Theatre of the Oppressed: Joker Level 1 Training

“The theater itself is not revolutionary: it is a rehearsal for the revolution.”
– Augusto Boal

This January I had the opportunity to take Joker Level 1 training with Theatre of the Oppressed NYC, as hosted by the DC Coalition for Theatre and Social Justice. I was encouraged to take this workshop by Cristina Bejan, the co-founder of Bucharest Inside the Beltway, after we talked about my interest in theater for people of color and other marginalized groups. Side note: this training was to be held last July 2015, but I wasn’t able to make the full training and as it turns out the weekend workshop became a 3-hour compressed introduction to Theatre of the Oppressed (TO), which was also awesome.

I came to Joker Training with only a few expectations: learn about TO and use these new ideas in future theatre work. I was beautifully surprised by the end of training when I not only learned more about TO, but found it was widely applicable to all fields where you interact with people (especially in facilitation and participatory design, other areas of mine) and incredibly healing (more on that later).

Performance studies expert Ruth Laurion Bowman summarizes the Joker System as such:

As it is described by Boal, the Joker System is a flexible formula for adapting and staging extant texts, as well as for developing new ones (“Joker System”; Theatre of the Oppressed 159-97). […] The principal goal of the Joker System is to upset or destabilize the singular reality of the world as it is represented in the dramatic text (and as it is conventionally reproduced in performance) in order to explore alternate ways of representing and interpreting that world.

Or as we said in our workshop, “creating good confusion.”

No spoilers—I won’t go into all the games and debriefings we had, but we played a lot of games. Some of these games had to do with sound, some with movement, some with silence. They were simple enough that you could get in a rhythm, and some were silly enough that we would break face and roll with laughter. Some were intense—we had a few ‘ouch’ moments and many ‘mmm’ moments. In our debriefings, where we would talk about our reactions to a particular game or topic, the jokers would often ask, “Why?” and “What’s next?” in order to dig beneath the surface of our assumptions.

The workshop culminated in four different forum theatre performances based on stories of the participants. As explained by the Brecht Forum:

In what Boal calls “Forum Theater,” for example, the actors begin with a dramatic situation from everyday life and try to find solutions—parents trying to help a child on drugs, a neighbor who is being evicted from his home, and individual confronting racial or gender discrimination, or simply a student in a new community who is shy and has difficulty making friends. Audience members are urged to intervene by stopping the action, coming on stage to replace actors, and enacting their own ideas. […] The theatrical act is thus experienced as conscious intervention, as a rehearsal for social action rooted in a collective analysis of shared problems.

It was in these forum theatre performances that I felt the power of TO and its capability for healing and community. I shared my experience of my first few months after the birth of my daughter, where I experienced difficulties from various systems: healthcare, corporate, media (including social media, popular press, and institutional information). Our six-person forum theatre troupe developed the story, made it ours, and acted it out in a way that nearly brought me to tears. It was a story that has been so many mother’s stories: trouble with breastfeeding, uncaring medical professionals, difficulty returning to the work force, misunderstanding from mental health professionals, clamor of voices and advice. When an audience member raised her hand and offered to act as the Mother’s Boss, being an ally to the Mother so that she could work remotely while taking care of her baby, I wanted to hug her. Here she was, rehearsing social action for oppressed mothers—and not merely mothers, but anyone who has needed more time or flexible time due to medical or family issues.

Mixed media sculpture and collage made to accompany/inspire our forum troupe's play
Mixed media sculpture and collage made to accompany/inspire our forum troupe’s play

Coming to joker training felt as if part of my burden had been released, breathed in by a community and exhaled into the air, not to be my burden alone. Somehow, through seeing parts of my story embodied in other people, I felt a little less oppressed.

I’m not recommending joker training as therapy, though it was a gracious surprise that I felt buoyed that day. Rather, joker training is a way to bring creativity, theatre, social justice, and human rights together, in a way that empowers those who are oppressed and calls to action those of us who can help.