The Mosaic of T.O. in the U.S. and Canada

By Marc Weinblatt for “Under Pressure” (International T.O. newsletter), July 2000.

Theatre of the Oppressed has finally exploded in the U.S. and Canada. Emanating out of major T.O. hubs in New York, Omaha, Seattle, Vancouver, and Toronto as well as universities across the continent, there is a growing wave of people captivated by its power and effectiveness. Thousands of people, often invisible to all but the populations they work with directly, are creating a veritable grassroots T.O. movement — using the techniques as part of their work in classrooms, community centers, churches, social service agencies, organizations, therapy practices, even a few theatres. More than anything, this is the face of T.O. in North America. But is it still T.O. as conceived by Augusto Boal?

In early July 2000, nine of the most experienced T.O. practitioners in North America gathered for three days in New York City to explore this and other questions as well as experience each other’s current explorations with the work. While there was clearly mutual respect and congeniality, it was also clear that T.O. here is a mosaic of intentions, approaches, and styles. A few trends are worth noting:

Fundamental T.O. elements such as Forum Theatre and the language of “oppressor / oppressed” are having mixed results — in some cases, changing entirely. In fact, many companies and individuals are shedding the T.O. nomenclature and calling it “Theatre of Liberation”, “Theatre for Living”, “Redo Theatre”, etc. This is perhaps reflective of an overall highly privileged audience not relating to or uncomfortable with the word “oppression”. Perhaps it is just better marketing.

Although traditional Forum Theatre is used with great success in certain contexts, more and more there are significant adaptations. Rather than focusing on “oppression”, many practitioners are finding it more useful to use words like “disrespected”, “powerless”, “silent”. Even the definition of who is oppressor and who is oppressed in a Forum play is regularly in question. Forum is most successful when the group is homogeneous and is in complete agreement with what the problem is and who is causing it. I have rarely found it to be that clear and simple here. With the exception of perhaps aboriginal cultures, I have never worked with what I would call a homogeneous group. Creating one “Image of the Images” is nearly impossible. Even with street youth — ostensibly having a shared reality of oppression — I have found them to be all over the map in terms of how they look at things. Perhaps it is the fact that we do come from so many different places and experiences or perhaps it is the American tradition of the rugged individualist. My experience is that T.O. here frequently spotlights heterogeneity rather than homogeneity. And that is where Forum Theatre and the concept of “oppressor / oppressed” stumbles. Many jokers allow audience members to replace whoever they feel is having the problem. (I sometimes do this myself.) While it does invite a rich dialogue reflective of our different experiences, it is clearly not pure Forum and potentially problematic. The cost of this dialogue can be the rewounding of the targets of systematic oppression or what some call “real” oppression (racism, sexism, classism, etc.) This is a tremendously confusing and controversial issue here with a special flavor particular to the U.S. A few practitioners have dropped the use of Forum Theatre altogether. As in Europe, there is a great appreciation for the use of Rainbow of Desire work to explore the complexity of situations.

.While there are some companies and individuals who consider themselves more Boal “purists”, many mix T.O. with other methods and approaches. Mady Schutzman, for example, sometimes integrates sociometry (Moreno) and creative writing in her workshops. Julie Salverson weaves in the visual arts. Jan Cohen-Cruz may incorporate cultural-specific forms in her work (e.g. hip-hop music with urban teens.) Michael Rohd’s Hope Is Vital trainings are a mix of Boal and other performance based sequences — Living Stage, Spolin, as well as some of his own invention. Chris Vine and the Creative Arts Team incorporates puppetry in their work with 3-8 year olds. David Diamond uses Polaroid photography with his “Wildest Dream” program. I often integrate other techniques — including Playback Theatre, movement, meditation, and non-theatrical anti-oppression tools to support a particular process. New York’s TOPLAB (Claire Picher, Carmelina Cartei, et al.) is dedicated to working only with marginalized populations while I may work with a group of progressive white people to combat racism. (A future article could be titled “Theatre of the Oppressor”.)

Legislative Theatre has barely been tested here. Aside from a few experiments in Canada using T.O. to actively impact lawmaking, T.O. remains essentially within our communities and universities. Springing from a T.O. project on the criminalization of youth, Vancouver’s Headlines Theatre (David Diamond) was awarded money from the justice department to allow local street involved youth to videotape police action. Doug Paterson of CTO Omaha is running for Congress in 2002 so perhaps we will soon see theatre as politics in action!

The names I mention in this article are merely a drop in the ocean of practitioners using T.O. techniques to stimulate change in North America. Many others who remain unnamed join us in the trenches daily, working with real people towards personal and societal liberation. It may not always be called T.O. and it certainly does not always appear the way Augusto envisioned it. Whatever ways we adapt them to fit the needs of this unique environment, I am continuously amazed at how well Augusto’s methods still work. Dialogue happens and people’s lives change. And we have a good time doing it!

Post-script: One critical challenge the North American T.O. community faces is the fact that the most prominent leaders in the field have white skin. We could not ignore this fact as we looked around the room last week. In our vividly multi-cultural contexts, that is problematic. While there certainly are skillful jokers of color, the leadership remains white as it does with most power structures in North America. With this awareness, our charge is to invite, make room for, and actively support more diverse leadership in the field. While only one piece of the social justice puzzle, this issue is fundamental to understanding our work in North America.