Recently I had the incredible fortune of facilitating a Theatre of the Oppressed institute for teenagers. Working with young people is a particular joy of mine, especially with their capacity to reach for concepts usually reserved for academics. I’ve been studying Theatre of the Oppressed for years, participating in workshops and master classes. But explaining my views on theatre to these young people, I learned that Theatre of the Oppressed provides a great (and simple) model for improving the theatre community at large and reversing many of its inherent injustices. What is Theatre of the Oppressed, you ask? I should start at the beginning.
Pedagogy of the Oppressed, the landmark work by Brazilian educator Paolo Freire, was first published in 1968. It is the the work credited with jumpstarting the critical pedagogy movement, a movement which would question the assumptions of not only the content of our educational system, but also the very techniques used. Among other conjectures, the book argues that the way we teach and what we teach (and therefore how and what we learn) is the reflection of a colonial history. In turn, those educational modes colonize the minds of the oppressed. This was highly relevant to Freire, who understood the experience of many Brazilians as continuing to represent the racial and economic structures of Portuguese colonization. The book is a courageous and radical criticism of the oppression inherent to society in Brazil, and around the world. So challenging were the ideas within that “most totalitarian states—risked cruel punishment, including imprisonment, if they were caught reading Pedagogy of the Oppressed.”
But perhaps the greatest contribution that Freire made was the notion that the most effective way to counteract oppression in education was to stop treating students like empty piggy banks waiting to be filled, or like the teacup in the zen koan. Rather, he opined, learners should participate in the creation of knowledge. They should have agency in what it is that they learn, so that they cannot be forced to swallow ideas that would lead them to believe that they are lesser than others, or somehow deserving of oppression. This is the idea that Brazilian theatre artist Augusto Boal used to develop the Theatre of the Oppressed, which, more than an international organization or ideology, is a collection of techniques and perspectives that aim to bring this idea to theatrical practice.