Theatre of the Oppressed was created by Brazilian theatre director and political activist Augusto Boal in the 1970s as an antidote to the theatre of the authoritative class that routinely used the stage as a tool to maintain its dominance. The story goes that Boal and his theatre group performed an agitprop play to peasants that inspired them to rise up against their oppressors. Virgilio, a peasant in the audience, invited Boal’s group to take up arms and join their fight. But when he was told that the stage guns were fake and that the theatre group’s help would do more harm than good, Virgilio stunned them: “When you talk about the blood being spilled for liberation—its our blood you mean, not yours, is that so?” From that moment, Boal vowed never to ask anyone to do what he was unwilling to do, and never to tell a story that was not his to tell. A new kind of theatre, one with and by the people, was born.
Laura is a participatory theatre producer, director, facilitator, educator, and actress based in Prague, Czech Republic, a place she has called home for the last 22 years. She is originally from the U.S., where she studied Political Philosophy and Classical Rhetoric at the Catholic University of America in Washington D.C. In a city with so much happening, it was hard not to be engaged civically. I became more socially and politically aware, she explains. Prior to that, I had been the poster girl for white, upper-middle-class privilege. I grew up in a conservative bubble… The Peace Studies group Laura joined at CUA catapulted her into social justice and human rights, including peaceful protests to stop U.S. military aid to El Salvador and to abolish apartheid in South Africa, and years of community organizing and campaign work with the Central American community in D.C.
New Visions for MBBI
Vancouver, 2022. At a training led by David Diamond, founder of Theatre for Living—a participatory theatre form developed out of Theatre of the Oppressed that supports civic engagement, community dialogue, and social change—Laura met a like-minded soul: A member of Mediators Beyond Borders International who wanted to bring creative, arts-based peacebuilding into the organization. Both of us had the sense that there would be a lot of convergence between the work of MBBI and the use of participatory theatre to support the peacebuilding mandate. Laura recently joined the MBB Europe working group, where she hopes her theatre skillset can do exactly that.
Rehearsal for Reality
Inspired by Boal, David Diamond, and by the idea of creating theatre with the people instead of for the people, Laura established the non-profit association Rehearsal for Reality, a people’s theatre for dialogue and social change. This is not mainstream theatre. I don’t work with professional actors, scripts, or published pieces. It is about bringing community members together. They become participants in a process where they create and perform a short play based on their lived experience of a shared problem or social issue. They move from being spectators to what Boal called ‘spect-actors’, because we are all actors of our lives and agents of change.
In her work, social change can also mean policy change. Despite political support, a bill to pass same-sex marriage has languished for years in the Czech parliament because other priorities sideline it during government debates. The argument is that registered partnerships are enough. But same-sex partnerships only allow adoption as a single parent, and this can have dire consequences for child welfare.
In 2020, during a short window of opportunity during COVID, twelve participants identifying as LGBTQ dealt with this head-on. On a hot August evening, Who Cares? premiered as part of the Prague Pride Festival, with advocates and policymakers in attendance. The group of twelve had engaged in an intense process to create a play based on their collective lived experiences, and to perform it. There was joy and there were tears. They created a fiction that told the truth.
Who Cares? portrayed the struggles of two women in a registered partnership, caring for their son. The legally adoptive parent loses her job during COVID and becomes abusive towards her partner and their son. The non-adoptive parent, under current legislation, has no rights or legal recourse to protect him. As the social worker cannot help, and her parents offer no support, the protagonist is left, at the end of the play, with seemingly nowhere to turn. This is Forum Theatre. Forum plays end at the moment of crisis—there is no solution. In this case, the play ends in a heartbreaking moment, but it is the truth.
The ensemble performed to a full house, and Laura was Joker—Boal’s term for the facilitator role. Many in the audience identified with the experiences shown on stage in their own lives. When audiences are asked if they see issues and injustices in a play, many hands go up. When asked if they have an idea of something that could be done differently, many hands stay up. When asked if they’d like to come on stage and try out their idea, many hands go down! But somebody always comes. We’re here to rehearse change—if no one comes, then nothing changes. That’s a powerful motivator.
And it’s radical empathy, even for the most polarizing topics. Spectators are invited to step into the role of not only the main character, but any character whose struggle they understand, to try out strategies for a better outcome. A key principle of this work is the belief that people and entire communities can test, challenge, and discuss ideas for change without shaming or judgment. The theatre is an ideal place to rehearse this: When an audience member replaces a character on stage, the other actors improvise, staying true to their character. The room then talks about these interventions: What is the larger social problem here? What larger values are in conflict? What are the power imbalances that sustain it? How do communities “grow” these kinds of oppressions? If this play shows the symptoms of conflict, what are the root causes? What would have to change on the interpersonal, community, and government levels to create equity, equality, and peace?
In another Forum Theatre project with migrants about their experience with housing discrimination in Prague (What Country, Friends, Is This? 2021), a lawyer was in the audience one night, who spoke confidently about how the law would apply in one scene. As Forum Theatre is a dialogue of action, Laura invited her on stage to replace the protagonist. It took some encouragement, but the lawyer agreed to improvise a scene with the landlady character. The legal loopholes that allow for discriminatory abuses quickly became clear—the landlady ran circles around the lawyer. How? The actress was not a landlady herself, but she had plenty of experience with them as a migrant and as a member of a minority. She knew they knew the law, and which parts worked to their advantage to discriminate or evict without cause.
The passive bystander-turned-spect-actor lawyer learned a lot that night, and so did the 70 people in the room. They left the event still talking about the housing issue and the conditions that cause housing shortages and drive predatory behavior. No one excused the abuse of power, but everyone understood a little better the struggles of the abuser. And that’s the point: To spark collective dialogue and empower people to take ideas into the real world. For me, that is the beauty of the work. If one person can leave the space activated to continue the conversation, to make a change, then she has an impact on the system. A tiny one, but she does.
All theatre is about conflict. That’s what drives a good story. So while Laura still tries to avoid conflict in her life (even healthy conflict!), she embraces it as a performer herself. Of her experiences on stage as lead actress in productions of Things I Know to Be True and Shirley Valentine, she says, I suddenly felt liberated when I could play a character in conflict with another character. I am in conflict with you, but I am not me, I am playing a role and I can just let loose, and explore my own boundaries. It is an imaginative space to explore alternatives.
Laura was hungry to learn how Forum Theatre and its extension, Legislative Theatre, are used in peacebuilding and non-violent social movements beyond the European context. So in 2022-2023, she traveled alone to India and Nepal for three months to do just that, first spending two weeks training and performing with Jana Sanskriti, the largest Theatre of the Oppressed organization in the world, near Kolkata. They have built a social and political movement out of Forum Theatre and Legislative Theatre for over 30 years, with many women-led satellite teams across West Bengal slowly changing oppressive systems in labor rights, gender rights, and more. It was humbling to be part of the Muktadhara Festival they hold every two years. While I felt privileged to perform at five rural villages in West Bengal, my Privilege (with a capital P) was on full display everywhere. I wasn’t sure where to park it, and it took a while to realize I couldn’t—and didn’t have to. It was a huge, hard learning experience on dealing with my own positioning, unlearning a lot of pre-conceptions I had, and letting go of a lot.
Laura then traveled around India, jokering participatory theatre workshops with NGOs, civil society organizations, and schools on gender justice, urban safety, healthcare access, and on social-emotional learning in classrooms. She is returning to India in 2024 to deepen those relationships and her work, and to conduct research on how participatory theatre work can support non-violent social movements by shifting High Conflict (Amanda Ripley) towards Radical Empathy (Terri Givens).
Playfully Serious and Seriously Playful
In Europe, Laura is involved in initiatives on the civic participation of migrants and on climate issues, with the hope of integrating Forum Theatre and Legislative Theatre into the work they already do. She is Advocacy and Community Engagement Specialist for MigAct, a Prague-based NGO that supports migrants and migrant-led initiatives to become civically engaged, and is a contributor to the European Community Organizing Network’s curriculum on creative organizing and artistic activism.
If all this sounds serious, it is. But Laura’s work is playful. Groups have fun in the process of building the trust, common values and vision that strengthen social cohesion and create conditions for dialogue that promote human rights, social equity, and above all, peace.
Laura hopes that these playfully serious and seriously playful practices can be implemented in MBBI’s work, wherever that might take her—the Flying Joker!
Article by Maciej Witek, MBBI Writer