Taking My Cue

This weekend I attended a conference on applied theatre. Applied theatre (overly simplified) is the practice of using the art of theatre to contribute to the social good. For example, theatre techniques can be used as very effective treatment modalities for individuals on the autism spectrum, or as conflict resolution techniques. One of the tracks available at the conference was “theatre of the oppressed.” While this wasn’t the track for which I had registered, I had an opportunity to participate briefly in two of the exercises that this track hosted, and I was moved beyond words.

Theatre of the Oppressed was originated as a concept by Augusto Boal, and is (way overly simplified) a theatrical technique used to draw the actor and audience into dialogue with each other. The exercises place you into someone else’s proverbial shoes, forces you to appreciate another’s perspective. The participator in the exercises in which I engaged this weekend is forced to feel the discomfort of someone in a less fortunate position than he or she is. The participator goes from being comfortable to uncomfortable, and is forced to consider why.

The first exercise in which I had a chance to participate is called “Columbian hypnosis.” With another actor, one holds his or her palm toward the other’s face, and the second actor has to keep his or her face the same distance away from the first actor’s palm (without touching it), regardless of where the first actor moves the palm. Then, the actors switch. Then, a third actor is added to the group, and all three have an opportunity to be leaders. Did I mention there can be no talking? First, I was the second actor. The only thing you can focus on is the palm of the hand in front of you. Some participants felt at ease, others felt discomfort at a loss of control (although anyone feeling any acute emotions, of course, stops the exercise whenever they like). During the three-person variation, a male actor was leading two females, and expressed a feeling of unease at this. One of the female actors expressed something similar initially. I discovered this huge sense of responsibility in leading two other actors around, knowing that they had to go wherever I told them during the exercise. I recognized that I had to take care of them.

In the second exercise, a huge group of people (around 70 or more I think), were divided into groups of three. Each actor began making a specific noise and movement combination, whatever they liked. They then had to “morph” with the other two until all three were doing the exact same sound/movement combination. Then that group morphed with another group of three, and then the larger group with another, until all 70 + of us were doing the same sound/movement combination. This was an exercise in compromise. Each person initially, and then each group, came into each “morph” with something they weren’t willing to give up, and others that they were. In a sense, the final unison of all of us contained a part of each of our original sound/movement choices, and was arguably better than the first. Some gave in immediately and morphed, others held out. In the end, there was respect and sense of commonality among all the actors.

Those two exercises moved me through a sense of humility, to a sense of responsibility, to a sense of respect. Obviously, I don’t have to tell you the implications. These exercises are physical imagery to assist one in appreciating the powerlessness or passion of another, another that one has the ability to impact. We are all in a position of influence or power over another: a parent to a child, a police officer to the violator of the law, an employer to an employee. There are just and unjust ways to exercise that power, and erring on the side of the just begins with appreciating the position, feelings, and humanity of the other person. These theatre techniques assist you in recognizing those things.

As though to come full circle, I listened to a great conversation after returning home about appreciating differences and being human with each other despite those differences. The person being interviewed, Kwame Anthony Appiah, talked about the immediacy of expression in our digital age…how we’re quick to send a caustic email when frustrated with someone else, saying things that we likely wouldn’t say with an hour to cool off (I have painful first-hand experience of that). He also talked about making an intentional effort to talk to people that hold opposite perspectives than yours, and recognizing them as people, regardless of their perspectives. He doesn’t advocate discarding your own beliefs to do so, or to affirm a perspective that you believe to be wrong, but to (in my words) become acquainted with where the other person’s views originate. 

What I’m inspired to work more diligently toward (appreciating others’ perspectives) by the interview, the theatre exercises had already motivated me to begin. In spiritual language, we call that “convergence.” The theatre activities that I experienced this weekend were profoundly moving, and I believe I’ll be adding as well as giving up during the rest of the Lenten season: endeavoring to add patience and respect to those relationships in which I find myself in a position of influence. 

Because, if we all took our influence as a more sacred obligation, we just might make this whole experience a little better for everyone. 

Photo Attribution: Steve Snodgrass 

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