Our conflicts are a kind of prayer. Charles Eisenstein
I am working with a group of grade 7 students. We are working on a a forum theatre style performance. I have a group of about 18 students who have volunteered to be a part of the performance. I start with different theatre games and activities designed to build trust, personal reflection and community. This part is easy. I have done one version of this or another for so many years now, it feels as familiar as a row of knitting while watching junk tv.
The next part is always a little tricky, because it is unknown. I am not quite sure what will come next. Forum theatre is a participatory theatre developed by Agusto Boal, a Brazilian politician and activist. A scene is performed twice. The second time the scene is performed, actors are invited to call, "stop" and take the place of one of the actors and find a way to change the outcome of the scene. The idea is to invite both the actors and the audience to "rehearse" cultural transformation. It is a way to help communities tackle oppression in a way that encourages active engagement. I wanted to use forum theatre to help students explore their own despair and hopefulness.
I had listened to one of my favourite thinkers, Charles Eisenstein. In one of his podcasts, he talks about challenging beliefs. Specifically he says, You cannot change someone's belief with facts. Facts won't change a person's values because there is so much history, experience and feeling attached to a belief. Instead, he suggests we ask the question, "What is it like being you?"
I start the forum theatre with this question. Once we complete the initial trust building and group work, the students all choose to create scenes about family. Every scene the students create show parents as angry, disinterested or uncaring. In some ways this is not unusual. Children or adolescents will often play out scenes that show themselves as powerless or victims. We all do this because we are hardwired to remember the times we have been harmed.
I then asked the students to create scenes exploring the parents. What was it like to be the single mom who was too busy to listen to her child's concerns? What was it like to be the father who shamed his son for his poor school marks? What brought them to the moment captured in their scenes?
Students then created scenes depicting the parent's lives as children. In some way, every scene demonstrates the 'parent' as a chid receiving some version of the disregard from their parents. During the performance, students came forward, inevitably taking on the role of the parents, attempting to change their experience of being heard. The majority of students who came up to try to make a change, chose the scenes where the parents were still children.
Beliefs are not an intellectual construct, they are an emotional one. Our feelings are always connected to our body - they are embedded not just in our brain or in our cognitive memories, they are embedded in the cells of our body, in our gut, and in our joints. The question, "What's it like to be you?" allows us to get to the feelings that are deeply attached to our beliefs.
The forum theatre project is a small effort to try to unpack our pain by looking past the experience of disrespect. We can do that by rehearsing different solutions not in an effort to fix things but in an effort to understand the other. It does not get any easier as we grow older. I am convinced that a big part of our ability to work through our differences comes by connecting to our bodies, our experiences and our feelings.
On my wish list - creating public spaces - that help us work with differences not just through words, but through play, movement, rehearsal, feelings and getting a better grasp at what follows, "What's it like to be you."