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.

Winter Tangerine Summer Workshop

“Theater is poetry that rises from the book and becomes human enough to talk and shout, weep and despair.” – Federico García Lorca (1936)

After the high of the VONA Workshop, I found the Winter Tangerine online writers workshop and immediately jumped at the opportunity to keep writing and learn more about different genres. Winter Tangerine is “a literary & arts magazine dedicated to the electric” founded by Yasmin Belkhyr and publishes poetry, prose, and art—and that’s just in their anthologies. They also host two sessions of intensive three-week workshops geared towards poetry and prose.

The workshop is ambitious, packed with daily autowrites, writing assignments, and reading/watching assignments. Each week we tackled a different topic: first Character, then Aesthetic, then the Absurd, and were provided with a syllabus of video clips, poems, prose, and interviews for each day. We were split into smaller groups, with other writers/storytellers as our small group leaders. Brianna Albers was my wonderful and kind leader, and Sarah Maria Medina (tweet at her!) posted all the autowrites in the main group each day and ran two Word Wars with the students.

I found some of the prompts stumping, mainly because as a playwright I’m used to more concrete prompts such as “Choose these three objects and write a dialogue between your characters.” One day, an autowrite prompt was “Silver spoon.”

My reaction: whaaaaat?

Silver Spoon
Photo Credit: MAURO CATEB

But it was great. It’s precisely these type of prompts that push your creativity and your skills as a writer. It’s okay to be stumped. It’s okay to write something you don’t like. I once had a poetry professor tell us that if we wrote something terrible, we could always blame the prompt. And sometimes a weird or impossible prompt can give you a beautiful piece of work that you would have never reached otherwise.

What’s more, I used a lot of the prompts to experiment and explore my play’s environment and characters. Writing dialogue as poetry is something I’ve always kept in the back of my head (thanks, Lorca!) and finally practiced in this workshop. I ended up producing a lot of other new works as well.

Most of all, I loved the seminars. For about an hour, we Google-hung-out with Clint Smith, Richard Siken, and Stevie Edwards, discussing everything from self-censorship to how you fly in dreams. And as a major bonus, Stevie even offered to critique one of our pieces that we wrote for her class!

There were some organizational hiccups that always plague virtual classes (damn you, Google Hangouts!) and working across time zones can be tricky. It can take some maneuvering to build a community online, especially in only three weeks. I didn’t feel all that connected to my small group since we were out of synch, but I think other groups were more cohesive.

Overall, I would encourage writers to apply to this workshop, especially if you’re in a remote place and can’t attend or afford or take time off to get to a physical workshop—but I would put aside the time to respect your craft, join in the conversations, and attend the classes. I also put aside at least an hour to write every day (it helped that I was doing a 14-day writing challenge at the same time) – which was hard between work, class, and health (and let’s be real, I didn’t finish all of the assignments/prompts), but ultimately daily writing benefited me in ways I didn’t expect. Community holds you accountable. And this was a pretty fun and challenging way to build community.

Winter Tangerine Vol 4 Cover

VONA Playwriting Workshop

VONA Playwrights
VONA Playwrights, Class of 2015. Photo by Junot Diaz.
[[note: I meant to post this a lot earlier, but my site was having issues so this is a tad late!]]


That is the prevailing emotion I have as I reflect on VONA ten days after returning from the steamy University of Miami campus to the almost-as-steamy Washington D.C.

VONA (Voices of Our Nations Arts Foundation) is “the only multi-genre workshop for writers of color in the nation” – they offer two weeks of parallel workshops where writers of color can write, think, and create in a safe space without having to explain their stories or craft. VONA has been described as emotional, intense, magical; VONA alumni even joked, “If you don’t cry at VONA, you’re not doing it right.”

I had no idea what this meant when I started out – I only knew I felt a mixture of excitement, anxiety, and intimidation as I read my fellow classmates’ plays prior to the week. I’ve taken playwriting classes—a semester-long one, one-day workshops, 6-week long classes for professionals—but many of them tend to be introductory and geared towards teaching us how to start a play. This workshop was going to be for us. We were going to spend time on our own words, and though we were at different levels, all of the play excerpts I read impressed me with their voices and content. We were (are) all dealing with serious shit.

While I won’t go into details of each workshop, I do want to say that I never thought that finding a family would happen so fast, that we would all care about each other so deeply only after a few days (hours), and that I would find myself in a dorm lounge at midnight passing around snacks, singing show tunes, and laughing so hard I’m surprised the other residents tolerated us.

Furthermore, VONA provided a certain amount of relief for so many of the issues that plague writers. At the satellite/affinity groups meeting, a group of us began talking about the problems with MFAs that people of color faced. At a panel about publishing, Marjorie Liu reminded us not to let writing get in the way of life. At the faculty reading, Junot Diaz reminded us to cherish the reader: “We overvalue and fetishize the writer… [think of] the reader who does this, entirely carved out from her busy life.”

If anything, I want my writing to be more fearless. To go to the places I don’t want to go, to uncover my generational histories of the damaged and the traumatized. To be aware of self-censorship. VONA drew us close, energized us, and then set us free into the world to shake it and (re)make it.

And so what questions remain for me, post-VONA?

What does it mean to be “half” Filipino? What does it mean to be a non-white white? How does one honor heritage? I am a person of color – I am also a person with white heritage, although not the stereotypical Western European white heritage. What is the tension between these identities? How do I vocalize this?

I am continuing to explore what it means to be a person of color. This issue of identity was something I was always interested in, but gradually became buried as I focused on my Filipino heritage and Philippine Studies. My interest in “multiracial” (“mixed race”, “hapaness” – none of these words are satisfactory) issues is once again piqued. I’m going to be frank: I have not always had the best experiences with organizations focused solely on Filipino issues or people of color issues. Something slips between the cracks. Something gets hidden or erased.

And if there’s anything I learned from VONA, it’s to make that something visible, central, honored. And it is with such humility and gratitude that I thank my fellow writers—past, present, and future—for creating a loving and powerful space to keep us going.

Now, Go.


PS, if you want to check out the work of some of the other playwrights from the workshop, there’s one playwright’s blog, Emotional Endurance Training, and Sharline Chiang has several awesome works you can read, including I Tried It… Being White, Reclaiming 5 Ugly Letters (about growing up and being called “chink” every day), and two essays on postpartum depression: Smiling Selfies and Other Lies and Beyond the Baby Blues.