The act of transforming …

The act of transforming

Five years ago today we were in Malaysia … here’s what happened …



The act of transforming, I always say, transforms she or he who acts. So to use the theater as a rehearsal for transformation of reality.”

– Augusto Boal

Today, 8 trainees from Malaysian Care joined us at the Batu Arang Social Centre for a day’s introduction to the praxis of theatre of the oppressed.

The day was co-facilitated by Azahar, Argus and Nurul, and ran through a series of games and exercises aimed at producing an original forum theatre piece related to the common experience of the group.

The piece that emerged was as follows:

Attitude In The Office – a workplace forum

1st Action:

Fred works in an office. He is hard at work, his chair facing away from his colleagues Sam and Daniel. A large box is centre stage. Sam stands, and sees the box. He asks Fred to move it to the store cupboard, and Fred initially resists. All the way through, Daniel is beavering away with his headphones on. Sam convinces Fred to help him move the box, but when they both stand, Sam suddenly remembers he has something else to do. He looks at his watch and leaves. Fred tries to get Daniel to help him move it, but Daniel ignores him. Eventually, Fred tries to lift the box, and injures his back doing so.

2nd Action:

In the next scene, Boss Yong asks Sam to pick up a VIP from Subang airport. Sam is distracted, and barely listens to his boss. The boss returns to his office, and Sam calls Prakash to pick up the VIP. He tells Prakash to go to KLIA. Prakash sets off, and waits patiently at the airport. Boss Yong returns, saying it is 5 o’clock and he is waiting for the VIP. Sam realises he has sent Prakash to the wrong airport, but lies and covers up the mistake. Prakash returns and is blamed for the mistake.

3rd Action:

In the third scene, Fred returns from the hospital and finds Prakash very upset by what happened, Daniel is still ignoring everything, the Boss Yong is sat in his office, and Sam is still pretending to work.

This scene emerged from a process of image work based around the ideas suggested by the group of office integration and people saying negative things about co-workers.

We played with the initial images for sometime, debating whether the initial image (Sam looking at his watch, his other hand held up in supplication as Fred attempts to lift the box) showed equals or a manager/employee relationship. The group decided co-worker relationships were more pertinent to them. The third action developed organically as we laid the background for the story, and a number of actions were attempted to both solve the issue of Sam’s attitude (identified as more important than the actual moving of the box) and examine the technique in general – a classic dilemma of subjective/objective analysis.

The forum produced the following:

First Intervention: Fred returns from hospital, limping, and immediately speaks to Sam, asking him about the box and what happened. Sam defends himself, reasoning that he has to delegate and Fred could have asked Daniel. Fred acquiesces, and goes to speak to Prakash. Prakash is crying, and explains what happened with the airport and the VIP. Meanwhile, Sam goes to whisper in the ear of Boss Yong. Fred goes to speak to the boss alone. The Boss explains that Sam has reported Fred saying bad things about him. Fred explains what happened. The Boss calls Sam back into the office. At this point, Fred wanted to leave, not wanting to damage his good working relationship with Sam. The Boss listens to both people, and then warns Sam that he will be ‘keeping an eye on him from now on’. The Boss seemed largely unmoved by the plight of his workers.

Second Intervention: In this intervention, everything was the same, except Rufus (Fred) chose to take Prakash immediately with him to confront Boss Yong. Boss Yong again seemed unmoved by his workers situation, and gave the same warning as previously.

At this point, we had some discussion about the Boss character, and Sheila opted to take his place to show a different approach as boss. The group accepted Boss Yong’s interpretation, but it felt like he would remain largely neutral throughout. Boss Sheila’s character was more sympathetic and dynamic in solving the problem. The third intervention produced the most interesting results, and was played out with Sue Lyn as Fred.

Third Intervention: After speaking to Sam, Fred’s character goes to speak with Prakash, and this time, Daniel was motivated by compassion to join them and confirm he witnessed Sam telling Prakash to go to KLIA, not Subang. The three of them formed a unit, that then marched in to see the Boss Sheila. Overhearing this, Sam packed his bag and snuck out of the office, only to receive a phone call from Sheila summoning him back. Sheila then dismissed the others and there followed a quite sensitive scene where Boss Sheila tried to speak to Sam about his attitude and how he should behave in the workplace.

This for me was the most interesting moment: seeing Daniel, who had previously sat mutely, passively at the rear of the ‘office’, watching amusedly whilst his colleagues had battled it out, was suddenly motivated to act. He tried to catch my eye to ask permission first, which I gave, interested to see what he intended, and he joined in solidarity with Fred and Prakash – who was making a convincing display of upset over the injustice of his accusation. Similarly, once this happened, it tipped the balance of pressure on Sam, who wanted to escape and avoid the whole scenario.

This is one of the first forums I have come across where multiple people have actively been ‘oppressed’ by the actions of an oppressor: everyone in the office suffers because of the actions of a single co-worker. Not the traditional boss archetype, but a supposed equal, because of whose actions the others suffer collectively.

Throughout the devising process, it became increasingly blurred what was reality and what was ‘acting’, as the assembled group shares a workplace environment and were familiar with scenarios and characters being represented – albeit in a respectful and indirect way. I checked throughout and the group confirmed that they recognised the different boss characters, the different co-worker characters, and indeed each aspect of the scenario was familiar to them.

On analysis, the propensity to avoid confrontation was apparent (Fred fleeing a direct confrontation with Sam, and Sam trying to avoid one as well). Also, the culture of gossip and backbiting was represented, with people in the office frequently eavesdropping on one another, whispering things privately to each other, and favouring 1-2-1 communication over group discussion. However, I believe there were a few key moments when the balance swung towards open communication and directness, however, the boss character did dismiss the others when the opportunity came to speak directly to Sam.

I liked how enthusiastic today’s group was – they were hungry to learn. Apparently they had already tried out a rough forum with a group on Saturday, and it was obvious from how they delved into the technique that they were keen to explore and discover the process. It is my hope that through more sessions like this we can further embed the principles and praxis of Theatre of the Oppressed into the Malaysian NGO and outreach community.

As ever, I ended the session rather abruptly. No need for a cosy wrap-up – let the participants wander out into the jungle blinking and confused – what just happened? Let the aesthetics of the experience come back to haunt them as they return to their office …

For the first time in months, I was able to join in the image session as well. Immediately the profound feeling of being ‘objectified’ struck me as I was modelled into a bizarre shape. It gave me an insight into the process of switching object/subject that the image work is designed for. For a brief moment, I was a thing, an object, for the others to cast their subjective visions upon – a lucid shape to catch the colours of their mind. I must engage more in the exercises run by the others, as the experience is invaluable in terms of internalising the technique.

Despite my megalomaniac urges, the others, of course, ran a superlative process of games and exercises, nicely timed and soundly coordinated. Azhar continues to impress.

So, what next? The group can definitely handle more complicated subject matter, and needs assistance shaping a truly utilitarian forum piece for an audience to hammer home. I shall let it rest awhile, and report back soon with ideas on how we can push the group further.