Forum Theatre

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  • Number of participants = 10 – 30+
  • Theme = Power dynamics, oppression, prevention, empowerment
  • Duration = 90 minutes to 3 months
  • Difficult for participants = Level 4
  • Difficulty for facilitator = Level 4

Summary

A drama activity to uncover power dynamics in different situations: the audience becomes active, as ‘spect-actors’ they explore, show, analyse and transform the reality in which they are living.

The Forum Theatre is about firstly recognising an issue or prejudice; secondly learning not to act out the prejudice; thirdly pointing out if somebody has done it; and finally challenging the oppressor in a way that helps them reflect on and change their behaviour. This method is not preaching a moral code. However, it does go deeper into reflection on and changing of people´s behaviour around how they treat other people.

Goals/Learning Objectives

  • To empower an oppressed group/person
  • To express their own interests and aims
  • To develop the ability to take action and find possible solutions
  • To make concerned person aware of the issue

Materials

  • Lots of space for the performance and the spectators
  • Requisites depending on the scene

Preparation

Choose a scene, which clearly shows a goal that seems impossible to reach for an oppressed person. The oppressed person(s) and the ‘spect-actors’ should be familiar with and connected to the issue or conflict. It is important that one or more antagonists are involved in this process and that the issue is actually possible to solve for the oppressed person. In a Forum Theatre scene, the protagonist reacts to the obstacles in his/her usual way and is not able find the right way to reach their goal. That is the point where the ‘spect-actors’ jump in.

The scene can be chosen by the facilitators, but also by the participants if they have a specific situation that they want to share. It should come from a mixture of people’s individual life experiences. The facilitators create a safe space to share and facilitate the building of the story, but it is the participant´s story combined with the story of oppression. The scene can also link to issues discussed previously in other activities. Examples could be facing microaggressions, for instance:

a. On the first day of school, a teacher is surprised that a Black Student or a Student of Colour can speak the national language fluently.
b. A Romani girl is new to her class. Suddenly, another girl says an expensive item she owns is missing. Others accuse the new girl of stealing this item and bully her. Finally, the original girl admits that she lost the item but was too afraid to tell, as her parents would be angry.
c. In an international exchange, two men are sharing a room. One of them is part of a sexual minority and the other man wants to change the room.

Flow of the Exercise

A group of three to 16 participants prepares a short theatre scene regarding a conflict.

The actors perform a play with a basic script in which an oppression relevant to the audience is played out. It is necessary that the scene shows clearly what the protagonist wants, and that the accomplishment of the goal is not possible due to barriers.

After reaching the scripted conclusion, in which the oppressed character(s) fail to overturn their oppression, the actors begin the production again, although often in a condensed form. At any point during this second performance, any ‘spect-actor’ may call out ‘stop!’ and take the place of the actor portraying the oppressed individual. This actor stays on stage but to the side, giving suggestions to the ‘spect-actor’ who has replaced him/her. They are not allowed to replace the antagonist(s).

If the oppression has been overthrown by the ‘spect-actors’, the production changes again: the ‘spect-actors’ have the opportunity to replace the oppressors now and find new ways of challenging the oppressed character. In this way the audience, who may be affected by oppression, can make a more realistic depiction of this oppression. The whole process is designed to be dialectic, concluding through the consideration of opposing arguments, rather than didactic, in which the moral argument is one-sided and pushed from the actors with no chance of reply or counter-argument.

Debriefing

In the end, there will be a feeling of success for the oppressed person(s) even if one solution does not exist and the process itself will move slowly in reality. It is the task of the facilitator to analyse the intervention and to help the audience with questions.

After the performance, start with a short neutral overview about the scene and its solutions as a whole followed by asking questions about the feelings of the oppressed person(s) and the ‘spect-actor(s)’ whether or not it was difficult, and why:

  • What was the situation? What barriers or issues arose? Why was/were people oppressed?
  • Which solutions were suggested? Were they effective? Why, or why not?
  • Ask the oppressed person(s): how did you feel while acting? How do you feel after seeing and listening to the proposed solutions? Do you think they could help you in reality?
  • Ask the ‘spect-actor(s)’: How did you feel while you were observing or trying to find a solution? What emotions were, or are still, working inside you? Have you observed such a situation in your everyday life? Would you act differently now if you see such a situation again?

Variations

Alternatively, ‘spect-actors’ can intervene directly to take over from the actors and develop alternative outcomes, the facilitator can stop the role-play play at intervals and ask the audience to comment or to make suggestions about how the role-play should continue.

An alternative drama activity is the method Image Theatre, which is an efficient method for when you want people to reflect on discrimination. Ask one person – the sculptor – to create a collective image by using some of the other participants and ‘sculpting their’ bodies to produce a tableaux or scene showing a discriminated situation. When the sculptor has finished, the rest of the group can comment and ask questions. The next step should be to transform the representation into a positive, non-violent image of the situation.

Another method to reflect on microaggression, racism and interpersonal discrimination and how to respond to racism is the method Do Not Act Like Me!

In the method Path to Equality Land, participants explore issues of inequality, privilege, discrimination and racism through imagination and drawing, and try to overcome inequality, which they have faced or observed in their everyday life.

Possible Follow up Activities

If you or the participants want to focus more on discrimination, racism and inequality, Change Your Glasses is a way to explore and to reflect on privilege and inequality in their own community.

Recommendations

It is necessary that the facilitator stays neutral to be at the centre of proceedings. The facilitator takes responsibility for the logistics of the process and ensures a fair process, but must never comment upon, or intervene in, the content of the performance, as that is the province of the ‘spect-actors’. Fairness in this context means making sure that the problem story, which by its nature involves a situation of oppression that must be overcome, is not solved. Just the participants (the ‘spect-actors’) focus on solving the problem in as realistic and plausible way as possible, even though it is being played out in a fictional theatrical piece. The result should be something like group ‘brainstorming’ about social problems within their community.

If the facilitator wants to create a safe space for oppressed persons or the participants are feeling more comfortable to do that activity with other person who are also facing oppression, it is recommendable to implement this method just for persons who have faced similar experiences.

The background story of Forum Theatre

Forum Theatre is a type of theatre created by the innovative and influential practitioner Augusto Boal, one of the techniques under the umbrella term of ‘The Theatre of the Oppressed’. This relates to the engagement of ‘spect-actors’ influencing and engaging with the performance as both spectators and actors, termed ‘spect-actors’, with the power to stop and change the performance. As part of the Theatre of the Oppressed, the issues dealt within Forum Theatre are often related to areas of social justice with the aims of exploring solutions to the oppression featured in the performance.

While practicing in South America earlier in his career, Boal would apply ‘simultaneous dramaturgy’. In this process, the actors or audience members could stop a performance, often a short scene in which a character was being oppressed in some way (for example, a typically chauvinist man mistreating a woman, or a factory owner mistreating an employee). In early forms of ‘simultaneous dramaturgy’, the audience could propose any solution by calling out suggestions to the actors who would improvise the changes on stage. This was an attempt to undo the traditional audience/actor partition and bring audience members into the performance to have an input into the dramatic action they were watching.

Forum Theatre was essentially born from ‘simultaneous dramaturgy’. The concept of the ‘spectactor’ became a dominant force within and shaped Boal’s theatre work, gradually helping it shift into what he called Forum Theatre (due to the take on the character of a public discussion or series of proposals, only in dramatic format). The audience were encouraged to not only imagine change but to actually practice that change, by coming on stage as ‘spect-actors’ to replace the protagonist and act out an intervention to ‘break the oppression’. Through this process, the participant is also able to realise and experience the challenges of achieving the improvements he/she suggested. The actors who welcome the volunteer ‘spect-actor’ onto the stage play against the ‘spect-actor’s’ attempts to intervene and change the story, offering a strong resistance so that the difficulties in making any change are also acknowledged.

Boal clarifies that this practice is not intended to show the correct path, but rather to discover all possible paths, which may be further examined. The Theatre itself is not revolutionary; but it does offer a chance to rehearse for revolution. The ‘spect-actors’ learn much from the enactment even though the acting is fiction, because the fiction simulates real-life situations, problems, and solutions. It stimulates the practice of resistance to oppression in reality and offers a ‘safe space’ for practicing making change. When faced in reality with a similar situation they have rehearsed in theatre, participants who have experienced Forum Theatre ideally will desire to be proactive, and will have the courage to break oppressive situations in real life, since they feel much more prepared and confident in resolving the conflict. Another way of thinking about it is that rehearsing the actions helps ‘spect-actors’ to develop their own courage and encourages them desire action for change in real life. The practice of this form creates an uneasy sense of incompleteness that seeks fulfilment through real action.

‘Spect-actor’

This is a term created by Augusto Boal to describe those engaged in Forum Theatre. It refers to the dual role of those involved in the process as both spectator and actor, as they both observe and create dramatic meaning and action in any performance.

Boal emphasises the critical need to prevent the isolation of the audience. The term ‘spectator’ brands the participants as less than human; hence, it is necessary to humanise them, to restore to them their capacity for action in all its fullness. They must also be a subject, an actor on equal plane with those accepted as actors, who in turn must also be spectators. This will eliminate any notions of the ruling class and the theatre solely portraying their ideals while the audience members are the passive victims of those images. This way the spectators no longer delegate power to the characters either to think or act in their place. They free themselves; they think and act for themselves.

Adapted from:
Boal, Augusto (1993). Theater of the Oppressed p. 132-133. New York: Theatre Communications Group. ISBN 0-930452-49-6.
Boal, Augusto (1996). The Rainbow of Desire: the Boal method of theatre and therapy (Reprinted. ed.). London: Routledge. ISBN 0-415-10349-5.
Wardrip-Fruin, Noah, and Nick Montfort. ‘From Theatre of the Oppressed’. The NewMediaReader. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT, 2003. ISBN 0-262-23227-8, p. 339-52. Print.

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