Reflection Space

Reflection space: TO and its impact in a broader political/social theatre landscape

This is a short essay on questions that I pose to myself at the moment regarding my and our  practice of Theatre of the Oppressed. It is an effort and not something fixed. Recently I attended a training on immersive theatre. This is a social theatre form or culture that similarly to TO is participative: instead of asking the spectActors/spectActivists on stage after the performance, they are totally immersed into the play: they become part of what is happening, constantly being ON the stage as actors. For me, having seen (or been in) a great performance of this kind in Vienna in 2016, where I felt my political, emotional identity constantly and in every second being questioned, this was a stunning way to investigate how to further my forum theatre practice. What happens if we can make a political theatre that doesn‘t need jokering anymore, because the spectactors constantly become spectactors of their own actor (Sanjoy Ganguly)?

Another characteristic of this kind of theatre is that it puts a beautiful focus on the senses and the space that it works in. As we are always on the stage, our reality that surrounds us becomes an essential part of the performance.

Immersive theatre works with the roles of „hosts“ and „guests“ instead of actors and specta(c)tors, host are the ones who have devised a performance, guests are the ones being lead by the hosts through a specific set up. Still, the guests are considered to have free will and individual taste.

During the training I co-created several short plays, working with topics of TO like patriarchy, in the example of the sharing of household chores. In them I tried to structure the plays so that they seduced the guests as much as possible into acting differently from the presented story. Working with the free will of the audience has proved a great tool for that: people can choose to intervene and change reality or they can choose not to. Each choice gives them a emotional and deep experience about the presented issue. What it left out though totally, was any kind of reflection with others on that individual, deep experience and the individual interpretation.

Here, I see a specific strength of forum theatre: through the interventions an issue is discussed collectively and is not left to individual interpretation. We live in a world of oppression even though who is oppressor and who is oppressed might not be as easy to determine as in earlier times. It is not about our individual choice to intervene and change reality; it is a societal question.

Even the immersive performers/trainers at the training I attended gave the following feedback to TO: its great potential is that it has brought change into theatre. An immersive theatre performance gives us the illusion of change as despite any action of the guests the story is roughly predetermined and static.

Also they saw disadvantages: speaking generally, TO is taking aesthetics less seriously in its effort to highlight political issues, in a forum theatre performance there is a structural element that limits the possibilities for creating beauty. In the interventions of the SpectActors/SpectActivists the aesthetic value will be destroyed in any case. They didn‘t mean that we definitely lose the characters in an intervention even if we try hard not to or that interventions might be intellectual and talkative, but that the intervention in the forum is an aesthetic rupture.

What do I, do we, as TO practitioners do with this feedback? Do we just take it and say yes ok, that is our weakness, or do we try to work around the concept of the intervention, and question the concept of the intervention which is one of the cores of our practice?

One of my favourite sentences I took from that training was: “Every obstruction is an opportunity“.  If you are aware that you limit yourself in what you do aesthetically, you will get creative and change your performance/practice to something even better.

Recently, in an area different from both TO and immersive practices, I saw a really well-researched and contextualised lecture performance which, even though it was not enabling interventions or participation from the audience, managed to problematise an issue (exploitation of seasonal agricultural workers from Romania in Austria) in a way that showed good reasons for every character and perspective in the story (like consumers, politicians, farmers, the agricultural workers) but still made clear that there was a clear case of injustice, and stood in solidarity with the marginalized land workers. What it enabled instead of interventions was a very good political discussion about the issue that was informed and specific to the issue. The discussion thus was about the political issue itself and not about moralising who is good or bad in the game.

Performed by two white privileged bourgeois performers, for me the evening felt like an honest way on how privileged people can still stand in solidarity with the marginalized in a ethical way.

Using this example, I wanted to point out one more specific strength and characteristic of TO: though it might be not done by the marginalised (I dont feel very marginalised as a white bourgois male and materially safe practitioner from Vienna), it always, I emphasize, always, takes the perspective of the marginalized and has solidarity with them.

Having said all this, let us have an honest dialogue of the strengths and weaknesses of our own techniques through quite general questions like: What is the specific use of forum theatre looking at it from a broader (political) theatre perspective? How can we avoid TO becoming a theatre of slogans with little aesthetic value? Can we reach political change through theatre and if yes how? And is TO/Forum theatre the best way to get there?

Let us also wonder, if our individual practices all over the world meet the criterium of being done by the marginalized or taking the perspective of the marginalized. I have to be very honest with you at this point: Currently my practice is not.

In no way, I want to suggest that we should abandon our beautiful practice but we should enable ourselves to look at it from an outside perspective and look at it in a new way as an art form.

Immersive theatre and TO seem like very closed theatre cultures with premises that don’t seem to work together, but they also share many things like the aspect of the participatory spectator.

In some way cultures make themselves cultures to distinguish themselves, but then we essentially play the same games, speak the same theatrical language (I worked e.g. with columbian hypnosis on the training on very different terms).

My effort in the near future will be to try to combine some of the immersive theatre techniques with theatre of the oppressed techniques and maybe found something new. In the immersive theatre training I made a first step in trying to combine techniques from the aesthetics of the oppressed with the strength of immersive theatre to work with the context-oriented work in specific spaces.

I would be very happy for comments on these thoughts from fellow TO practitioners, if you are willing send them to (I speak and read German, English, French, and Swedish).

-contributed by Joschka Köck, practitioner at TdU Wien


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