“It’s the Whole Earth Catalogue for politicos.”Wes “Scoop” Nisker, author of Crazy Wisdom
Forum theater is a tool for exploring and rehearsing possible actions that people can take to transform their world. It’s often used both in preparation to taking action and in anti-oppression workshops.
Forum theater is one of the more commonly used tools from Theater of the Oppressed. It begins with the crafting and performance of a short play that dramatizes real situations faced by the participants and that ends with the protagonist(s) being oppressed. After the first performance, the play or scene is repeated with one crucial difference: the spectators become “spect-actors” and can at any point yell “freeze” and take the place of an actor to attempt to transform the outcome. Forum theater is an exercise in democracy in which anyone can speak and anyone can act.
One of the first things that spect-actors realize is that, as in life, if they don’t intervene, nothing will change. The next thing spect-actors find is that doing “something” is not enough, it must be a strategic something. The people acting as oppressors on stage will maintain their oppression until they are authentically stopped — and just like in life, stopping them isn’t easy. Forum theater thus becomes a laboratory to experiment with different courses of action.
The protagonists should be characters that all or most of the people in the room can identify with, so that when they intervene, they are rehearsing their own action. The point is not to show what we think other people should do — it is not theater of advice. The point is to discover what we can do.
Forum theater is facilitated by someone called a Joker, who engages the spect-actors both on and off stage in dialogue throughout the process. After an intervention, the Joker may ask, “Did this work?”, “Was this realistic?”, “Can you do this in real life?”
Forum theater was developed in a context in which it was very clear what the oppression was, who was oppressed and who the oppressors were: its originator, Augusto Boal, was living in exile from the Brazilian military dictatorship, and social movements across the continent were struggling against harsh military repression. Since then, the technique has been adapted to countless other contexts around the world, as practitioners seek to grapple with the complicated power relationships of more diverse groups of people. Often interventions will uncover multiple layers of power, dramatizing characters who are simultaneously oppressed and oppressing others.
Forum theater is an effective tool of creative activism, useful for generating interventions, as an intervention itself, and for building common strategic frameworks for movements.
The role of the Joker is a tricky one. It is easy to leave the group with false optimism about what can work, or to run out of time before everyone is satisfied with what has been attempted. The Joker must make many small decisions in every moment, such as whether or not to allow the introduction of additional characters, whether or not to add interventions upon other interventions, how many interventions to allow, when to stop an intervention when it’s not going anywhere, and so on.
Another pitfall is to use forum theater to generate solutions and then fail to act on them: forum theater “works” to the extent that it prepares participants to intervene critically in their own lives.