Archive for the ‘Doug Paterson’ Category

John Beasley and sons make acting a family thing

September 3, 2011 10 comments

John Beasley, the patriarch of Omaha’s First Family of Thespians, and his John Beasley Theater & Workshop, have been the subjects of many stories by me, all of which can be found on this blog. This particular story for The Reader ( looks at how Beasley’s two sons, Tyrone and Michael, haven’t fallen far from their father’s solid acting tree. John is an acclaimed television, film, and theater actor. Tyrone is a respected actor and director. Michael is emerging as a character actor force in television and in studio and independent films.

John Beasley and sons make acting a family thing 

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally published in The Reader (

As time goes by, it’s clear acting is a birthright with the Beasleys, that talented clan of thespians fast-evolving into the first family of Omaha theater.

John Beasley long ago made his mark on the Omaha theater scene, scoring dramatic triumphs in the 1970s and ‘80s at the Center Stage, the Chanticleer, the University of Nebraska at Omaha, the Nebraska Repertory Theatre, the Firehouse Dinner Theatre and the Omaha Community Playhouse, among other venues. Now, having done the regional theater circuit and built a nice screen acting career, he’s returned to the local dramatic arts fraternity with his own John Beasley Theater & Workshop. Sharing space with the South Omaha YMCA in the La Fern Williams Center at 3010 Q Street, the theater’s become a showcase for African-American plays and emerging talent, including Beasley’s sons, Tyrone and Michael, who’ve shown serious acting chops themselves. Tyrone comes from a professional theater background and Michael is transitioning back to acting after a long layoff.

In a June production of August Wilson’s Jitney, the proud papa and his progeny led a rich ensemble cast on the theater’s small stage. John, as the hot-headed Turnbo, inhabited his part with his usual veracity and found all the music in Wilson’s jazz-tinged words. Tyrone, as the emotionally-scarred Booster, hit just the right notes as a man desperate to salvage his misspent life. Michael, as the decent Youngblood, brought an unaffected gravity to his character.

In a reunion of sorts, Beasley recruited Broadway actor Anthony Chisholm, with whom he’d done Jitney at the Alliance Theatre in Atlanta, for the JBT show. The Alliance is one of many regional black theaters Beasley honed his skills in and serves as a model for what he’s trying to create in Omaha.

Jitney broke all box-office records in the short history of Beasley’s theater and now he and his sons are poised to build on that success. They’re opening the 2004-2005 season with a production of Lorraine Hansberry’s acclaimed A Raisin in the Sun, whose revival on Broadway last season earned kudos. Raisin, which Tyrone will produce and play a small part in, runs September 17 through October 10.

A Shared Craft and Passion
Although Jitney was the first time all three Beasleys acted together, John and Tyrone collaborated as producer and director on the JBT’s rendering of Wilson’s Two Trains Running in 2003. Tyrone co-starred with Michael in Two Trains. Years earlier, Michael portrayed Biff opposite his father’s Willie Loman in a Center Stage mounting of Death of a Salesman. The trio’s eager to work together more, but it’s not easy making their busy schedules jive, much less finding pieces with the right parts. While taking vastly different paths to the craft they now share, each articulates a similar passion for acting and its sense of discovery.

For John, who comes from a family of storytellers, it’s all about expressing and exploring himself through drama. His working process is direct. “The first thing I try to do is commit the words to my memory so that I can make them mine,” he said. “I like to do that early on, especially in the rehearsal process. I prefer to jump right into the character and to find the energy, the emotional nuances and the relationships. As an actor, you have to be willing to give and receive with your fellow actors. That way, if we’re playing opposite each other, we have something to react to and build off of.” Character development, he said, never really stops. “Even by the end of the run, you’ll never really fully realize the potential of your character. You just continue to look for things and to look for ways to grow.”

For an extrovert like John, to “come in blasting away and still have a lot” left over is one method. Another, is the more studied method used by the more reserved Tyrone. “I have a slower process,” Tyrone said, “where I first have to work on the words until they’re really embedded. Then, once I know what’s happening in the scene, I start to explore. So, it takes me awhile to get the little nuances.” Once he’s up to speed, however, Tyrone likes to “play,” by which he means improvise.

“That’s when Tyrone gets up there and looks for something new every night,” John said of his son’s ability to riff, which is something Beasley prides himself in as well.

Tyrone loved the experience of working with professional actors in Jitney. “You feel a lot freer when you have people up there who really know what they’re doing and are really seasoned at it. People that you can play with and play off of, and not distract them. It’s fun to bring something new and different and exciting every night. It was a real enjoyable experience in that way,” he said.

Spontaneity in acting, John said, is sometimes misinterpreted by the uninitiated as discarding the script and just winging it. But that’s not the case. He said in early rehearsals for the JBT’s production ofFor Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide When the Rainbow’s Enuf, the mostly newcomer cast “came in with a lot of wild stuff. They were even making up lines and things, and I’m like, No, that’s not what I’m talking about. Within the words on the page you can find a new and exciting reason every night for your performance.”



Michael Beasley



Making It Your Own
For someone as accomplished as John, tweaking his craft is, as Tyrone puts it, “a lot more subtle, because he’s been doing it so long. When you get to a certain level, there’s only so much that you can do as far as the technique of acting. But with each character it’s different, and you have to approach each character differently and hopefully learn about yourself and see the world from someone else’s point of view. That’s what we, as actors, are basically trying to do — to show this character’s point of view, which may not be the same point of view you have. So, growth on a certain level comes from that, and he does that all the time.”

It’s dredging your inner self to find the right emotional pitch to fit the character and the dynamics of the scene. “We’re all trying to find the character within our own reality,” John said, “to make it an honest presentation as opposed to just acting.” “To make it our own,” Tyrone added.

“You have to think about it and feel it first before you can express the truth about it. You don’t just rattle lines off. Method actors call it being in the moment. And this is what we instill in our people,” John said, referring to the JBT workshops he and Tyrone lead that train its many first-time actors. “The first thing we tell them is, Get out of your head. Get away from — I did it this way last night and the audience really loved me, so I’m going to repeat the same thing tonight. Then, you never grow. If you want to do that head thing, you can go someplace else because we’re trying to set a certain standard here with believability.”

Tyrone said the goal is to achieve the kind of unadorned truth his father finds in everything from a classic soliloquy to a modern rant. “We’re trying to make it seem conversational, so that as the audience you’re like eavesdropping in on people just talking, not acting. That’s what we’re trying to get to.” John added, “It doesn’t matter what the script is. It can be Shakespeare or whatever, but you still bring that honesty to it. Another thing we teach is to try to find the music and the rhythm of a piece. It wasn’t until I learned the music of Shakespeare’s writing that it really flowed for me.” A key to August Wilson’s work, he said, is its jazz quality.

For Tyrone, the appeal of drama is “storytelling and trying to portray stories truthfully. Drama’s like holding a mirror up to life. I like paying attention to the details and colors of life. My job is to explore that and, using my imagination, to take it to the fullest.”

No two actors work the same. Even widely varying styles can mesh. John recalls working with the great Roscoe Lee Browne. “You know, he’s got this great voice and he uses the voice as opposed to finding an emotional base. The way I normally work is, I’ll come in and listen and then I’ll give my line as a reaction to what I hear that night. One night, Roscoe and I were working on Two Trains in Chicago. We had this thing where we’d almost compete. I had this great speech and then he had a great speech after it. And if I was OK, he’d step up his game, you know, and the voice would get deeper and the audience would be like, Wow. Well, one night we were both really great and Roscoe came off stage and said, ‘I know that was wonderful, but I know you’re going to fuck around and change it.’ And I said, ‘That’s what I do, man.’ So, we all do different things.”

An acting novice compared to his father and brother, Michael Beasley sounds as if he’s been paying attention to them, when he says of his own approach, “I’m still learning the process, but I try to get the words down as quick as possible, so that in the rehearsal process I can play with it and try to find the character. Each night, I’m still searching for my character and looking to grow my character.”

Tyrone saw Michael’s growth in Jitney. “Something I noticed with this performance is when he moved, he really seemed like he belonged in the space of the jitney stand. It felt like he wasn’t on stage as an actor, but there as that character.” John agreed, saying, “Oh, yeah, he’s come a long way since Two Trains. He’s learning. He does his homework. That’s the most important thing.”

Like Father, Like Sons
As the sons follow in the shadow of their father, they’re treading some of the very ground he once trod. Like his father before him, Tyrone’s performed at the Goodman Theatre in Chicago. And Michael’s been signed to his first film by the same producer and casting agent, Ruben Cannon, who inked John Beasley to his first national acting jobs — the ABC movie Amerika and the ABC-TV series Brewster Place. Michael has a speaking part in the indie project, Trust, now shooting in Atlanta, where he resides. In another Atlanta project, The Diary of a Mad Black Woman, he’s doubling gospel playwright, actor and director phenom Tyler Perry, who co-stars as Madea in this film adaptation of Perry’s smash stage show.

John, a veteran of the boards and the bright lights, is the mentor and role model whose strong, centered, accessible presence is something each of his sons, or for that matter, any actor, aspires to. Despite some formal training, he’s largely a self-taught actor. He draws on rich life experiences — he’s been everything from a jock and jitney driver to a radio-TV host to a longshoreman and janitor — to inform his real-as-rain portrayals. He is, as the saying goes, a natural.

It’s been 20 years since this family patriarch made the leap from acting on community and regional theater stages to character parts on television and in feature films. His film roles include small but telling turns in the feel-good Rudy and the intense The Apostle. Even with such successes, the realities of screen acting dictate being an itinerant artist — going wherever the next gig takes you. That is, until he landed the recurring role of Irv Turner on the WB series, Everwood. Now that he has “a regular job,” he’s devoting much of his time away from the Everwood set to the south Omaha theater that not only bears his name, but stirs fond memories and renews old ties. The theater is the site of the old Center Stage where Beasley first flexed his acting muscles. Just as it celebrated diversity in plays by and about minorities, the JBT is all about alternative voices and faces.

In addition to occasionally acting there, John serves as JBT executive director and artistic director, and has directed shows, most notably its inaugural production of August Wilson’s Fences (in which Beasley starred as Troy Maxson). He and Tyrone also teach the workshops that are part of the JBT’s mission of developing a pool of trained actors the theater can draw on for future shows. That pool is growing.

For Jitney, Beasley brought in ringers in the figures of professional actors Anthony Chisholm and Willis Burks, but the rest of the cast was local. An indication of the talent here, Beasley said, is something Chisholm told him. “He thought this was a better cast than we had in Atlanta, and in many instances he’s right. I thought with the people we put together, we could have played that show anywhere.”

According to John and Tyrone, an ever expanding base of minority talent is being identified and groomed through the JBT workshop program. “I see young people coming in who are going to do very well. When they come out of my theater, I want them to have that confidence they can work anywhere.” “That’s exactly why we have the workshop — to give them the confidence,” Tyrone said. One JBT “graduate,” Robinlyn Sayers, is pursuing regional theater opportunities in Houston.

An Omaha Benson High School grad, Tyrone earned an art degree from the University of Nebraska at Omaha. He did some modeling. Then, after getting hooked on acting at the Center Stage, he took private drama lessons in Chicago. Following in the footsteps of his father, Tyrone scored a coup when cast by the legendary theater director Peter Sellars in The Merchant of Venice at the Goodman Theatre. Blissfully ignorant of Sellars’ world-class reputation as an enfant terrible genius, Tyrone found himself acting with future heavyweight Philip Seymour Hoffman in a production that eventually toured Europe. “I don’t know how my audition would have went if I knew who he (Sellars) was. I might have been more nervous.” After Chicago, he attended California State University, Long Beach, where he acted with the California Repertory Company. “I also worked out of Los Angeles doing readings and worked behind the scenes as a film production assistant. That was a great experience.” After his father launched the JBT, he was enlisted in 2003 to help get the fledgling theater on “a solid foundation.”

Aside from that one time on stage with his dad in Death of a Salesman, Michael Beasley was hell-bent on a career in athletics, not dramatics. After making all-state his senior season at Omaha Central, he earned Juco hoops honors at McCook Community College before playing for the University of Texas-Arlington. He played more than 10 years of pro ball in the States and abroad, mostly in Latin America. Off-seasons, he lived in Atlanta, where he still makes his home with his wife and kids. Then, the acting bug bit again. His first post-hoops gig came as a last minute replacement — not unlike getting called off the bench in a crucial game situation.

“The way that went down is I was deciding to get back into acting when some people fell out of the Two Trains cast and Tyrone called and said, ‘Can you come up here and do this play tomorrow?’ So, I came up, and it was a great experience. It whet my appetite to pursue it further,” Michael said.

He admits to some trepidation acting with his father in Jitney, in which their antagonist characters wage a fist fight. “Everybody said, ‘You better bring your ‘A’ game.’ But it was great,” Michael said. “I try to absorb everything like a sponge and feed off the the stuff my father does to prepare. I’ve been able to draw on the experience I had in the play and bring it to the film projects I’m in now.”

John found it “real enjoyable” working with Mike. “He knew what I expected,” John said. “We had real good eye contact and we were able to play off each other really well, which became really important when we had to replace our Becker, Ben Gray, especially in the fight scene, which moves along pretty fast.”

So, was a life in acting inevitable for his sons? “I feel like I was definitely influenced because my father did it, but I feel like it’s chosen me more than anything. It’s a calling,” Tyrone said. “Of course, my father was an influence,” Michael said. “A lot of people think I’m in acting now because my father’s really successful at it, but our father never pushed us. It’s just something I chose. When I said I wanted to do it, he said, ‘Are you sure about that?’ It fills a void after basketball. I can’t play anymore at a high level, but with acting — the sky’s the limit. It’s something else to be passionate about. Besides, I’m not a nine-to-five guy. And I love the challenge.”

In John Beasley’s opinion, no one chooses acting. “It chooses you,” he said. And how much acting shop talk is there when the Beasleys get together? “We talk about it a lot. It’s part of our lives,” he said.

Looking to build on the momentum of Jitney, John Beasley’s commissioned noted UNO Theatre director Doug Paterson to direct Raisin. Paterson and company will workshop the play six weeks before it opens. Beasley’s also working with his agent to help round out the cast with name actors. “That’s a really good connection to have for putting some really nice ensembles together,” Beasley said. “We have a lot of talent in Omaha, but sometimes it helps to bring in some professionals. I think it’s good for the theater, good for the audiences and good for our actors here.”

What happens to a dream deferred? John Beasley Theater revisits Lorraine Hansberry’s “A Raisin in the Sun”

June 14, 2011 17 comments

It’s only in the last few years I finally saw both a stage production and a television production of the classic play A Raisin in the Sun, and while I found each impressive, the thing that really turned me onto the work was reading Lorraine Hansberry’s famous work. Its intensity and truth burn on the page. After reading the play I knew I had to see a performance of it, and that motivation is what led me to write the following piece for The Reader ( When I was still in the good graces of Omaha’s Beasley Theater’s I watched part of a rehearsal there and then saw a performance of the play in its entirety. Not too far removed from that experience I caught the TV version with Phylicia Rashad, Sanaa Lathan, Audra McDonald, and Sean Combs.  The themes of Raisin resonate with me on many levels, but it is its dramatic interpretation of the Langston Hughes line, “What happens to a dream deferred?” within the context of a man and family struggling to get their small piece of the American Dream that deeply affects and disturbs me.



Ruby Dee and Sidney Poitier from the 1961 film adaptation of Hansberry’s play



What happens to a dream deferred? John Beasley Theater revisits Lorraine Hansberry‘s “A Raisin in the Sun”   

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally published in The Reader (


After its 1959 opening at the Ethel Barrymore Theatre in New York, A Raisin in the Sun was the talk of Broadway and the play’s 28-year-old author, the late Lorraine Hansberry, was the toast of the theater world. Hansberry became the first black whose work was honored with the New York Drama Critics Circle’s best play award.

The Youngers, a poor, aspiring black Chicago tenement family, are the prism through which she looks at the experience of oppression in segregated USA. Her modern story of assimilationist pressures and deferred dreams offers a realistic slice of black life unseen till then. The politically-aware Hansberry, who studied under W.E.B. DuBois and wrote for Paul Roberson’s Freedom magazine, took the play’s title from a Langston Hughes poem that asks: “What happens to a dream deferred. Does it dry up, like a raisin in the sun? Or fester like a sore…Or does it explode?”

Lena is the stalwart, widowed matriarch holding her family intact. Ruth, the eldest daughter, is the beleaguered wife of Walter, a bitter chauffeur striving to move up in the world. Beneatha, Ruth’s younger sister, is a collegian who rejects God and embraces Africa. Her hopeful beau, George Murchison, is the bourgeois American counterpoint to her sweet-on admirer, Joseph Asagai, a politically-minded Nigerian.

When the prospects of a fat insurance check threaten tearing the family apart, Lena acts rashly and buys a house in a restricted white neighborhood. Then, just as Walter’s dreams of owning a business are crushed, the alarmed residents offer the Youngers a buy-out. What Walter will do next is at the crux of the family crisis.

With its successful Broadway revival in 2003-04, Raisin proves its themes are still relevant today and that’s one reason why the John Beasley Theater is staging it now through October 10. While not revolutionary, Raisin reveals some hard truths.

“What we have for the first time with Hansberry in the ‘50s is a dignified, realistic portrayal of the complexities of black life,” said poet and essayist Robert Chrisman, chair of the Department of Black Studies at the University of Nebraska at Omaha and founding editor of The Black Scholar. “With Walter, you have the young black man who wants his chance. Mama (Lena) represents the stolid, powerful, tenacious will of black people to keep on keeping on. She is the moral center of the play. These are all realistic, engaging portraitures of black people. You don’t have any stereotyped servants. I think dignity is key in Raisin because it’s finally to assert his fundamental human dignity Walter turns down the buy out.”

For Chrisman, “the single strongest theme in Raisin is the tenet that if you have your dignity, you have the potential for everything and if you do not maintain and courageously uphold your dignity and freedom as a human being, you have nothing. And I think all of that was new in the portraiture of blacks in white theater. What preceded it up to the 1950s was usually something based on the minstrel-entertainment genre — the shuffling chauffeur, the maid, the bell hop, the clown. In black theater you had legitimate efforts at portraying blacks, but I think it’s with Hansberry you get the breakthrough. She sets the stage for the subsequent work of August Wilson and Charles Fuller, who deal with issues of generations, dreams and career aspirations and frustrations. In a way, she did for modern black drama the same thing that Richard Wright did for the modern black novel.”

Directing the Beasley production is UNO dramatics arts professor Doug Paterson, who said the play “became the springboard for black theater” in the latter half of the 20th century. “Black theater exploded in all kinds of directions,” he said. He added that the militant dramatists who followed Hansberry, such as Amiri Baraka, were critical of her “drawing room kind of drama” when they “felt what was necessary was to be bold…different…experimental.” However, Chrisman reminds, “Baraka was writing at the cusp of the ‘60s and the movement of this more militant vision forward. I think what Hansberry is saying is that whether Walter goes down as a freedom rider or starts a riot is immaterial. Asserting his dignity is what matters.”

Although it stops short of radical redresses to racism and inequality, her work is full of red hot anger and indignation. Paterson said, “She revealed so much. She anticipated sort of everything that happened in civil rights, black power and integration.” He said the original production was also influential in terms of the contributions to American theater and film that its cast and crew have made. Among the lead actors, Sydney Poitier, Ruby Dee, Claudia McNeil, Ivan Dixon and Louis Gossett are household names. Douglas Turner Ward is a co-founder of the Negro Ensemble Theater. Lonne Elder III is a major playwright. Director Lloyd Richards is perhaps Broadway’s most acclaimed dramatic interpreter. “It’s an extraordinary play for what it did historically. That’s why we study it,” said Paterson, who’s taught it for years. “I always wanted to give it a shot” directorially.

Chrisman well recalls the impact of the 1961 film version, whose adaptation Hansberry wrote. “There was a tremendous surge of pride and dignity in audiences,” especially black audiences, at the time. The concerns of Raisin, he said, still reverberate today. “I think in some ways it’s still very contemporary because you still have the same kind of interest in the African experience that Beneatha had in young folks today. And you still have, perhaps even more desperately, the need of the young black man to start a business of his own.”

The play ends with the Youngers deciding to move where they’ll clearly be unwelcome, but it doesn’t show the struggle of blacks living in a white enclave organized to oust them. As Chrisman said, “There should be a sequel to it, because it ends on the affirmative note…You could have another play that shows the ostracism, harassment, graffiti, coldness and so on that have been reported by first-generation integrating blacks.” And that’s ironic, as the playwright’s own family underwent that very trial by fire when she was a young girl. Her educated parents were social activists in Chicago and when their move into a white section met with resistance, they fought the injustice all the way to the Supreme Court.

For her next play, The Sign in Sidney Brustein’s Window, Hansberry disappointed some by telling a Jewish story. She died of cancer, at age 34, the day that play closed on Broadway. Other works were posthumously adapted into books and plays by her former husband, Robert Nemiroff, a writer and composer. In 1973, Nemiroff and Charlotte Zaltzberg adapted her first play into the Tony-winning musical Raisin.

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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