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

Creative Paths for Social and Political Change

The Theatre of the Oppressed in Central Asia since 2005

Matthias Thonhauser (Art in Progress, Gmunden, Austria – Bishkek/JangyJer, Kyrgyzstan) [BIO]



In September 2007, the first event of the Theatre of the Oppressed Project ended with an International Conference. The project is still running till November 2008. The interest in this kind of theatre, developed in the early 1970th by the Brazilian theatre-maker, pedagogue, playwright, and politician, Augusto Boal, has been present in Kyrgyzstan since 2005. That year, answering the call which was put on the website of the International Theatre of the Oppressed Organisation, I carried out a first workshop.

After the political changes in March 2005, in an atmosphere of political activism and fragile hope for political change,  KelKel, a youth-movement, which is independent of political parties, started to use the Theatre of the Oppressed in order to engage mainly young people in the political process. In a workshop held in June, they got their first experience in this theatre-work. The wider perspective they had – if I understand that well – included the different parts of society of the whole country, going beyond regional and particular interests.

This way of thinking in a complex society, the way of seeing more universally the fine threads that different parts of society are connected with, has long-term perspectives, and was an important basis to develop the work of the Theatre of the Oppressed in Kyrgyzstan.

“Create a Dialogue instead of Monologue!” as one of the basic calls of this theatre from the beginning of its work, was considered in the work of people with different cultural and social backgrounds, coming from Austria and Kyrgyzstan, and, actually, also from India, France, Kazakhstan, Pakistan, Turkey, and Tadzhikistan.

When people from so different parts of the world, speaking different languages, come together to work and create something like a Cultural Centre of Drama-pedagogical Work, the work needs a lot of translation, not only because of different languages. Development of this cooperation depends on people who are able to translate also the ambivalence of meaning, and all that from one language to theother one, and from one culture to the other culture. As I see it, this is one of the biggest challenges in the project. Finding the ways to come in contact with other people, to create a dialogue, as we do in our theatre-work, and all this in the actual project, has always the aspect of an intercultural dialog.

Cholpon Lahodynsky, a person who knows both Kyrgyz and Austrian culture through his own experience, took part in the actual project and made a bridge  between the project teams. In regard to thinking and acting, she opened our view to better understanding or accepting the others; also, she offered to the Kyrgyz members of the team a new way of understanding of themselves.

It is very difficult to translate theoretical inputs and practical work in the workshops. Doing this theatre work in a former state of the Soviet Union means to confront the strong attitudes, and understand some basic words used in the Theatre of the Oppressed. Are these meanings compatible, and can a fruitful discussion be based on them?

The use of words like revolution, movement, power, and politics needs a reflexion at both sides to make their content clear. Behind these words, there is a long time of practice and reflexion in South America, India, and a lot of other countries all over the world, where the Theatre of the Oppressed is used. The Theatre of the Oppressed has been developing in a worldwide process. Making it, thinking and discussing about what we are doing, we are a part of this process. Our focus in the work with this theatre is on changing of our society into a better, more just, and a more human one. Augusto Boal defined Forumtheatre as a rehearsal of revolution or, as he put it later, a rehearsal of reality. To do that, we need to look at the ways of how it is being used, at the values on which it is based, what happens after a performance, whether the structures of power become visible behind the problems shown in the scenes and where are we in these structures? Which risk am I running as a pedagogue coming from a Central European country, which risks are the participants in a workshop running, and which risks are the protagonists of a Drama-pedagogical Centre of the Theatre of the Oppressed running?

For me, it is very clear that Theatre of the Oppressed will be developed and used in Kyrgyzstan and other Central Asian countries if people from these societies will take part in it because of their own strong interest to use it in the process of social and political changes. As a foreigner, I can offer some stimulus  impulse, through workshops and coach the work the people in their own social fields will create. As a practitioner and pedagogue, I see that my responsibility is to make clear that the Theatre of the Oppressed is based on some principles. Without this it is not what it is supposed to be.

To fully develop this theatre-work, it must be taken by Central Asian people as an autonomous process where they can show their experiences, find possibilities to practice and cooperate with people from the international network of the Theatre of the Oppressed. In this way it will be what it is supposed to be, according to the principals published in the ITO website. People know their situation; they know their needs and also the risks of a theatre-work such as this one is.

The connection to the international network seems necessary to get stimulus and have a critical view and correctives of the development-processes. The connection, communication, exchange of experiences and discussions between practitioners from different countries all over the world – that is what I see as the actual basis for the development of the Theatre of the Oppressed.

The practising of the Theatre of the Oppressed in Kyrgyzstan is an important issue, as it is the way how the work develops at the point when politicians are criticised, when the structures of power are touched. The point of controversies in the workshops and at the Conference, as I understand that, always was, when Sanjoy Ganguly talked about Jana Sanskriti, an Indian network of the Theatre of the Oppressed and the process (and need) to become a political movement.

Can theatre and politics be linked? The scepticism that I observed I understand as something quite usual, that comes whenever some politics is discussed, but it came also because of the usual concept of theatre (and of arts in general) that is fixed as a very static category and an idealistic definition of its function to reproduce the beauty.

The question, if theatre should be political, I know not only from Kyrgyzstan. In my opinion, I hear August Boal’s answer: theatre is politics. We reproduce social and political reality of our society. Watching a drama performed on the stage, we mostly see people acting in a story and at the same time the audience acts in the way of observing the action on the stage. There is no possibility to influence what happens, the story cannot be developed and changed by the audience according to their own experiences. There is no dialogue between the reality of action on the stage and the audience looking at the action. In this way, theatre reflects and reproduces the situation we mostly have in our societies.

Forumtheatre, in the actual work that we focus on, is one of the most complex structures in the TO. The structure of a performance already changes the situation, because in it all people can raise their voice and move into the scene to comment, propose, and change the situation.

In this way, a space of contact and dialog will be created. If it happens that people in a village, a town, a small city, people suffering an oppression, start to look at their reality, to analyse it and to talk about it, it is already a political act. It has the power to become a process of change, both of a given society, and of our heart.

Making a Forumtheatre-workshop last year in the south of Kyrgyzstan, we tried to go to a village in the mountains to have a performance. But the road leading to the village was blocked by a landslide; a very usual situation for people in the villages there. Coming from the town, what shall we do? The group decided to walk for one hour. So we shared a little of the experience of their life in the mountains, and that created a contact between all of us, and it was a basis for a dialogue between the people from the village and the town. The groups showed their scene and people stepped in, proposed, and discussed some issues. After the performance, an older woman got up and said, that it was very interesting to be in the performance, but that the problem which was presented was indeed from the town; in the village they had different problems. And she started to talk about the problems in the village in front of a lot of people from her village.

All what happened there I understand as parts of the process of the theatre-work that we engaged with. It was a very interesting experience of the creation of a dialogue, of the power of a process of social change in it.

Changing society through theatre is a long-term process, like in the work of Jana Sanskriti (they have been working for more than 20 years) and we also know for other groups, projects and practitioners. Looking at these experiences, very often we become aware of the need to link different social movements and use as many tools as possible to fight in an active and non-violent way against all violence produced by structures in society that people are suffering from. This process, I think, will never stop in our social and political reality. And theatre can be a powerful impulse, or stimulus, enabling this process to go on.

To develop the Theatre of the Oppressed in Kyrgyzstan, this long-term perspective is needed.

The process has started in 2005; it depends on a continual interest from the Kyrgyz side and also on finding the ways of communication between people coming from different cultures and living in different social conditions. How to integrate the Theatre of the Oppressed in the context of Kyrgyz society as an instrument of social and political analysis and change?

Thanks to Bakyt Museavna, the director of the Lyceum 43, to Birgit Fritz, my colleague, who was in charge of the conference 2007, to Regula Imhof who is, at the moment, working for the Alpenkonvention, Omukul Borubaev, the Kyrgyz film-maker and other persons, after the experiences with the Theatre of the Oppressed in June 2006, the idea was brought up to develop a Drama-pedagogical and Cultural Centre for Central Asia. The interest of Bakyt Museavna in the possibility to continue this theatre work and give more people the chance to take part and to use it, was an important stimulus for this project. The place, a school close to  the capital,but not in the capital (as the centre of power, with possibilities of communication etc.) seemed interesting because it matches with the idea of the Theatre of the Oppressed to be the theatre of those who are not in the position of power. Being in the periphery has the consequence to share the bad conditions of the periphery, but also includes a kind of improvisation, creativity, and social competence which are necessary for survival. For the centre, this could be an element of importance and strength, as it was possible to see in the adaptation of parts of the school for workshops and for the Conference in September 2007.But establishing the centre has to be seen as a project separated from the school; of course, and hopefully, the relation will be a fruitful one.

The current project is planned for November 2008, and it depends of funding. The idea for this period is to establish the activities of the centre so that people from Central Asia know about it, and will be able to use it. The idea to have the first big event with workshops and an International Conference in September 2007 was a powerful stimulus in this process of creation and building up. Participants were pedagogues, social workers, psychologists, people who are working in rural development processes, students and artists. The goal of the workshop was to make it possible for the participants to use the Theatre of the Oppressed in their fields of work and in their social contexts. In the workshop, participants gained the experience to create a Forumtheatre scene by themselves. In a questionnaire for evaluation, which we asked them to fill out, most of them wrote that they gained an important experience of participation in the workshop. They saw it as a democratic process focused on their own ideas and experiences. To be in a workshop taught in English made it difficult for some participants to understand the meaning, especially of theoretical things. In general, with translations, we always have interpretations of something that is written or said. More than two-thirds of the participants wanted to continue the work in their own fields, and also they wanted to have some international contacts. To be able to continue the work, most of them expressed the need for more training and also to have some written materials available in Russian, mainly the books written by Augusto Boal.

The ideas and needs expressed by participants gave us an outline for the continuation of the work of the Centre. In order to establish the use of the Theatre of the Oppressed in Central Asia and to develop it, it is necessary that practitioners from Central Asia, in the future, are able to work as Jokers with groups to create scenes, to perform and to train other people. Something like a network is needed, where people can share their experiences, reflect, develop ideas, experiment, build new groups, get some information etc.

In the Lyceum 43, the theatre-work has been done in the past years and the students are participating in different projects with enthusiasm. The Drama-pedagogical Centre linked to the school has the chance to be based around  a performing group which can develop and experiment Forumtheatre and other structures of the Theatre of the Oppressed on a long term basis. In this way, the interested people can get an idea what it is and what it can be, by seeing a practical example.

The necessary basis of all this work and its continuation, as I see it, is the interest from Kyrgyz and Central Asian people to know, practise and develop the Theatre of the Oppressed.

One becomes a practitioner by practising and by being prepared to reflect upon one’s own experiences of oppression and their underlying societal structures during a process of some years.

To develop and to reflect ideas of the transformations and changes that occur worldwide is also a necessary part of the future work of the Theatre of the Oppressed in Kyrgyzstan and in Central Asia.

It has to be understood as a kind of thinking, debating, and creating the relationships through a creative dialogue in a space of acting. It is not supposed to be used only as a didactic method – then, it would  be a manipulation.

In the different structures used in the Theatre of the Oppressed, the strong values will become visible. These values are: human dignity, democracy, dialogue, humanism, social justice, participation, the liberation of humanity in concrete social contexts.

The theatre of the Oppressed is not neutral; it is – according to its name – a clear statement in favour of the people and their liberation, the people experiencing different kinds of oppression in society. Practising its means, accepting these basic values, and bringing them into a dialogue, discussion, confrontation with those values, is what is important in one’s own cultural and social context.

Using the Theatre of the Oppressed means to support and to strengthen these values in the own cultural and social context. This process – as we have already seen in the concrete theatre-work–will also bring conflicts and will make contradictions visible.

The current project is a stimulus, and doesn’t want to create some new situations of dependence. At the moment, many people are interested in using this theatre and in getting more information, contacts, and trainings. What answers and what kind of contacts will help an autonomous process to develop? Is it possible to give an idea of this theatre in the context of Central Asia? How will the Theatre of the Oppressed be practised and developed in this context? Is it in the process of discussion, of dialogue, like it is in the very intense form of the work of Jana Sanskriti in West Bengal (India)? Or is it a form which uses more images, acting like a woman from a Kyrgyz NGO said? Will it continue without financial ressources?

The responsibility of the international collaborators is to help with knowledge, and with possibilities to exchange experiences and to discuss and reflect upon them critically.

If it is accepted by the people who do not have any particular vision of societal change, and if we believe in the empowerment of the people, this impulse-stimulus will grow and will be integrated in the Central Asian context as an artistic way to create a new society.

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

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For quotation purposes:
Matthias Thonhauser: Creative Paths for Social and Political Change. The Theatre of the Oppressed in Central Asia since 2005 - In: TRANS. Internet-Zeitschrift für Kulturwissenschaften. No. 17/2008. WWW:

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