I heart Forum Theater
I'm a die-hard Forum Theater fan. After 15 years of using it in a bunch of different contexts, I thought I couldn't love it anymore. Then last night, with the youth fellows of the Heal the Streets program of the Ella Baker Center - I found even more love - through their exuberant feedback after playing with it a little. Forum Theater is a tool from the arsenal of Theater of the Oppressed with incredible transformative power and gazilions of uses.
Primarily, Forum Theater is used to explore and rehearse possible actions that people can take to transform their world. It can be used in classrooms to critically analyze an issue, prior to direct actions and in anti-oppression workshops. With the Ella Baker Center, I'm using it as a research tool as part of a 9 month Participatory Action Research process.
What is it?
It is basically a short play (that mirrors reality) with a bad ending that is performed multiple times. After the first performance, spectators become spect-actors and can at any point yell “freeze”, then replace the protagonist to try to change the bad ending. It is a practice in democracy in which everyone can speak and everyone can act.
One of the first things that spect-actors realize is that, like life, if they don’t intervene, nothing will change. Our problems will go on and oppression will continue unless and until people do something. The next thing spect-actors find is that doing “something” is not enough, it must be a strategic something. Not every intervention works out. Forum theater becomes a laboratory to experiment with different types of actions. The people acting as oppressors on stage will maintain their oppression until they are authentically stopped. It’s not easy, just like life.
The protagonist must be a character that everyone (or most) of the people in a room can identify with, so that they are rehearsing their own action. It is not theater of advice. We do not do this to show what we think other people should do, we do this to discover what we can do.
Forum theater is facilitated by someone called a Joker who engages the entire group – actors and spect-actors in dialogue through-out the process without asserting her or his point of view. After an intervention, the Joker may ask, “Did this work?” “Was this realistic?”, “Can you do this in real life?”.
It was developed by Augusto Boal, starting in the 50's and then through the 70's in exile by the Brazilian Military Dictatorship. Around the world as people have used Forum Theater it has been adapted hundreds of ways. Currently it is used in at least half of the countries in the world with applications in everything from therapy to movement building. The use that Boal said he most intended is exemplified by Jana Sanscriti, a group that has mobilized hundreds of thousands of people to transform the politics and situations of violence in India using Forum Theater.
Check out more on Theater of the Oppressed.
Stay tuned for more posts about Forum Theater as a Participatory Action Research tool as we develop it together at the Ella Baker Center.