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5. Forum Theatre

Forum Theatre is a participatory theatre form, one of the elements of “Theatre of the Oppressed.” It was developed in Latin America by Augusto Boal as a way of working with theatre to tackle the overriding problems experienced by ordinary people. Significantly for the BICOM project it specifically developed in a context where people were described as ‘illiterate’ because they were unable to express themselves in a particular language, in this case Spanish. (Boal, 1979).

It has been seized on, developed and adapted all over the world. Currently practitioners are applying it internationally and in the UK in Health Promotion, Theatre for Development, Community action and development, work in prisons, work in health, Theatre in Education (TIE) and schools work, Drugs and HIV awareness, in consultative projects and in many other areas. It has developed into various strands – though they are often intertwined – Legislative Theatre (policy-making), the Rainbow of Desire (therapeutic) and Forum Theatre (educational). Education in this context is used in the way that Paolo Freire used the term – education as liberation (Freire, 1972).

Forum Theatre explicitly draws on theories about the theatre and education Consciously or (more often) not it also draws on theories about policy-making and management of change too.

There are several key ideas:

Boal reflects on the way in which people may be neither free nor externally repressed Boal commented that after the visible, physical repression he had seen in Brazil

In Lisbon, in Paris there appeared oppressions that were new to me ‘loneliness’, impossibility of communicating with others’ fear of emptiness…I was … asking, mechanically, ‘where are the cops?’.
(Boal, 1995)

The cops, he decided were in the head -hence the development of the therapeutic techniques. The concept is very similar to that of Franz Fanon’s internalised oppression (Fanon, 1967).

From Boal’s earliest experiments in Peru and Brazil he was acutely aware of the way that language was a tool that could be used to reinforce or change power relationships. Physical imagery and photography have been used by Boal to overcome the restrictions of language. He says ‘…By learning a new a language, a person acquires a new way of knowing reality and of passing that knowledge to others…’ (Boal, 1979).

Unlike role- play in which a ‘part’ is acted out as if there is a consensus on how the role is perceived, Forum Theatre specifically explores conflict. In this it takes after Goffman’s understanding of human interactions (Goffman, 1986) and Schon and Rein’s understanding of policy controversies (Schon and Rein, 1994).

The techniques for reframing draw on the tradition of Bertolt Brecht of making the familiar strange – Verfremdungseffekt.

Core to Paolo Freire’s approach to learning was that it needs to be drawn out of the learners by a process of reflection rather than drawn from the ‘bank’ of an “expert” (Freire, 1972). Forum Theatre came into being while working with Freire when a member of an audience went on stage after actors failed to convey image on stage that she wanted them to. The transition from spectator to participation as ‘spectactors’ is important. The idea that reflection is more than a mechanical process is also in management theory (Schon, 1991).

Although it is not a conscious part of Boal’s thinking, Schon’s distinction between ‘Espoused Theory’ - what people think they are supposed to think – and ‘Theory-in-Use’ is a useful one.

Two techniques are particularly used by Forum Theatre to achieve this: extrapolation of everyday experience into the imagination and unrestrained context of theatre and the use of metaphors. Again this fits with management theory (Morgan, 1997).

Reframing and Reflection are combined in Forum Theatre to (re)construct reality (Berger and Luckmann,1972) . The idea that small or every-day events can ‘cause’ much bigger transformations is shared with contemporary writers on the management of organisations and change (Morgan, 1997) .’Flux and transformation’ have a much longer history (going back to Heraclitus) and wider applications in theoretical physics (quantum mechanics) with ideas of small changes being capable of setting off much bigger ones and post-Darwin biology with ideas of systems that are not separable from their environment – ecology or autopoiesis.

Forum Theatre’s techniques for promoting transformation often involve small change to what someone does or says which sets of a change in a train of thought or action.

The practice
A typical session begins with exercises and games aimed at initiating a playful, creative approach to what may be serious issues. A scenario or a set of images or tableaux is prepared by the group around what is of interest and importance to them. When the work is shown to an audience or worked within the group, everyone is encouraged to intervene to change the situation or resolve the problems. It is a theatre form that is entirely determined and developed through participation.

A classic Forum session involves the replacement of the principal character in a scenario, the one who represents the group, by members of the audience. Thus, take turns to be in someone else’s shoes and experience life through their eyes. This is called by Boal “pluralisation” and is central to the reflexive processes of Forum and Theatre of the Oppressed as a whole.

The “Spectactors”, practise or rehearse change by exploring the alternative courses of action open to the protagonist of the piece and carrying the experience through into everyday life.

A facilitator who becomes the “Joker” for the Forum, the enabler or mediator for the group, conducts the session.

. "The nature of the society is reflected in its smallest cells. The great themes are inscribed in the smallest personal themes." (Augusto Boal.)

Its use in the BICOM is discussed elsewhere

Frances Rifkin & John Eversley

Berger, P and Luckmann T (1972) The social Construction of Reality. Penguin.
Boal, A (1979) Theatre of the Oppressed Pluto
Boal, A translated by Jackson, A (1995) Rainbow of Desire, Routledge.
Fanon, F (1967) Black Skin White Masks. Grove Press, New York.
Freire, P (1972) Pedagogy of the Oppressed. Penguin
Goffman, E (1986) Frame Analysis. Northeastern University Press.
Morgan, G (1997) Images of Organization. Sage.
Schon, D (1991) The Reflective Practitioner. Avebury.
Schon D and Rein M (1994) Frame Reflection – Toward the Resolution of Intractable Policy Controversies. Basic Books.