Culture | Performing change

Theatre of the Oppressed invites the audience to act

As a space where voices are heard and stories shared between actor and audience, the theatre has a unique artistic capacity for fighting oppression. In the 1960s, Brazilian director and political activist Augusto Boal realized this power of dramatic resistance and created the Theatre of the Oppressed, a form of theatre that doubles as a method for promoting social and political change. Today, the techniques of the Theatre of the Oppressed are used worldwide and mediated by the International Theatre of the Oppressed Organisation, which serves as a virtual epicentre for those who wish to carry on Boal’s tradition. This month, McGill’s Arab Students Association (ASA) will be adapting the Theatre of the Oppressed for a McGill setting, bringing this political practice to our campus.

The Daily sat down with three members of the Arab Student’s Association (ASA)’s production to discuss their upcoming show.

ASA President Nisan Abdulkader who plays Leila, a journalist in the production, describes the genre as “interactive theatre where there [are] different visions of what oppression means, and we try to cover the reality of a group of individuals.” This ASA show will be done as Forum Theatre, one of the many branches of the Theatre of the Oppressed. It incites an interactive dialogue between actors and spectators through “simultaneous dramaturgy” – a process that includes audience input and participation in the creation of short scenes. In this practice, anyone from the audience can stop the play when they witness something oppressive happening on stage, and then the spectator can direct or act out the change they’d like to see. As Abdulkader explains, audience members act and become “spectactors” instead of just spectators, transforming the production by taking “the opportunity […] to change the reality that they see happening on stage [and] to challenge different norms.”

While Forum Theatre usually involves the audience circling the actors as they perform, calling for a change in the scene when they see fit, this particular production will look a little different given space limitations. Instead, the actors will first create the scenes and the spectactors will later deconstruct them. Nicholas Tadeo Montanari Chapman, the director of the show, explains that “at the end of the play […] it becomes an open forum […] it breaks with the idea that the stage is separate from the audience. People can choose the scenes they want to change, there’s a discussion and we’ll ask people how they want to change it.” The scene will be reenacted and then “spectactors” can break into the scene and try to change the instance of oppression.

As Abdulkader explains, audience members act and become “spectactors” instead of just spectators, transforming the production by taking “the opportunity […] to change the reality that they see happening on stage [and] to challenge different norms.”

The forum will showcase “everyday oppression that people can relate to,” explains Léna Wattez, one of two scriptwriters, with a focus on social constraints people may face in their private lives, in their families, and in workplace interactions. “Since it’s the Arab Students’ Association, the characters [also] have some stuff to do with that world,” Wattez adds.

Split between two acts – “Us” and “Them” – the plot follows Leila (Abdulkader), a journalist, and her brother Abdullah (Majid Rasool), outlining the discrimination that follows them and others in their social circles. Characters are oppressed due to “specific identity, physical, and normative traits” and constrained by individual identities such as “Arab” or “woman.” The us versus them dichotomy is a central theme that this forum tries to deconstruct, attempting to show that it is empathy and an understanding of the grander “us,” rather that antagonistic divisions, that can bring an end to systematic oppression.

The themes of oppression go beyond just the experiences of the ASA. Abdulkader explains that they wanted to put on this exhibition as “a way to incorporate the greater McGill community” into an ASA event. “Because there is so much division, because there are so many cultural clubs at McGill, this is a way to bring us together, this is a way to bring not just the Arab community, but the people outside the Arab community, make them interact and at the end of the day, see that [which] more unites us than divides us.”

The creators believe that the Theatre of the Oppressed is an important thing for McGill students to participate in and learn from. “We have lost touch with that human sense of who people are; people are just names or numbers or whatever it is,” says Abdulkader. This practice of real action can be especially important for students in the context of the digital age. As Wattez puts it, “Today, when you see change, you’re being exposed to change through social media, you can see videos of people doing good things and you can read about them, but you don’t really get a chance to act.” She explains that “in this theatre, you can actually become that person who is oppressing the other person or become the oppressed and change the whole behaviour.” One of the production’s overarching goals is that of fostering empathy, in accordance with the underlying belief that empathizing with and understanding the views of others can bring about real change.

“We are trying to be thought-provoking, but not in the sense of trying to [get] a reaction out of people, but create action, create something new.” – Montanari Chapman, director of ASA’s Theatre of the Oppressed

But the creators also want to show that it’s okay to take a step back and analyze a situation before forming a hasty reaction. “There [is] so much reaction after every event nowadays […] not even ten minutes after some event, there’s a reaction on different social media channels,” Abdulkader says. The Theatre of the Oppressed lets the audience take the time to reflect on the oppressive situations they witness and take action, instead of just formulating an abstract and distant opinion. The audience is encouraged to “not just stay behind a desk and relay whatever they want, but rather act in the moment.”

Distinguishing between hasty reactions and meaningful actions, Chapman says, “I think some people get too caught [up] with the idea of going back and forth and trying to win an argument.” He goes on, “we are trying to be thought-provoking, but not in the sense of trying to [get] a reaction out of people, but create action, create something new.”

For the creators, too, the Theatre of the Oppressed has offered something new and meaningful. For Abdulkader, the process has been eye-opening. “People come in with different ideas […] for me to be part of that process and to be inspired from the people I’m working with, I think that was the incredible part of it.”

It seems that in the production’s creation, it has already achieved its goal of realizing empathy. According to Chapman, “it’s humanizing in a sense, to feel what the person is feeling and to be in that position. […] When you can understand someone else, that’s when you can actually change it, you can actually make action happen. It’s a collective experience of catharsis.”

ASA’s Theatre of the Oppressed will be presented on Thursday, March 19 at Theatre Plaza.

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