Archive for June 3, 2011

Omaha theater as insurrection, social commentary and corporate training tool

June 3, 2011 6 comments

My usually eclectic blog has been theater heavy this week because I decided to celebrate the 2011 Great Plains Theatre Conference, which ends June 4, by sharing some of my theater stories from the recent and not so recent past.  I’ll continue posting theater stories well after the conference closes because I discovered I have a nice cache of them, but I’ll also be back to showcasing the diversity of my work that regular followers have come to expect. I did the story below for The Reader ( and it’s a look at how some Omaha theater professionals variously utilize the art form as insurrection, social commentary and corporate training tool.


Omaha theater as insurrection, social commentary and corporate training tool

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally published in The Reader (


Making Images

Something subversive happened in the Old Market one recent Saturday evening.

From out of the blue, pedestrians converged on sidewalk corners and molded their bodies into dramatic sculpted “images.” One image included a man on his back cringing in terror as an assailant stood over him with a raised boot. Another posed father-and-son partners sealing a deal with a handshake that suddenly, inexplicably broke. A third linked people in a solid human chain until some unseen force rudely disturbed it.

If the symbolic frieze frames did not adequately convey their message of oppression, someone hanging anti-Initiative 416 (Defense of Marriage Amendment) signs around the individuals did, including one placard labeling the assault victim as a “Gay Man.” Just to be sure, another demonstrator handed out anti-416 leaflets.

These human tableauxs, so suggestive of figurative sculptures taking shape in front of your eyes, were in fact street theater pieces being used to focus awareness on the divisive 416 measure. The unfolding scenes were meant to make a statement, draw attention and engage people in dialogue about the issue. As the theater action progressed that night, a few curious passersby did stop to stare and proffer off-handed remarks. Then, when a plant in the crowd posing as an antagonist began spouting Biblical admonitions about same sex marriage and another plant posing as an initiative supporter began refuting his every protestation, some onlookers vigorously joined the debate on either side.

The ensuing discussion was the moment when this unorthodox piece of theater melded with genuine crowd reaction and, in so doing, accomplished exactly what organizers intended.

The Boal Way

So, was this event an example of art or theater or political activism? A little of all three, according to its instigator, University of Nebraska at Omaha Dramatic Arts Professor Doug Paterson. A self-described “insurrectionist” from the ‘60s, Paterson leads the UNO-based Thespis troupe (Theater Helping Everyone Solve Problems in Society), which follows many of the theories of Brazilian director Augusto Boal and his Theater of the Oppressed (T.O.) movement.

Boal, who came to Omaha in 1996 to give workshops, developed T.O. as a political tool to aid oppressed peoples around the world in their struggle for liberation. That night in the Market Paterson led his players in applying Boal’s image and invisible theater techniques (The professor played the antagonist in the crowd.). In keeping with their revolutionary roots, the drama that night was sprung – guerrilla-style – on unsuspecting folks in public spaces for the purpose of eliciting responses to a socially relevant issue. The ultimate aim, then or any time, is to incite action. Paterson organized a second theater event around the 416 measure at an October 31 rally on campus. Previous events have tackled the enduring UNO parking crisis.

Another Boal technique favored by Paterson – forum theater – utilizes workshops in which everyday people address problems at work or in their community through discussion and role playing led by a facilitator. In this interactive, outside-the-box approach to theater, the idea is to break down the Fourth Wall traditionally separating practitioner from audience and to build bridges connecting the two via conversation that works toward some resolution.

“Boal developed a theater that differs from the Western approach of pacifying you in the audience while actors describe a reality that you then take to be true. As an audience, you are powerless to change the story. You’re told, ‘This is the way it is,’ especially if you’re a minority. Boal believes in twisting things in a fun, open, community-based way that gives people a way to change the story. It’s what he calls interrogative theater. Rather than declare reality, it interrogates reality. It challenges the notion that it has to be this way — that it can’t be something else. It suggests new possibilities,” said Paterson, who has studied with Boal in Brazil.

Working It Out

Paterson has conducted forum theater workshops for many organizations, including the Omaha Public Schools, Creighton University and UNO. Workplace diversity issues are most commonly confronted, but not in the we talk-you listen vein.

“In forum theater we first play games to relax people and get them interacting with each other. Then we perform scenarios depicting some oppression, like a secretary given a last minute project by her boss when she needs to be someplace else,” he said. “The secretary tries overcoming her obstacle, but she just can’t. At some point we turn to the audience and say, “Okay, what would you do if you were her?’ Instead of having the audience sit there quietly we encourage them to talk to each other and share ideas to find some new solution.

“We encourage them to show how they would handle the situation differently, and it’s interesting because then it’s really them in the moment feeling sympathy for that character and the words almost become their own. Our attempt is to see if the audience is willing to be so moved and engaged by what’s happening that they really want to do something. Once they see something from their own life represented or dramatized, they think, ‘That’s me up there.’”

He said the response by participants is usually enthusiastic. “Often we can’t get through all the scenarios because there’s so much discussion. People get up and intervene and are very excited. I’ve never seen it fail.”

All the World’s a Stage

This grassroots theater has been a passion of Paterson’s since he discovered how deeply it resonated with his own emerging social consciousness amid the civil unrest in America a generation ago.

“I’ve been engaged in Theater for Living, Theater for Change or what has come to be known as Community-Based Theater since the mid-’70s,” he said. “I actively resisted the war in Vietnam while at Cornell University and it was during that time I formulated all my thinking about how culture works and how it is part of the oppressive process. I was really taken by the idea that if we could stake out new audiences, then we’d find a way to create a new culture in theater.

“Later, I started a small professional company in South Dakota whose purpose was to go into rural areas and engage farmers and ranchers in a kind of cultural salvage work where we found people’s stories and turned those into plays that we performed in these small towns.” He repeated the process when he came to UNO in 1981 – exploring the farm crisis with students in an original play (It Looks Good from the Road).

His students there included Omaha playwright Doug Marr and actress Laura Marr who, along with Paterson and others, formed the proletarian Diner Theater, which took this theater-happens-everywhere philosophy to heart. “

It drew a different group of people who might not have felt comfortable going to a regular theater setting,” Paterson said. “It was more neighborhood. It was more working class. It was site-specific. It was very exciting.”

Dramatic Results

The Marrs, along with fellow UNO theater grad Brent Noel, are adherents of Boal’s work and together operate a venture, Dramatic Results, incorporating the tenets of Boal in forum theater workshops at corporations.

“The trend today in business is to develop creativity and decision-making in employees, and Boal’s exercises are effective in helping build problem-solving skills,” Noel said. “We don’t offer answers or solve problems. We’re more interested in asking the right questions and encouraging people to think about possibilities. We offer a process whereby employees discover solutions. It’s empowering.” Noel said while many businesses are not yet ready to welcome theater techniques into their staid office settings, clients that do are satisfied. “Once they see how it works, most realize the value of it. It works in everything from sales to diversity to critical thinking training.”

Hey, you, get off of my cloud! Doug Paterson is acolyte of Theatre of the Oppressed founder Augusto Boal and advocate of art as social action

June 3, 2011 8 comments

I love University of Nebraska at Omaha theater professor Doug Paterson’s passion. In the following story for The Reader ( I profile how he’s melded his art and his social activism in a seamless way through Theatre of the Oppressed, a theater form he’s mastered under founder Augusto Boal. My story appeared in advance of the international Theater of the Oppressed Conference that Paterson and UNO hosted a couple years ago. I am posting the story here to highlight different aspects of Omaha theater in the wake of the 2011 Great Plains Theatre Conference, which wraps up June 4.

Hey, you, get off of my cloud

Doug Paterson is acolyte of Theatre of the Oppressed founder Augusto Boal and advocate of  art as social action

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally appeared in The Reader (


Doug Paterson’s always used theater as an instrument of his insurrectionist principles. As a student in the 1960s he actively protested against the Vietnam War and other burning social issues and gravitated to progressive theater that challenged the status quo.

But it wasn’t until he saw Brazilian Augusto Boal’s Theatre of the Oppressed in action that his social activism and his art merged into a philosophy and a way of life. Seventeen years later the University of Nebraska at Omaha professor is a leading adherent, practitioner, facilitator and teacher of T.O., as much a political movement dedicated to social change as a form of theater.

Much of T.O.’s work involves developing scenarios with audiences around the issues of racial, gender and class inequalities. The idea is to spark dialogue among citizens in a living or social theater environment. The end goal is to generate dialogue with decision-makers in the real world as a framework for addressing these matters with concerted action, even legislation.

It is meant to be an empowering process.

“We see something that affects us. Some oppression or injustice or wrong and we identify with it, we understand it and we yell, ‘Stop.’ To Boal the very act of saying we can stop this is by itself important,” Paterson said.

The premise of T.O., he said, is that the oppressed are “dictated to” by a privileged, power-wielding elite. “They’re not in the loop of determining what’s going to be the agenda of their life. They’re told what it’s going to be and often through force of violence.” What T.O. helps people do, he said, is “learn techniques and methods to interrogate the world. It’s developing a critical sensibility so they can talk to power and demand dialogue.”

Why theater as a device to elicit participation in the political process?

“Boal’s phrase is, ‘We’re all theater.’ We can all do this. We’re all doing it all the time because we’re all actors who can change the world,” Paterson said. “In Theatre of the Oppressed we just give it a little bit of shape — to help draw the power out of a person or a community, because it’s already there.”

Theater also provides a well-founded structure for protagonist-antagonist conflicts.

The UNO educator has studied with Boal, a short-list nominee for the Nobel Peace Prize, and “jokered” dozens of workshops with him and his son Julian Boal. Paterson’s led T.O. workshops in about a dozen states as well as in Canada, Israel, Palestine, Iraq and Africa.

T.O.’s organic, democratic system for giving the disenfranchised a voice is the focus of the May 22-25 International Pedagogy & Theatre of the Oppressed Conference in Omaha. Both Augusto and Julian Boal will give workshops using exercises and games that lead into T.O.’s Forum, Image, Invisible, Cop in the Head, Rainbow of Desire and Legislative theater.

The public’s invited to a free demonstration of Legislative Theatre at 7 p.m. on Thursday, May 22 in the Omaha City Council Chambers.

Six area elected officials will convene a mock legislative body to hear a set of scenes developed over three days of Forum workshops. These scenes built around local issues will be enacted and the floor thrown open for anyone to discuss, intervene, offer solutions. By the end of the session “legislation” will be devised and presented to the “council.” Paterson said Boal will then pose a question to the panel: “Would you support this legislation proposed by this temporary community?” That’s when the real dialogue and debate begins.

Paterson said to expect “a room “humming with activity,” lively discussion, laughter. “Nothing is coerced,” he said.





The dynamic interplay needs no formal introduction or explanation.

“If you see it you understand it immediately what it is and you can participate,” Boal said by phone from New York.

For Boal, T.O.’s not about finding solutions to problems but engaging people in exchanges that at least explore ways to combat or relieve oppression.

“I always say we should strive to have peace but the worst enemy of peace is passivity,” Boal said. “We must abolish passivity to try to do things in order to have real peace.”

True believers like Boal and Paterson believe in fighting oppression in whatever form it takes — violence, discrimination — through “the solidarity of the oppressed.” It is a movement of individuals and groups banded together in the belief that change is possible.





Paterson, who’s previously brought Boal to Omaha for this same conference, is a founder of the P.T.O. organization that puts the event on. This makes the seventh time Omaha’s hosted the event. It may also be the last, as Paterson plans to let new leadership take over.

The Omahan’s first direct exposure to T.O. came in Seattle in 1991. He was familiar with the tenets of Boal’s work but merely reading about it didn’t captivate him the way a demonstration did. Although Paterson had engaged in grassroots theater through the Dakota Caravan in the Black Hills and the Diner Theater in Omaha, he was still largely bound to traditional theater and its imposed world view that offer no mediation in or deviation from the end result.

Standing in stark contrast to that approach is T.O., which does not respect any fixed narrative or resolution. It’s all about inviting audiences and participants to intervene in and alter the story as a means for confronting and, if possible, ending oppression. Where traditional theater’s a monologue, T.O.’s a dialogue.

“I never got it,” Paterson said. “It sounded too serious. But then I saw it and it was so much fun and so interactive and so liberating that I said, ‘That’s it — I found where I’ve been heading for all my life.’ It just opened up possibilities. It’s asking through educational theater is it possible to transform the world to an equitable place economically, socially and politically.”

In Paterson’s view T.O. provides a structure for affecting change.

“Dealing with oppressed populations requires real dialogue…negotiation,” he said.

The goal, he said, is creating “a fair, equitable, humane world, a rational world where people have enough food and safe shelter, where crime is not encouraged by the economy, such as it is here, where poverty is not enforced, where violence is not the way of life. That’s what we want and all of us believe it’s possible.”

More than an academic or aesthetic construct, the work’s designed with real life applications in mind. Boal applies its techniques and forms to all kinds of community organizing, including his early-1990s bid for and election to the Rio de Janeiro city council as a member of the left-wing Workers Party. He used T.O. as an on-the-streets forum that gave people a sounding board to tell him what they wanted changed and he introduced legislation to try and bring about that change.

The more Paterson immersed himself in this new theater the more committed to it he became. The better he got to know Boal his conversion only deepened.



Augusto Boal



“I know Augusto as a mentor and quasi-father figure,” Paterson said. “I’ve spent a lot of time with him and we’ve talked far into the night. I really admire his work. I admire the mind that conceived of this and just kept relentlessly developing it. By continuing to work he made a path.”

Boal overturned his own traditional theater background in the ‘60s in response to oppressive military regimes in Brazil. At the time he headed the country’s national Arena theater, whose members began to resist the censorship and other government imposed strictures. Caught up in the struggle, Boal became politicized to a more militant, even radical stand. Branded a troublemaker, he was arrested, interrogated and tortured. Pressure from the West got him released but he soon became a political exile in Argentina and France.

He devised T.O. while in exile, drawing much inspiration from the late educational theorist Paulo Freire, author of Pedagogy of the Oppressed.

Boal was little known in the U.S. outside “a very narrow circle” when Paterson first contacted him and brought him to the states for the 1992 Association for Theatre in Higher Education national conference in Atlanta, Ga.

“Boal came to the conference and just carved a whole new channel for how to make theater and who to make theater for in the United States,” said Paterson. “It was a wonderful experience and we had a wonderful connection.”

T.O. is now practiced around the globe. It operates centers in several countries. Where the movement got scant media notice a decade ago it’s well covered today.
Paterson said there’s some resistance to the movement because “the word oppressed scares people.”

In Boal’s homeland, where he lives once again, the Workers Party-controlled state government has a program called Cultura Viva (Culture Alive) that, Boal said, “helps us spread the Theatre of the Oppressed all over Brazil.” The program enables T.O. to work with schools, mental health facilities, prisons and other entities.

“This is the first time the government has supported the work that we do,” said Boal, an outspoken critic of Brazilian government since the ‘60s.

Just as for Boal the work is not an abstraction, neither is it for Paterson or for conference registrants, who include theater educators and community activists from across the U.S., Europe and other parts of the world.

Locally, Paterson hopes it’s a model groups adopt for presenting grievances to local elected officials that address some of Omaha’s long-standing oppressions. He referred to African Americans’ disproportionate poverty here.

“We’ve really violated their human rights and we need dialogue,” said Paterson, noting Omaha’s high incidence of black on black crime and sexually transmitted diseases and the ongoing segregation that divides blacks and whites. “There’s so much to do.”

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