Using Theatre to Overcome Oppression

Many of the peace strategies used in current conflict zones focus on reducing the direct violence or the structural violence within the government systems while neglecting to truly address the cultural violence that lingers within the society.  Cultural violence, a term made famous by peace scholar Johan Galtung, is described as “any aspect of a culture that can be used to legitimize violence in its direct or structural form”, which can include comments, conversations, writing, art, or ideologies. Cultural violence is the most difficult type of violence to address, as it is thoroughly engrained into everyday practices and gradually built up over a lifetime. Peacekeeping, without strong simultaneous attempts at reducing cultural violence, is like putting a bucket under a leaky faucet and expecting it to stop the leak. The bucket will not stop the cause of the leak or prevent it from continuing and may even contribute to larger problems. Dialogue is incredibly important in conflict zones, but it is often difficult to get a conversation going when hostilities are still broiling. Can we discuss and bring about change when oppression is deeply embedded in a culture? Can we encourage people to speak out against situations of oppression and change their personal behaviours?

Augusto Boal’s Theater of the Oppressed is an approach to social change that allows for protected dialogue into an issue behind a veil of theatrics. Spectators, who become active participants in the production, are able to analyze and transform their own reality through the safe dialogue of the theatre. Actors simulate common oppressive behavior and then provide the audience with a chance to suggest actions for the actors to carry out in the scene in an attempt to change the outcome, overcoming the oppression. The hope is that the modeled behavior will help spectators become empowered to act and change their thinking towards oppression in their own lives, giving them the experience of starting a dialogue against oppression. The theatre is a mix of improvisation and scripting, showing repeated oppressive scenes. The audience enacts suggested changes in each condensed round in an attempt to overcome the oppression in new ways or to recreate new forms of oppression for the actors to overcome.

Invisible Theatre extends this format using the pedagogy of overcoming oppression by injecting the activist theatrics into everyday public street life. A scripted core is utilized to demonstrate an instance of social injustice, such as racism or sexism, without the watching public’s knowledge that theatre is being performed in front of them. Actors perform the parts of the oppressors and oppressed, as well as opinionated by-standers that encourage the public to react. They demonstrate how oppression can be resolved or overcome by an average person and encourage the watching public to act in a similar manner in their own lives.

Change begins with ideas. It is not enough to simply separate warring parties. For peacekeeping to be truly effective, we must first stop the cultural flame that stimulates the conflict.

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