How does one make art and be socially conscious? Well, make socially conscientious art.
Theatre of the Oppressed is style of socially conscious interactive improv created by Brazilian director, artist and activist Augusto Boal in the mid-twentieth century. Working Classroom, a non-profit corporation, has created a presentation of that work as a joint effort with El Centro de Igualdad y Derechos, an organization which works to defend rights for Latino immigrants. Normally, Theatre of the Oppressed is centered on a theme or social issue the performers wish to explore and is collaboratively decided. This time, oddly enough, the subject was the rights of Latino immigrants.
I last went to Working Classroom to view ¡Bocon!, a brilliant, sharply-made performance of children not making children’s theatre.
As I looked around the audience, it was gratifying and a bit relieving to not recognize a single face. No one even looked familiar. There were families everywhere populated largely by chaotic ninos.
As “tight knit’ as the Albuquerque theatre community is, it is as always a remarkably niche scene. There’s very little transience for the talent or audience members, and especially very little new blood or interest.
It was clear to me that audience was not full of “theatre people,” that is, the sort of people in Albuquerque actually go to see plays. It is a very specific group. Never does a person who’s never had the thought before in their life suddenly say, “You know what. I think I’ll go out tonight a see a play! I wonder that’d be like. Let’s go check out the local paper and see what manner of live performance might be available for tonight’s viewing…”
And yet, this manner of theatre is exactly the kind that needs to reach every kind of person, especially those who don’t go and seek it out.
Theatre of the Oppressed more or less works like this: after the central idea is established, an officiator addresses the audience directly, in this case Working Classroom Outreach Coordinator/Public Ally/AmeriCorps Intern Joel Garcia. There will be short scenes, usually dialogues, where the central conflict involves the social issue at hand. After the scene plays out with an ultimately negative conclusion, the players reset and the officiator allows audience members to step in. The volunteer simply shouts out, and then replaces the character being oppressed. The oppressor and the new person then improvise the dialogue as the audience member attempts to enact a solution to the problem.
Also, the whole thing was in Spanish.
It’s difficult for me to express how elegant, simple and amazing I think this structure is. It would take far more than the 700 words I have here to explain the power and profundity I feel it has.
I’ll just mention one.
The entire audience is constantly and immediately engaged with the subject matter. When the officiator asks the audience for solutions, he or she is addressing every individual person. And when a single person actually steps up to the stage and takes charge, the remaining audience members, even those who have no desire to get up in front of other people, may still engage, personally imagining themselves in the situation and inventing what they might do.
Theatre of the Oppressed not only encourages social consciousness and solutions. It requires them.
The cast comprised female employees of El Centro de Igualdad y Derechos. Clearly, they weren’t trained actors. But, again, that’s part of what made the whole thing so good. These were real people exploring real problems that real people face. But purely as performers, the women did exceptionally well.
The more I learn about Working Classroom, the more I like it. They need more attention, more audience members, more students, more anything. Even in a town like Albuquerque inundated with theatre after theatre, Working Classroom thoroughly stands out.
Why don’t people know about this place? Working Classroom educates “historical ignored communities” about art which is smart and dedicated to making the world better for the people who live in it.
What could be better than that?