The young man excels at his work, but he hides a secret that could turn others against him: he lives in the favelas, or urban slums, of a city in Brazil.
One day, his colleagues discover he lives in the poor slum Mare. Suddenly, he faces discrimination and prejudice from those around him. Contorting his body with wordless movement, the storyteller calls for help.
On a stage in Rio de Janeiro, audience members respond by joining or replacing him in action. Through silent intervention, the audience suggests solutions to his problem through an interactive technique known as Theatre of the Oppressed, or T.O.
Seven UCLA students traveled to Brazil as part of the “World Arts and Cultures: Theater of the Oppressed” study program to explore the philosophy of T.O. during July and August.
“What’s been cool for me is seeing the effect theater has on people,” said Misha Riley, a rising fourth-year theater student. “(A domestic worker) was looking in the mirror after she’d done her first theater piece, and she said, ‘For the first time, I see a woman in front of me.’”
Director and playwright Augusto Boal created the Theatre of the Oppressed methodology in 1971 in response to Brazil’s dictatorship and the belief that it persecuted individual freedoms.
Bobby Gordon, director of special projects at the UCLA Art and Global Health Center, began planning the new study abroad program after a yearlong stay in Brazil conducting research for his master’s degree. In 2014, he invited a T.O. expert to lead a workshop at UCLA.
“It went incredibly well, and we thought it would be amazing to keep a dialogue going (between T.O. and UCLA),” Gordon said.
This year, students took Portuguese language and culture classes to prepare for the trip. Gordon said the diverse mix of students, whose majors ranged from theater to computational math, excited him since T.O. tries to break down the human categorization that can divide students into certain branches of academia.
He added that T.O. allows communities to actively re-imagine the world by dramatizing real-life scenarios of oppression. Audience members become “spect-actors” with the ability to jump into scenes, take the role of the protagonist and act out their own strategies for dealing with situations. The T.O. philosophy believes that rehearsing hypothetical scenarios leads to change in real life, he said.
The students attended hours of workshops alongside social workers, teachers and artists from Latin America, with some exercises requiring students to touch each other’s faces in silence for five minutes to strengthen their interpersonal skills.
Students also ventured into local communities to watch T.O. live. Local people staged productions using handcrafted costumes and sets.
One day, students watched Brazilian domestic workers tell stories of sexual harassment and social injustice. Elsewhere, a group of mental health patients called Pirei na Cenna acted out scenes about the negative stigma of mental illness, Gordon said.
“All of the sets, costumes and music are unbelievable,” said Julia Nelson, a rising second-year theater student. “It’s really changed what I see as what’s possible with the resources that you have.
Rising fifth-year anthropology student Drew Frye said T.O affected his craft of performing because it constituted a paradigm shift from his concept of traditional theater.
“To me, Theatre of the Oppressed is less about finding people who are skilled at expressing the story, and more about having one person, the ‘joker,’ who is skilled at pulling the experiences and creativity out of the group that is present,” Frye said.
Jokers lead T.O. performances by pushing audiences to engage conversationally with the script. T.O. performances aim to break down barriers between actor and audience, Riley said.
Nelson said she arrived expecting to draw on previous experience to learn T.O. But since T.O. operated so differently from regular theater, she couldn’t apply her existing knowledge.
“It was definitely a challenge having to start over a little bit, break apart the pieces and start rearranging them,” Nelson said. “It’s really changed what I see as possible with the resources that you have.”
Gordon said he hopes to expand the program and bring more students to Brazil next summer. Although the workshops were held entirely in Portuguese, the students said they immersed themselves within the local culture.
“It’s amazing how close you can get to people so quickly, and how much you can communicate and know these connections without words,” Riley said. “The stories of these communities and their commitment to change the future have been incredibly inspiring. They’ve made the entire trip totally worth it.”