It can be hard to find a safe space where we can share our personal feelings on the challenges we face in society and the effects that they have on us.

We are fed so much information through the media. We get frustrated when we try to talk to leaders and people in authority that sometimes it feels like we are not being heard and that we cannot make a change.

Theatre can be a great outlet for us as individuals to communicate our feelings and process our understanding of things that are happening in our lives. It can also generate conversations between groups of people and lead the way to create positive social change.

One way of doing this is through Forum Theatre.

What is Forum Theatre? Where did it come from?

Left Forum: NYC Icarus Project Forum Theater, Image: The Icarus Project NY
Left Forum: NYC Icarus Project Forum Theater, Image: The Icarus Project NY

Forum Theatre is a form of theatre which is used to explore social justice. It was created by a theatre practitioner* called Augusto Boal. Boal founded Theatre of the Oppressed, a theatrical form that uses different interactive techniques to investigate and encourage social change.

Forum Theatre looks at the relationship between oppressors and the oppressed in society.

Oppressors may take the form of someone who has power or authority over someone else and who misuses their power. An oppressed person is someone who is being treated unfairly and has no opportunities or freedom. For instance, an employer acting cruelly to an employee is an example of the oppressor (the employer) mistreating the employee (the oppressed).

Forum Theatre helps us to explore how our reactions and choices can help combat different forms of oppression.

We are able to look at our struggles in society and ask ourselves what is holding us back? What systems and structures are in place that makes our struggles that much tougher to overcome? With Forum Theatre we can then actively explore how we can change our actions and reactions for the better and make positive changes.

How does it work?

Image: Gaynor Smith
Image: Gaynor Smith

A piece of forum theatre begins with a live performance which shows how a character is being oppressed in some way. For instance, there may be a scene where a character is treated unfairly by an employer. The piece could include scenes where one challenge dominoes on the character’s future situations. The character could lose their job and is unable to pay their bills, so they may lose their home… and suddenly the situation has spiralled out of control.

In forum theatre, the audience stops being spectators and instead become spect-actors.

The audience watches the performance again and this time they can stop the piece at any point. The person who calls out for the piece to pause swaps in with the protagonist’s story and is invited to try a new way of responding to a situation or obstacle to see if their actions can result in a different outcome.

To get a clearer idea of Forum Theatre in practice, check out Cardboard Citizens performance of Rising. Cardboard Citizens are the UK’s leading practitioners of Theatre of the Oppressed and they make theatre with and for homeless people. Rising looks at a variety of different issues and the performance is followed by a discussion and interactive forum.

The beauty and the challenge of Forum Theatre are that there are no answers. Even though spect-actors might try different ways of tackling an issue,

sometimes the structures in society mean we end up with either the same outcome or face different oppressions which are still very difficult for us to overcome.

Who can take part?

Forum Theatre is mostly created with and for specific communities or individuals affected by particular social injustices. You don’t need to be an expert in acting or theatre in order to take part. When it comes to interventions, the forum welcomes audience members to contribute an honest response to a situation.

Maybe you want to get involved because you have personal experience of particular issues that are being raised. Maybe you work as a professional with vulnerable groups or individuals. Or maybe you are an activist and want to explore injustices in society. Whatever your background, it’s about you engaging with topics and communities you feel passionate about.

Where is Forum Theatre performed?

Forum Theatre is performed in a range of environments: from traditional theatre spaces to community halls, from schools to prisons. Forum Theatre can often be performed to audiences in environments which are directly connected to the issues that are raised in the performance. For instance, if it is a piece about homelessness, it might be performed in hostels or shelters, in communities and city halls.

What are the benefits of Forum Theatre?

Image: Gaynor Smith
Image: Gaynor Smith

Forum Theatre is a great way of uniting individuals for a common cause. It welcomes people who may have different perspectives on the same issue. Some people may have lived experiences of what is being shown onstage and may be professionals who work with the affected groups or individuals.

There is no easy route to social change, but through platforms like Forum Theatre we can start conversations.

We can look at the professional services and help that is available and consider what practical changes need to happen to make them more accessible to people in need. We can begin to look at our own understanding and prejudices and tap into our capacity for compassion and active change.

My Personal Experience

Naomi Joseph, Image: Florence Alamo
Naomi Joseph, Image: Florence Alamo

I work in the theatre industry as a performer and writer. I believe in the importance of working with communities and individuals to create performances that invite discussions and cause us to reflect on the way we as individuals carry ourselves in society.

My most recent experience of Forum Theatre was with the collective Rehearse the Revolution. I took part in a two-day workshop where I met individuals from all walks of life (some of whom were completely new to forum theatre and some came from professional backgrounds working with different vulnerable groups).

We learned different games and techniques to help us work together as a community. They also helped to free us up and not be self-conscious. It was a great balance of enjoying the experience of working creatively together whilst remembering the importance of the issues we were discussing.

One of the pieces we created was about homelessness and the different forms of oppression an individual can face which can lead to being made homeless. The ‘spect-actors’ were also people from all walks of life.

Their contributions started insightful conversations about our own prejudices and interactions with homeless people and our understanding and awareness of the causes of homelessness.

Rehearse the Revolution is a very warm and welcoming group. They are open to new members who are curious about the form and who are passionate about making positive change.

It feels like my journey into Forum Theatre has only just begun and I am enjoying every minute of it.

Naomi is a theatre-maker and writer. She creates stories that explore the transformative power of loss and grief. Most recently, her spoken word film Criteria was shortlisted for nine festivals, winning a tenth. Criteria is available to view now.

  • A Theatre practitioner is someone who creates performances or practices specific styles of performance.

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