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Omaha theater as insurrection, social commentary and corporate training tool

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 (www.thereader.com) 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 (www.thereader.com)


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.”

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