- Theatre for Living: The Art and Science of Community-Based Dialogue
“The oppressed leader of the death squad” is a provocative subtitle of a section of David Diamond’s Theatre for Living: The Art and Science of Community-Based Dialogue. The subtitle’s collapsing of distinct boundaries between oppressor and oppressed exemplifies the complexity Diamond embraces throughout the book, which outlines his theatrical techniques (also called Theatre for Living) and the aspects of systems theory that inform them. Applied in workshops and community-based devising contexts, Theatre for Living combines adaptations of Augusto Boal’s Theatre of the Oppressed (TO) techniques with exercises Diamond has developed. Like systems theory, Diamond’s praxis assumes the concept of a network as the primary unit for understanding life. As system theorist Fritjof Capra explicates in Theatre for Living’s foreword: “In a social network, each communication creates thoughts and meaning, which give rise to further communications, and thus the entire network generates and regenerates itself” (16). Diamond uses performance to examine how such communication patterns—“feedback loops”—create the structures limiting what humans understand as possible (62). Proposing that clear divisions between oppressor and oppressed do not adequately account for how feedback loops make meaning, Theatre for Living as praxis shifts away from using oppressor/ oppressed language.
The scenario inspiring the aforementioned subtitle arose during a Forum Theatre collaboration between Vancouver’s Headlines Theatre (where Diamond is artistic director) and workshop participants who had entered Canada as refugees. During the performance, Diamond offered an invitation similar to Boal’s traditional forum invitation: for any audience member to replace an oppressed character and rehearse strategies for transforming that character’s circumstances. To Diamond’s surprise, one participant stepped into the role of an especially antagonistic figure, the head of a Guatemalan death squad. The intervention catalyzed a shift in Diamond’s Boal-based work: “No one had ever asked to replace the death squad leader. . . . I could feel tensions in the cast rising” (66). The woman who intervened, however, speculatively historicized the character—and the violence and poverty that might have helped form him. Diamond notes that the intervention “didn’t excuse the actions of the men in the death squad” (67); instead, it encouraged Diamond to broaden his invitation: Theatre for Living invites spectators “to engage in the struggles of [any of] the characters . . . to create healthy community, or safety, or respect” (43).
Diamond’s reflections about the death-squad scene are representative of his writing in two key ways: they recall an encounter with a collaborator who led him to rethink his own facilitation strategies, and they resist assuming a scene’s content relevant to its local context only. Throughout the book, Diamond argues that paying attention to feedback loops means recognizing global systems and local systems as mutually constitutive. He goes on to suggest that characters like the death-squad leader should concern not only people near the locations shaping their being and becoming, but everyone. Their actions are never to be condoned, but instead to be examined for insights about the interlocking networks that sustain them—networks in which, he implies, all global residents are implicated.
Diamond is not the first person to explore limitations of oppressor/oppressed language; even Boal himself has complicated that language over time. Neither is Theatre for Living the first publication to explore relationships between TO and systems theory—several of which were raised, for example, by Warren Linds in “Metaxis: Dancing (in) the in-between,” in A Boal Companion: Dialogues on Theatre and Cultural Politics. Nonetheless, few people have approached these subjects so thoroughly and practically. Theatre for Living braids memoir and polemic with energetic evocations of Diamond’s techniques. Through workshop vignettes, in-depth case studies, and accessible, active description, he charts his (and Headlines’s) methodological metamorphoses, from agitprop, to more traditional TO, to Theatre for Living.
Diamond insists that, in order to examine social networks, Theatre for Living plays “must contain as much of the complexity of real life as possible” (41). In...