- Combining Theatre of the Oppressed, Playback Theatre, and Autobiographical Theatre for Social Action in Higher Education
Theater is a weapon. . . . For this reason, the ruling classes strive to take permanent hold of the theater and utilize it as a tool for domination . . . but theater can also be a weapon for liberation. For that, it is necessary to create appropriate theatrical forms.—Augusto Boal1
This essay explores how personal storytelling and interactive theatre can be used as effective tools in dismantling systemic oppression on college campuses. Specifically, it argues that when woven together, the applied theatre forms Playback Theatre, Theatre of the Oppressed, and Autobiographical Theatre create a valuable, multifaceted “weapon” (to use Boal’s term) with which to address conflict, build allyship, and promote social justice. In this essay, we will explain the theatre models we draw from and share how we have combined and adapted these techniques in efforts to create more welcoming and inclusive environments on two different college campuses.
At first glance, it may appear that Playback Theatre (PT) and Autobiographical Theatre (AT), which both focus on telling individual personal stories to create an emotional bond with the audience, work in direct conflict with Theatre of the Oppressed (TO), which downplays empathy to emphasize an anti-cathartic Brechtian approach that focuses on communal problem-solving. However, the forms actually complement one another precisely because they achieve different objectives. The personal and emotional elements of PT and AT create a space for vulnerability, empathy, and trust, which in turn builds community; through the sharing of personal stories there becomes a room full of “neighbors and not strangers,” as the founder of PT, Jonathan Fox, says (220). The catharsis that can come when telling, seeing, or performing a difficult or traumatic personal story is redemptive and often brings the community closer. In this way, audience members who may not easily identify with the lived experiences of the storytellers begin to understand, empathize with, and perhaps even begin to desire to act in solidarity with the people whose stories they have just witnessed; in other words, they begin to become allies. In contrast to the cathartic elements of PT and AT, with TO we can critically address social problems and strategize ways to dismantle systemic oppression, thus putting that allyship into action. Through TO techniques, the individual story becomes a collective story, and the group can use the community connection generated through PT and AT to formulate concrete strategies. Whereas traditionally TO may be more of an analytical exercise and PT and AT more affective, together they provide a unique toolkit for using theatre to fight injustice. There is not a single formula for combining the techniques; rather, there are many combinations and sequences that we have found effective.
Despite their differences, storytelling is at the heart of each of the applied theatre forms. Telling and listening to our stories serves a fundamental human need as well as connects us to the larger cultural narrative. In Staging Social Justice: Collaborating to Create Activist Theatre, editors Norma Bowles and Daniel-Raymond Nadon underscore the direct link between personal storytelling and [End Page 101] fighting for social justice: “The presence of ‘the other’—the people who have been the targets of discrimination—portrayed by live, three-dimensional, multifaceted human beings, helps break down any stereotypical conceptions the audience may have held and potentially helps replace fear and prejudice with understanding” (8). As one of Fox’s students discovered, “[s]torytelling is perhaps one of the most important forms of activism right now because when someone tells their story, you can begin to recognize their humanity.”2 Personal-story performances that specifically address social-justice themes, such as racism, sexism, classism, and heterosexism, afford us an opportunity to build empathy and create dialogue around these complex issues, and in doing so protest standard cultural narratives. What is more, through theatre we can change the narrative: “The story can have a different ending from the one we already know. . . . We can rewrite/re-enact/redraw and retell it again. The story becomes a way of remaking the world; being a storyteller in these contexts means being...