Ulex webinar on Theatre of the Oppressed: Transcript from discussion between Jeroen Robbe, George Wielgus and Ruth Cross on 27 April 2017 (thanks to Shenna Sanchez)

Q1: What are some of the effective ways you’ve known ToT to be effective in your organisations

Jeroen: To anonymise the resistance eg in India, Jana Sanskriti?. Went from village to village, to cover the daily needs of peasants. Strengths: ToT is a method to explore. LABO has tried ToT with people living in poverty, refugees, etc. To have a better knowledge of the issues they face, to adapt to the context, to the people there, to have better understanding of their world and better transform their world.

George: Cardboard citizens, Jackson, works with homeless people. Protégé of Boal, translator of his books. Reboot the Roots has taken inspiration from this in Malaysia. Rehearsal workshops built into Forum Theatre, actors have dialogue with people experiencing homelessness, people living with HIV, people in recovery. To break stereotypes and dehumanisation they are facing. Experience of the actors. Social way to take it out to the world.

Ruth: In Senegal last December, living and working with Jariks theatre based in Dakar. I will highlight one moment which was very powerful to me. They had been touring using image theatre around the issue of fishing, there had been a lot of conflicts in coastal villages that their fishes had been taken. Conflict among villages. Theatre tours in villages, conflict has been happening between villagers, but not recognising there were European companies taking the local fish stock. The group visiting had shared some text from Greenpeace, then had tried newspaper theatre. Continuing to tour with international light of issues. From a local conflict to something more global. Results had been taken to government.

Q2: How can it fit to broader activism, campaigns and strategies?

Jeroen: ToT is a very good tool for investigation. With a group of people to figure out what they’re talking about. Rainbow of desire, image theatre,etc. Image theatre like completing the image, to start with a simple image of a topic and then add more and more layers of the topic through the spect-actors who sees what could be changed, to ask for different perspectives in an open way. For campaigning work, to get to understand better the issue, to know the root causes, beyond personal view towards a systemic view.

George: To motivate people to change something, to look at things from usual and automatic patterns. Certain campaigns could target that. Rehearsal for reality, rehearsal for  agitation, for revolution. Every workshop is excited, but will also come out a little bit upset also of what happened in the rehearsal.

Ruth: It is all about playing; just having a go. Don’t wait for the experts, otherwise we will just die. Boal is evolving and adapting all the time. He would take new information to next time as he will try it differently. I am a collaborator, between many practices, not a purist. With ToT, such rich and open games and methodologies a whole host of practices. To begin with those principles and weave it into things you are doing. Building it up more and more. That’s my recommendation!

Jeroen: To have a safe context? Had been disappointed the first time he was in a training but went back home to gather things together. Will not advice to try ToT if first time working with new groups you don’t know yet. If you follow and fail, keep on trying.

Q3: Lindsay: Is it only drama students you come along? Who is it applicable for?

George: Groups of actors, of non-actors or mixture of the 2. Performance could be a terrifying thing to do. As a joker; know your structures, different ways you can ease people in like games and exercises to get out of their cerebral context and experience each other. Each game is microcosm of a bigger ToT exercise. For anyone, walking before you run. Simplicity. To allow people to access it, for everyone as we are theatre! To choose our actions for the future.

Q4: On intersectionality, how ToT can support exploration of overlapping oppressions, which also exist in our networks, relationships, family, etc. As jokers or facilitators, is ToT a useful way to bring people together who haven’t been together in the same room, with different focus or issues they work in?

Jeroen: One of the things I find important, is to go beyond rational thinking. ToT is a different language to address topics, by putting people together to allow themselves to express themselves through bodies, to move beyond being stuck in perspectives, some oppressions have the same root causes, how capitalism, racism and xenophobia are interconnected; When we see that, we will address them together. I see it confirmed over and over again, when working with ToT, one image that shows us that wow I was not aware of this oppression; to show the blindspots and interconnections of our struggles.

Idea that images are polyscenic? Several groups could make meaning of a story, sometimes there will be a different interpretation, w hole different story. When you want to address a topic like racism, how refugees are being oppressed then suddenly had a discussion about sexism. The complexity of the work we have to do.

Lindsay: Have you witnessed that? Have you seen groups or very different people or backgrounds? 

Ruth: One project I am working with, we are at preliminary stage, creating at livelihood and regeneration with refugees in the South of Spain, came out of Eroles project. Will be working with ToT tools, people working with policy, people who had experience being a refugee, with international activists, with local Spanish people who haven’t gone out of their region and patriotic, our idea is not just to use ToT, but to bring people together who haven’t conversed with each other, to look at systemic level of problem. It will be a fascinating prototype for how this model of working with intersectionality can work over a period of time. Next webinar I will update you.

George: I have heard of that and booked myself a place. To expand from the aesthetics of the oppressed, to explore them through visual arts, we’ve gathered around 30 artists who have expressed different forms of oppression, to organise events on how to use visual arts or nice way to reach out to those with hearing and seeing difficulties. To having power used on them, how it boils down, no matter how diverse a group is, if facilitated well, there is a shared experience.

Q5: Lindsay: how ToT has been tried with deaf community, ToT can be nonverbal. How to bring people who are introverted to be seen, does the methodology support that? As jokers, what’s your role in that? How about in organisations with oppression?

George: The idea that non-participation is always an option, knowing that they could opt out, gives an opportunity to step forward or back. Be aware of the tyranny of the group; Literal dialogues, to talk in pairs or small groups, to have an option to talk as a group if they want it. It is not always necessary to have the discussion in the whole group.

Jeroen: Stood back from the idea of having a specific product, when the product is in fact the process. When talking about collective transformation, then to find something inside them as a person and as a group. Find something that could work for the group, people have different needs, leads to the formal education. Different learning styles, ToT has worked with people who didn’t expect it. They didn’t realise that they’re going to a theatre, then realised they like it upon trying it. Not to push people to do something, give an opportunity to go out of comfort zone where learning happens, but not to push people towards panic zone. Never

Ruth: I was facilitating a leadership program for an NGO, social presencing theatre (strand of theory). Some people in the group have expressed strong desire and fear of speaking or being seen in front of people. I had been focusing that with this group, being in front of the stage, when everything shuts down. We worked over a week, went slowly, beginning with ToT games, working together, partner to partner, storytelling listening, hearing back your story being told by others. One offer was to walk in the middle of the stage and look towards their colleagues and just be themselves, not necessary to talk. It is a social presencing theatre tool. I was not sure on whether everyone wil try it. Everyone in the room did. One woman said this moment triggered something in her to have her feet on the floor and present herself to the public, to find a different part of being seen. We are all theatre constantly. That exercise was not necessarily about performing.

Q6: How do you prevent ToT into from falling into therapy, or touching into people’s core wounding? 

George: people worried about triggering, or holding spaces, trauma. Joker has tremendous responsibility, people have the choice what they want to bring, should be made aware that they have the choice to what they bring, moods coming out, etc. Not my point to prevent it, but to fall back into questions, to explore what its like to unblock those emotions to a group or exercise you’ve never done. Anyone interested in facilitating those spaces, if you’re dong it right, then you should feel nervous about it. Otherwise, there could be something wrong.

Listen to your nervousness.

Q7: how not to perpetuate cycles of oppression in ToT training, what’s experience being called out as joker who has authority or power in the group

Jeroen: Difficult question, role of joker and also role of the group. Eg experience with a young group of refugees, no legal documents, have experienced oppression but has seen gender dynamic within their group, I was invited to deal with their issues but seeing another issue like sexism, made it more complex. When role of people take up a role, when middle class people come in the piece and give paternalistic advice. Bring question as joker to challenge magical solutions of middle class people, provide the stage for them. Redlines where you can’t go beyond. What is the appropriate, to voice out the issue to challenge the dominant group, it was an issue i could solve at that moment. To address it and question it. In the same room, both oppressed and oppressor in the  group, the oppressed to have a chance to take the lead and have collective transformation.