A few days ago, Manibhushan Kumar—a recent graduate of Vivekananda Institute of Professional Studies, Pitampura—and his team of eight student performers were at Sunder Nursery, rehearsing for a play inspired by Brazilian theatre practitioner Augusto Boal’s Theatre of the Oppressed. After an hour of improvisations, the team met a group of students from nearby schools at the heritage park to attend a class. The sight of young performers delivering striking dialogues and emulating loud characters caught the attention of these children—aged 14 or 15. “The children asked us a few questions. When we told them about the play, they asked us ‘where is your audience?’” At that moment, Noida-based Kumar blurted out, “You! You are our audience.”
It took only about an hour for the unnamed group to put a play together. This is how they first performed Padhai ka Bojh—a play that uses Theatre of the Oppressed techniques to highlight the issues children face in a conventional educational set-up. A second performance of the same play took place in a Gurugram-based government school on Thursday afternoon.
Driving social change
Boal formalised Theatre of the Oppressed in early 1970s in an attempt to use the medium of theatre as a tool for social and political change—by making the audience an active part of the play. The members (acting as facilitators) showcase a narrative—pointing out the oppressor and the oppressed—without any call to action. “The play stops at a point where we have successfully established who is the oppressor and the oppressed. We do not try to send a message through the play,” explains Noida-based member Aman Jha (20). Once the performance concludes, the audience is welcome to participate in the reality of the play as ‘spect-actors’ (a portmanteau word formed from ‘spectator’ and ‘actors’ as the audience tends to both observe and participate in the creation of the play’s narrative). “Once the play ends, the audience enters the area designated for performance and assumes one of the roles. There are props available such as a garland with negative words written on it, the spectacles of patriarchy, etc., that help the audience play the role,” shares another member Shahdara-resident Vanshika Pal (20), another member.
The group picked up the many fundamentals of Theatre of the Oppressed after a course organised by the Sambhaavnaa Institute, Himachal Pradesh, in March this year. Once they were back in Delhi, they started exploring the topics to touch upon, issues to cater to, and the audience to target through their performances. “We discussed among ourselves and focused on our personal experiences… what were the issues we were facing, and then went about working on our play,” concludes Kumar.
Though Theatre of the Oppressed encompasses several techniques and forms—Image Theatre, Forum Theatre, Invisible Theatre, and more—at the heart of it, the play is meant to create a set-up where members (both audience and performers) end up brainstorming the problems that the society faces. After the performance at Sunder Nursery, Kumar recounts how several children came to them discussing their problems, thereby helping them achieve the objective they commenced with.