This post is written by Leah Soule (’16) and my new partner in crime er.. I mean justice from Concordia College, Hannah Amundson (’15). We are currently studying abroad in India on the co-sponsored Social Justice, Peace, and Development program (SJPD). During our time in India, we focus on global and local structural injustice both in India and at home. As part of our course work, we are given the opportunity to process these complex ideas through a creative assignment of our own choosing.
As two people passionate about both theater and justice, we decided to plan and facilitate theatre workshops with our fellow SJPD students and leaders. We are basing the workshops on Augusto Boal’s Theatre of the Oppressed theory and techniques and some of Anne Bogart’s Viewpoints. These techniques both focus on the body; Boal takes this a step further and focuses on how this can be used to process and resist oppression. It is our goal to use body and imagery to better understand the complex ideas of structural injustice and power distribution.
So far, we have done two workshops in a series of four spread throughout the semester. For each hour-long workshop, we include two to three exercises that are intended to spur ideas from the coursework focusing specifically on power.
For example, in our class titled “Identity, Resistance, and Liberation,” we used Boal’s exercise Columbian Hypnosis. In this exercise, the group paired off, and each pair selected a leader. The leader put his or her palm out and “hypnotized” his or her partner. From that point forward, the leader moved his or her hand any direction or level he or she chose while the follower kept his or her face 4 or 5 inches away from the hand. We also did a variation where one person stood in the middle and put both hands out to lead two people. These two people also put their hands out to lead two more people each.
This activity spurred conversation about an earlier encounter that we were struggling to process. During our first field visit, we toured a wig factory that had inhumane working conditions. During our tour, we met with the owner of the factory. Our group had difficulty listening to this man praise his business practices that to us were clearly unethical, but to him were a necessary part of business competition that kept his factory running.
For our group, it was easy to label him as a villain. We watched his underpaid workers in unsafe conditions, and as we left, we passed by the owner’s expensive SUV. As we continued to grapple with this experience, we thought about why the owner ran his business this way. He had pressure from competition to keep prices low or risk going out of business. However, for us, this was not enough to justify his actions.
After doing Columbian Hypnosis, one of the participants brought up this experience and connected the factory owner to the person who had to both lead and follow. He could still control those beneath him, but ultimately had to follow the hand in front of him. By seeing a visualization of the factory owner’s role, we understand that he is accountable for his actions, but we must also recognize that he is subjected to systematic pressures. This helped us understand that removing the factory owner was not the answer. The system we live in is far more complicated than that.
These workshops have been a place where we can address these hard issues in a different way. We can use images and our bodies to explore and understand complicated questions and experiences. For Hannah and I, it reinforces our belief that theatre can impact social change. Theatre has the ability to educate and explore ideas of social justice that is distinctly different than a traditional classroom setting. We play, we laugh, we work, and we learn all in hopes of understanding the world we live in and finding a way to change this world for the better.