This fall, sophomore Phui Yi Kong brought students and community members together for an experiential workshop that used theater techniques to help resolve conflicts. The workshop ran for seven weeks.
To prepare for her undertaking, Kong trained this summer in Washington with internationally acclaimed Theater of the Oppressed practitioner Marc Weinblatt. In Theater of the Oppressed, the roles of audience and actors are blurred, for both get involved in improvised scenes, exploring and analyzing situations collectively to see the many possibilities for solving problems.
Theater is used as a tool for conflict resolution and problem solving because it is communal, but Kong also pointed out that it involves the body, as well as the mind. “Boal talks about the whole body as a thinking mechanism,” she said, referring to Augusto Boal, a Brazilian politician and theater director who created Theater of the Oppressed.
Kong, who has not yet declared a major, pursued this project as an independent study under the guidance of her advisor, Assistant Professor of Theater Abigail Killeen.
Kong recruited six students to participate in her independent study, training them in Theater of the Oppressed tactics in September before she invited in community members. In October, she held four three-hour workshops on Friday evenings that were open to both locals and students. And before the semester started, Kong organized a “Friends and Family” Theater of the Oppressed workshop that had 26 people.
In total, 25 to 30 people from the area attended her fall workshops. Their ages ranged from 30 to 88, and they included artists, activists, a handyman and others. “Most of the time the sessions were small,” Kong said. “There was a session with just seven of us, which was really wonderful.”
Anita Clearfield, who lives in nearby Durham, signed up for Kong’s free workshops after meeting Kong at Occupy Bath/Brunswick events. She said she was attracted by the workshop’s mix of art and politics. “That the Theater of the Oppressed idea is based on the idea that you can solve real-life problems using theater techniques is interesting,” she explained. “The audience can participate in the solutions, and they have choices.”
In particular, Clearfield described a moment in the workshop when a student created a tableau, or a still sculpture using several participants, to portray a conflict he had had with his mother and a friend some years back. Then the actor-sculptures came to life, improvising inner monologues.
Clearfield said the exercise was effective because it helps one acknowledge “that different people can bring such different perspectives to a situation. You can think it’s black and white, that you’re stuck and you have no choice, but so many people have many different ideas and approaches to something that’s meaningful to them.”
Robbie Harrison ’14 said his interest in “people’s narratives and storytelling” compelled him to join Kong’s Theater of the Oppressed. “You didn’t need a profound activist experience to tell stories of power or oppression,” he pointed out. He added that he was also moved by the other participants’ portrayal of his stories. “It’s such a gift to see what you’re saying reflected in front of you and to see people act out your situation differently.”
Kong said Theater of the Oppressed works on both political-social levels and personal levels, and that after completing the workshops this fall, she said she now feels more able to speak up in unjust or unfair situations. “It’s increased my awareness of power dynamics,” she said, “so if I see a dynamic that is inappropriate, I’m more likely to step in.”
For example, she recounted how in a recent class she had observed other students excluding her, despite the need for them to work together. “Here is where my Theater of the Oppressed skills come in,” she had thought to herself. “So I moved in closer; I spoke with conviction.”
Kong said she’s also grateful for the participants’ support for her work. “All parts of Theater of the Oppressed are voluntary. The participants could have chosen not to attend after the first session. Because of their support and feedback, I am more confident, and so is my facilitation,” she said.