Jokers to help the oppressed

In 2006, USC Professor of theatre practice Brent Blair got a gig putting on a theater workshop  for Downtown Los Angeles’ oppressed garment workers. But this was not a morale-boosting production of Midsummer Nights Dream. In fact, Blair didn’t even bring a script.

Instead, employees who worked within the largest concentration of garment industry sweatshops in the United States participated in a series of workshops engaged in dialogue about the problems affecting their lives and created their own scenes based on personal stories of injustice — with themselves in starring roles.

“If people engage in a process of writing a play,” Blair said of his methods during a recent panel discussion on theater activism, “everybody moves from passive objects to active subjects.”

But in this line of work, the passive-to-active trajectory doesn’t stop with first-time performers.

During the presentation of the community-centric play, the actors on stage stop the scene — at the climax of an employee-manager dispute, for example — and ask the audience for solutions to the situation. Audience members, once mere observers of the play, get up and direct their suggestions for how the scene should end, which are then improvised by those on stage.

Such is customary in the Theatre of the Oppressed, a title for a range of theatrical forms — such as “forum theatre,” described above — developed by the late Brazilian activist Augusto Boal.

By moving members of oppressed communities from their roles as powerless observers to dominant subjects, Blair — who recently founded USC School of Theatre’s new master’s program in applied theatre arts based around Boal’s teachings — empowers people to do the same in their own lives.

The school’s master’s program, which welcomes its first seven students this fall, is only the second of its kind in the country, yet its creation in a city as diverse as Los Angeles comes as both a positive distinction and a wake-up call.

Though it is only the latest on USC’s growing list of culturally progressive interdisciplinary options, the applied theatre arts program — so called because of its application of theater in non-traditional settings — is also a reminder of the city’s numerous social issues. As a forum for communities to express their problems and collaborate on solutions, Theatre of the Oppressed (also known as T.O.) provides a process much needed in Los Angeles, a city known as much for its Hollywood glamour as for its bursts of civil unrest.

In New York City, where the country’s first Applied Theatre Arts master’s program sprung up, Theatre of the Oppressed could be seen as localizing the Vaudeville stage, a once-dominant entertainment form that became a mixing board for early 20th century identities, ethnicities and sexualities. But in Los Angeles, T.O. techniques are rooted in a different history of activist cultural performance, one that stretches from the pachuco’s zoot suits to N.W.A.’s hard core rhymes.

Instead of perpetuating elitism by providing underserved communities with performances of works that uphold the traditional artist-audience dichotomy, Blair and his contemporaries embrace these histories of rebellion by serving as cultural interrupters, relinquishing theatrical control to a public that didn’t know they could have it. The results encourage people to think about their problems and — hopefully — stimulate solidarity.

As Boal wrote in his eponymous book, Theatre of the Oppressed: “The theatre is a weapon and the people should wield it.”

Local theatre companies, such as Downtown-based Cornerstone for example, have been living by this thought since the early 90s, encouraging Los Angeles’ socially and racially diverse communities to take an active role in creating their own futures. By targeting specific communities — even some that might not traditionally be thought of as oppressed — the internationally-renown group has helped everyone from imprisoned youth to bullied elementary school kids reassess their place in society.

When Blair started teaching at USC in 1994, there was no name for this area of study. Though it takes influence from street theatre, witness theater, agit-prop and performance activism, he saw his students as more cultural field workers than straight actors. It’s true, T.O. practitioners are more often called “jokers” than their true role as facilitators (though Blair insisted he doesn’t facilitate, he “difficultates.”)

It wasn’t until 2003 that the classes Blair started at USC (including “Theatre in the Community,” “Theatre and Therapy” and “Theatre in Education”) were incorporated into the umbrella-titled Applied Theatre Arts minor. And after being inspired by School of Social Work’s Dean Marilyn Flynn to consider someday teaming up with her school, Blair — with encouragement from School of Theatre Dean Madeline Puzo — worked to expand his program again, this time with a separate three-semester masters program that finally opens up the School of Theatre to not just artists, but also educators, therapists, social workers and political activists.

This growth has not come without criticism, however. Blair received a lengthy letter from an angry potential student who could not understand how a highbrow institution such as USC could possibly play host to such a grassroots subject matter.

The answer is simple — it is exactly our reputation as a highbrow institution that allows us to explore these new academic frontiers.

Just as USC became the first university to implement a popular music performance major in the fall of last year, USC is the ideal training ground for the next generation of T.O. jokers. Our adoption of more contemporary practices — despite our art schools’ classical traditions — not only draws local attention to these methodologies, but also legitimizes them for the greater academic community.

Our location in the heart of Los Angeles only adds to the appeal of a program at USC, as it opens up access to an abundance of diverse neighborhoods — some of which Blair’s classes have already assisted.

The one thing to remember with T.O., however, is that despite the multitude of suggestions that are given throughout the process, there are no answers. Employing this use of art in a community-activism setting can spark productive discussions within oppressed communities regarding issues of injustice, but there are not always clear-cut solutions. Concrete actions do follow T.O. events, though. And in a process known as conscientization, evaluations of those actions are followed by subsequent T.O. events, helping the communities put their critical consciousness into action.

These adaptive techniques — developed by Boal and being carried into a new era of pedagogy by Blair — create collaborative environments that lie at the intersection of theater and cultural fieldwork, providing an experience that is both educational and therapeutic without ever being absolute.

Communities are always evolving, with their needs and problems constantly changing. But for every oppressed Angeleno, there will now be a joker-in-training, making hope possible just a university away.

As Boal liked to say at the beginning of his T.O. sessions — “Come Closer.”