FEATURE: Theatre of the Oppressed: challenging top-down approaches to climate change
Theatre of the Oppressed is a powerful tool that allows climate change experts and high-level stakeholders to break free from their traditional roles and connect with climate change discussions from a more emotional, humanistic perspective. Daniel Morchain and Brendon Bosworth describe the way it has been used by the ASSAR programme.
Adapting to climate change requires creative solutions that put people first. Historically, though, the climate change sector has devised and delivered “solutions” in a top-down fashion. Often, money goes into projects that don’t adequately consider the needs, aspirations, and realities of people on the ground, especially those with little influence over decision making.
Theatre of the Oppressed is a powerful tool for challenging this top-down approach. Developed by Brazilian activist Augusto Boal, this mode of participatory theatre creates supportive environments where people from diverse backgrounds come together to experience, understand, analyse, and challenge unjust realities.
For Boal, oppression happens when one is dominated by another person’s monologue and does not have the chance to reply. By bringing multiple, often unheard, voices into the climate change arena, theatre helps dismantle this dominance. The premise of working in a fictional space gives participants additional license to think creatively. This approach helps break the barrier between expert and non-expert knowledge, making space for co-creation of alternatives.
High-tech roofs and competing agendas in an impoverished Cape Town community
In January, the University of Cape Town’s Centre for Theatre, Dance, and Performance Studies performed a Theatre of the Oppressed production at the Black Box Theatre in Delft, a sprawling township on Cape Town’s periphery that ranks among the 10 areas with the highest rates of violent crime in South Africa.
Scripted by Oxfam’s Daniel Morchain and the University of Cape Town’s Veronica Baxter, the story follows a fictional multilateral climate change donor and a climate researcher who bring a pre-packaged climate adaptation “solution” (in the form of new roofs to keep homes cooler) to this marginalised neighbourhood.
While they expect to be received like heroes — the mayor has given them the green light, after all — the funder and researcher encounter fierce opposition. Resistance comes from an old resident, a local community leader, and the idealistic young student who, ironically, works with the researcher that is proposing the roof “solution.”
The performance provides an incisive and purposefully caricatured look at the competing agendas of stakeholders in the climate change solutions space. Characters include a set of role players whose conflicting views and motivations should seem familiar to those in the sector. The donor, who has money to spend but threatens to abandon the project if things get too messy for her taste. The scientist, who keeps pushing for a technical fix while not worrying about community needs. The politician, who is close to re-election and focussed on accessing donor funding. The elderly resident, who thinks there are better things to invest in than new roofs. The international NGO representative, whose organisation has deviated from its original focus on climate justice and now resembles something more akin to a multinational corporation. The community leader, who questions the lack of community participation. And last, but not least, the student, who wants to incorporate cultural issues into the project but is consistently blocked by her superior.
The play criticises the way donors and researchers can sometimes impose “solutions” without proper community consultation, failing to appreciate what really matters to people living in the areas where interventions take place. It explores the dilemma NGOs can face when they are caught between growing at the expense of losing touch with their vision, or sticking to their roots and becoming too small and irrelevant to have impact. It takes a rather light look at the troubles of underfunded local political figures and their struggle to remain close to their community, while savvy in front of potential donors and investors. It does so with a good dose of humour, allowing the audience to empathise with different points of view and making the point that, generally, no actor is evil per se. Indeed, most people want to contribute to some kind of improvement, but lack of communication and wrong incentives can turn good intentions into bad outcomes.
The shift from spectators to “spect-actors”
Unlike traditional theatre, Theatre of the Oppressed works to actively incorporate the audience. After the first round of a play is complete, the actors re-enact the final act and invite the audience to interject. People can come on stage, take up the role of a character, and show how they would do things differently. In this way, audience members shift from the role of spectators to “spect-actors.” They have the opportunity to change the outcome of the story, using their priorities and values to shift the narrative in a situation where business as usual views and solutions dominate.
The possibility for alternative narratives better suited to community needs emerged quickly in Delft. The audience member playing the “new mayor” suggested that the donor should listen to what the community had to say about the proposed roofs. The “new scientist” was less rigid than the original character, saying she could look into alternative studies to inform different climate change solutions for the area. Another audience member suggested using the money from the donor to create jobs. Building and installing the roofs with local workers would lead to a “win-win” solution that could address climate change and unemployment, he suggested. This middle-ground solution gained support from part of the audience, though others remained unconvinced. Giving in to top-down solutions like this would create a precedent for similar initiatives to be imposed on the community in future, opponents argued.
Building human connection through theatre
ASSAR and its partners have done Theatre of the Oppressed performances at major climate change conferences, including Transformations 2017 in Dundee, UK, Adaptation Futures 2018, in Cape Town, South Africa, and the UNFCCC COP 24 in Katowice, Poland. In these spaces, where the “usual characters” congregate, theatre can be constructively disruptive, introducing an energetic mode of engagement that deviates from the regular (and let’s be honest, often dull) delivery of powerpoint presentations.
Theatre of the Oppressed allows climate change experts and high-level stakeholders to break free of their traditional roles and connect with climate change discussions from a more emotional, humanistic perspective. It creates an environment where people can laugh at themselves a little, and get a sense for what it’s like to walk in somebody else’s shoes. We connect to the challenge of climate change through our humanity more than anything else. Theatre invites us to be free from being wrong and gives us the freedom to be propositional and a little “out there” if necessary.
By approaching the complex issue of climate change from a more compassionate and human perspective, theatre gives us the opportunity to push forward the change we so badly need.
Daniel Morchain is a Senior Adviser, Resilience & Climate Change Adaptation, with Oxfam GB.
Brendon Bosworth runs Human Element Communications. He specialises in communicating research about climate change, urbanisation, and development.
This work was carried out under the Adaptation at Scale in Semi-Arid Regions project (ASSAR). ASSAR is one of four research programs funded under the Collaborative Adaptation Research Initiative in Africa and Asia (CARIAA), with financial support from the U.K. Government’s Department for International Development (DfID) and the International Development Research Centre (IDRC), Canada. The views expressed in this work are those of the authors and do not necessarily represent those of DfID and IDRC or its Board of Governors.