By Barbara Polajnar
Nowadays theatre seems to be a very old-fashioned approach to reaching people, especially younger generations. Some people think that we really do not need it anymore. It is so “in the moment”; you have to be there at the exact time and place if you want to participate in it, it is so dramatic and full of emotions and expressions, with all the unnecessary cheesy costumes and fake cardboard backdrops, and the worst thing: you have to share your thoughts with other unknown and strange people and sit in the same room with them. It’s just boring. No room for personal safe zones of individualism, communication via social media, sharing emotions only with emoticons. Why on Earth should you go to the theatre or even make theatre?
When I watch the people around me, I seriously worry about humanity – we are glued to our smartphone screens with our heads down, not noticing the world that is happening around us. We spend more and more time in our safe boxes of individualism, fleeing from everyday reality in all shades of grey and rainbow, avoiding eye contact with fellow human beings or moments when we see what is actually happening outside our boxes in our communities.
12 years ago I had the great opportunity to meet Birgit Fritz and gain a new understanding of theatre. In October 2012, I learned about a method that is used for theatre, activist and educational purposes – Theatre of the Oppressed. Theatre of the Oppressed provides a space to discuss issues that are not otherwise raised, and to give voice to those who have none – the oppressed. The basic concept of Theatre of the Oppressed is power. On this basis, the method explores, discusses, and exposes the power relations between oppressors and the oppressed. More specifically, it shows when and how power is abused by the oppressor to exploit the oppressed who do not have that power. When it comes to oppression and its various forms, Theatre of the Oppressed does not speak of individual cases in which power is abused by one person over another, but rather of the oppression of marginalised social groups by privileged groups. The goal is to use the method to find ways to emancipate and liberate the oppressed in such conflict – not by changing the actions of the oppressors, but those of the oppressed.
The techniques of Theatre of the Oppressed, as applied and disseminated today by collectives around the world, represent upgrades, adaptations and variations of the ‘original’ method. It is increasingly proving to be a useful method for work in schools and preschools. It involves all participants equally and provides a space for public discussion and exchange of different views and opinions. Thus the centre of action becomes the auditorium, rather than the stage. The community aspect of Theatre of the Oppressed is also reflected in the location and nature of its performances. For the most part, performances take place in venues that are not part of official theatre institutions. Through collaborative co-creation in Theatre of the Oppressed, the method opens up a space for democracy, dialogue and community building. Theatre of the Oppressed events are moments and situations where we (have to) step out of our safe boxes and see the world around us
It may sound like an amazing approach for those who share ideas and care about humanity today. But in reality, most of the people who attend our events are already critical thinkers, young people who already care about their future, etc. Perhaps this is also because, as mentioned above, our events are mainly held in places that are more welcoming and closer to the target groups.
Theatre of the Oppressed is also understood as community theatre because it contributes to the social capital of a community by developing the skills, community spirit, and artistic sensibility of those who participate in it, whether as producers or audience members. It is used as a tool for social development and promotes ideas such as gender equality, human rights, the environment, and democracy. (Wikipedia: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Community_theatre)
One of the highlights of the last few years took place a few months ago in an elementary school in Slovenia in the rural area, where our group toured with the performance “Now What?”.
“Now What?” is the performance of the young artivist group Resilient Revolt from Slovenia, KUD Transformator, which deals with one of the most burning political issues on the agenda of social movements today. Environmental issues from the perspective of the oppressed are presented on stage through a reflection of current events in Slovenia: the Magna car factory, the Kemis accident, the Mokrice power plant, these are just a few examples that pose the titular question with increasing urgency. But ‘Now What?’ is undoubtedly the question posed by several generations before us and also by each new generation to come. The bell has not yet tolled, but the clock is ticking.
The performance consists of individual and collective scenes and highlights the issue of environmental protection from different angles: individual dilemmas and concerns, what to do for the future, how to work in an activist collective, what kind of future we will have in 30 years, the problem of the Magna car factory and other factories that try to avoid responsibility, etc.
The performance was played two times for two groups of 10-14 year old students. The first group was very enthusiastic and very engaged during the performance: they caught the apples that the performers offered them, voted for the slogans they liked the most, and at the end the majority of students came on stage and proposed a protest (on stage) as the final answer to the question “Now What?” and shouted in one voice “We want a better world!”.
Since the performance was more interactive than we had originally planned and we managed to move young people who probably would not have come to our performance at all in different circumstances, we considered their involvement as a great success, as we were able to engage them and build a small community among them. However, the teacher who invited us to the school was, on the contrary, seriously concerned about overly engaged the students who ran wildly onto the stage, shouting slogans and taking part in the performance. During the break, the teacher expressed her deep concern and questioned if the principal would allow the play to be performed a second time.
After talking with the principal and the teacher, the proposal from their side was: we may play the performance again, but only if there are no interactions with the students and we do not ask them to participate in the performance. The team decided to go along and play this version of the performance. They played very well, but in the end the performance seemed neutered. The energy of the performance was suppressed in the box of individualism and the four walls of the stage. After the performance, there was an open discussion so that students could ask the performers any relevant questions or make comments about the performance. But they were very reserved and just waited to leave the room and have their break. The teacher, on the other hand, was grateful and happy that the acting team had listened to her and had managed to adapt the performance so quickly. Now she was happy, satisfied and reassured that the students had not gone wild and hogged the stage. But was she also happy that the moment when the students formed a community and came out of their zones of individualism did not happen? We do not know. After the second performance, she asked us to come to the school with the Theatre of the Oppressed workshops, and the school ordered a Theatre of the Oppressed book for their school library.
Video of the performance: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wM9WiGdrdYw&t=108s