REHEARSING FOR THE REVOLUTION: AN OVERVIEW OF THEATER OF THE OPPRESSED

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By Liliana Torpey
Editor in Chief

This article was written after I attended a study abroad trip to Rio de Janeiro through UCLA’s Summer Travel Study Program. The World Arts and Culture/Dance: Theater of the Oppressed program in particular was created and taught by Marina Magalhães and Bobby Gordon. Some of the information below draws from my own experiences working with local Theater of the Oppressed groups and attending intensive training at the Center for Theater of the Oppressed.

In 1971, Brazilian theater director Augusto Boal was arrested and tortured by the Brazilian dictatorship for experimenting with subversive, activist theater. Years later, in exile in Argentina, Boal consolidated his experimental developments into a synthesized, liberatory methodology published under the name “Theater of the Oppressed.” While the book was first published in 1973, Boal continued to practice and develop his work throughout Europe, Latin America, and eventually back in Brazil. He believed that theater could lend itself to social transformation and be a precursor to direct social action. He called it “rehearsal for the revolution.”

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Augusto Boal speaking at the opening ceremony of Teia 2007

Theater of the Oppressed (TO) includes several different types of theater, including (but not limited to) invisible theater, where actors stage scenes disguised as real life in public spaces; newspaper theater, where mainstream news sources are critiqued and overlaid with alternative perspectives; and forum theater, which is most widely utilized. Forum theater was born in Boal’s mind when he discovered, suddenly, that a creative force in theater productions remained untapped: that of the spectator. The story goes that Boal staged a play based off of a woman’s anecdote about her cheating husband. Using a method called “simultaneous dramaturgy,” Boal’s actors acted out the scene and then changed their actions depending on spectators’ suggestions. After one woman became increasingly frustrated that her suggestion was not being implemented correctly, Boal, equally frustrated, invited her on stage to act the scene out herself. Thus, the spectator became the “spect-actor.”

TO has grown since then, but its basic principles have remained and gone on to inform TO groups all over the world. The following explains these principles.

Firstly, theater is for the people, and everybody is an actor. TO is participatory; it invites the spectator into the action, turning them into a spect-actor. There are various techniques used to facilitate this. Games are used in workshops to de-mechanize the body from the effects of oppressive routines, so that the participants may listen, feel and look more intentionally. Exercises are used in workshops to address oppression by using sound and movement rather than just words. In this way, people learn how oppression is held in their bodies and how their bodies may be used for liberation. In forum theater, a play is staged that portrays an oppression of some kind. In the first round of the play, the oppressed person must fight against the oppression and fail. In the subsequent rounds, members of the audience can propose an “intervention,” meaning they are invited on stage to do something differently, either as the oppressed person or an ally of the oppressed. The different techniques of TO wake up the spectator and urge them to take action, both on the stage and out in the world.

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International participants and UCLA Travel Study group playing games at Center for Theater of the Oppressed during TO training.

Secondly, TO is not neutral. When using TO, one always takes the side of the oppressed. Necessarily, TO is a methodology that can’t function in a vacuum. It’s utility comes from the fact that it addresses real-life oppressions as expressed by people who have actually experienced them. It isn’t meant to be adapted to any purpose besides healing and inspiring direct action in a given community. TO groups arise from the community and see it as an effective tool for social transformation. I had the honor of meeting and spect-acting with some of these groups in Rio de Janeiro in the summer of 2017.

The Center for Theater of the Oppressed in Rio partners with different organizations to train others in their methodology so that it may be “multiplied” across different communities and situations. They also assist local TO groups with their projects, and many of the Jokers (facilitators/difficultators of TO methodology) were themselves introduced to TO through these groups.

Some of these groups include Cor do Brasil , based in Rio de Janeiro, which focuses on tackling anti-Black racism in Brazil and worldwide. While in Brazil, I saw them perform a forum theater piece called “Suspect” which addresses the way Afro-Brazilians are racially profiled in various situations. Another group, Marémoto, is made up of youth from Maré, a favela in Rio. They explore themes of gender, race, young adulthood, and the stigma associated with living in a favela. Madalenas Rio is an all-women group focusing on feminism and women’s issues. I got to participate in their “Madalenas Laboratorio,” a workshop of TO games and exercises geared towards feminist topics. The group Coletivo Madalena-Anastácia addresses issues that specifically affect Black women in Brazil. Ma(g)dalenas has become an international organization with groups all over the world, including groups from Guatemala, Mosambique, and Berlin, Germany, where the most recent Festival of Ma(g)dalena International Network was held.

Here in Southern California, Hector Aristizabal directs ImaginAction, a non-profit that uses Theater of the Oppressed alongside other theater methods “for community building and reconciliation, strategizing, and individual healing and liberation.” Aristizabal himself grew up in Medellin, Colombia during a time of violence and discord brought on by armed conflict and the Drug War. Aristizabal fled Colombia in 1989 after being tortured by the U.S. funded Colombian military under false allegations of being affiliated with communist guerrilla groups. Since then, he has worked with groups in Los Angeles, Northern Ireland, Palestine and Colombia, among other places, to use theater as a tool for reconciliation and liberation.

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Hector Aristizabal performing “Nightwind,” which chronicles his experience being tortured by the Colombian military and his subsequent move to the U.S.

In the past year, Aristizabal has brought theater to Colombians affected by the 52 year long armed conflict between the FARC (Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia), the Colombian government, and paramilitary groups. While the conflict has officially ended as a result of the peace deal passed through Colombia’s congress by President Juan Manuel Santos last year, implementation is still underway. Reintegration of guerrilla soldiers as well as reconciliation between different factions of Colombian society will be difficult to achieve. To these ends, Aristizabal has travelled to areas most affected by the conflict, bringing theater as a means to heal profound wounds. One project included “five civilians, five ex-paramilitaries, five guerrillas, and five military people,” groups whose disdain for each other runs deep and who in the past have committed extreme violence against one another. “We asked them, ‘What will it take to reconcile?’ It’s going to become a play,” Aristizabal says. He goes on to explain, “This is the kind of healing we need we need to engage in. The peace process cannot really be signed on a piece of paper in Havana between the guerrilla and the government. It has to be signed in the hearts of people.”

We may not typically imagine a war zone when we think of where theater happens, and we may not think of ex-combatants when we think of the actors who star in them. But Theater of the Oppressed seeks to democratize theater and convert it into a liberatory tool for exactly those whom the term “theater” usually excludes. When art is used in complicated real-life situations, it is delicate but not frivolous, idealistic but not etherial. Art is the dirty, painful work of growing real change by requiring us to look at ourselves and our relationship sincerely, with the intent to heal.

One of the post-trip reflection questions we had to respond to about working with activist groups in Brazil draws from the wise words of Indigenous artivist Lilla Watson. It asks, “How is their liberation tied up in our own?” The question is a difficult one for those of us who benefit from different kinds of oppression. As a citizen of a country that has benefited from the poverty and repression of Brazil and the rest of Latin America, it would be easy for me to believe my liberation is not bound with theirs, that it functions independently. But that would not be true. I could argue that my material wealth or sense of security are marks of my liberation. But that would not be true. As long as I am manipulated into accepting that it is necessary to oppress others so that I can be free, I am not free. As long as I am caught up in a system of power based on false concepts of entitlement, I am not free. As long as I am made to believe I am disconnected from the rest of humanity and nature, I am not free. And how do we become free? Perhaps arriving at the question is a step.

 

Images by:

Gabrielle Bonder (photos of UCLA group at CTO training)
Teia 2007
Alanna Lockward

BLOG: HIKING CHINA’S WILD WALL

By Logan Ma
Senior Editor

Few places are as representative of the Middle Kingdom as the Great Wall. Since its construction by the first emperor more than 2,000 years ago, it has captured the imagination of locals and foreigners alike while shielding the country from northern invaders. But like so many of the China’s cultural sites, parts of the Great Wall have fallen victim to overdevelopment. A case in point is the famous section at Badaling. Millions of tourists swarm its steps each year while dozens of hotels and restaurants dot the surrounding landscape. Having grown weary of the shops and crowds, I resolved this past summer to explore what my fellow Great Wall enthusiasts call the “wild wall,” the vast stretches of the Great Wall that are relatively untouched by tourism. The following is a brief account of the trip. Feel free to click on the images for a larger picture.

Here are some words of advice for my fellow thrill-seekers. First, never travel alone on the wild wall. I’ve already done that, and I’m not planning to do it again. The unrestored sections of the wall pass through very remote areas. If something happens, you will find it extremely difficult to get help. Based on experience, cell phone reception is terrible up there. Second, be aware of the surrounding area. The Great Wall Forum is a good place to acquire maps and have questions answered by experienced hikers. Trust me, as silly as it sounds, people do lose themselves on the Great Wall. Third, never travel on rainy days. Not only do you run the risk of slipping, but you may also find yourself in a thunderstorm. The last place you want to be with lighting striking around you is an old watchtower. Believe me, people have been killed by lighting on the wall. And last, respect the wall. It’s a national treasure as well as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Clean up after yourself and refrain from removing pieces of the wall please.

My journey to the wild wall began at the Mutianyu, pictured above. The Mutianyu wall is an hour and a half northeast of Beijing in Huairou County. Construction of the wall began in the mid-sixth century during the Northern Qi Dynasty, but much of its present incarnation was the result of a massive rebuilding project launched by the emperors of the Ming Dynasty in the 14th century. Like the tourist-infested Badaling, Mutianyu is largely restored. However, unlike Badaling, Mutianyu is walking distance to portions of the wild wall.

Near the western end of Mutianyu, the wall ascends in a steep incline, extending for hundreds of feet into the clouds. Most tourists choose to turn back at this point, but as an ex-varsity cross country runner, I attacked the 452 steps (yes I counted) with as much tenacity as my out-of-shape body would allow me. Huffing and puffing, I made it to the top, at times crawling on all fours.

For safety reasons, local authorities ban hiking on unrestored parts of the wall. However, the ban is rarely enforced. Only a few warning signs impeded my progress and after a hour of climbing, the wall began to take on a dilapidated form. Crumbled watchtowers and collapsed battlements punctuated the landscape, a stark contrast to the restored section that I had just come from.

Further west of Mutianyu, the wall forms a massive curve known as the Ox-Horn. During the summer, the vegetation here is so thick that hikers are forced to tread along the wall’s edge. One misstep could lead to a 10-meter fall and crippling injury. Loose stones and steep inclines make the climb even more difficult. The descent from the highest point of the Ox-Horn was so slippery that I was forced to slide down on my bottom, ruining a good pair of shorts in the process. Only on the way was I made aware of a route that bypassed the most dangerous sections of the Ox-Horn. A failure on my part to follow the second piece of advice doled out earlier.

Fallen into disrepair after hundreds of years of disuse, this ruin is almost unrecognizable as one of the Great Wall’s iconic watchtowers.

Nature advances to reclaim what was once hers. Long-abandoned by its occupants, this watchtower now plays host to plants and animals.

Years of sedimentary build-up have made it impossible to pass through this watchtower without stooping.

After hours of sliding down loose pavements and weaving through abandoned watchtowers, I reached the easternmost watchtower on the Jiankou wall, the Facing North Tower. From Mutianyu, the distance to Jiankou is approximately six miles. Here, I met an Australian couple and their local guide, the only people that I would run into on the wild wall that day.

I was greeted by a spectacular view of the Jiankou Pass from the western doorway of the Facing North Tower. Of all the sections of the Great Wall, Jiankou is considered the most dangerous. Every few years, someone falls to his/her death while attempting to navigate its jagged cliffs and steep drop-offs. But despite the inherent danger it poses, the scenic location still draws a small number of adventurous hikers and photographers. Among the highlights of the Jiankou Wall is the Eagle Flies Facing Upward Tower, visible in the distance, an imposing structure situated so high up that eagles are supposedly forced to fly face-up in order to clear the top. As I took in the view from my perch high above the pass, I could not help but think of the old words said to soldiers setting off to man the wall: 不到长城非好汉–“One who fails to reach the Great Wall cannot be called a man.”

Although I wanted to explore the rest of the Jiankou wall, fear of risking a nighttime hike convinced me to turn back. After catching my breath, I returned to civilization. A few weeks later, I grew weary of city life in Beijing and decided to hike another portion of the wild wall. While the trail between Mutianyu and Jiankou did grant a unique wild wall experience, the dense foliage and the thick fog that day prevented me from taking in the wall at its best. After doing some research, I set off for the Jinshanling section of the Great Wall.

Jinshanling is much further from Beijing than Badaling or Mutianyu. In fact, it’s not even within the boundaries of the expansive Beijing municipal area. To reach the Great Wall there, one must drive 80 miles northeast of Beijing to Luanping County in Hebei Province. Despite the long commute, it still attracts a loyal following because of its unparalleled beauty. Most visitors go to Jinshanling for its sunrise and sunset. To accommodate them, local farmers have transformed their traditional Chinese siheyuan homes into inns. Originally, I planned to stay at Old Zhou’s, but because he had no room, I was directed to his brother’s place instead. For 100 RMB, or around $16, Old Zhou’s brother provided me with a delicious meal, a clean room and a private shower.


The Jinshanling wall sits on 6.5-mile stretch bordered by the Simatai wall to the east and the Gubeikou wall to the west. Qi Jiguang, a Ming general famous for fending off the Wokou pirate fleets, oversaw the construction of this section in 1570. Sixty-seven watchtowers straddle the ridge. The Lesser Jinshan Tower is in the foreground. Ming soldiers from the southern provinces of Jiangsu and Zhejiang gave it its name to remind them of their hometown.

Heading west towards Gubeikou, the wall gradually deteriorates. While most watchtowers on the Great Wall have four or less windows, the Five-Eyed Tower is unique in that it has five. The tower also features barrier walls that cross half the width of the path along the top of the wall, a feature almost unique to Jinshanling. These walls provided an extra layer of defense in case enemies climbed onto the wall.

Here’s a closer look at the aforementioned barrier walls.

Upon reaching the western end of the Jinshanling wall, I ran into a group of photographers. One man, a banker by profession, had climbed the wall 50 times this year. Another, a farmer, more than 70. Although we hailed from different backgrounds, we were united by a common fascination with the Great Wall. I stayed with my newfound companions to watch the sunset. From our position, the Gubeikou section of the Great Wall could be seen winding into the distance. Eventually, it links with the wall at Mutianyu. Interestingly, it was at Gubeikou in 1933 during the Japanese invasion that the Great Wall was last used to defend China.

I woke up at 4 a.m. the next morning to catch the sunrise from the Lesser Jinshan Tower. I was not alone. Although the ascent was pitch black, some of the photographers that I met the day before were already on the wall with their tripods in place. A few had hopped over the side and were congregating on a precarious ledge to secure a good shot. For a while, we stood on the wall, waiting for the first glimmer of light. Slowly but surely, the black sky turned blue, then pink. Finally, the sun rose over the mountains in the east, eliciting loud cheers from our tireless band. When the dawn touched the wall, it basked it in a warm, golden hue. As the wall stretched into the distance, it resembled a golden stream. Looking back, it was truly a once in a lifetime experience.

With the sun rising, I headed east. Shortly after passing the Greater Jinshan Tower, the restored section ends. For safety reasons, most people turn back here. Like my last hike, I saw no one once I entered the wild wall.

This is the interior of a watchtower on the eastern route towards Simatai. In the past, wooden pillars acted as a support for the second floor. After the tower was abandoned, locals salvaged the wood for building purposes, causing it to collapse. Though it was in ruins, the watchtower gave off a venerable air.

Exactly 100 steep steps lead to the top of what is known as the General’s Tower. Situated near the highest point in Jinshanling, the General’s Tower served as a command center and occupied a position of great strategic importance.

The General’s Tower sits in the foreground of this westerly view of the Jinshanling wall. From here, the wall runs into the mountains near Mutianyu, extending as far as the eye can see. Any invaders would be hard-pressed to avoid detection from this vantage point.

These are the last towers on the eastern end of Jinshanling Great Wall. Further down, the wall dips into a reservoir before ascending the Simatai ridge, which is visible in the background. Some say that the lights of Beijing can be seen from the highest watchtower at Simatai, but sadly, that was a journey for another time. A guard stopped me from entering once I reached the bridge that spanned the reservoir. Apparently, Simatai had been closed since 2010 for restoration purposes by the local goverment. Although I was disappointed that I could not press on with my hike, my experiences on the wild wall were more than fulfilling.

 

All images by Logan Ma, Prospect Senior Editor

HISTORY, HOLIDAYS AND HAM: A YEAR ABROAD IN SPAIN

This week Prospect Journal is publishing a series of photo journals about international travel – join us as we explore a diverse set of countries by reading our “Changing Perspectives: Journalism Through an International Lens” series!

By Emma Hodson
Staff Writer

I was going to Spain, and on the plane ride envisioned myself lisping to waiters to bring me more paella. While I never picked up the famous Spanish lisp, I did have my fill of paella, flamenco and my personal favorite —architecture left over from Islamic Spain. I spent a year in Granada, a major city in the southern province of Andalusia. There, I attended University of Granada, where my classes were conducted entirely in rapid-fire Andalusian Spanish. While Granada was my home base, and Monday through Thursday were generally spent haphazardly navigating the Spanish education system, I took weekends as opportunity for travel. It would be impossible to document every memory of every corner of Spain I was able to visit, but the following pictures will have to suffice.

Granada, Spain
Granada is the capital city of the province of Granada within the southernmost autonomous community of Andalusia. Like many other cities in southern Spain, Granada is known for its architectural and cultural remnants of the Muslim rulers who controlled the Iberian Peninsula from the year 711 until the conquest of the Catholic monarchs in 1492.

Alhambra
Granada’s most famous landmark is the Alhambra, a palace built during the Nasrid Dynasty in the 1300’s. Now a UNESCO World Heritage site, the Alhambra is one of the most visited sites in Spain. I personally visited the Alhambra two times, and its beauty certainly did not diminish. The exact geometric patterns of its architecture, its arched doorway, and the carvings of Arabic calligraphy are breathtaking.

Alhambra
As a student of the Arabic language, I was particularly amazed by the Alhambra. Unfortunately, as much as I tried, I could not decipher the Arabic inscriptions on the wall. Regardless, long portions of my visits to the Alhambra consisted of me staring adamantly at all the ornately carved walls.

Generalife Gardens
The Alhambra consists of a few different parts, including the Generalife gardens. The Generalife was the summer palace of the Nasrid kings, and visitors of the Generalife will have no doubts as to why. The lush garden walls are draped with flowers and fountains run throughout. I was struck by the use of water as an architectural element in the Islamic architecture in Spain. In the summer months, with temperatures rising over the 100 degree mark, the water provides a cooling and calming atmosphere to the gardens.

Carre Supermercado, Granada, Spain
While Spanish food is often raved about in the US, it seems to me that the emphasis is unfairly placed on paella. In reality, ham, or in Spanish jamón, is truly the dish that epitomizes Spanish cuisine. Served in everything from tapas, to breakfast foods, Iberian ham is abundant, and can often be found hanging in restaurants, cafés, grocery stores, gas stations, Chinese restaurants—or really, anywhere. In Spain, no time is a bad time for ham.

Nerja, Spain
The Mediterranean Sea is only a few hours away from Granada, duly named the Costa del Sol, or the Sunny Coast. Its sparkling blue water, white sandy beaches, and its usually sunny weather have been a huge attraction not only for Spaniards, but for ex-patriots from the UK, looking for sunnier skies. Especially in Nerja, one of the most popular beach destinations, Irish pubs and English taverns are never too far from sight.

Mezquita-Catedral, Córdoba
One of my favorite places other than Granada in Andalusia was the city of Córdoba. Its streets are lined with orange trees, and the old Jewish quarter recalls again the days of the Islamic empires, where Jews, Christians and Muslims cohabited the cities while maintaining their separate niches. This coexistence of course was not maintained, and this fact is most visible in Cordoba’s most famous landmark, the mezquita-catedral, or the Mosque-Cathedral. Once a large Islamic mosque, it was converted into a Catholic cathedral during the Reconquista. Massive in size, the Mosque-Cathedral maintains its Islamic architecture while still having ornate catholic paintings, statues, pews and chapel features.

Besalú, Catalunya, Spain
Barcelona is famous for obvious reasons, but less-renowned cities in Catalunya are definitely worth a visit. I particularly enjoyed visiting the medieval city of Besalú, a few hours outside Barcelona. It was there that it was truly apparent that Catalunya had a distinct culture from much of Spain. Our tour guide unmistakably spoke Spanish as a second language as she explained to us the long history of Besalú and the various groups that had occupied it throughout the ages. Though it had been occupied by the French as well as the Islamic empire, today the Catalan flag flies high on the stone gateways to the city.

Mallorca, Spain
Since the Spanish University seemed to be fond of excuses for a holiday, I was able to have a second Spring Break of sorts, which I spent in Mallorca. One of the Balearic Islands, Mallorca, along with Ibiza, Minorca, Formentera, and a few other islands, compose an off-shore component of the Spanish nation. Mallorca is home to the famous tennis player Rafael Nadal, and is often thought of as a party destination, but I experienced it as a place of incredible natural beauty, with rocky cliffs, crystal blue water and sprawling hills.

Guggenheim Museum, Bilbao, Spain
The last place I visited in Spain was Bilbao, another large city in Basque Country. Mostly an industrial city, Bilbao draws most of its tourism because of its famous Guggenheim Museum, which resembles a massive ship as it flanks the river. Designed by Canadian-American architect Frank Gehry, the museum is a strange albeit beautiful landmark, and it houses a large variety of modern art. Though the museum is the main attraction, I enjoyed Bilbao by strolling along the river by day and eating Basque tapas, called pintxos, by night.

My year in Spain was beyond doubt the most incredible year of my life. Spain’s history, culturally varied autonomous communities, its art and architecture, and its natural beauty are only umbrella terms for the experiences and memories that I will have for my entire life.