Theatre of the Oppressed & Playback Theatre – Cousins with a Common Cause

 

By Hannah Fox, Marc Weinblatt, & Lory Britain for International Playback Theatre newsletter, fall 2000.

hannah_web-1Hannah Fox:

On April 28-30, 2000 Marc Weinblatt and I co-led a workshop called Theatre, Ritual, and Community in which we wove together the Playback Theatre and Theatre of the Oppressed forms. The workshop was held at Lost Valley Educational Center in Dexter, Oregon, an intentional and educational community set in the middle of Oregon’s green country side.

There were thirteen participants, all white, ranging in age and background (teachers, actors, social workers) who came from various parts of the Pacific Northwest to participate. Our invited theme for the workshop was “community.”

In our early brainstorming sessions Marc and I agreed that feelings of alienation/isolation and the search for connection were paramount in modern society. How can we create a safe and sacred environment using our respective theatre techniques to explore this important issue? After almost twelve months of planning and preparation by way of phone calls and emails back and forth from Eugene to Seattle, we were eager to put our ideas into action.

Our poster read: “We exist in community: Geographic, cultural, spiritual, professional, social, residential-whether you hunger for more connection in your life or seek to balance the connections you already have, this workshop will be an opportunity to deepen your understanding of how you fit into the world around you. We will use interactive theatre forms Playback Theatre and Theatre of the Oppressed to assist in our exploration.”

We designed the workshop as a ritual, with clear entry and exit points, for we felt that in order for people feel safe enough to journey into their vulnerability and deep stories, the container would need to be well-defined. We decided that the goal of the workshop was not to necessarily learn Playback or T.O. but for the participants to acknowledge and identify where they are struggling and to build a plan of action for positive change.

This being the first time that Marc and I worked together in this way, I was worried that things would be choppy or awkward, either between our facilitation styles or between the techniques themselves. In fact, the compatibility of the forms (and the facilitators) was outstanding! The work we did together over the weekend as a community was meaningful and deep and a strong dialogue evolved on many different levels. Our hope for the workshop to serve as a vessel for transformation was a success.

Playback Theatre and Theatre of the Oppressed are similar yet different. I see each form as coming into the house from a different door but meeting in a common living room. Where as Playback is first about the teller and her/his story, T.O. emphasizes the social stratum. Although both forms are concerned with how the personal meets the social, they begin their explorations from opposite sides of the house. Both techniques are considered interactive theatre because audience members do not only watch but interact with the action on stage, and both forms use personal story and improvisation as their base. Another key resemblance is how readilythe two forms use image and sculpture to reflect back feelings and elements of the story. There is little difference between a Playback fluid sculpture and the sculpting of images used throughout the T.O. techniques. An important difference that I see between the techniques lies somewhere in intention and purpose.
The two forms were conceived in different cultures for different reasons. The T.O. technique (born in Brazil) was made for political action and social reform. Playback Theatre (born in the US) grew out of a more psychotherapeutic context and has always had an interest in art and entertainment. Although the goals of Playback are continually changing to meet the needs of specific communities and of society at large (i.e .Playback is becoming more and more interested in the social dimension), it continues to strive towards artful presentation and aesthetic. The blending of Theatre of the Oppressed and Playback Theatre techniques provided an effective and powerful toolkit with which to explore our relationships to our communities. Alternating the Playback form with T.O. allowed for a rich and revealing experience. I was delighted by how seamlessly the two techniques wove together and by how complimentary they both were to our theme.

From the evaluation forms I can report that most of the workshop participants, if not all, took with them valuable tools and new perspective from the experience back into their lives. We will end this article with a short personal account from a TRC participant for whom the workshop’s exploration and discovery process enabled her to take the big first step towards a life dream.

(Hannah Fox is a theatre and dance artist, teacher, and director. For the last five years she has been running her own Personal Story Theatre after school program for teens, teaching Playback Theatre at Lane Community College and directing both the Eugene Playback Theatre company and the Young Women’s Theatre Collective. Hannah has recently left Oregon to pursue graduate studies in performance arts at New York University. Contact info: hahafox@hotmail.com ; 409 Park Place Brooklyn, NY 11238)

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Marc WeinblattMarc Weinblatt:

To the lay person, Playback and Theatre of the Oppressed can look very similar. Both forms share a commitment to the language of theatre as a tool for transformation. Both have a cadre of community building games and exercises which also serve to bring the body, voice, and emotions alive. Both use physical imagery or human sculptures to invite the expression of truth. Yet, there are fundamental differences which sometimes make the forms seem antithetical in intention. A simple way I define the difference between Playback and T.O. is as follows:

Playback Theatre “serves” the teller; Theatre of the Oppressed “uses” the teller.

When it comes to personal story, Playback has a pure and sacred quality which is unparalleled. Focusing more on the individual, it allows one person’s story to be heard, shared, and honored. That is Playback’s greatest strength. We all have witnessed the healing power of this remarkably simple process.

Focusing more on the group, T.O. shines as a social exploration. The individual’s story becomes a springboard for the collective wisdom. When a “spect-actor” steps into someone’s story, they can’t help but bring their own story into the discussion. It is also unabashedly action oriented and a very powerful problem solving device. T.O.’s most famous structure, Forum Theatre, is sometimes referred to as a rehearsal for the future.
Over the years, there has been more and more crossover. Augusto Boal’s ventures into Europe and North American presented him with many stories of alienation and loneliness. This led him to adapt T.O. to include structures which invited introspection and more direct exploration of personal story. While he remains a champion of social and political activism, his later book, The Rainbow of Desire is subtitled, the “Boal Method of Theatre and Therapy.”While both use interactive theatre to make a difference in the world, it is remarkable how separate the two communities of practitioners are. “Theatre, Ritual, and Community” (TRC) was one of the first public workshops (I know of) which consciously brought these two forms together.

Hannah and I originally discussed offering a training which combined the two (which we hope to offerin the future) but we ultimately decided to simply use the work, as best we know how, to support people on a journey of discovery and transformation.We both have a bag of tools — hers more Playback oriented and mine more T.O. oriented. However, we both are familiar with the two forms and have a great appreciation for their power. As a first time event, we tended to alternate leadership with each us of focusing on our “home” techniques — Playback to invite story and healing, T.O. to invite dialogue and action.

Part of the beauty of working with Hannah was how fluidly we wove our process together. One of her warm-ups would shift to fit the tone created by mine. I would adapt a T.O. structure to address the needs brought forth through her Playback structure. It was a dance of two highly complementary forms and practitioners – compatible as long as we were mindful as to our intentions with each step. T.O. can indeed foster personal storytelling but Playback does it so exquisitely. Playback undoubtedly can increase social awareness but T.O.’s very foundation is to promote critical thinking and social activism.

What a delight to have at one’s fingertips two extraordinary treasure chests. As Hannah and I continue to experiment and play together, I imagine we will discover new flavors – perhaps even develop hybrid processes which could expand the craft and open new doors for transformation. And as Augusto Boal has approached his own evolution of T.O., we undoubtedly will adapt the work to fit the needs of our ever changing environment.

(Marc Weinblatt is founder & director of the Mandala Center for Awareness, Transformation, & Action based in Port Townsend, Washington. Formerly Artistic Director at the Seattle Public Theater, Marc is an internationally recognized expert in the use of Augusto Boal’s ground breaking Theater of the Oppressed to stimulate personal and social change. 

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Lory Britain (TRC workshop participant):

Doing Playback Theater for a year as a student in Hannah’s class has been the catalyst for pulling myself back into my heart amidst my serious work life as the director of a large child abuse prevention agency. The gulf between the intellectual side of work and the joyful side of me has been widening as I continue to shoulder the responsibilities and intense demands of my job. What I did not realize was that the “Theater, Ritual, and Community” workshop would point me directly to the now obvious “heart choices, not hard choices”.

In retrospect, I believe that the blending of Playback techniques with Theater of the Oppressed techniques created a means to dissipating this gulf within me. The exercises alternated between pulling out the emotional, kinesthetic side of myself and drawing from my intellectual rational side. Playback techniques and exercises require quick-paced improvisation that bypass internal dialogue within myself. This brought me closer to the feeling part of myself. At the same time, the Theater of the Oppressed techniques such as silent sculpturing of bodies represented relevant issues and possibilities in my life in a powerful and concrete way.

My career change became the focus of the workshop. As I explored (and argued with) the different voices within myself, it became clear that I was ready follow my heart. The community created over the weekend provided support and commitment necessary in making changes in my life.With enthusiasm on my part and encouragement from others, I have begun the process of disengaging from my current position and creating my own consulting business. “Following my heart” has already yielded several independent contracts and I am envisioning how to use theater techniques to help adults understand their children better. I am extremely grateful for the experience and insight from the TRC workshop and excited for what lies ahead.

(Lory Britain, Phd., Program Director of the Relief Nursery. She is the author of children’s book, It’s MY Body. Contact: loryb@pacwest.net)