Theater to Change the World

Since my last few posts have mostly personal, I have decided to make a more informational post tonight. I’ve been working mostly closing shifts lately, my days usually go from noon-4 AM, thus all the late posts.

While I was a student at Millersville University, I became aware of numerous ways to reach out and connect with people. One tool that I was highly skeptical of was theater. My original Vice President of Allies, Justin Gilmore, pushed me to learn and apply Theater of the Oppressed, affectionately referred to as TotO. Before I go too deeply into it, please emphasize that I do not in anyways speak as the master of TotO, I just speak about my understanding of things.

The concept to start with sounds a bit odd. Use theater to address serious social issues; war, discrimination, racism, homophobia, oppression, etc. However, as I learned more and more about the techniques and as I practiced them, I was surprised how easily it worked. There was one Theater of the Oppressed performance I acted in which I saw someone grasp the entire struggle of the LGBT movement in about 5 minutes, the fastest I think I have ever seen someone have such a rapid revelation.

In the first time through the form theater piece my character, a transgender person who just recently came out and was starting transition, went to a party hosted by her GSA. The rest of the actors were just dividing up to play charades. They decided to split up male vs female. My transgender character was placed in an extremely uncomfortable situation; she wanted to go to the female team, but she knew she looked make and thus would be expected to be on the male team. The character approached the host (who was supposed to be accepting, since the host was a member of the GSA) and explained the situation. The basic gist of the host’s response was “Well, you have a penis, so go on the men’s side.” My character lowers her head an just silently walks to the male team, trying to fake a smile even as her heart is breaking.

This scene shows just how terrible the transphobia that exists not only in the general community, but also in the LGB community is. Even people who consider themselves gay or bisexual often do not accept or outright ignore transgender people. However, the true power of Theater of the Oppressed only starts showing itself in the second run through of the scene. This time through though, a member of the audience is asked how they would resolve the situation in a more positive way than the original character.

The first audience member who volunteered (was coerced, actually) to take the role of the main character was a 6’3 African American man who seemed to be very involved in sports, given his athletic build and his mannerisms. He did not look at all like someone you expect to see at a typical GSA meeting. When we asked what his solution was, he said he would simply tell these people they needed to understand and respect the main character’s gender identity. So he came up on stage and took the role of the main character. When he (playing my character) came to the party and was told he should be on the male team, he responded quickly and assertively “I want to be on the girls team. I’m transgender and I want to be on that team.” At that cue, the other actors imrpoved around my character – since all of the actors were my friends, they knew exactly what not to say to a transgender person, and they said all of these things to the man playing my character. They demanded “Wait so you’re a girl now? But you look SO masculine!” “Did you get surgery? No? Well if you have a penis you’re a guy you know.” etc etc etc. The man’s eyes went wide, he obviously took all of this personally, despite never having questioned his gender identity. “I’m just a normal person!” he practically shouted at the audience. From the look in his eyes, it was obvious he felt discriminated against, dehumanized, just for being different. I saw as he made the connection in his head, how he felt like that was similar to how he must feel when people discrimante and dehumanize him for his skin color.

That is the power that Theater of the Oppressed can have. By putting the people who are usually just the audience into the scene, making the issues I’m talking about their issue. When a person is actually engaging, moving around, and being put into these difficult situations (while knowing, in reality, they are completely safe), they can make connections and actually feel what I am talking about.

Form theater is just one of the tools that Theater of the Oppressed contains, though it is my favorite. Another tool in the TotO arsenal is Image Theater. In this activity, you have the audience members in a big circle around the room, facing inwards towards each other. The person leading the activity says a word or concept, then each member of the audience turns around and closes their eyes. They think of an pose in their mind that represents the word or concept. Everyone is told to turn around with their eyes still closed, they take their pose, and then the host tells them all to open their eyes. This makes sure everyone is equally embarrassed, and no one can be isolated as being weird. The host then facilitates a conversation based on the images people posed as.

I’m going to give an example of  image theater in order to better explain the concept. The host may say “War” as the concept for the image. Someone may take the pose of shooting a gun; another person may lie on the floor, pretending to be dead. Someone may be crying over a lost loved one. People could take the pose of a government leader, a religious leader, anger, hatred, jealousy. There are so many images that can be presented. The host would then lead a conversation about how these diverse images are united, and explore the many facets of war without having to lecture at people for hours.

While it is unconventional, Theater of the Oppressed has proven to be an extremely useful tool to activate change. This tool is great for a huge range of audience, they all serve as great icebreaker games, and its an amazing way to get people talking. Its most effective asset in my opinion is its ability to put an outsider in the shoes of an LGBT person, so much so that person can actually feel what it might be like to be gay or transgender. If you want to know more about Theater of the Oppressed (it has an amazing origin, and there is a big conference for it in July!) please check out the website here:

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