BY LINDSEY WOOD – STAFF WRITER
“Who serves you?”
You may have seen flyers posted around Centre’s campus posing to you this brief, but powerful question. An advertisement for the Theatre of the Oppressed performance, the somewhat abstract question was meant to initiate dialogue on a hot-button issue at the College: the damaging effects of power dynamics within the community.
Last weekend, Reg Flowers, Theatre of the Oppressed Practitioner, brought this conversation-starting form of theatre to Centre College. Organizer of the event Carrie Frey thought the “social activism factor” would be “very appealing, as the campus is very engaged in these types of conversations right now.” She also praised the Theatre of the Oppressed as “a good venue in which to explore issues in our community in a compelling and different way.” So, a theatrical performance like this seemed to be both timely and universally relevant for Centre students.
The two-day interactive workshop featured a small yet diverse group of students, faculty, and staff. Attendees included Petra Hendrickson, Laura Chinchilla, Jennifer Goetz, Jami Powell, Brian Daniel, Megan Milby, Becky Mohr, Anna Marie Bryan, Lindsey Wood, Maddy Jenkins, Stephanie Bamfo, Blair Wood, and Pearl Morttey.
During Friday’s session, Flowers focused on creating a trusting and open environment so that participants could later have honest conversation about distressing situations on Centre’s campus; additionally, Flowers introduced the group of largely inexperienced actors to the mechanisms of image theatre. Friday’s team-building and technical training laid the groundwork for the actual development of plays on Saturday. The playwriting process began with a round table discussion, allowing individuals to share personal experiences about times they had been oppressed on campus. Then, those who told their stories brought them to life by molding actors into a series of separate, silent scenes. Next, the individuals cast in these scenes improvised dialogue based on both their prior knowledge of the story and the images in which they were placed by the story-teller.
Assistant professor of Spanish Dr. Laura Chinchilla served as one of the three playwrights. When asked her experience with the creative process of dramatizing an oppressive situation, she responded: “The process is challenging! I think ‘seeing’ oppression can be hard, especially because when it goes routinely unchallenged, it is normalized. Dramatizing oppression entails visually conveying not only the power dynamics that enable such a situation, but also the damage that it causes. This damage can sometimes be invisible to many, so how do we stage the injustice contained in the very existence of power, and the harm that it causes? For Boal this was both an aesthetic and a political problem of representation, and I find his method super compelling: “there’s creativity, empathy, and ultimately joy in trying to figure out solutions collectively.”
All three plays created ended badly—but that was not the end of the story.
The unique part of the Theatre of the Oppressed is that audience members do not sit idly by during the performance and allow the oppression to continue unchallenged. After an initial viewing, they may interrupt a performance at any point they desire, take the stage, and try their hand at breaking the oppression they previously witnessed.
Associate professor of psychology and chair of the psychology program (and participant in the play!), Dr. Jennifer Goetz, offered her insight as a social psychologist on this theatrical technique.
She writes, “Typically we think of theater as an art form that serves a couple major pro-social functions. First, it provides a chance for catharsis by allowing the audience to experience negative emotions like sadness in a non-threatening environment. Second, it fosters empathy and understanding for characters and perspectives different from our own. Both of these processes are fairly passive since the audience is simply a recipient of the performance.”
She continued, “In Theater of the Oppressed, however, the script is flipped and the audience gets on stage. In doing so, the audience members express their self-determination and autonomy–psychological needs that research shows are fundamental to our well-being. In addition, Theatre of the Oppressed encourages the audience to work together to problem solve and break the oppressive cycle. By activating both our need for self-determination and our need for belongingness, this unique form of theatre makes it likely that realizations about oppression will translate outside of the performance and into the community.”
On a more personal note, Dr. Goetz was left feeling both invigorated and uplifted after her participation in the program. She “felt in awe of the wisdom and thoughtfulness of the students, staff, and faculty who participated in the workshop and the performance.” She continues, “We have a budding group of activists who are driven to change our community for the better and to address issues that have been neglected for too long. That makes me hopeful.”
But the goal of this unorthodox form of theatre is not to end oppression once and for all.
Both Flowers and other proponents of the Theatre of the Oppressed are not so naïve as to believe that the complex issues the plays address can be solved by a little improv. However, the plays do open dialogue about social problems and foster creative problem-solving among those in the audience who are trying to change the situation.
It is easy to forget the time and effort required to organize an event such as this, but a project of this magnitude cannot happen without the careful planning of a multitude of dedicated staff members. Ms. Frey informs, “This event has taken a good deal of planning and we have been planning the event for about 6 months. Library student reference assistants Sol Han and Davis Kannapell, and Reference Librarian Crystal Ellis helped with marketing the event through social media, campus flyers, and a banner in Cowan and I sent out many, many emails and talked with campus partners. The weekend of the event required logistical planning for getting our facilitator Reg Flowers to Danville and back to New York, organizing spaces for the workshop and performance, food and snack preparation and delivery, and attending the actual workshop and performance. Workshop attendees spent over eleven hours together in preparation and for the final performance.”
However, in the eyes of the primary planner, all the effort was worth it—in fact, Ms. Frey thinks this could be a perennial event for the College, one that only gets better with age. When asked about the continuation of the program, she excitedly remarked, “I think the Theatre of the Oppressed event was a success! The workshop participants were very present and willing to throw themselves into the techniques and deep conversations needed to build the skits for the performance. I would love to see more student, faculty, and staff attendance at both the workshops and the performance.”
Already thinking ahead, Ms. Frey talked with Flowers during the week after the performance “to see about building on the work he did.” She seems to have high hopes for the future of the program, saying, “The workshop attendees might be able to help plan a second generation of the event and canvass for new participants. Perhaps in a second iteration we might see a deeper dive into societal issues and concerns.”