It’s no ordinary theatre where the audience plays the role of a spectator. The leitmotif of Image Theatre is viewers’ participation—suggesting changes in the plot and even replacing actors on stage.Through a series of stills and gestures sometimes accompanied by words, actors portray the power dynamics between two groups of people—the oppressor and the oppressed. The topics could be everyday situations such as conflict at a traffic junction, domestic violence, workers’ problems, and issues with gender and identity. At the end of the play, the floor is opened to the audience, who steps in and replaces the protagonist.
Image Theatre is a branch of a larger movement called the Theatre of the Oppressed (TO), founded by activist and theatre practitioner Augusto Boal in response to a political situation in Brazil in the late ’50s. It is a social tool that employs physical expression without dialogues or words.
“Similar to street theatre, it is physical and the piece is told by placing people’s bodies in a certain way to tell stories of the oppressed. Through still images, subtexts are told,” says Akhila Khanna, 23, who conducts regular workshops on this form of participatory theatre in Delhi. “It is a tool that gives viewers the power to rehearse any change they want to see in the world,” she explains. At the workshops, Khanna asks participants to share stories when they’ve felt powerless and then to present possible solutions through gestures. “My role is that of a facilitator. I am not judging anyone’s solution. All I am asking the audience is—will this really solve the problem? Does it really address the issue at hand?” asks Khanna.
In India, there are several practitioners of Image Theatre. Sanjoy Ganguly in Kolkata is the founder of Jana Sanskriti Centre, an organisation that helps break through to the marginalised communities with TO. He puts up plays with a set of actors and then in the end encourages the audience to partake in it. Radha Ramaswamy of the Centre for Community Dialogue and Change in Bengaluru also conducts workshops in this form.
In Khanna’s last workshop, a participant who identified with the LGBTQIA community expressed issues with his family and showed his situation through images. However, others presented a different perspective and helped him the situation in a different light.
Khanna describes her version of Image Theatre as a potpourri of Bharatanatyam, theatre and Shakespeare. “Words can be helpful, but they can also be a barrier between people. (In Image Theatre), I help actors rehearse how to portray stories of oppression using no dialogue. So, I play shape-shifting games and teach gestures such as Bharatanatyam poses and ask participants to see how they feel in each pose.”
Khanna’s students range from activists, journalists, mental health practitioners and actors to anyone interested in the interactive form of theatre. Manish Kavriya, a clerk at the Ministry of Science and Technology who attended Khanna’s workshop, says: “The beauty in it was the silence. It helped us open our minds through empathy, and understand each other.”
But how relevant is Image Theatre? “If used well it can be powerful, but I think people mostly pick up the superficial aspects. It has a long history in farmer’s struggles, and was used to help marginalised voices. But you can’t just pick up the tools—you have to understand the ideology behind it,” says Anuja Ghosalkar, founder of Drama Queen, an experimental theatre group.
For Khanna, theatre such as this is especially important in metro cities. She says, “We live in a city so full of conflicts that I thought that it is important to explore this forum.”