On Sunday September 16th, the Graduate program in Educational Theater hosted a workshop led by Harlem’s own Jeremiah Drake. A multi-faceted artist and educator, Jeremiah currently runs a weekly Theater of the Oppressed workshop at Riverside Church for Harlem residents. He also works with Face to Face, an organization that provides free cosmetic surgery for battered women.
Current students and alumni gathered in the NAC ballroom for an afternoon crash-course in Theater of the Oppressed. Jeremiah began the workshop beckoning us to “come closer,” a request he noted was a trademark of August Boal himself. He spoke to us of his life, his experience as a teaching artist in the Chicago Public School System, and his belief in the effectiveness of Forum Theater.
Jeremiah stepped into the role of Joker, the name for the facilitator of a forum theater piece. Forum Theater differs from other forms of theater through its audience participation. Those present are both spectators and actors, cleverly combined to create the title “spectactor.” The process began asking for personal stories of oppression that we have either experienced or witnessed. After four or five suggestions we took a vote to decide which story we would explore.
The story that was chosen was about being a witness to a mother verbally abusing her young child in a restaurant while onlookers sat idly by. Graduate student Todd Woodard, who had shared the story, was asked to play himself and to cast others in the scene. As Todd pulled spectactors into the playing space, Jeremiah handed each person a prop. These were pieces chosen at random including a gladiator helmet, a telephone, a sickle, a sombrero, and a tennis racket among other things. I noted that giving people who are “non-actors” a prop was a great technique. It immediately gives them something to do in the scene, taking away from the awkwardness of the spotlight.
After the roles were cast, we moved into some image theater work. Jeremiah prompted each spectactor to create a frozen picture of their character. Drake called out “Don’t think, just do, 3,2,1!” to those who hesitated, and “Let the image speak!” to thought-track each character. The spectactors did a full run-through of the scene. Our Joker Jeremiah checked in with Todd for the accuracy of the scene, and gave him permission to change any element for the sake of accuracy. On the second run through in Forum Theater, any spectactor is allowed to yell out “Stop!” to freeze the scene. They then take the place of the protagonist to try a different approach in dealing with the conflict.
After a few brave but failed attempts, Jeremiah lined up the remainder of spectactors for a “lightening forum.” At a rapid pace, each spectactor had about ten seconds to try their own version of conflict resolution. When we finally came to an end, the restaurant scene was mayhem and our oppressor was in handcuffs. For the third and final run-through, Todd stepped back into his role as the protagonist to utilize the tactics of the spectactors.
At the end of the forum, Drake told us that the most important part of the process is in the exchange of ideas. We explored the issue of public child abuse at length, so now what? Forum Theater can be used to simply raise consciousness about an issue, or it can become legislative theater that is done in an effort to create or change a law. The group settled on a law that would fine anyone caught physically or verbally abusing a child in public. Drake intended to take this idea to a senator and invited anyone and everyone to join him if they wished.
Leaving the workshop, I was left wondering how Forum Theater could be applied with students. Children and adolescents are not always given a voice or valued in discussion, and in this way they are an oppressed population. Perhaps Forum Theater can provide the opportunity and empowerment to have their voice heard and to actively participate in shaping the world around them.