Taking Theatre of the Oppressed from Ecodharma to the streets of Paris

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“The purpose of Theatre of the Oppressed is to rehumanize humanity.”  — Augusto Boal


In late October 2015 Ecodharma held its first teacher training in Theatre of the Oppressed, bringing together 14 participants working in social change. A few weeks later a group of the participants got to test out what they had learnt in the space between riot police and protestors at the COP21. Lindsay Alderton tells us about it.


The Theatre of the Oppressed approach was developed in the 1970’s by Augusto Boal as a way to give voice to marginalized individuals and communities in Brazil. Since then it’s been used in countless settings across the world as a way of exploring themes of power, oppression and how we can actively participate in shaping our lives. George Wielgus, of Reboot The Roots, facilitated the first Theatre of the Oppressed intensive at the Ecodharma Centre last year.


George cut his teeth with interactive theatre back in 2007 when he spent two years on a tour of Malaysia with a drug recovery group and the HIV Council of Malaysia. He performed with non-actors for a public of more than 6000 people, and saw how theatre could open up the topic of HIV at a time when it was still a very taboo subject. Following on from that, George trained with Cardboard Citizens in London and has since facilitated workshops for NGOs and grassroots groups, including refugee communities in Kuala Lumpur, emerging poets in Singapore and reconciliation meetings between charities in Cambodia.


“The week long course at Ecodharma was a great opportunity for going deep with some of the Theatre of the Oppressed tools,” George explained. “It gave us a chance to really get to grips with activities and games exploring power and oppression in our personal and political lives. It often brings up some pretty charged emotions, and so the group formed a tight affinity early on in creating a supportive space.”


It was to be an affinity that would serve the group well when some of them decided they would meet the following month in Paris, although perhaps in ways at the time they could not have imagined. Ruth Cross, one of the participants and co-founder of the Eroles Project, explains where the plans for Paris originally came from. “Towards the end of the course at Ecodharma it emerged that several of us were planning to be in France in December, when thousands of activists from around the world would be gathering for the UN COP21 climate summit. The Eroles Project, which was getting established at that time as a community organizing hub for artists and activists in Paris, gave us a chance to put some of the skills from the training into practice. We decided we’d meet there and collaborate on a two-day workshop in Theatre of the Oppressed.”


With two decades of failed talks behind them, and many big oil and gas companies present at the negotiating table, expectations for a meaningful outcome of the COP21 negotiations were low from the outset. Activists were instead using the talks as a focal point for the climate movement to gather and strengthen, to mobilize and build cohesion, and to provide a platform for the voices of frontline communities already facing ecological threat and violence.


No one had anticipated the circumstances they would be contending with in Paris. Following the November 13 terror attacks a state of emergency had been declared. A ban had been placed on all public protest, marches and other ‘outdoor activities’, although notably that didn’t include football matches or Christmas markets. Tensions were running high following on from a series of heavy handed police responses, including a number of high profile climate activists being put under house arrest, and clashes between scores of protestors and the police the day before the talks began. Several squats and community spaces had also been subjected to police raids, including the hosts of the Eroles Project, L’Annexe.


Despite the ban, thousands of activists were still gathering from across the world, more determined that ever before to not let the inevitable failure of the talks go unnoticed on the world stage, nor let the narrative of a climate in crisis be hijacked by one of terrorism and anti-Islamic sentiment.


In the year’s build up to the talks an unprecedented coalition across the climate movement had been forming and organizing, including grassroots groups, large NGOs, trade unions and faith groups, laboriously working together to shape a narrative which would ensure the people, rather than the politicians, would ‘have the last word’. This was to be visibly demonstrated on the final closing day of the talks – December 12, or D12 as it had become known – with a bold ‘Red Lines’ action. Thousands of people would take to the streets, dressed in red and marking out lines with their bodies to symbolize the red lines being crossed, and the failure of governments to keep Co2 emissions below the scientifically agreed safe limit. It would set the tone for a wave of actions in the years ahead when the perpetrators of climate violence would be targeted directly.


The scene looked set for a clash of wills. The group that had formed on the Theatre of the Oppressed course would go on to play an important role. Three days before D12 around 70 people gathered with the Eroles Project in Paris, to attend the two day workshop in Theatre of the Oppressed. The group of facilitators from Ecodharma already offered a strong nucleus who knew each other intimately. They began using the techniques, games and practices they’d learned during the Ecodharma training to establish connection with the wider group in Paris.


The Theatre of the Oppressed group were asked if they would take on a de-escalation role, and help to manage the potential tensions between protestors and the police. “There was unequivocal consensus that we’d take it on,” says George. “We spent the following two days putting our focus towards developing that sense of group-trust we’d need for whatever scenario unfolded. What Theatre of the Oppressed offers are techniques that enable action, empowerment and cooperation quickly – a rehearsal for the revolution if you will, a rehearsal for life.” They set about applying these tools to the challenge ahead.

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The night before D12 the French government ‘authorised’ the protest, but with thousands readying up to take to the streets they had little alternative choice. On the day itself, sandwiched between lines of rock-faced, heavily armed riot police and thousands of protestors, the ‘de-escalation crew’ set to creating an atmosphere of playfulness to diffuse tensions from both sides. As required, building on the tools they’d learned from the Theatre of Oppressed workshop, they moved together in a variety of forms – from blocs, to bricks, to flocks, to swarms – responding to ‘gathering words’ and signals and signs they’d devised together during the previous days, splitting off into buddies when necessary, or into two groups when the call came that there were tensions further along at another point. They were part of an amazing day of demonstrations that took part around the world.

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“Paris was a turning point for me,” says Lex Titterington, one of the participants from the Ecodharma course who ended up facilitating in Paris. “It cemented my commitment to this movement of social change by 100%, and as an artist and theatre practitioner I found my place as an activist directly on the frontlines, creating safe passage for people whose communities every day face extinction from climate change. Despite the incredible tensions and uncertainties of that time, and the threat of violence up close and personal, what emerged with thousands of others was this sense of cohesion, responsiveness and resilience, and that’s given me a renewed sense of optimism for whatever lies ahead. Theatre of the Oppressed is a key tool in the transition – it offers radical techniques of transformation for both ourselves, and our world”.


George will be returning to Ecodharma to facilitate the 2016 training in Theatre of the Oppressed. To find out more visit here.




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