“A brilliant spark that will fly through the air and set the vapors of our insurrectionary imaginations alight.”John Jordan, founder of Reclaim the Streets
To foster dialogue and develop action strategies; to create a compelling public image in a direct action.
Image theater, a social change tool developed by Augusto Boal, is one of the more widely used forms of Theater of the Oppressed, in which activists, students or any group are invited to form statues that represent a moment in time of an oppressive situation. The image can then serve as a springboard for critical group reflection in order to both understand the situation better and to try out possible “solutions.” Through the process of creating and working with the image, participants can decode the situation, dissecting each character’s personality, motivation and range of possible actions. Insofar as the participants identify with the characters, they can explore possible actions that they themselves can take in their lives.
Image theater is similar to forum theater in every way, except that everyone is holding still. This allows for both faster development and use of the process: whereas forum theater often involves a small team that develops and rehearses a skit for months, image theater can be created on the spot, collaboratively. In this way, image theater is an incredibly accessible tool to use in trainings, strategy development and direct actions.
For example, at a 2005 rally to support a disruption of a Chevron shareholder meeting in San Rafael, California, all demonstrators present were invited to form an image to depict the entire oil industry, including the characters who benefit from it, are oppressed by it, or are bystanders of it. Portrayed in the image were drivers, oil tycoons, media, and impacted communities (people from Nigeria and Ecuador were present to represent themselves). Even water and the Earth were included as characters. Once people were satisfied that the image represented reality, they shared their character’s thoughts and motivations. The few people left in the rally who were not part of the image were then asked to take ten seconds each to intervene in the image in an attempt to transform the oil industry by reshaping the characters whom they believed were the critical agents of change. Everyone could see plainly what actions could or could not get us to the “ideal image.” Within twenty-five minutes, the group had arrived at goals, possible tactics and next steps.
While image theater starts with a frozen image, it quickly moves toward interventions by participants, acting in character, to collaboratively and spontaneously name their oppression and its source, and then explore courses of action. The final stage is to reflect on what happened with participants and, if appropriate, write up the actions that seem most viable.
When creating an image that involves representing people who are not present, stereotypes of those people commonly surface. This can be problematic when participants begin manipulating the image and the actor tries to imagine what is going on in that person’s head. With oppressor characters, this makes for an unrealistic laboratory in which to experiment with actions. With oppressed characters, it can perpetuate the dehumanizing stereotypes that fuel their oppression in the first place. This pitfall can be avoided by directing the action toward the people in the room, which image theater is specifically designed to do.