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Around the corner at the White House, they’re making the world safe for shareholders. And here, on a March evening at the 15th Street NW offices of the Social Action Leadership School for Activists, we’re playing tag.
A game called “Cat and Mouse,” actually—complete with growlings, roars, and halfhearted predator/prey antics, acted out by a dozen-plus do-gooders and rabble-rousers. We’ve come here tonight to learn about “Theatre of the Oppressed” (T-O), which applies dramatic techniques to social activism. But according to T-O facilitator Gabrielle Guerrero Bayme, getting in touch with our inner animals is the first step toward a better tomorrow. “It’s about thinking with your body rather than your head,” says the fresh-faced 30-year-old.
Invented in the ’60s by the Brazilian artist-activist Augusto Boal, T-O joins activism, performance, and therapy into a single theatrical tool for the masses. Underprivileged populations, says Guerrero Bayme, can use it to get in touch with what’s bugging them (anything, say, from deforestation to repression), decide how they feel about the problem, and come up with solutions.
After the feline/rodentine warm-up, four participants put on a playlet that Guerrero Bayme’s written about a high-school gay-straight alliance. When the alliance’s sponsor runs afoul of school administrators, audience members—“spect-actors,” in Boal’s unhappy term—stop the action, suggest alternate strategies, and even step into the play to try and change the outcome.
In the real world, Guerrero Bayme says, anyone—from refugees to minorities to the unemployed—can write and use such “rehearsals for change.” And tonight’s earnest group (whose members would give only their first names) seems impressed. Chris, a human-rights and environmental activist, says he wants to take T-O to Asia, helping Burmese exiles in Thailand discover effective forms of protest that won’t get them deported. Rebekah, a 30-ish redheaded Baltimore educator, thinks T-O might help break down logjams between teachers and bureaucrats. “It would be an eye-opener to turn these techniques around and use them on these people,” she says.
T-O hasn’t exactly put the United States into turnaround, but worldwide it’s flourishing, with organizations in 44 countries. Guerrero Bayme, an editor and event facilitator at the American Public Transportation Association, says she found in T-O a perfect marriage between her political and her dramatic sides—saving her from performing as what she calls “every squeaky-voiced dingbat in musical theater” such as Audrey in Little Shop of Horrors and Frenchie in Grease. “The possibilities blew me away,” she says.
Now she’s hoping to build a local population of activists versed in Boal’s techniques—including one called “Legislative Theater,” a T-O variant aimed at shaping public policy. “We are in D.C.,” Guerrero Bayme points out, “so maybe that would be a good thing to explore here.”
Tonight’s training for the revolution wraps up with an exercise in which participants “sculpt” a physical representation of the experience. The evening’s been fairly lively, but the first student to respond surprises everyone by curling herself into a fetal position, silently signaling to a roomful of strangers that she’s been a little overwhelmed. And the others respond in turn, wordlessly assuming poses that range from the comforting to the jubilant to the weary.
Guerrero Bayme smiles, clearly thinking the night’s been a success. “Sometimes, your body knows things you don’t know up here,” she says, pointing to her head.—Trey Graham