Wednesday, April 7, 2010

Using Theatre of the Oppressed as a Public Achievement Learning Tool

I became familiar with Theatre of the Oppressed (TO) approximately the same time that I became familiar with Public Achievement (1998 - 2000), so in my mind, these two pedagogies (and I call them that because for me they have always been about different ways of teaching and learning) frequently compliment one another.  Along with a number of colleagues from the Courageous Conversations Theatre of the Oppressed group at Minneapolis Community and Technical College, we began analyzing how we could use TO to enrich and deepen the work of Public Achievement (PA).

The training in Georgia was the first time where I could build TO into PA training over a period of time longer than a quick one-hour workshop.  Over the course of three days, the participants enjoyed a series of TO games and exercises (those interested in a great introduction to TO games and exercises should read Augusto Boal's Games for Actors and Non-Actors; those interested in the theoretical underpinnings of TO should read Boal's Theatre of the Oppressed).  These included the circle and the plus-sign, the three greetings, the basic image, Colombian Hypnosis (multiple variations), push-and-pull, stop-walk, Image Theatre, the images-in-transition, and a truncated version of the Rainbow of Desire.  For the sake of this posting, however, I will limit my discussion to just a few of these games and exercises.

Colombian Hypnosis and Push-and-Pull   Colombian Hypnosis and its variant push-and-pull have always been two of my favorite games.  Colombian Hypnosis asks one person to be the hypnotist by placing her hand six inches from the face of the person being hyponized.  The hypnotist then moves her hand and the hypnotized must follow, keeping his face six inches from the hypnotist's hand.  The two never touch (although you'll notice that Shahnaz to the left "cheated" just slightly:)).  Variations add additional people to the activity, increase the distance between the hypnotist and hypnotized, or play with different postures.   These first two photographs show a chain of people involved
in Colombian Hypnosis.  We used Colombian Hypnosis as an introduction to the Public Achievement roles of mentoring and mentor coordinating.  I wanted them to see how they used their bodies to analyze what it means to "mentor" or "lead" or "facilitate," what it means to "be in control" or "to follow."  In the discussion that followed the activity, participants spoke of forms of resistance to roles, of how working together made the activity "more beautiful," of how hard it was to both follow and lead at the same time.

A variation of Colombian Hypnosis is push-and-pull.  To the right, you see Maia doing this exercise with Badri (or at least Badri's hands and forearms:)).  I was struck by how assertive, even aggressive, some of the participants were.  When demonstrating with Shahnaz, she almost pushed me to the ground before grabbing my wrists and pulling me up!  I had done this game maybe 50 times before this, and that had never happened (even when I played with Nickia Jensen, who is someone to be reckoned with:)).  During the discussion, the participants talked about the ambiguous roles prompted by the game (who is following? leading? who has the power?  what does it mean to exercise power?).  It was good stuff.

The Images-in-Transition
Another exercise that we used was the Images-in-Transition to introduce a discussion of the Public Achievement core concept of power.  Briefly, people form small groups and create two body sculpture/images: one depicting powerlessness and another depicting powerfulness.  I will let you determine which is which in these photographs:)  The groups then form their "powerlessness" image and, over the course of thirty seconds, morph the image into the same "powerfulness" image.  We had to do this exercise twice to get it right.  The first time, all four groups were done after five seconds.  I tried explaining the reasoning behind
moving slowly: that change normally takes time, that I am asking them to self-consciously and critically feel the change, that - frankly - it is more fun to do this exercise slowly (an entire book could be written on the subversive nature of fun - actually, it probably already has been).  When we did it again, the images were very powerful indeed.  I saw the look of surprise and awe on a number of the participants' faces.  I was so moved that I had to work hard to keep from tearing up (yeah, I'm a softy - so kill me).  The discussion about the exercise was rich, and this led seamlessly into the core concept discussion of power.

Rainbow of Desire  The participants over the three days were so willing to engage in TO exercises that they inspired me to lead an exercise I had never done before; in fact, I had only learned of the exercise Rainbow of Desire  from Nickia Jensen the week before I left.  In short, one person volunteers to describe briefly a long-term problem that they would like to overcome.  That person recognizes the need to overcome the problem, has perhaps even tried to solve the problem, but has been unsuccessful in doing so.  The person on the far right is the volunteer Jeyhun, whose problem is that he Facebooks five hours per day.Jeyhun then describes what he desires when he is on Facebook: for him, it was both recognition and praise.  Two more volunteers came to the front and strike poses.  Above right, Vali (far left) is Praise, and Elvin is Recognition.

Then, Jeyhun describes what fears keep him from solving the problem: he says that it is Indifference of others to him (portrayed by Salome, photo left, middle character) and Rejection (portrayed by Asia, far right).

Next, Jeyhun has discussions with his Fears and his Desires.  At one point, Recognition has a discussion with Rejection (an editorial aside: Asia was absolutely fabulous and indomitable as Rejection!).  In many ways, this exercise was the most fascinating one for the participants, but it was also my least successful facilitation.  I was trying to use the exercise to introduce the Public Achievement core concepts, how the core concepts are merely abstractions until we give them meaning.  Only because the participants were so engaged and analytical (not because of any adept facilitation on my part) did this exercise work well.  I am glad that I did this, however, because it taught me much about the potential for this exercise.  I thank Asia, Salome, Jeyhun, Elvin, Vali, and the participants for being my teachers.

I don't mean to argue that Theatre of the Oppressed is some magical tool to help train Public Achievement concepts.  Instead, this training has reawakened in me a line of thought that connects creativity with democracy.  For the emerging democracies of Azerbaijan and the Republic of Georgia, after 80 years of rule by the Soviet Union, I argue that building a democracy is ultimately a creative act, one that asks citizens to think and behave differently.  For the still-young democracy of the United States, I argue that keeping democracy vibrant requires powerful acts of creativity to contest media-packaged and consumerist-driven models of democracy.  If democracy is going to survive and thrive, it requires the citizen's creativity.  For me, then, Theatre of the Oppressed is a useful tool in this effort.  What might it be for others?  Music and song?  Drawing, painting?  Architecure?  Landscaping, gardening?  Sculpture?  Dance?  Think about it.  I know that I am.

I owe a debt of gratitude to Ben Fink and Nickia Jensen for their bright minds and insightful analysis regarding the use of TO within PA, and I also must recognize Chaka Mkali and Dennis Hopkins (D-hop), Minneapolis community organizers at Hope Community, for helping me think about TO within the larger community organizing world.  Finally, Sonja Kuftinec at the University of Minnesota has been a wonderful teacher - her criticism and analysis has helped to make the Courageous Conversations work better.

I welcome all comments, but I am especially interested in the TO communities' response to this work.  What do you think?

Tomorrow, Thursday, 8 April, I will write my final posting about the work in Azerbaijan and Georgia.  It will be mostly a traveler's/tourist's impressionistic rendering of what I enjoyed.  Then, folks, I really need to "return" to the work here, not least being filing my taxes, which are due 15 April!  


  1. From Gulshen -
    I was glad that you put in your blog Columbus Hypnosis, push and pull and etc. But I have a question. When you did "the rainbow of desire' in Tbilisi training, I forgot to ask you" What did you want us to understand? What P.A concept or something else? Again thanks very much.I am very glad that i have a chance to meet with you and learn something new. I like to learn something new.

  2. Gulshen,

    These are good questions. I asked us to use the Rainbow of Desire exercise as a way to introduce core concepts. Remember when I argued that core concepts are abstract, and that we make them concrete? The Rainbow of Desire exercise is like that. It takes emotions, desires, and fears that are abstract, and through adding characters to represent the desires and fears, we can make them more concrete.

    However, I think Public Achievement mentors can use the Rainbow of Desire exercise in many different ways. One situation where it might work well is when a team has reached a point in the work when they are stalled. What keeps them from acting, from moving ahead? The Rainbow of Desire exercise can be really useful in helping the team members name exactly what it is that they desire and what it is that they fear (in other words, what keeps them from acting on their desire).

    I would like to ask you how you think you might use the Rainbow of Desire exercise.

  3. hello, i'm developing a project on TO to take place in Armenia and I would like to know if you know organization in Georgia that are working on this subject. If so, please contact me to thanks a lot, sara leao