The Little Bird on the Tree of Theatre of the Oppressed: Multiplication and Organization at Colorado College

Oct. 31, 2014

TONYC was hosted by the CC Collaborative for Community Engagement, which organizes many student activist groups on campus. 

By Katy Rubin. 

Last week I hopped over to Colorado Springs, CO to lead a Theatre of the Oppressed facilitator training intensive with students at Colorado College. TONYC was hosted by the CC Collaborative for Community Engagement, which organizes many student activist groups on campus. TONYC’s “Joker” (facilitator) trainings are always wildly fun, exhausting and revealing all at once, and I’m struck by a few things every time we go through the process with a new group: 

  1. Theatre of the Oppressed is accessible to everyone: some students were theatre majors, others were studying political science, and one was pre-med: but each participant was able to jump in, be silly, and tell stories. These are human abilities: in fact, as, Boal said: even actors can do Theatre of the Oppressed, but being an “actor” can get in the way. 

  2. Theatre is such an effective, and sneaky, tool to spark dialogue about issues that may affect members of a community in very different ways. For example: the whole group was made up of mostly women and only two men, and several of the women developed a scene addressing sexual harassment at house parties on campus. After an initial presentation of the scene without words, many of the women in the group were visibly uncomfortable, squirming with recognition of these moments in their own lives. One of the men, however, was confused: “I don’t see the problem. She was smiling: it seemed to me that she was enjoying it.” Luckily, we had just had a conversation about subjective vs objective observations: what can we all agree we saw, and what is the context and history that some of us are adding to that image in our minds? The group was able to hold a critical and non-antagonistic analysis of the scene based on varied personal experience, and the young man who made that comment said at the end: “Wow, I had no idea.”

  3. Finally, how can students in a private college identify with experiences of oppression? In their eyes, there’s a “hierarchy of oppression,” and they worry they are too privileged to be able to share a story. This question of how to be in solidarity as a white or middle-class student/teacher/artist/activist always emerges. I believe that we need to deepen our understanding of solidarity: in fact, if we cannot recognize the times when we experience the oppressive nature of the power structure of our society as well as the moments when we experience privilege, we are not able to fightalongside other oppressed communities for a more just society. The participants grappled with this question, and came to understand that working on their own stories was the first step to truly participating in change.

But what about that little bird of multiplication and organization? When we teach the theory of Theatre of the Oppressed, we say that every step of the process aims to generate concrete, ethical actions against oppression, and this happens through organizing as a community and through taking leadership roles. We symbolize this idea by saying that there's a little bird on the tree, about to take flight. 

The training participants didn’t have to wait long to try out the practical applications of Theatre of the Oppressed. Colorado College hosts a Community Soup Kitchen every Sunday afternoon, which has been going strong for the past 23 years; however, just before my arrival, the college announced it was closing the Community Kitchen, because of security and property-damage concerns. Students, community volunteers and kitchen guests alike had been protesting and questioning this decision over the past few weeks, and on the fourth day of the training, the group of newly-minted Jokers had the opportunity to facilitate a forum theatre workshop with the kitchen guests about this very issue. The students posed the question: Why do we need the Community Kitchen? They then asked the guests to respond with a physical image, like a sculpture. The images around the circle included homeless and hungry citizens seeking friendships, positive interactions, and affordable nourishment; we also saw images of students and volunteers hungry for the opportunity to connect with their new neighbors and to share some of their bounty. The students and I facilitated an interactive “forum theatre” scene right there on the lawn of the campus in the middle of the meal, inviting guests to present alternatives to a story inspired by those images. It was messy and political and enlightening, just as it should be when a community is in the midst of an urgent crisis. Many kitchen guests had ideas about how and why the kitchen should continue, and it brought to light all that we didn’t yet know about who the forces of power were in this situation and what motivated them to close the kitchen. The students realized they needed to continue the process in the upcoming two weeks before the closing date: through forum theatre the entire community can get on the same page about the problem and problem-solve in a constructive, creative, inclusive way. Personally, I’m on pins and needles waiting to hear from them how it all develops.