Unrequited love, that nauseated road-trip, is an irrational condition limited to human beings—as is "acting," where one behaves in a manner contrary to one’s real desires or fears. Both experiences cross the expanse between who we are and what we want. And we replicate this dissonance in our art—that’s what art is in some ways—though never quite in the way we replicate it in Theatre of the Oppressed (TO).

The title Theatre of the Oppressed can seem foreboding, but it is not entirely or necessarily about oppression. It is about acting like a person acts when they are their best selves, and doing it publicly.

TO gives us an aesthetic space where we can practice our lives with witnesses, imagining with our bodies in front of people—imagining out loud. How free can we be if we could, when faced with difficult decisions or our most broken heart, take a step back and in the company of those who care for us say what we really feel? Act ourselves out—ourselves! Our real-ness. And yes it will fail, and yes it will be the brilliance of suns.

This is Theatre of the Oppressed to me. It is our imagination loose and sprawling—it is me as I feel myself; not how I am interpreted—it is an act of creation every time—it is not rehearsal or performance—it is being, and it is being in public. It is being with witnesses who can hold us to that heightened standard of ourselves.

Confronting conflict

I happened upon Theatre of the Oppressed as an emerging teacher. I was 23, entirely unschooled in education and unflappably sure of myself. When a bullying problem was called to my attention I, considering myself student-driven and compassionate, was eager to fix it.

In "Interactive Acting" by Jeff Wirth and "Games for Actors and Non-Actors" and "Rainbow of Desire" by Augusto Boal, I learned about Forum Theatre (the heart of TO), the retelling of stories with the intention to try on new endings. First, the participants, facilitated by a "Joker," present a problem scene—an event that transpired without a hoped-for ending. Then, Forum Theatre makes its primary departure from standard theater practice; it invites the audience (or "spect-actors," Boal’s term for the activated audience) to join in and affect the story-telling.

And, unlike improvisational theater, the purpose is to "complexify" our blunted conflicts—to tease out all that holds us back, the oppressions we internalize. Now when they see a bully corner someone, or the teacher belittle a student in front of the class, or someone cut in line, the spect-actors can clap to freeze the scene, enter the space and, as a stand-in for all of us, do something.

I trained high school students in the mechanics of TO so we could conduct anti-bullying workshops with elementary students—and after a few months of practicing, we did.

It is difficult to overstate the impact the theater form had on the group of students I worked with and me. To wit, a major component of the arsenal of theater of the oppressed are "cop-in-the-head" exercises. Boal suggested that our oppressors are often internalized voices from our lives that drown out our authentic selves. A story about a failure to act becomes much more clear when, as one exercise goes, those voices are actually embodied by participants who might, as part of the scene, surround the storyteller chaotically or hold conversations among themselves so the storyteller can stand back and listen or might stand and converse with the storyteller one at a time, calmly, so she can see more clearly the voices in her head and act accordingly.

Every time the students and I tried a new form, we experienced our conflicts from new perspectives or were able to participate in the conflicts of others as though they were vessels, evoking and analyzing our own internal voices and oppressors in the process.

Note that there are no mistakes in TO. We do not move through a performance avoiding gaffes and dropped lines. It is impossible to make a mistake—the performance is as human as the spect-actors who volunteer their stories and ideas. Yet TO retains the aesthetic of theater. It is beautiful to watch because it is utterly authentic. In my work with high school students and bullying, I've also found that the Art of it allows students a comfortable distance from which they can consider their behavior.

Define art differently

Personally I become bored and sleepy-eyed when the stories being told do not concern me, or when the stage is flaccid with over-rehearsed actors. But Theatre of the Oppressed is our story, told immediately. It is a catalyst for change, creating a type of anti-catharsis in its participants where, having been exposed to pervasive and serious social problems, people are upset from their routine and incited to take action against the injustice they have witnessed (in the same vein as Brecht's "Alienation Effect").

While traditional theater presents a cathartic journey with a climax and a resolution, Boal’s theater does not resolve problems—rather it exposes them, from their source to their final manifestation, and demands real action by the participants. It seeks to identify and eliminate the obstacles inhibiting action by the story-teller. Boal created a new catharsis— “the catharsis of detrimental blocks” —where we understand and rid ourselves of our hesitations. The next time we encounter that brand of oppression we know it—and we know our relationship with it. By understanding our oppressors and ourselves better through theater, we grow energized and competent to change them.

The drama of this theater is intimacy with ourselves. It leans firmly into tomorrow's apathies, insists itself into our next faltering moment. This is theater where yours is the story on stage, or yours is the movement that changes the course of the action, where your passion is mingled with the passion of your friends and strangers. A good TO session, like a long awaited conversation with a best friend or a perfectly rendered weekend, fortifies us against our weaker moments, agitates us while surrounding us with allies.

Theatre of the Oppressed breaks down and reshapes the process of oppression and of change. We can only become what we imagine ourselves to be; TO doesn't just inspire change through artistic expression, it uses play and acting to make our imaginations real in the world.

And there are wonderful TO practitioners in the Twin Cities, from high schools to the University of Minnesota to people working with homeless and immigrant populations. Check out the Pedagogy & Theatre of the Oppressed website for a national perspective or email local practitioners at their google group address for more information.

Brecht, ideological forerunner of TO, came from early communist Europe; Boal came from post-colonial South America. We are entering a post-emperial United States, shifting our focus outward at what might be the waning of American dominance on the world stages. What will come from us?