A reflection on the Activist Exchange in Cambium, Austria
By Metka Bahlen Okoli
Legislative theatre is a technique of Theatre of the Oppressed that Augusto Boal explored and implemented when he was a Vereador (city councillor) in Rio de Janeiro. When the city council was in the process of creating policy on various issues that affected the city’s residents, Boal involved the voters using this technique. During his term, thirteen laws were created in this way.
This is a technique of the Theatre of the Oppressed that can serve as an exercise for reality. Forum theatre allows us to try out different options for developing the story being shown in a safe environment, because what we do on stage has no consequences in real life. Moreover, we can illuminate each move from different angles, with the participation of all present with their thoughts. The result of the forum performance is not necessarily the best possible solution to the problem presented, but rather a broader and deeper understanding of the entire situation, the people involved in it, and the broader social context.
The forum performance event is roughly conducted in three phases:
– preparation of all attendees of the event (we usually prepare warm-up exercises and exercises for ‘introduction’ to the topic under discussion),
– presentation of the issue – the performance (we re-enact a prepared scene on stage that ends badly for the oppressed people),
– interventions in the performance (the scene is repeated and those present can interrupt it and propose another continuation by entering the scene and replacing the oppressed person or their allies, or by introducing a new ally).
During each intervention, we consider what changed in the scene, whether it seemed realistic, why, what long-term potential it has for change for the better, etc. During the legislative forum presentation, we gather proposals for change at the system level, at the level of regulations, laws, and other documents that govern different areas of human activity. After the presentation of the forum, we create a space similar to the senate, for a process of passing laws that follows the same official procedure and is based on the interventions of the audience-actors (they defend or oppose them, vote, etc.). Finally, we collect the adopted proposals and efforts and shape them into legislative proposals.
In the C.A.T. project, we used the ideas of legislative theatre in a slightly different way than described above. Our main goal was to find out how we could use this technique to influence climate justice legislation. At the Method Lab in Vienna, we developed a sequence of scenes that problematized the layout of cycle lanes in cities that do not encourage citizens to use bicycles as a sustainable mode of transportation. In the scene, we showed a traffic accident that had happened to one of the participants. Namely, because the road was too narrow, a car crashed into her and injured her. This led to an argument about the insurance issues between the parties involved, etc. However, we realised that this scene had the systemic background problem mentioned above.
When presenting the scene, we asked the audience (spect-actors) to position themselves into the scenes as still images. These still images represented people enabling the legislation that supported the status quo. The big surprise of this materialisation of the legislative part was the realisation that there are a lot of laws that affect our daily lives. In some cases, it can be very helpful, but it can also make our daily lives very difficult. In the next phase, we asked the spect-actors to participate in the scenes. After watching the story along with the materialised legislation, we asked the audience to intervene in the parts of the legislation that they saw as problematic. They brought suggestions to the scenes about how the legislation could be changed in the direction that would be beneficial to the cyclist in the scenes. The end result was several proposals for amended or new legislation.
Readers of this article may wonder why we are using (legislative) forum theatre rather than a simple discussion on the topic? Very often the first comment of the person who intervenes in the scene is, ‘I did not think it would be so difficult.’ While it is true that we are not in a real-life situation in the forum performance, it is still representative enough that we can understand, to some degree, what it feels like in real life when we put ourselves in that situation on stage.