The following report is from Gaynor, a co-facilitator on our recent week-long residential forum theatre and image theatre training course, held in Cataluyna in March 2018. Many thanks Gaynor!
As a self-confessed forum theatre addict, who has been fascinated by Theatre of the Oppressed for years, being offered the chance to be a support facilitator on the residential training by Reboot the Root at Ulex, was a real privilege and gift; A whole week to collaborate with others, as keen as me to find ways to apply this approach in the exploration of the multiple oppressions facing human beings in an increasingly oppressive world.
Having been a facilitator for over a decade, delivering workshops has been my job but at the same time, attending them has been my hobby; in my spare time I seek out any opportunity I can to see the ways that other facilitators lead groups and ‘hold space’ – from cacao ceremonies, to tantra workshops, and storytelling, every workshop and approach has something to offer, even if it means discovering facilitation styles that I don’t enjoy! Experiencing workshops as a participant, and observing other facilitators enriches my own practice and I gather the lessons and games as I go.
Facilitating a residential course at Ulex is at the extreme end of facilitation and it requires patience, courage and stamina. Firstly, there are participants there from all over the world, with different levels of experience and knowledge of Theatre of the Oppressed, and varying levels of English. In addition, topics emerging generate high emotions, as participants bring stories of the oppressions facing themselves and others to the work. Forum Theatre incorporates a playfulness, but at the same time it can reveal our collective frustrations and pain as we wrestle with the oppressions ‘on stage’ that are all too present for us in the real world. And all of this work would be taking place in a residential community environment where personalities had the potential to rub, and facilitators and participants were sharing the same space; equally immersed in the experience and ‘always on’. As such, it would be a lot to hold, inside and outside the planned sessions. I would be learning from George Wielgus, someone who had ridden the waves of this process before, and who has many years of experience with Theatre of the Oppressed in challenging settings. Before I met him, someone on another T. O. course had said to me, ’And have you met George yet? He trains Theatre of the Oppressed, but he really ‘lives it’ too , you know?’… I didn’t really know what that meant at the time, but I smiled and nodded anyway, hoping that I would one day have the chance to find out. Certainly, on meeting George, I could feel the calm confidence and strength that a leader needs to hold this type of experience, but he also had compassion and openness with a good sense of humour. I was looking forward to what the week would bring.
I arrived at Ulex after a period of ill mental health, with the prospect of being away from my ordinary life, an added bonus. My mind had been working over the typical stresses of surviving in the city; where to live, how to make money, how to keep on keeping on through the illness, while maintaining the facade that everything was okay. I had the impression that many participants were arriving in a similar state of exhaustion, and we were reassured that the course would be a gentle pace that would include much time to restore ourselves in nature. Being in a house on a mountain in Catalunya was a chance to ‘drop’ things that were weighing us down, and relax and heal on the inside. It’s amazing how after a few days in this rural environment, the external world becomes distant, and all that matters is this present moment; the people here, the laughter, the tears, the games, the songs. And like using a magnifying glass, once the background noise of daily stress goes away, your inner world comes sharply into focus, and that’s where the lessons really begin.
We started each day with a ‘check-in’ where we would share in groups how we were feeling, ‘from the heart’, and they would listen actively with their hearts open but without comment. This practice was like ‘coming up for air’; how often did I wish to be listened to without fearing the listener’s reaction or receiving unsolicited advice? People’s masks were falling away, including my own, and a way of relating was established which set the tone for the whole week.
As the week progressed, and we explored the many games that Boal had devised to build trust and agility in actors, I was reminded that TO was never about a separation between drama and ‘real life’; we are actors in our own lives, on and off the stage. We bring to the work our own lived experiences, we project our own interpretations onto blank images, and we bring our learned coping strategies to the scenes in an attempt to ‘break’ oppressions that we are familiar with. As such, Theatre of the Oppressed cannot help but be transformative on a personal level.
Phrases that I heard, games that I played and lessons I learned during my week at Ulex stay with me forever;
‘First answer, best answer’ – This phrase was used to remind us to go with our gut, and move us from thinking to action. It’s all too easy to second guess an idea, pull it apart and abandon it, without giving it a go. As someone who can over think, this phrase has become a helpful mantra to encourage me to trust my instincts.
Ensemble movement and trust– It was a liberating and affirming experience to be supported by the group, both figuratively and literally. Games where I could offer a repetitive movement and have people join me or mirror it back to me helped me to feel accepted; there was no move or gesture that wouldn’t be followed and not only did I feel the freedom to offer anything that my body felt to do, I was also reminded that there was no separation between bodies and people; We moved around the space as one. When I allowed myself to trust the group to lift me from my chair and up into the sky, I felt euphoric; A complete surrender of control and an embodiment of faith in people and process.
No one solution, only a multitude of options – Each time a new spect-actor took on the challenge of breaking the oppression in the scene before them, they were trying out an idea to see how it went. They didn’t know what would happen but they gave it a shot, and they sometimes made progress or hit on a way to get over an obstacle; each time the narrative played out differently. I’m a perfectionist who can get immobilized by decision making… ‘What if I make the wrong move?’ ‘What if it doesn’t work?’ and after the event ‘Maybe I should have done x or y?’ In Forum, there is no ‘right way’, but many ways. There are numerous possibilities but there is no telling if any one way would have been better than another, since the reactions to the intervention by the other players cannot be predicted. On stage, as in life, their reactions and actions are beyond our control. Nothing is a ‘wrong’ intervention, it’s just different choices; all that matters is to get on your feet and try and learn from whatever comes next.
Non participation is always an option – In contrast to many workshops and therapeutic approaches where participants are encouraged to ‘push through’ and ‘do what they find most difficult’, we were told from the start that we could opt out or observe at any time. This was a relief to hear for those who had come with limited experience of drama games and were feeling reticent, but it also became more relevant as the work became more emotionally intense. Knowing I could stop when it felt right to me made it safe for me to try.
Allow time and space for feelings – At the start of each day, and after activities, the invitation was there for us to share how we felt and what an exercise brought up for us. George held the space for everyone to speak their own truth without comment, and emotions of laughter, grief, confusion and joy were all as welcome as each other in the circle. No one was hurried or shamed. This is definitely a learning point for me as a facilitator; the importance of allowing time for people to process what is taking place. It was a beautiful and supportive group where we could be authentic, and the course was shaped with plenty of time outside of the held sessions for personal reflection.
The moments where I observed myself resisting any of the above revealed to me my long-held thought patterns that didn’t serve me; it was like a year’s worth of therapy condensed into a week!
As part of his practice, Boal would always invite the group he was working with to dedicate the day to a current issue or fight against oppression and George continued this tradition. As we listened to one another, the group of assembled activists shared the struggles that they had personal connections to; the threat of eviction to residents at the Sofia Solidarity Centre, Yarls Wood solidarity protests, activists against restricted access to abortion for women in Poland (“Black Friday” protests), and the arrest of ‘Stansted 15’ activists among others. Each dedication was a sobering reminder that Forum Theatre is actually a rehearsal for the revolution; it is a training ground, and the actual fight is ongoing, real and risky.
For Boal in Brazil in the ‘70s, producing theatre in favour of a population against a dictatorship was a risky move in itself and he was arrested for making ‘Newspaper Theatre’ with his troupe. This incident changed his view of theatre, and he realised he couldn’t advise others to take up a fight that he wasn’t prepared to enter into himself. Boal quoted Che Guevara in saying “To be in solidarity with others is to take the same risks.” It is not enough to simply feel empathy from the sidelines. Through the passion, conviction and energy shown by my fellow participants and facilitators, I was beginning to see what ‘living TO’ actually means, and I have returned to my life with a daring spirit, ready to stand up for myself and others.