Lessons for Theatre of the Oppressed from a Romanian orphanage

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In this article, Ioana Szeman makes a case for combining micro- and macro-analyses of power relations in Theatre of the Oppressed and other community theatre work, and for borrowing methods from anthropology and performance studies – including fieldwork – in both the planning and implementation stages. It focuses on Alternative, a project carried out in a Romanian orphanage in 1997, which illustrated the dangers of treating Theatre of the Oppressed as a technique to be passed down to the marginalized. Contrary to Augusto Boal's belief that, in Theatre of the Oppressed, ‘it is more important to achieve a good debate than a good solution’, in Alternative the organizers emphasized the end-product to the detriment of the process, envisioning ‘oppression’ as a static concept and the ‘oppressed’ as lacking agency. Ioana Szeman offers a sobering reminder that community theatre work sometimes may be more about the organizers' needs to find solutions than about the concerns of people in the community. In order to avoid that, she suggests that the oppressed need to be envisioned as people with agency, and local perspectives have to go hand in hand with concerns about larger power networks in a culturally sensitive application of the methods. The binary of the oppressed and oppressor becomes especially irrelevant, she argues, where totalitarianism, as in Romania, has left a legacy of nested hierarchies of power, and where a wider critique of systemic power is therefore necessary. Having gained her PhD in Performance Studies at Northwestern University with a dissertation on performance, marginality, ethnicity, and nationalism in Romania, Ioana Szeman has recently taken up a lecturing post at Roehampton University. She has also published in Theatre Research International.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)340-357
Number of pages18
JournalNew Theatre Quarterly
Issue number4
Publication statusPublished - Nov 2005

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