Today was a manic, creative whirl through one of the most famous and rigorous applied theatre forms: forum theatre, which is part of Augusto Boal’s “arsenal” of Theatre of the Oppressed techniques and strategies. Forum Theatre highlights an injustice in the world through a short play. After the performance is finished, audience members are invited to replace the protagonist – the victim of the oppression – at key moments to try to change the negative outcome the character inevitably experiences.
Forum is a rehearsal for change in the real world, a safe laboratory for trying out ideas on intricate and often taboo subjects. The experience of forum can be transformative for actors and audience alike – but like any potion, its ingredients are only potent in the right proportions.
We split into small groups, with one CUNY student directing a group of five or six students from the University of Rwanda. First, we churned up ideas for problems, oppressions, injustices in the world. Nothing was off-limits, from corruption in business, to violence in the home, to sex trafficking to buy the next day’s bread. Each group settled on a topic that it was passionate about. In my group, we settled on forced marriages determined by economic necessity, not love and the happiness of the couple. Then the hard work began.
Crafting a forum piece is very exacting – it’s not just about making an arresting story, it’s about creating a tragedy that has the potential to be changed. Make the oppression too powerful or nebulous, and it’s impossible to challenge. Make the leading characters too strong, too active, and it is impossible for audience members to fight back any better than they already do.
As a group we tested scenarios and built scenes. Striking the right balance in the piece was a constant negotiation, over, under, and through language barriers. But the entire time, the passion and creativity of the URCE students was monumental. We pushed through fatigue and confusion, through translations and arguments, to arrive at a product that was imperfect, but alive. Each forum (we created twelve!) addressed a problem that the students identified for themselves. Tomorrow the pieces will be shared and fellow students will try to intervene in the imaginary but all-too familiar, unjust worlds. I don’t know how it will play out- but that is the joy and terror of drama and life and art – the relish of the unknown.