Theatre of the Oppressed: what I learned from this educational method and my students

Last Wednesday, there was a big change in the curriculum for the students. Instead of having a class with the regular teachers, we welcomed six new guest speakers. They were all alumni of EarthRights School and came from different countries such as Laos, Cambodia, Myanmar, and Vietnam. Despite the fact that students thought the alumni were there to share their experiences with EarthRights School, the guest speakers came a long way not as visiting alumni but as “Jokers” and wanted to introduce a popular educational movement that incorporates arts and activism to the students. It is Forum Theatre, one of the methods of Theatre of the Oppressed, developed by Augusto Boal – a Brazillian theater director, writer, and politician. Interestingly, he was also influenced by Paulo Freire, the author of Pedagogy of the Oppressed which I read as part of my training before arriving at the school.

What makes Forum Theatre special, inviting, and different from Traditional Theatre lies with the audience. In Traditional Theatre, the audience is “Spectators”, which means that they passively watch, listen, and feel without leaving their seats. The audience is separated from the play and bears no weight on what happens in the play. However, when it comes to Forum Theatre, the audience gets a chance to be the main character who experienced oppression and gives a go at changing the despairing situation for that character. After being shown the whole play up until the climax of conflict, the audience can see the play again. At any point, they can stop the performance to replace one character and make an effort to transform the situation in their unique way. This was Boal’s attempt to reform the traditional ways of theatre and put the audience into the performance. This way, the audience has a chance to reflect on the situation presented by the play as well as the actions that can be taken to solve the problem. Going back to Freire, this method also supports having dialogues and teaching with the oppressed, not for the oppressed.

During the workshops, students familiarized themselves with this method through a series of games and discussions about what Forum Theatre signified and how students could convey a message through their plays. The games were cleverly developed to hide their intention of training the students to express themselves more through actions and emotions instead of words. The students were unconsciously learning a great amount while having fun! Furthermore, the discussions about Forum Theatre really opened up a space to investigate what problems the communities in the Mekong region are facing. An activity that I really liked from the workshop was when the students got into groups and did a brief research on the land-grabbing issue in their home countries. While learning about Social Context and its importance in Forum Theatre, students looked into online newspapers in their language and wrote down the headlines and main points of the articles that they found. With that data, the students came up with still images to illustrate the information that they had gathered from the articles. This exercise highlighted students’ ability to critically reflect on issues in their home countries and turn that into theatre. Another activity that I found helpful for students to learn about the dramaturgy of Forum Theatre was when each student paired up with a classmates and tried different ways to put weight onto the other person (for example: using hands to push, holding hands and pulling each other, having their backs together and sitting down). In normal games, you would imagine the goal in a game such as this would be to knock your partner down. However, in this activity, the students were instructed to depend on their partners and not to use too much strength when pushing or pulling. They needed to find a balance between themselves and the one working with them. This was to demonstrate role-playing as a protagonist and antagonist in a Forum Theatre’s play. You are not trying to win, you are trying to have a dialogue and explore the topic with your audience. Therefore, as the Jokers described, “if your partner is strong, you should be weak; if your partner is speaking, you should be quiet and listening. Then, everyone will have a chance to express themselves clearly. This is the intention of Forum Theatre”.

As an intern responsible for helping students at EarthRights School with ESL, I was more interested in what aspects of this workshop assisted students in learning to converse and developing their English skills. First of all, I noticed that the facilitators did their best to help students with new concepts introduced. Since students have varying level of English competency, the Jokers were always willing to repeat something twice, even three times in English, then have someone translate in the students’ native languages so that everyone could really absorb the materials. It was evident that when the facilitators did not show any frustration and annoyance while explaining abstract concepts, the students were also more willing to listen and pick up words that they could understand. Second, since the students were asked to prepare lines in English for a play, they challenged themselves with something they have never accomplished before and had to experiment with coming up with full English sentences to describe a theme or feeling. I even witnessed one student, while playing table tennis, was practising his lines out loud over and over again so he would not forget. Once he had memorized his lines, he said that he felt a great sense of achievement that he had never felt before during his time learning English. For an ESL student, a proud moment like this may be exciting for them and can become a great motivation to continue learning. Third, and most important, I saw an application of “Whole-language learning” strategies in the workshop. According to David Schwarzer, whole-language learning consists of “all language skills…, class participants learn about the cultures of their peers and their communities, social rules are openly discussed, and class activities incorporate the students’ knowledge and talents”. Schwarzer emphasizes on seeing ESL learners as individuals with individual styles, strengths, and interests; therefore, ESL teaching must also take these differences into consideration and bring them into the lessons. During the workshop, students could freely discuss their ideas and felt comfortable suggesting new details that could be added into their plays. Furthermore, the plays reflected a profound problem in the students’ communities. Students had seen land being taken away from indigenous people who lived their whole lives there and felt the desperate need to protect the land and livelihood of their people. All their experiences and emotions were captured and understood by the facilitators and well-developed into a play about the students, about people of the Mekong region. As a result, the images that students created, the lines that they rehearsed, the discussions that they had all held a great meaning to them. This allowed the students to be authentic and passionate when learning to speak up about their real problems. Also, it was helpful for students to learn new vocabulary related to land laws, human rights, and campaigning because these topics relate to their profession and interest in real life. Last, having this opportunity to work closely with each other in a play had enabled the students to make connections with one another and trust one another more than before. This has created the learning community that is welcoming and caring to the students’ needs and challenges.

Today was the day of the performance. Watching their final product being shown, performed all in English, and showered with applause, I felt proud and confident in the students that they would make even more impressive improvements in the future with the help of their peers and the companion of EarthRights Schools.


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