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Theatre of the Oppressed: Eastern Europe and the United States

After reading and discussing Family Stories: Belgrade in the context of our course, two other political theatre pieces came to my mind: Vaclav Havel’s The Memorandum, and the production of Counting Sheep that my mom and family attended at Stanford University earlier this spring. Both of these pieces also tackle the political climates of their respective countries, criticizing and enlightening audiences to the reality of historical and current circumstances in different ways. And then, in classic Baader-Meinhof phenomenon fashion, (which may just be a consequence of becoming a more aware theatre artist) Howlround posted an article by Hannah Sachs discussing working with techniques of Theatre of the Oppressed to support Czech students in creating art that illuminates similar political and cultural topics and allows space for discussion around them, following a tradition of Havel and The Memorandum during the era of communism.

Sachs discusses the growing populism and rise of hate groups in the Czech Republic, especially outside of the urban center of Prague. (Sounds familiar…) While the city has a flourishing theatre scene, particularly in the realm of political theatre, communities and especially schools on the outskirts of the country are continuing to perpetuate antiquated cultural perspectives that, unless combatted, will grow into another generation of fearful, angry,  and oppressed citizens. However, the group of students that Sachs worked with as part of her Fulbright to teach in the Czech Republic now continue to seek out opportunities to combat this trend, advocating for themselves and other students and continuing to pursue theatrical opportunities with the group they have established, the Underground Theatre.

This theatrical technique has been highly successful and utilized in the Czech Republic and Eastern Europe as demonstrated by the plays we have read throughout our time in school. Where does American political theatre fit into this story? Perhaps I lack exposure, but many of the issues discussed with the Czech students are those that Americans are experiencing now, but I don’t see that same work being performed or created here. Maybe both are on smaller scales, and this article reminded me of other work I have read, while if I had studied this specific technique in the United States, I would have made the connection in that direction.
Fortunately for my predicament, Katy Rubin, founder of Theatre of the Oppressed NYC, is a Boston University alum and will be hosting a workshop for us as students in the coming week. Based on Sach’s description of her work, the skills and techniques are intentionally basic, to serve all skill levels and focus on the dialogue of oppression, human empathy, and progress. I am interested how we as BU students will move forward with this experience. Obviously, these skills are an important teaching tool, and I can imagine using them in a classroom setting to open the creative minds of my students. But I’m also interested in the possibility that we will be able to more effectively tackle issues with the skills that we have built here in our conservatory and those that Rubin introduces us in order to become theatremakers that can make an impact like Havel, or examine our own role in the society like Biljana Srbljanovic. I will report back after attending the workshop.

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