Beating the Bystander Effect: Part III, Theatre of the Oppressed

One method for helping students beat the bystander effect is to allow them space to practice acting–and reacting. Theatre of the Oppressed (in particular, Forum theatre), is one way to do this. Developed by Brazilian actor Augusto Boal in the 1950s and 1960s, the games and techniques used in this type of theater can be excellent tools for engaging students of all ages and levels.

The goal of Theatre of the Oppressed in general is to break down the traditional barriers between audience and actors. Forum theatre, in particular, encourages audience members to intervene in the action that’s going on before them, usually to help the action move closer towards justice.  Boal himself referred to spectators as “spect-actors.” It’s worth noting here that Boal’s work was highly influenced by that of the radical educator Paolo Freire, writer of Pedagogy of the Oppressed.

While there’s plenty of theory to be read on the subject, and many variations out there now, the quick and dirty summary goes something like this: a scenario is played out, usually one with an example of oppression or injustice. Together, the actors and spectators intervene in order to address–and heal–the oppression taking place.

And it comes with a lot of student-friendly theater games, meant to help participants learn how to work together before they tackle the heavier issues.

The Resources:

To get started right away:

The Southern Poverty Law Center has a two-part resource, the initial article, “Flipping the Script on Bias and Bullies,” and a four-day lesson plan entitled “Circle Sculpture” for 6th-8th grade students.

“Flipping the Script” has a great example of an oppression scenario in action–and how the audience can respond.

“You people!” the cafeteria worker barks. “You come to this country, and you think it’s a free lunch.” She stands over the students, in her hair net and scrubs, glaring down at them. The kids, all students of color, sit at the table in a mixture of disbelief and outrage. Free lunch is indeed the issue. One of the students is on the school’s free lunch program, and he was sharing his meal with another student — a violation of lunchroom rules. The act has uncorked a hidden stream of volatile feelings in the white cafeteria worker. She snatches the lunchroom tray from the students, who respond with disrespectful words of their own. Soon the whole group is in the principal’s office, facing a lecture.

But then something amazing happens. A Latina grandmother shouts “Stop!”

Things do indeed stop. Because the office is not really an office — it’s a set on a stage. The principal and cafeteria worker aren’t really school employees — they’re students, playing theatrical roles. Only the grandmother is real. And now she’s climbing from the audience to the stage, eyeballing the “principal” coldly.

“You need to listen,” she says, with steel in her voice.

The lesson plan, “Circle Sculpture,” contains four days worth of warm up games, follow up questions, and various other Theatre of the Oppressed exercises. There are clear instructions for bringing in present-day scenarios. The curriculum also acknowledges that these types of exercises can present their own classroom challenges.

The first step this multi-day lesson involves safety and trust building. Take special care while guiding the activities to ensure that each student feels valued and heard, and that all opinions, thoughts, and feelings are considered equal.

Remember, once trust has been established, the community’s growth and learning can be both rapid and deep. At the conclusion of these activities, students can emerge with a shared experience that is powerful and transformational. Trust the process, your students and yourself.


To learn a little bit more history, along with some great theater exercises:

For those interested in a professional development approach, Organizing for Power has notes from a teacher training session, “Augusto Boal’s FORUM THEATRE for teachers,” led by Susie MacDonald and Daniel Rachel. The workshop was a part of the 2000 Athens Conference.

These notes include step by step rules for Forum theatre, notes on the traditional role of the Joker, a great list of theater games and exercises, and notes on two Forum theater scenarios that were used at the conference itself.

We can’t recommend enough their list of techniques, games, and rules for anyone who wants to put together their own lesson or unit.


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