Justice Theater Project's Forum Theatre Workshop
Saturday, April 22
photo courtesy of Justice Theater Project
Curtain call after Justice Theater Project's Forum Theatre workshop
Umstead Park United Church of Christ, Raleigh
A plastic, gold-painted crown isn’t part of the standard-issue uniform for public school principals. But it somehow fits the character who sits at a desk on the dais at the Umstead Park United Church of Christ.
After reading a sticky note handed to her by a lackey, she picks up a phone and imperiously announces on the school’s public address system, “There will be no more art and chorus from now on.” Then her assistants walk across the stage and confiscate the drawings, art supplies, and music stands being used by a group of students.
As scripts go, this one’s still somewhere south of Strindberg, but, to be fair, the twenty-one educators, community advocates, and students ranging from middle school to community college who participated in last week’s Forum Theatre workshop
had a tall order to fill. They had twenty-six hours—from six p.m. last Friday to eight p.m. Saturday—to write, cast, and stage three scenes, including the aforementioned one, titled "Art in Our Hearts."
And the goal of this Justice Theater Project-sponsored production went beyond the mere seeking of standing ovations or critical accolades. This community needed an answer to a question its members are still facing—“What can we do if North Carolina public schools are forced to drop arts classes?”
Enter Augusto Boal, a Brazilian theater director, theorist, and social activist who developed Forum Theatre in the 1970s as a way for communities to enact and work through problems confronting them. The technique gave communities under military repression in South and Central American countries the means by which to dramatize things done to them against their will—and then strategize effective responses to counteract them.
After creating a short scene depicting a community’s dilemma, the group performs it for that neighborhood. Then they repeat the performance, but with one major difference; during the second iteration, any spectator can yell “stop!” at any time, come on stage, take the place of the protagonist, and attempt to change the outcome. As a character called Joker moderates, the cast and audience trouble-shoot the change: Is it effective? Could it possibly happen in real life?
The object is to provide what Boal called a “rehearsal theatre” for social action. Activist Levana Saxon notes, “The point is not to show what we think other people should do—it is not the theater of advice. The point is to discover what we can do.”
On Saturday night, before the N.C. General Assembly reached a tentative agreement sparing arts classes threatened by an inadequately funded mandate to reduce classroom size, students, parents, teachers, and advocates worked the problem in real time. After yelling out “stop!” one mischievous audience member strode onstage and stole the principal’s phone so she couldn’t announce the change.
After discarding that strategy, another directed the students to hide their instruments and art supplies, leaving nothing to be taken away. Then a third simply advised the vocalists to keep on singing and the percussionists to continue playing on any and every available surface : “They think they’re in charge, but they really cannot steal our joy!”
The moment demonstrated something important—and empowering. While it may be easy for administrators to cancel arts classes, preventing students from learning has the potential to be much, much harder.
As they analyzed the scene, the assembly reached further conclusions. “Parents have a lot of power, though they may not use it a lot,” an audience member observed. “If kids demand to learn, they can find allies in parents and their neighborhoods. A unified voice forces them to listen.”
The ancient Greeks knew that theater could examine dilemmas confronting a culture. Last Saturday night in a church just off U.S. Route 70, an intergenerational group one-upped them, as theater proposed possible solutions as well.