November 14, 2014

The Power of ‘Theatre of the Oppressed’

Tiph Browne

At Theatre of the Oppressed NYC's 2014 Legislative Theatre Festival, the audience votes on policy proposals generated by participatory on-stage performances. City council members were at the event to carry the proposals forward.

Scene: A woman is beaten up by her boyfriend in her apartment. He leaves. Shortly thereafter she hears a loud knock at the door, and she staggers over to open it. It’s the police, responding to a noise complaint. She lets them in. They see a syringe on the table, which is reason enough for them to check her ID. The police call the station and are told that the woman is a transgender woman. She uses the syringe to inject hormones. The police ignore her bruises, ignore the real purpose of the syringe, and arrest her.

That was the premise of one of several short plays performed this summer at the Legislative Theatre Festival at Theatre of the Oppressed NYC.

Each scene performed at the festival is drawn from real-life experiences of the actors, among them homeless adults and gay and lesbian youths from partner nonprofits Housing Works, the Ali Forney Center, and Cases.

After each scene ends, TONYC’s founding executive director, Katy Rubin, invites audience members to the stage to take the protagonist’s place for a replay of the scene.

In the scene above, one audience member talked with the police at the door and does not let them into the apartment. Another audience member tries calling a transgender advocate from a local organization to come videotape the interaction. In a given scene, the woman may still get arrested, but together the actors and audience have explored alternative possibilities.

Later, the audience is invited to submit concrete policy ideas that would address the problem presented in the play.

Some suggestions included a lapel camera on each police officer, printed receipts for each interaction with the police, and a municipal ID that reflects the actual gender of transgender people. A panel of city and federal policy makers selects the best ideas, and everybody discusses them.

Legislative Theatre is just one type of Theatre of the Oppressed, a concept developed by the Brazilian director Augusto Boal in the 1960s and now practiced by groups worldwide.

All variations of the performances have one thing in common: People most directly affected by a problem create and act out short plays about that issue before the audience inserts itself into the action and plays out different possibilities. 

“We are all actors: Being a citizen is not living in society, it is changing it,” said Mr. Boal, who died in 2009.

Perhaps the most active American practitioner of Mr. Boal’s methods is TONYC, which focuses on New York City but has held plays and trainings around the country and internationally.

I’ve taken two of TONYC’s weekend trainings, seen several performances, and been in conference sessions where the method has been used.

From start to finish, the process is positively electric. It’s one of the best and most exciting methods of storytelling for social change that I know.

What can all nonprofits learn from Theatre of the Oppressed or from doing it themselves?

There is drama and emotion at the center of social-justice work. We may forget that amidst all the emails, meetings, and white papers that make up our daily nonprofit lives. The theater games used to develop a TONYC play help clarify the real drama of our work and ready it for the stage. Katy Rubin, who is also the group’s artistic director, says, “there’s a reason this is Theatre of the Oppressed and not ‘talking of the oppressed.’ A play gives you an emotional response.”

Creating change can be a blast. Do you want to be part of a cause that promises only endless drudgery and seriousness? Not me. TONYC deals with plenty of weighty topics, but does so in a way that is participatory and often riotously fun. You can’t have one without the other. One game has people pair off and think up a movement and a sound, then reproduce that movement and sound as if they’re circus clowns or CIA agents or soap-opera characters. Theatre of the Oppressed methods can be used not just to develop full plays but to enrich and enliven a nonprofit’s work in other ways—but the method is not meant to be used to turn a profit.

Upending the usual power dynamic yields surprising new possibilities. Ms. Rubin says the challenge for nonprofits that work with communities in crisis is how not to tell the traditional story of “people who need help,” which only reinforces a troublesome power dynamic. As Ms. Rubin puts it, the Theatre of the Oppressed methodology holds that the people “facing an issue or form of oppression are the only people entitled to tell the stories” because they experience the reality of that oppression every day. By dramatizing their own stories, actors in a TONYC performance help the audience solve their own problems—whether that’s their own oppression or their relationship to the larger social structure. In that sense, audiences come to a TONYC play in part out of self-interest, and that’s a good thing.

“The idea here is that nobody is going to help me because they feel bad for me,” Ms. Rubin says. “That’s not sustainable. They help me because they’re helping themselves.”

The ultimate purpose of a TONYC play is not just to draw in audiences, Ms. Rubin says but “to make it impossible for them to leave” without feeling connected to the people and the problem dramatized on stage.

“The solutions that audience members propose are secondary, but the experience of solidarity is primary,” she says. “They will now always carry the problem with them as their own. They see how it relates to their lives.”

Learn more about Theatre of the Oppressed NYC and its schedule this month as well as other Theatre of the Oppressed groups worldwide.

Each month, Paul VanDeCarr writes about some of the best nonprofit storytelling and what others can learn from it. Readers can submit examples for consideration  online or by e-mail to Mr. VanDeCarr at

Mr. VanDeCarr is the managing director of Working Narratives, an organization that collaborates with advocates, artists, policy groups, media-makers, and others to “change the story” on the big social-justice issues of our time. He is also the author of “Storytelling and Social Change: a Strategy Guide for Grantmakers” and is working on a second edition to be released this winter for nonprofits, advocates, and storytellers.