A Report Back from Rising Tide’s Theatre of the Oppressed workshop, 1/20/2012

 As we learned from Teryani, our talented facilitator, Brazilian theater activist, Augusto Boal, created Theater of the Oppressed (T.O.) in the 1960’s out of a belief that “we can make this world a place where we can be happy in rather than just a vast market place in which we sell our goods and our souls.”

The workshop, which Portland Rising Tide organized and hosted on Sunday, January 8th, brought together about 35 folks for a 4-hour exploration of group social dynamics and our place within them. These types of explorations of course have intrinsic value…but what made the day really special was the amount of fun and illumination T.O. brought to the task. Just to be clear, this wasn’t a get-together exploring Rising Tide’s group dynamics. Rather this was an open workshop for everyone, teaching a broad range and diverse range of tools known collectively as Theater of the Oppressed: group activities examining (often invisible) social structures through the lens of theater and interactive games.

We started with some new and interesting ways of doing group introductions and getting familiar with everyone’s name, my favorite being a game where everyone stood in a big circle and someone in the middle had to call out someone else’s name 3 times in rapid succession before the person being called out said their own name once. If the person being called on failed to do so, they’d be tossed in the middle themselves. Simple enough, but it was a much more fun way to get to know everyone’s name and loosen things up than the usual: pretending we all memorized 30 names in a row from a huge group go-around.

We did about six T.O. “games” in all so I’m only going to cover two of my favorites here. I really loved the exercise called “Complete the Image.” In this one we set up a frozen pantomime scene and then took turns, one at a time, removing ourselves from our frozen poses and “evolving” the scene in some way that felt compelling, or that we felt progressed the “story” in some way – all with no verbalization of exactly where the little play we were acting out was headed. It’s hard to describe in words, but it was really remarkable seeing this group story telling exercise: how we respond to and inspire each other, how some people add depth, others add breadth, and still others add direction to a communal narrative.

The most interesting game for me called “Carnival of Rio.” In this one we teamed up in groups of 3 and spent a moment strategizing for the most compelling sequence of sound and motion we could think. We then brought it back to the whole group with a goal (which all of the many groups of 3 shared!) of convincing the entire group to get on the same page with us. At the same time, we were encouraged to strive toward some sort of group consensus, to try out each others sound/motions if we felt moved to do so, and gravitate to the one(s) we found most compelling. By the end of the exercise, some sound/motions had died out, a few had grown to a dozen or more adherents and still others ebbed and flowed in numbers.

Besides being a ton of fun, the game made for fertile ground for a very “real” – and at times very personal – conversation about peer pressure, conformity, feelings of uncertainty and even abandonment, how we are effected by physical contact in group interactions, and when and how to compromise in the context of group settings. It may sound hard to believe that a bunch of people sighing in a hug amoeba or croaking like frogs while doing squats would have inspired such a serious conversation, but there it was, and this was really the magic of Theater of the Oppressed.

I wanted to thank Teryani immensely for the work she did. Her website about her Theater of the Oppressed work – where you can find out more about T.O. and also about booking Teryani’s trainings is http://lebendig.org/to/to.htm.

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