Facilitating Dialogue through the ‘Theatre of the Oppressed’

Can the 'Theatre of the Oppressed' be utilised as a tool in the classroom? This article explores this interesting proposition in pedagogy

What must be realised is the fact that theatre activities give children a chance to experiment, explore and articulate their  experiences and bring out their perspectives. Image - Pixabay

*There is a room of human-sculptures and artists.

At one end of the room is a person hunched inwards, clutching their body, head hidden within. At another end is one standing facing the wall, looking over their shoulder, hinting at danger behind them, body angled towards the door, in alertness. There is another, a wide-eyed shocked face, fingers clenched, feet pressing heavily against the floor, and yet another, on the floor, legs bent at the knees, hands covering the ears

Fear is a fairly common human emotion. It is one that is often felt by many of us. But fear also means different things to different people. For some, it is visible, it confronts directly. For some others, it is hidden within, often numbing the insides. An a rticle I recently read questions whether emotions are universal and states that they are, in fact, not as universal as psychology has taught us for years. Emotions are “exquisite acts of meaning-making specific to context and culture”, the article says. An emotion as seemingly widespread as fear is seen and experienced differently. So are most other things that we perceive. There are individual histories, complexities and nuances to how each individual makes sense of an emotion, feeling, event or experience – the world around them – and this is often not obvious to another. Not knowing, or being able to perceive what another person is feeling has often been cited at the centre of some theories of conflict, and has been seen as the cause for escalations of conflicts, sometimes even leading to aggression.

If conflicts are a part of everyday life, and if there can be attempts at dealing with them by being conscious of these differences that we share, what are these ways?

I propose that there is a way and that it is not limited to, but could be achieved through the exercise of collaborative creation and reflection, and particularly so, through the medium of a form of theatre called Theatre of the Oppressed.

The depictions of fear as described above were from a recent workshop conducted at a university in Bangalore as part of a series of workshops on identity, conflict and dialogue. The workshop aimed at using Theatre of the Oppressed as a form of engaging with conflicts and dialogue to deal with these conflicts. As the excerpt* suggests, the workshop, through its engagements, revealed

the differences in our perceptions and understandings of the personal experiences that we share in.

Theatre of the Oppressed, as adapted in the workshop, was a means to explore our embodied ways of understanding and dealing with conflicts. Originally, TO is a participative form of theatre ideated by Brazilian theatre practitioner and political activist, Augusto Boal. Boal’s exercise in theatre was strongly influenced by Freire’s conception of critical pedagogy – of emancipatory, transformative agency of learners. In TO, there are no actors and spectators as there are in traditional forms of theatre. Instead, there are ‘spect-actors’ – participants who collaboratively engage in the process of performing, reflecting and critiquing. The workshop conducted in the university borrowed this form of theatre and offered the space for individuals to visit personal experiences of conflict and ideate, present, reflect and understand these experiences with perspectives from other participants. Through the workshop, the participants played the role of spect-actors – listening to, while also actively engaging in the scenarios of conflict and resolution.

Processes of creative expression are often deeply connected with our individual experiences. Particularly when stimulated to be so, the engagements become even more rooted in these individual experiences. A primary motive of the theatre workshop was to enable individuals to reflect on their own experiences of and with conflict. An activity that was conducted during the workshop was the creation of an image, with people, to portray a conflict. In doing this, the participants came together to ideate the best way to present this, consciousness of the conflict that was shared. This process offered each individual the opportunity to share their perspectives, listen to those of others and incorporate these together in the final images, leaving marks of both the individual and the collective in it. This was followed by meaning making by the other participants, who, without knowing the subject of the conflict, brought in their interpretations of the image, adding perspectives and narratives to it. The last step was engagement, where the participants were called on to suggest alterations to the image that would change any aspect of the conflict that was being depicted.

A key component of many conflict resolution endeavours is working together to achieve superordinate goals; goals that are not just of benefit to an individual, but to a group. In doing so, individuals are able to work together, going beyond their individual identities and beliefs to create something larger. In creating meanings of the image and ideating these changes together, the participants were taking part in the collaborative creation of and reflection upon a creative expression. This kind of an engagement allows for a deeper reflection process of how we understand conflicts and of the existence of other perspectives to conflict.

How is it deeper?

Studies on conflict and its resolution have often focussed on addressing the cognitive component of conflict – research tries to look at the cognitive processes we have that enable conflicts of the kind we see and theories have pointed out that an overload of contrasting information could help deal with these cognitions. A more recent and impactful development, has been in the direction of looking at the role of affect in both conflict and its resolution. Feelings, emotions and intuitions have been seen as important mediators in situations of conflict. For instance, in the case of

inter-group conflict, histories and contexts of conflict often leave members of each of the groups with anxiety that arises in the prospect of engaging with individuals of other groups. Further, in the case of resolution, increased empathy for the other has been cited as a key mediator in situations of inter-group conflict. These examples point to the role and relevance of the affective component in both understanding conflict and dealing with it effectively. The workshop, by working with individual experiences, consciously engaged with the role of the affect in how we understand and perceive situations of conflict, and how this is also employed in resolutions.

Adding layers

Conflict resolution mechanisms often suggest that exchanging narratives as a means for individuals and communities that are in conflict helps to identify empathy with the other. The workshop required participants to come together to create a safe space to share vulnerable personal experiences and then present these before the other participants. The latter part of the workshop meant that an individual’s experiences would be put before other participants, inviting their readings of the images. In itself, this is an activity that leaves individuals feeling vulnerable. But placed in the context of a shared safe space, this offers the individual an opportunity to see different perspectives to their struggle. Alternatively, it also helps individuals visualise and understand the struggles of the other.

Further, this practice offered the participants an engagement that is fairly unconventional when compared to our established ways of institutional learning – here, the learning was embodied, not just conceptual, it allowed for non-verbal articulation, as opposed to a focus on the written and spoken world and there was learning through observation, not only through instruction.

Paulo Freire, in his conceptualisation of education, points out that knowledge must be constructed, not transmitted. A key element to this is the active participation of the learners in building this knowledge. Critical pedagogy, as proposed by Freire, roots itself in the power of this collaborative building of knowledge and the collective transformative agency that knowledge of this kind delivers. Critical peace education borrows from this and calls for a bottom-up approach in conceptualising peace in communities, where individual stakeholders – the people, are an active part of the process of ideating the meaning of peace, and creating a culture around this meaning. In such a context, peace can be understood as a collaborative experience. It cannot be conceptualised without the experiences of the other or in isolation from the other, and neither can the resolution of conflicts. Processes that employ creativity offer an immersive experience. An individual’s engagement with art, either through creation or appreciation, allows for reflection that links with one’s own experiences. When combined, engaging with the creation or reflection of art, as a means for ideating for peace, or dealing with conflicts, becomes an immersive, collaborative experience.

When exploring conflicts, collaborative creative experiences that are conscious of the role of emotions and feelings and are based in spaces for safe sharing allow for individuals to share in highly personal experiences of others, thereby marking solidarity as humans. Conflict, and biases particularly, thrive when we are unable to see the humanity of others, thereby allowing us to dehumanise the other. Exploring these instances together, and not in isolation of the individuals who are experiencing the conflict, allows for a deeper engagement with the issues, understanding it more from the perspective of the individual than as an isolated situation. In a workshop like this, situating the conflict as an experience of a fellow participant offers it the legitimacy and validity that it would have otherwise failed to gain as an alienated event. Collaborative art facilitates the space for individuals to come together and either create and reflect, allowing for the convergence of ideas and experiences, helping us meet each other at more genuine levels of personal expression, therefore helping us see each other as humans, and beyond the functional categories based upon which we are often differentiated from each other.

Riya Dominic is a Research Associate at Azim Premji University, Bangalore

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