshop to Theatre of the Oppressed

posted: 7.18.11 by Susan Naomi Bernstein

In mid-July at the Forum Project in midtown Manhattan, I experienced a full-day introductory workshop to Theatre of the Oppressed. I already knew that Augusto Boal, the founder of Theatre of the Oppressed, worked with Paulo Freire, educator and author of Pedagogy of the Oppressed. Boal’s work literally embodies Freire’s philosophy of reading the world and reading the word. Theatre of the Oppressed recreates our seemingly familiar world as strange and unpredictable, as the actors and the “spec-actors” (the audience) compose through body and mind. Our efforts as participants help us to think and act critically to unravel oppression. We act and reflect on our own roles in perpetuating oppression as either the protagonist (the oppressed) or the antagonist (the oppressor).   Participants dismantle scenes of oppression, not only with the intent of challenging current conditions, but also of transforming reality to achieve social justice.

Most powerful for me was an activity called Image Theatre.  Image Theatre asks participants to work together silently in small groups, using their bodies to create an image of a particular theme. -1_3Our group worked on the theme of Oppression. We needed to sculpt a single group image that would connect our experiences of the theme. However, we could not talk; we could communicate only through body language. The photograph of that image is included as part of this post.

The participants in the workshop were invited to interpret our image of oppression. We, the creators of the image, were instructed to remain silent. We listened as our coparticipants described reality as they saw it. To describe reality constitutes a significant step in claiming reality in order to change reality, an important factor in working toward an ideal of social justice.

The first set of interpretations was objective. Participants were asked to describe exactly what they saw. For instance, “Susan is wearing a blue shirt and white socks. Her hair is pulled back. Her arms are outstretched.”  The second set of comments was subjective. For example, “Susan looks like an automaton. She looks like she is trying to hide the people behind her. This scene reminds me of the question ‘what happens behind closed doors’?”

If Image Theatre were performed in a Basic Writing class, students would have an opportunity to practice the differences between objective and subjective descriptions. These differences remain important for summary and essay writing. Students also would be able to practice developing ideas and thinking critically beneath the surface of the text. In addition, students would have experiences with kinesthetic learning (learning through hands-on experiences of the body and the senses).

-4_2After the workshop, I walked to the Penn Station subway stop at 7th Avenue and 34th Street, and took this photo of the Sunday evening crowd converging on that busy intersection of Midtown Manhattan. (Click on the image to see it larger.) I would hope to use this photo in class to model the basic tenets of Image Theatre. To begin, I would ask students to suggest a common theme. Then I would invite them to describe the photograph, first in objective terms and then in subjective terms. I also would offer students a chance to volunteer to do Image Theatre by creating, in silence, their own group image of the theme. Each group would interpret the work of the other groups.

Equipped with kinesthetic images, students then would have an opportunity to translate their individual reflections into writing.  Afterward, I would ask students to apply the same techniques of objective and subjective observations to their reading for the week, as they first summarize the reading through objective language and then analyze the reading through subjective language. In this way, the abstract concept of making meaning becomes at first more concrete. As this process continues, students can begin again to reconsider subjective and abstract meanings, a significant piece of learning to think critically and actively for post-secondary academic writing.

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