Hey, You, Get Off of My Cloud! Doug Paterson – Acolyte of Theatre of the Oppressed Founder Augusto Boal and Advocate of Art as Social Action
I love University of Nebraska at Omaha theater professor Doug Paterson’s passion. In the following story for The Reader (www.thereader.com) I profile how he’s melded his art and his social activism in a seamless way through Theatre of the Oppressed, a theater form he’s mastered under founder Augusto Boal. My story appeared in advance of the international Theater of the Oppressed Conference that Paterson and UNO hosted a couple years ago. I am posting the story here to highlight different aspects of Omaha theater in the wake of the 2011 Great Plains Theatre Conference, which wraps up June 4.
Hey, You, Get Off of My Cloud! Doug Paterson – Acolyte of Theatre of the Oppressed Founder Augusto Boal and Advocate of Art as Social Action
©by Leo Adam Biga
Originally appeared in The Reader (www.thereader.com)
Doug Paterson’s always used theater as an instrument of his insurrectionist principles. As a student in the 1960s he actively protested against the Vietnam War and other burning social issues and gravitated to progressive theater that challenged the status quo.
But it wasn’t until he saw Brazilian Augusto Boal’s Theatre of the Oppressed in action that his social activism and his art merged into a philosophy and a way of life. Seventeen years later the University of Nebraska at Omaha professor is a leading adherent, practitioner, facilitator and teacher of T.O., as much a political movement dedicated to social change as a form of theater.
Much of T.O.’s work involves developing scenarios with audiences around the issues of racial, gender and class inequalities. The idea is to spark dialogue among citizens in a living or social theater environment. The end goal is to generate dialogue with decision-makers in the real world as a framework for addressing these matters with concerted action, even legislation.
It is meant to be an empowering process.
“We see something that affects us. Some oppression or injustice or wrong and we identify with it, we understand it and we yell, ‘Stop.’ To Boal the very act of saying we can stop this is by itself important,” Paterson said.
The premise of T.O., he said, is that the oppressed are “dictated to” by a privileged, power-wielding elite. “They’re not in the loop of determining what’s going to be the agenda of their life. They’re told what it’s going to be and often through force of violence.” What T.O. helps people do, he said, is “learn techniques and methods to interrogate the world. It’s developing a critical sensibility so they can talk to power and demand dialogue.”
Why theater as a device to elicit participation in the political process?
“Boal’s phrase is, ‘We’re all theater.’ We can all do this. We’re all doing it all the time because we’re all actors who can change the world,” Paterson said. “In Theatre of the Oppressed we just give it a little bit of shape — to help draw the power out of a person or a community, because it’s already there.”
Theater also provides a well-founded structure for protagonist-antagonist conflicts.
The UNO educator has studied with Boal, a short-list nominee for the Nobel Peace Prize, and “jokered” dozens of workshops with him and his son Julian Boal. Paterson’s led T.O. workshops in about a dozen states as well as in Canada, Israel, Palestine, Iraq and Africa.
T.O.’s organic, democratic system for giving the disenfranchised a voice is the focus of the May 22-25 International Pedagogy & Theatre of the Oppressed Conference in Omaha. Both Augusto and Julian Boal will give workshops using exercises and games that lead into T.O.’s Forum, Image, Invisible, Cop in the Head, Rainbow of Desire and Legislative theater.
The public’s invited to a free demonstration of Legislative Theatre at 7 p.m. on Thursday, May 22 in the Omaha City Council Chambers.
Six area elected officials will convene a mock legislative body to hear a set of scenes developed over three days of Forum workshops. These scenes built around local issues will be enacted and the floor thrown open for anyone to discuss, intervene, offer solutions. By the end of the session “legislation” will be devised and presented to the “council.” Paterson said Boal will then pose a question to the panel: “Would you support this legislation proposed by this temporary community?” That’s when the real dialogue and debate begins.
Paterson said to expect “a room “humming with activity,” lively discussion, laughter. “Nothing is coerced,” he said.
The dynamic interplay needs no formal introduction or explanation.
“If you see it you understand it immediately what it is and you can participate,” Boal said by phone from New York.
For Boal, T.O.’s not about finding solutions to problems but engaging people in exchanges that at least explore ways to combat or relieve oppression.
“I always say we should strive to have peace but the worst enemy of peace is passivity,” Boal said. “We must abolish passivity to try to do things in order to have real peace.”
True believers like Boal and Paterson believe in fighting oppression in whatever form it takes — violence, discrimination — through “the solidarity of the oppressed.” It is a movement of individuals and groups banded together in the belief that change is possible.
Paterson, who’s previously brought Boal to Omaha for this same conference, is a founder of the P.T.O. organization that puts the event on. This makes the seventh time Omaha’s hosted the event. It may also be the last, as Paterson plans to let new leadership take over.
The Omahan’s first direct exposure to T.O. came in Seattle in 1991. He was familiar with the tenets of Boal’s work but merely reading about it didn’t captivate him the way a demonstration did. Although Paterson had engaged in grassroots theater through the Dakota Caravan in the Black Hills and the Diner Theater in Omaha, he was still largely bound to traditional theater and its imposed world view that offer no mediation in or deviation from the end result.
Standing in stark contrast to that approach is T.O., which does not respect any fixed narrative or resolution. It’s all about inviting audiences and participants to intervene in and alter the story as a means for confronting and, if possible, ending oppression. Where traditional theater’s a monologue, T.O.’s a dialogue.
“I never got it,” Paterson said. “It sounded too serious. But then I saw it and it was so much fun and so interactive and so liberating that I said, ‘That’s it — I found where I’ve been heading for all my life.’ It just opened up possibilities. It’s asking through educational theater is it possible to transform the world to an equitable place economically, socially and politically.”
In Paterson’s view T.O. provides a structure for affecting change.
“Dealing with oppressed populations requires real dialogue…negotiation,” he said.
The goal, he said, is creating “a fair, equitable, humane world, a rational world where people have enough food and safe shelter, where crime is not encouraged by the economy, such as it is here, where poverty is not enforced, where violence is not the way of life. That’s what we want and all of us believe it’s possible.”
More than an academic or aesthetic construct, the work’s designed with real life applications in mind. Boal applies its techniques and forms to all kinds of community organizing, including his early-1990s bid for and election to the Rio de Janeiro city council as a member of the left-wing Workers Party. He used T.O. as an on-the-streets forum that gave people a sounding board to tell him what they wanted changed and he introduced legislation to try and bring about that change.
The more Paterson immersed himself in this new theater the more committed to it he became. The better he got to know Boal his conversion only deepened.
“I know Augusto as a mentor and quasi-father figure,” Paterson said. “I’ve spent a lot of time with him and we’ve talked far into the night. I really admire his work. I admire the mind that conceived of this and just kept relentlessly developing it. By continuing to work he made a path.”
Boal overturned his own traditional theater background in the ‘60s in response to oppressive military regimes in Brazil. At the time he headed the country’s national Arena theater, whose members began to resist the censorship and other government imposed strictures. Caught up in the struggle, Boal became politicized to a more militant, even radical stand. Branded a troublemaker, he was arrested, interrogated and tortured. Pressure from the West got him released but he soon became a political exile in Argentina and France.
He devised T.O. while in exile, drawing much inspiration from the late educational theorist Paulo Freire, author of Pedagogy of the Oppressed.
Boal was little known in the U.S. outside “a very narrow circle” when Paterson first contacted him and brought him to the states for the 1992 Association for Theatre in Higher Education national conference in Atlanta, Ga.
“Boal came to the conference and just carved a whole new channel for how to make theater and who to make theater for in the United States,” said Paterson. “It was a wonderful experience and we had a wonderful connection.”
T.O. is now practiced around the globe. It operates centers in several countries. Where the movement got scant media notice a decade ago it’s well covered today.
Paterson said there’s some resistance to the movement because “the word oppressed scares people.”
In Boal’s homeland, where he lives once again, the Workers Party-controlled state government has a program called Cultura Viva (Culture Alive) that, Boal said, “helps us spread the Theatre of the Oppressed all over Brazil.” The program enables T.O. to work with schools, mental health facilities, prisons and other entities.
“This is the first time the government has supported the work that we do,” said Boal, an outspoken critic of Brazilian government since the ‘60s.
Just as for Boal the work is not an abstraction, neither is it for Paterson or for conference registrants, who include theater educators and community activists from across the U.S., Europe and other parts of the world.
Locally, Paterson hopes it’s a model groups adopt for presenting grievances to local elected officials that address some of Omaha’s long-standing oppressions. He referred to African Americans’ disproportionate poverty here.
“We’ve really violated their human rights and we need dialogue,” said Paterson, noting Omaha’s high incidence of black on black crime and sexually transmitted diseases and the ongoing segregation that divides blacks and whites. “There’s so much to do.”
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Author-journalist-blogger Leo Adam Biga resides in his hometown of Omaha, Nebraska. He writes newspaper-magazine stories about people, their passions, and their magnificent obsessions. He's the author of the books "Alexander Payne: His Journey in Film – A Reporter's Perspective 1998-2012," a compilation of his journalism about the acclaimed filmmaker, and "Open Wide" a biograpy of Mark Manhart. Biga co-edited "Memories of the Jewish Midwest: Mom and Pop Grocery Stores." His popular blog, leoadambiga.wordpress.com, is an online gallery of his work.
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