Photos: http://www.flickr.com/photos/rudyespi82/sets/72157634799224380/ (credit Rudy Espinoza)
I’m always humbled doing theatre work with communities. On Thursday, July 25, over 50 Lorena Terrace residents and friends turned out to watch a performance created by the 6 youth and two adults who attended my Theatre of the Oppressed workshops at Lorena Terrace. The youth had built an entire set on their own before I even got there, complete with a too-small paper house, a cardboard cop car, and a jail made of streamers. The ‘thug kids’ even went and got temporary tattoos. The 10-minute scene, created by the youth themselves in our last two workshops, dealt with bullying in schools, overcrowding and lack of attention at home, and peer pressure as factors leading to petty crime with serious consequences.
But this wasn’t just a show, it was a Theatre of the Oppressed project, and so we used the short piece as a springboard into discussion of the issues the youth wanted to talk about. Family and friends gave some real insight into how a lack of affordable housing, overwork, and financial strains affected their young people. The audience talked about solutions and went from spectators to spect-actors, as a few members of the audience came onstage and tried to solve problems in the scenes. The least effective solutions were shouting and trying to enforce adult authority—what worked better was channeling the youth’s energy into constructive means, talking to them about potential programs they could get involved in and how those programs could give them the skills for real-world jobs where they would get *paid*. Most of the proposed solutions involved more talking and more communication, and many of the interventions were about talking to the youth from different positionalities (peer, neighbor, parent) to try to influence their behavior.
Part way through the Forum of audience interventions, one of the youth actors came up to me and said, “can we make them all do scenes?” I thought for a split second, but the answer seemed obvious: yes. With 50 people, we would never have time to allow everyone to intervene and the narrow confines of the scene we created might marginalize certain issues that others thought were important. So I asked the audience to split up into groups of five, choose an issue related to what we had presented and a solution that they thought would work, and create a short scene to show everyone what that would look like.
The results were spectacular—the adults and teenagers stayed and played (and argued!) openly in front of one another until well after it got dark and their children went back inside. Many of the scenes dealt with bullying and pressure, but with a multitude of new perspectives, from scenes of all women to a discussion of discrimination based on skin color within the Latino community. The theme of technology as a new third party in relationships between children and parents emerged. The parents argued—and disagreed—about acceptable ways to discipline their children in the US as compared to Mexico. The scenes ranged from 2-minute demonstration pieces to entire novellas with a love interest and death at the end. Parents played children, children played authority figures, women played men, and a group of teenagers encouraged a friend with Down syndrome to take part and he became the star of their piece not as a helpless victim but as ‘part of the crew’.
Partly because I had begun with young actors, the focus on the problems and solutions presented remained small, at the family scale. We discussed systemic problems of poverty to some extent, but mostly we talked about communication and relationships. In the future I would push to make interventions more ‘activist’ and really get at how to take action to solve the root problems of many of the scenes. But as always with this kind of work, as far as I’m concerned the main benefit is creating a space for serious dialogue through play. By incorporating play, participants who would not normally be active in this kind of dialogue have a chance to be heard and to develop a set of skills for critical engagement.