REHEARSAL FOR REALITY

RANI MOORTHY places Augusto Boal within the context of the Theatre-in-Education framework and considers how theatre can be part of a dynamic pedagogy.

The title of this paper is taken from a phrase that Brazilian theatre practitioner Augusto Boal coined to describe the methodology of the theatre of the oppressed. This methodology, which has influenced several prongs of theatre in the last twenty years, also has widespread currency in the field of educational theatre. This paper is concerned with the following considerations:

- the influence of Brecht's work in Boalian techniques (although Boal resists any comparison with anyone and eschews pigeon-holing).

- a study of the three main areas of "Theatre of the Oppressed" as a methodology: Image Theatre, Invisible Theatre and Forum Theatre.

- how Boal's work and methodology made its way into mainstream theatre-in-education all over the world.

- and the implications that the recent debate involving the Forum Theatre productions by The Necessary Stage has on the development of theatre-in-education as a viable art and education form in Singapore.

 

Brecht's influence on Boal

 

The poetics of the oppressed is essentially the poetics of liberation: the spectator no longer delegates power to the characters to think or to act in his [sic] place. The spectator frees himself; he thinks and acts for himself! Theatre is action! (Boal 1979: 155)

 

To place Boal's work in the context of western theatre is problematic since it is in direct opposition to the classical tradition. In the Aristotelian tradition, the trials and tribulations of the protagonist are very much in the consciousness of the audience. The integral element in Greek theatre is the empathy generated towards the audience who watches passively; the actors act and the audience watches. Perhaps the dramaturge whose practice comes closest to Boal is Brecht whose contribution revolves around Epic Theatre and the need to inform the audience through involvement. Brechtian theatre includes the alienation or distancing of the audience in order that they can relate to theatre with clear judgment and not be entranced by any sentiments involved. The theatrical element is obviously meant to initiate thought and to raise social awareness. The Alienation effect, or A-effect as Brecht calls it, enables the audience to think deeply about the issue at hand without being saddled with the illusory elements of theatre. Of the A-effect, Brecht says:

 

What is involved here is, briefly, a technique of taking the human social incidents to be portrayed and labelling them as something striking, something that calls for explanation, is not to be taken for granted, not just natural. The object of this "effect" is to allow the spectator to criticize constructively from a social point of view. (Brecht 1957)

 

Influenced by the theatrical philosophy of Chinese opera, Brecht resists what is seen as integral to the western theatre tradition: the illusion or "magic" that middle-class theatre creates. Underlying this endeavour is the need for both performers and audience to be socially-aware and conscious of each other's plight, motivations and anxieties. Brecht, and later Boal, created ways in which action and change are within the grasp of both the actors and the audience.

Boal employs a methodology in order to explore his view that all human beings act and watch and are therefore spect-actors. This view embraces the idea that intrinsic participation participation that engages the participant in direct control of the action, the course and conclusion of a play/scenario is essential in theatre that directly addresses its audience. In Boal's dialectical aesthetic, where the actors and audience are engaged in exploring a common predicament in the hope of understanding wider social realities, he developed an "arsenal" of theatre games and techniques, namely: Image Theatre, Invisible Theatre and Forum Theatre. Image Theatre uses human sculpting and tableaux as a way of "showing" an oppression without the confusion and cultural conflicts posed by language. The rationale is that an image resonates in a more immediate way than do verbal means. In Invisible Theatre, a theatre happening occurs without the audience even knowing that they are spectators. For example, in order to raise consciousness about sexual harassment, three actors two women and a man board an underground train. The actresses start ogling the actor and touching his bottom. A scripted quarrel ensues between the woman and the man. The passengers join in the scene by commenting and intervening. A discussion ensues about how sexual harassment can victimise both men and women. Through their involvement, spectactors engage in a learning process in which they are free to decide for themselves which stand they want to take.

In Forum Theatre, again the didactical stand is eschewed. Here a fully-scripted play with realistic characters explores an easily identifiable problem in an unsolved way. The spect-actors are invited to suggest solutions and enact them. The Joker acts as the mediator between the actors and audience and most importantly teaches the audience the rules of this theatre game . The Forum encapsulates all the different ideas, strategies and experiences of the audience. At no point should the audience feel that there is a hidden agenda that the actors and Joker are evoking. Both audience and actors are in the same learning situation and each has access to answers and solutions. Audience participation is not just essential but inevitable in Boal's work. The reason for this is as basic as the difference between traditional, mainstream theatre and alternative theatre. In Theatricality, Elizabeth Burns makes a useful distinction between the two different types of conventions related to the audience's reading of a performance. The first, related to mainstream theatre, she calls "rhetorical conventions":

 

Between actors and spectators, there is an implicit agreement that the actors will be allowed to conjure up a fictitious world ... This agreement underwrites the devices of exposition that enable the audience to understand the play... these conventions can be described as rhetorical. They are the means by which the audience is persuaded to accept characters and situations whose validity is ephemeral and bound to the theatre. (Burns 1972: 31)

 

The second type of conventions are the signs that are crucial in enabling the audience to "decode" the significance of a theatre event to their lives, which Burns calls "authenticating conventions" which:

 

"model" social conventions in use at a specific time and in a specific place and milieu. The modes of speech, demeanour and action that are explicit in a play ... have to imply a connection to the world of human action of which the theatre is only a part. These conventions suggest a total and external code of values and norms of conducts from which the speech and action of the play is drawn. Their function is, therefore, to authenticate the play. (Burns 1972: 32)

 

Boal's methodology uses authenticating conventions to draw discrete relationships between the fiction of the play and its images; between the "possible worlds" and oppression created in the performance and the "real world", the socio-political realities facing the audience outside the theatre.

 

Boal and Theatre-In-Education (TIE)

 

Theatre-in-education as an art form and methodology (and it is both) has many common characteristics with Boal's work (see box).

Chris Vine, a pioneer in TIE and one of the earliest practitioners to use Boal's methodology, says in Learning through Theatre (Jackson) in the chapter "TIE and the Theatre of the Oppressed":

 

 

 

TIE

 

Theatre of the Oppressed

 

Stems from a number of distinct but related developments in theatre and in education.

 

Boal's aesthetic is strongly entrenched in established theatre forms (Brecht, realism, etc.) and was also heavily influenced by the ideas of Brazilian educationist Paulo Freire.

 

 

Strong participatory element, children are placed in a dramatic fiction, they become caught up in the events, interacts with characters and make decisions in the midst of a crisis.

 

 

Participation is crucial and inevitable.

 

Students take charge of their own learning and are empowered with the ability of effect change.

 

 

Spect-actors are empowered and through suggestions bring about change.

 

Programmes are about real people in real, readily identifiable situations so that students can be led into problem-solving and decision making.

 

 

The audience has to identify oppression before any kind of forum can emerge.

 

Actor-Teachers facilitate in an impartial way without influencing students.

 

 

Joker interacts but is not allowed to influence the Forum.

 

 

Central to the work, in all its variety of theatre forms and educational strategies, are the twin convictions that human behaviour and institutions are formed through social activity and can therefore be changed, and that audiences, as potential agents of change, should be active participants in their own learning. (Jackson 1992: 109)

 

Despite the many key features that both TIE and Theatre of the Oppressed share, Boal's methodology made its way into TIE in Britain only in 1982 when Greenwich Young People's Theatre (GYPT) incorporated it into their work. GYPT, like other TIE companies, was already influenced by the distancing techniques of Brecht in enabling and challenging students to take an objective view of their experiences and to recognise themselves as part of the same social reality explored in the plays of the TIE programme.

Boal's methodology was employed as a post-play activity, i.e. after the students had experienced the play. In GYPT's case the emotional involvement of students within a TIE play needed a methodology that would enable students to follow through and maintain their engagement and consequently be able to achieve enough distance from the event to reflect and analyse it.

In their TIE programme, A Land Fit for Heroes , a historical play exploring the events of the 1926 British General Strike, the students were carefully inducted into roles that they play within the events. They "work" alongside the actors within a carefully planned theatrical environment.

This is a crucial feature of TIE. The theatrical environment is such that students feel safe. The objective is not to stun and paralyse them with the power of theatre but to induct them into the process of thinking, analysing and acting.

In the forum following the play, the students are shown a scene from the play. The problems contained in this scene are similar to the problems the students had encountered earlier when they were actors. Students are questioned about options and choices, courses of action available to them and are given the opportunity to take on the role of the central characters to test out their ideas.

This method of working means that the TIE team has to be very clear about the motivations and anxieties of the characters involved and portray these truthfully and in a way that is identifiable to the students. In the Brechtian sense, the actors need to understand and demonstrate the truth of the characters in the social sense.

In TIE, the Joker has to be an actor-teacher who facilitates the proceedings and achieves a synthesis between acting and teaching skills. The role of the Joker used in the context of TIE is very exacting. Chris Vine provides the criteria for this role:

 

... the Joker must make the aims and procedures of the Forum clear and then set the process in motion. ...[she] must be responsive to desires of the spect-actors, listening extremely carefully and enabling them individually and collectively to pursue their journeys of exploration, without imposing the wishes of the company upon them. (Jackson 1992: 117)

 

It is in the function of the Joker that TIE practitioners see a fundamental philosophical difference between what educationists are doing and what Boal sees as the role of his theatre.

In TIE much of the learning takes place during the follow-up discussion where questions and implications raised in a play are analysed and challenged. Boal prefers action to talk and warns against the actors or Joker prescribing any of their own solutions. Boal believes that every individual and collective has a right to their part in the theatrical debate.

But TIE becomes a misnomer in the absence of an educational bias. We want students to deepen their own thinking. A forum cannot carry on if every solution is applauded as equal to every other. In theatre-in-education, the audience is encouraged to articulate their own ideas and are either challenged by each other or by the Joker.

 

What is at stake is not only the possibility of taking different courses of action but an understanding of the merits of those actions in relation to what people are trying to achieve ... Even more important is the question of the real nature of the problem. (Jackson 1992 :124)

 

This means that educators who use Forum Theatre cannot have the mindset that all points of view are valid. Educators are in the business of enabling students to equip themselves with an informed capacity to make choices and create "their own agendas". Without this capacity, presenting anyone with alternatives is meaningless.

Vine recognises that Boal's work is useful as a methodology but that it has to be adapted in order to subsume the educational bias. He has this to say about Boal's work today:

 

In his practice his insistence upon the importance of personal experiences appears to have turned

much of his interventionist theatre towards a theatre of alternatives at the cognitive level and a theatre of therapy at the affective level. (Jackson 1992: 127)

 

TIE owes to Boal a methodology that incorporates Brecht's alienation and dramaturge like Bavin Bolton's and Dorothy Heathcote's "framing" techniques. It is a methodology and not an ideology.

The process of developing theatre-in-education in Singapore entails recognising the fact that the British TIE model has to be adapted to the Singaporean context. Under Theatreworks' Directors Laboratory, I had the opportunity to develop two TIE programmes on the right of children to question, The Other Side of the Wall, and on sexuality and teenage problems, The Silent Cry.

In both the programmes, Image Theatre and Forum Theatre were part of the several strategies I employed to enable students to think deeply about the problems evoked in the plays.

In The Other Side of the Wall, meant for 11-year -olds, students were exposed to an imaginary world which had parallels with the real world. In the imaginary world, Istak, the protagonist a young boy is systematically persecuted by adults for asking questions about what is beyond the great wall that surrounds their world. Fear, superstition and power keep this information away from him. The play ends with his arrest. The students are then asked to come back for the post-play (usually a day later) armed with ways to rescue Istak or with other solutions, depending on if they feel he should be rescued at all for disobeying the adults. The play has many images that show the dynamics of domination and supplication. People sat on human chairs. The psychiatrist's chair had human arms that folded around Istak. The students decided that these images should be changed. They took turns to change the still images, to present a more balanced relationship between the actors.

In the forum that followed, the students found that intervention by the Joker (actor-teacher) enabled them to avoid easy solutions to Istak's crisis. The students confront the Chairman of the TCPCJOW (The Committee for the Punishment of Criminals Who Jump Over the Wall) and interestingly one student challenged the Chairman with, "You shouldn't oppress us like that". They couldn't win the debate by simply saying "our world is better than yours". Each solution was challenged, not to frustrate the students but to enable them to refine and consolidate their ideas.

In The Silent Cry the protagonist commits suicide because she is pregnant and cannot go through with an abortion. As educators we wanted the students to focus on the social realities that drive young people to drastic ends. Relationships and contradictions between cultural and media representations of sex turned out to be what interested the students also. They wanted to explore Mei's (the protagonist's) first encounter with gender roles: those of her parents. This can be seen in the stage picture we chose to show: the father sitting at the dining table reading the newspaper and the mother on the floor pounding chilli. The students recognised the pounding to be the only way Mei's mother could express her real emotions. The father's apathy is clearly seen in his body language. The students, when asked to re-direct the scene and change the image made both parents sit side by side at the table, to relate to each other on equal terms. Image Theatre provided an immediate way of enabling students to think about gender politics.

I wrote this programme with the educational aim of enabling all students to understand the meaning of individual responsibility especially the boys who were deprived of realistic and impartial information about sexual responsibility. This emerged in the forum when the students were asked to re-direct scenes and provide "ideal" models. This process enabled the boys and the girls to openly challenge one another but not in a typical battle-of-the-sexes way. Students responded with an almost missionary verve to prevent what happened to Mei from being repeated in their real lives. And with intervention from the facilitator, they avoided the holier-than-thou stance of "should do this", "should do that" for a more realistic interpretation of the social pressures that teenagers face. But the facilitator (Joker) must always remind students to focus on the case study of Mei, and not on themselves to avoid the forum becoming merely a personal therapy session.

Theatre of the Oppressed is a methodology that was useful in both these programmes to enable students to engage in an issue but always with an educational aim in mind. Students could not leave the space with indecision or indifference about the issue. In The Silent Cry the students were encouraged to focus on responsibility (of parents, young people, authorities, etc.) and the importance of information and communication terms that the students brought up themselves. In The Other Side of the Wall the students focused on the difference between respect and blind obedience, the dangers of fear and superstition and the value of questioning in education.

Any methodology adopted wholesale especially in another cultural, social-political context is reductive and at best a contrivance. In educational theatre this can be damaging. The basis of TIE is theatre that is readily accessible. Thus the post-play strategies should also be accessible to the students. By this I mean that some techniques could pose cultural, linguistic and psychological demands on students.

In a goal-oriented education system, the opportu nities for students to have an active stake in their learning are infrequent. Students and teachers are not entrenched in a learning/teaching environment which encourages challenging and questioning. TIE helps to redress the balance in that it presents op portunities within the frame of an issue and in a safe environment. But TIE practitioners should also avoid over-challenging the students and imposing on students "models" and frames that are developed in a hegemonic cultural context where broad assumptions about socio-political, linguistic, religious and historical considerations are made. In practice, what this implies is that Theatre of the Oppressed techniques, just like other TIE methodologies, need to be modified. I found these strate gies to be successful:

 

1. Students are initiated into the forum in roles. This enables the students to achieve some distance from the issue so that at no point are they allowed to think: "This is about me." This deflects any attempt to reduce the forum to therapy. By "in-role" I mean they are given a specific brief, they have task -oriented strategies in the forum. In The Silent Cry , the students were given the role of newspaper reporters asked to piece together the events that led to Mei's suicide. Again this is a crucial adaptation of Boal's methodology.

2. The students direct the actors with the Joker as the mediator rather than having the students take on the role of the protagonist. They provide the dialogue, blocking and the motivations that the actors will act out. This empowers the students because they are vicariously "acting out" their solutions to the crisis.

 

3. In the post-play period, instead of running the whole play again so that the spect-actors can point out moments where a mistake is made by a character, I prefer to ask the students to consider moments in the play that could change the course of the action. This inevitably foregrounded the areas of pedagogical significance because the students had to focus on moments in the play that struck a chord and made some universal resonance in their multicultural context.

 

Conclusion

 

Theatre is still at the fringe of mainstream education in Singapore. The few who are interested in educational theatre find the challenge of developing a viable praxis daunting because of the reductive and prejudicial view that theatre is about presenting non-threatening, pretty plays which challenge no assumptions, open no access to knowledge, liberate no understanding and are content to simply entertain children. Practitioners committed to the kind of work that encourages thinking, on the other hand, seek to provide young people with both a "filing cabinet" of cognitive and experiential ideas that they can tap into throughout their lives, and the opportunities for them to constantly hone their skills and expose themselves to all kinds of experience. Young people have a right to knowledge and a right to develop the tools to make choices.

 

Rani Moorthy is a Lecturer in Drama and Performance, School of Arts, Nanyang Technological University.

 

Notes

Boal, A. (1979) Theatre of the Oppressed, London: Pluto Press.

(1990) Games for Actors and Non-Actors, trans. Adrian Jackson, London: Routledge.

Brecht, B. (1987) Brecht on Theatre: the development of an aesthetic, John Willett ed. and trans., London: Metheun Drama.

Burns, E. (1972) Theatricality: a study of conventions in the theatre and in social life, London: Longman.

Kershaw, B. (1992) The Politics of Performance: Radical Theatre as Cultural Intervention, London: Routledge.

Vine, C. (1992) "Theatre of the Oppressed" in T. Jackson, ed. Learning Through Theatre: New Perspectives on Theatre in Education, London: Routledge.

 

 

  Link to Website from which this article is taken