TRANS Internet-Zeitschrift für Kulturwissenschaften 17. Nr. März 2010

Section VS 1 The multitude of Theatre of the Oppressed techniques: From Theory to Practice
Sektionsleiter | Section Chair:
Birgit Fritz (University of Vienna), Matthias Thonhauser (Art in Progress/Austria)

Dokumentation | Documentation | Documentation

English | Русский

Some Observations from a Drama-pedagogical Point of View on the Framework
of Transcultural/Transnational Theatre of the Oppressed Work in Kyrgyzstan

Birgit Fritz (University of Vienna, Austria) [BIO]



Sometimes, things take time. This was the case with the ‚Flying Joker Project’(1) as I like to call it, in Kyrgyzstan.

‘Flying Jokers’ describes a process in which the experienced trainers of the Theatre of the Oppressed (so called Jokers) travel to pass on the skills of the arsenal of the Theatre of the Oppressed to local trainers, teachers, pedagogues, activists, or community members, who again, intend to make use of and multiply the methods of Augusto Boal’s theatre within their radius of activities in their respective countries.

In 2005, the youth organisation KelKel invited Matthias Thonhauser for the first time, to see whether this theatre method could be a useful tool for fostering young people’s participation in the democratization process in Kyrgysztan. In 2006, a gender balanced ‘train the trainer’ programm was intented. In 2007, the start of a Central Asian Centre for the Theatre of the Oppressed was to be staged, hosted by Lyceum 43 in Jangy Jer under the leadership of Djusupova Bakyt Musaevna.

To create a Central Asian Centre of the Theatre of the Oppressed means to strive for something very big, it is not a simple challenge. To create any Centre of the Theatre of the Oppressed will confront the protagonists with a challenging process, and will be an adventurous endeavour.

And this already gives an idea of the nature of both project teams, the Austrian and the Kyrgyz one. They had enthusiasm, passion, idealism, curiosity for new processes, transcultural sensitivity, an open mind, and most important: a vision.  Maybe they even had two visions, but this they should only gradually find out, as they invested more and more time and energy in dialogue with each other.

As described in other places in this publication, Lyceum 43 in Jangy Jer is home to disadvantaged Kyrgyz youth and one of the first schools in Kyrgyzstan to trust in creative  processes as tool for personal growth and development. They have theatre groups that so far had focussed mainly on traditional themes, fairy tales, and folk art. Furthermore they dispose of outstanding musical trainers, seamtstresses and teachers for traditional ways of working with wool, painting, making carpets etc. So the idea to adopt a pedagocial method of using theatre and combining learning for life and art was not far fetched.

The school trains its students for agricultural work and tourism, the latter being a very young branch of Kyrgyz economy. Extending their school with a drama-pedagogical wing for youth and adult trainers from different backgrounds would, on a practical scale, make sense as their students would again get a chance to host guests and apply the skills acquired during their basic training at Jangy Jer plus upgrade the school’s activities beyond its national frontiers as forerunners in an innovative pedagogical field. The simultaneuous collaboration with artists from different fields, as filmmakers, musicians and stage designers would open again a diverse field of future working possibilities for its students. Furthermore bringing non-Kyrgyz practitioners to Kyrgyzstan would foster international relationships and again, open paths for cooperation.

But the Theatre of the Oppressed is a form of theatre which calls itself engaged and political, striving for improved realities and more human societies. Sanjoy Ganguly even once in Austria said: “Theatre of the Oppressed is not political theatre. It is theatre as politics.”

How to deal with a situation that wants to call itself pedagocial and not political, when undisguisedly introducing a ‘political weapon’? Not only in this century has theatre been called a ‘martial art’ by different artists in different places, it has a long tradition of challenging existing systems and questioning the ruling ideologies.

It is not news, that theatre has served and is still serving as a magnifying glass for looking at our realities, that it is a place for reflection and can create a debate amongst people. Our theatre, as I want to call it now, is the child of a European tradition of theatre, of Brecht, of Piscator, of Bela Balasz before them, transformed and extended and developed in a Latin American context. Since the seventies it has been travelling around the world and is now being practised in more than 70 countries of the world and on all the continents. And in its roots it follows a clearly marxist ideology.

In a post-soviet context, in one of the poorest countries of Central Asia, this is a character trait that doesn’t sound becoming. “You have had capitalism for a long time”, said one of our participants, “it is our turn now!”

(And we are also aware that in India for example, similar attitudes prevail, e.g. that local environmental activists get blamed for being slaves to western antiglobalisation activists for wanting to stop processes of so-called ‘development’ as they harm nature and destroy cultural values by building huge dams for example, with the argument of their opponents who insist in that: we want to make our own mistakes, that is our right.)

How to read the significance and the history of such a method as the Theatre of the Oppressed and how to translate it to the situation at hand? In a society that has to survive with an extremely high unemployment rate (70% in some regions as will be written in the following contributions to this book), analphabetism amongst all layers of society, a high rate of addiction within the young and an atmosphere of violence on various social levels, a certain hopelessness prevails. At the same time there is an intense search for new ways, to the labour market, to the sciences, to a rapid development. In the face of poverty there is no time to lose. This intensity of the desire and the necessity to change things for the better, we, the western readers of this project, need to understand and be aware of, when wanting to warn of exceedingly fast progress in certain directions, having suffered from the negative effects of mass tourism, the alienation and losses that come along with a neo-liberal labour market and the like.

Let me introduce the content goals of the project in Jangy Jer, Lyceum 43 in September 2007:

Following the logic of building a Central Asian centre the Austrian coordination team decided to invite other Asian practitioners, in order to establish cross-regional contacts and to create a working network for the future. Sanjoy Ganguly, the leader of the world’s largest Theatre of the Oppressed movement, came to Kyrgyzstan. Jale Karabekir, a Turkish directress and drama pedagogue who works with feminist issues in the Muslim world, participated as well.

And in sight of the conference that should conclude our activities, as we wanted to introduce the most authentic and direct idea of what the nature of Theatre of the Oppressed work is, we also invited Julian Boal, who is not only Augusto Boal’s son and life-long expert in this kind of theatre work but also a sociologist and historian.

In three workshop groups the central goals were to convey the main ideas behind this kind of theatre work, its philosophy, and practical usage:

  1. To experience the games of the Theatre of the Oppressed in order to raise the participants’ awareness on sensitivity towards themselves and others.
  2. To find a physical way of communication about everyday oppressive situations (oppressive as in robotised, mechanised, repetitive and injust).
  3. To start the (theatric and verbal) discussion on socially relevant topics .
  4. To create forum-theatre scenes on situations the participants want to change in their societies (I am using the plural here, as the participants belong to different countries and geographic regions and ethnic groups).
  5. To perform the forumscenes confronting a in part non-theatre-experienced audience to involve them into a debate about social change.
  6. To experience interactive theatre as a tool for dialogue.

Based on the practical experiences, the focus of the following conference was on Central Asian youth (as the host organization has this focus), on applying creative tools such the Theatre of the Oppressed in the Central Asian context and on the strategies and tasks of a Central Asian Center of Theatre of the Oppressed.

But of course youth doesn’t come unaccompanied and when talking about it, you cannot avoid talking about the community as a whole, the whole country, all the citizens, life as such.

And as the project is going to follow its course (it will end in 2008, when the centre should function on its own), we will see how the dynamics of the previous activities will unfold and develop.

The participants (teachers, students, activists, NGO workers, social workers and others) in both, workshop series and conference, were from Kyrgyzstan, Kasachstan, Tadjikistan and Pakistan. Although their backgrounds varied, they reflected a range of problems and topics that can be found in most of the regions with differences in degree and varying in a few characteristics.

Examples of topics were: land rights, oppression of women, family violence, bride kidnapping (which is a Kyrgyz idiosyncracy), breaking with traditional behaviours of both, men and women, empoverishment of families after the husbands’ death (lacking social security, lacking solidarity within communities), human trafficking and prostitution.

Intrinsic workshop themes were: respecting each other and each other’s ideas and emotions during the working process, being sensitive to each other’s needs (especially concerning translations), physical touching each other in a sensitive manner, coming up with results in a group, involving oneself in socio-political topics and sharing experiences and ideas, men and women working as equals (this happens or doesn’t happen in various degrees, depending on the places of origin of the participants), a cross-generational approach (youth and elders working in the same space, addressing the topic of strong social hierarchies within the communities), previous experiences with trainings and seminars and certain expectations concerning pedagogical processes and methods and probably many more that the participants experienced within themselves.

All of these topics demanded their time for communication, reflection and feedback processes.

Relating to the question asked earlier in the text, we are still searching for an answer to the question how to translate a historically grown method like the Theatre of the Oppressed to the framework of our Kyrgyz adventure.

The organisational burdens and challenges of this project exceeded in many ways the expected work load of the organisational teams. Infrastructures had to be created (guest rooms for participants, toilets, showers, workshop spaces, dining halls), transport had to be organized as Jangy Jer is quite remote from the capital city. Funding had to be raised for unexpected expenses. Specifications of authorities placed even more challenges to the organizers, whether it concerned visas for the foreign guests (a very complicated procedure connected with a lot of administrative work), or concerning the protocol of the official opening cerimony of the conference. Different funding agents required different procedures and the translations and explanations to all the project members asked for time ressources that had not been predictable to this extend in advance.

Parallel to the project the school of Jangy Jer, Lyceum 43, had to cope with the normal beginning of the school year and the arrival of new students (Who are in many ways problematic, as they do not necessarily want to attend the school in the beginning, it being part of their rehabilitation process. In the contributions of Every Child experts’ texts the reader will find more detailed information on this situation, further in the book) and another school development project that they were involved with with a Norwegian Ngo, creating a shortage of teachers, as they were committed there).

Thanks to the enormous work of Cholpon Lahodinsky, who was a central pillar of the project and functioned as a coordinator, troubleshooter and brigdebuilder between the project teams, and her outstanding communication skills, as well as her sensitivity to cultural differences and her patience explaining different viewpoints and backgrounds to the teams that took part in the process and the valuable contributions of the teams of translators (Aizat, Aisulu, Margarita + nachnamen bitte) this project was made possible.

All the above things need to be mentioned in order to see the multilayered task that was presented to all who are participating in this project. The structural framework as well as the intrinsic and extrinsic workshop themes were the background to all the activities and they were affecting all of us, trainers, organisers and participants. It has been in the truest sense a transcultural laboratory using theatre as a tool of investigating and developing our realities and past, present and future ways of cooperation and social change.

Ideological purity and fast judgements are out of place in the evaluation of this project. Through the high requests on all the performing parties many backgrounds of decisions that had been taken on practical levels for example, elude any judgment. Through the many translations and necessarily following interpretations many details might have been lost or, as well, added in a creative process of the translators. But with time and during the next year, some things will become clearer. It is too early yet to say.

From the point of view of the Theatre of the Oppressed, it must be stated that the different power relations between project partners and also amongst participants were having their effects. Sometimes in a very oscillating and transient ways, sometimes in clear power struggles. Different interests (also of sponsors) collided with the search for the common good and also with the need of satisfaction of individual interests. Perhaps, this is the background of all our work but looking back at a project the goal of which is one of dialogical learning, democratization and the humanization of humanity, we should point out that we are not blind towards this fact.

Alas, we are all only humans! And the above description is not to be meant in a negative way, just speaking with a sobriety which we should have, when being active in so called development cooperations. There is a wide spectrum of literature out there to discuss this topic, its achievements and failures, especially when it comes to creating new elites who have the possibilities to cooperate in international projects and the meagre amount of money or values that really stay with the local people. This is one aspect to be taken into consideration, when planning sustainable projects.

Another one is, that in most development cooperation processes culture comes nothing but short. In this way, this project has been exemplary and of big value. Only in 2005, there was a UNESCO agreement that requests the protection and support of the diversity of cultural expressions. Among Sweden, Holland and Denmark, Austria is one of the countries that has been dedicating itself to the topic strongly.

Being aware of many of the background dynamics, we are still searching for the answer of the earlier raised question.

Theatre should be a rehearsal of Revolution. This, already old, quotation of Augusto Boal which during the years has been sometimes changed and transformed to: “Theatre should be a rehearsal for reality!” – might be a good starting point for the following thoughts and considerations.

Knowing history, the mentioning of revolutions as such can never be an imposition (also not in societies that have just gone through them). We need to become enlightened, informed and critical citizens with a high awareness of social developments in order to participate, to contribute and to live up to our creative, human capacities. On the other hand, whether we have had access to formal education or not, we know, when injustice is being done to us and others and wisdom cannot be acquired by collecting information alone. So what revolution is being addressed here? What revolution do we mean, when working with the Theatre of the Oppressed techniques?

In some societies people would say, we need a change of heart. In others they would mention spirituality. In others again modernisation would be the word. Democratisation, participation, equality, non-violence, anti-globalisation, anti-gender-discrimination and anti-any-discrimination-at-all, these would be some of the words we could use.  In which values do we believe? And who are ‘we’? Who is the subject of this discourse? I cannot help being Central European, white and female. But at the same time I am many other things, too. I am a writer, a pedagogue, a theatre person, a director, a translator, a multilingual traveller between cultures and societies, I am a mother and a daughter.  This is the concept of transculturality, that Wolfgang Welsch(2), the German philosopher, has been talking about.

Just like Kyrgyz society consists of many different people, not all are simply nomads or simply Russian descendents. There are in betweens, there is always more to people than meets the eye at first sight. And these capacities also allow us to find ways of communication. We can agree on some things. We do not need to agree on all things.

We can choose our ‘weapons’, our tools for improving the life on this planet, to make it more humane, more just, more beneficial for all.

If we choose to work with the Theatre of the Oppressed methods, we should agree on the basic principals of it. And the most important for me I want to quote here, the rest can be found on (also in Russian translation, a task that the centre at Jangy Jer took on):

The Theatre of the Oppressed is a worldwide non-violent aesthetic movement which seeks peace, not passivity.

The Theatre of the Oppressed is neither an ideology nor a political party, neither dogmatic nor coercive and is respectful of all cultures. It is a method of analysis and a means to develop happier societies. Because of its humanistic and democratic nature, it is widely used all over the world, in all fields of social activities such as: education, culture, arts, politics, social work, psychotherapy, literacy programs and health. In the annex to the Declaration of Principles, a number of exemplary projects are listed to illustrate the nature and the scope of its use.

Theatre of the Oppressed is now being used in approximately half the nations around the world, as a tool for the making of discoveries about oneself and about the Other, of clarifying and expressing our desires; a tool for the changing of circumstances which produce unhappiness and pain and for the enhancement of what brings peace; for respecting differences between individuals and groups and for the inclusion of all human beings in dialogue; and finally a tool for the achievement of economical and social justice, which is the foundation of true democracy. Summarizing, the general objective of the Theatre of the Oppressed is the development of essential Human Rights.

On these things we should agree. And we should find the language that suits us to talk about these processes. In a society, that has had an upsetting history, maybe we need to focus on pedagogical activities and we are going to find a pedagogical language. Education is essentially political as it helps a society to have critical, capable citizens to take future decisions for the sake of their country. We do not need to turn from pedagogues to politicians within a day. But we should be ready to put a sparkle into people’s hearts and eyes, envisioning a democratic future, a society which is based on debate and dialogue and in which everyone can participate equally. Understanding this and believing in it, we are going to work ‘on stage’ and ‘off stage’ to make these goals become real. And that is called the total revolution, according to Sanjoy Ganguly.

Furthermore when getting involved in such endeavours as the one being discussed, we should be aware that to make a beginning is most important. We need to translate the writings of Augusto Boal and of many other thinkers and pedagogues, like Paolo Freire, Gramsci, peace activists like Johan Galtun and many others and then Central Asian scholars must induldge into a dialogue with them and their own findings and traditions. We must analyze our past. We must create spaces to think, spaces to disagree in peace, spaces to grow and to understand conflicts as places of learning in a positive way. A British colleague calls Forumtheater a safe place to disagree. And this is how we can learn. When it is not important anymore who will be the winner, but when we are together looking for valid answers to the questions in front of us.

‘Ways are made by walking’ is a famous proverb in the Spanish speaking world. For Djusupova Bakyt Musaevna to invite practicioners of such a different realm of pedagogical thinking and to enable an international meeting of those dimensions in order to experience, discuss and translate its ideas in a Central Asian context shows the spirit of pioneers.

As the Theatre of the Oppressed is not about pre-established answers but a process-oriented movement it might flourish in many ways in Kyrgyzstan and beyond it, as it has been doing for the last decades in many parts in the world. To develop new ways of communication, to allow to listen with all our senses and to all the voices that surround us bears a huge potential of transformation. The building of a new society can well need such strategies and tools.

Thanking all the wonderful people who contributed to this endeavour and wishing best of luck for its future developments I want to end this text.



1 The flying joker project is a procedure that was suggested by Formaat in Holland. More information about it can be found at the ITO website:
2 Wolfgang Welsch: Zwischen Globalisierung und Partikularisierung.München, Iudicium Verlag, 2000.

VS 1 The multitude of Theatre of the Oppressed techniques: From Theory to Practice

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For quotation purposes:
Birgit Fritz. Some Observations from a Drama-pedagogical Point of View on the Framework of Transcultural/Transnational Theatre of the Oppressed Work in Kyrgyzstan - In: TRANS. Internet-Zeitschrift für Kulturwissenschaften. No. 17/2008. WWW:

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