Belgrade masterclass

Last week I was in Belgrade, Serbia at the request of Cynefin project officer Aleksandra Markovic, to give a masterclass to Theatre of the Oppressed Jokers. During conversation before the training about where the emphasis should lie there was an interest in Cop in the Head techniques. These are Augusto Boals methods for addressing internal oppressions those spectres within us that inhibit our ability to achieve what we desire.

Boal is always careful to make clear that the cop might be in the head but its headquarters are outside. In other words, these psychological obstacles originate from what has happened to us, what people have told us in the past in social conditioning. The workshop activities under this heading help manifest these oppressions in the aesthetic space of the stage in order to rehearse and witness from others (who intervene in the action just like Forum Theatre) better approaches to dealing with them.

There is always a lot of curiosity about these methods from those who have been trained in the external methods of TO. Often they will have facilitated a workshop where a group come up with an oppression that is patently internal often depicted by scenes where actors represent thoughts going around the head of the protagonist; and will not be sure how to progress with this model.

The interesting thing for me with Cops in the Head work is that there is very few contexts in which it can be applied legitimately in our society and I think that is a terrible shame. I remember while doing the training with Augusto and Adrian Jackson back in the early 90s, there would always be a Dramatherapist in the group complaining that it wasnt safe. Boal would sometimes retort

You want to be safe, go and lie down in a dark quiet place and do nothing. With every action there is risk involved. One of the most dangerous things that can happen to you is to fall in love.

I might be wrong but the feeling I have is that fear has won and those occasions where you can explore this work outside of the therapist/patient power dynamic of the clinical setting is rare indeed, and precisely because of that dynamic any Cop in the Head that happens in a clinical setting is in my opinion suspect, integrated as it is with a whole theoretical model that is antithetical to the precepts of TO. I would include psychodrama in this category as well, which has a passing resemblance to Cops in the Head.

Perhaps what is needed is some kind of common ground practices which segue between the internal and external aspect of oppression and this is what I explored with the jokers in Belgrade. Something that inspired me to do this was a line in a poem by Rumi I happened to remember the week before.
You must ask for what you really want

It occurred to me that perhaps our oppressions, by keeping us from what we desire, relieve us from having to articulate precisely what we really really want. So immediately while there is a will to overcome oppression there is a counter-will which might be a bit worried that becoming liberated might lead to feeling very lost indeed! Im reminded here of a friend who made a living as a journalist rallying weekly in a column against the ultra-right governor of the county. When the governor died in a car crash he was made bereft of that which had earned him a steady income.

That is why I am coming to wonder whether rather than first articulating our oppression in TO workshops we should articulate what we really want and map out the obstacles between where we are now and where we want to be. By doing this, the oppression that was most obvious the stock oppression that helps us identify who we are, might not be the one to address. But the more subtle conditioning that is manifest as a relationship between cops in the head and the continuous reinforcement from outside of those cops from circumstances we attract precisely because we have those cops.

In the fantastic book Rainbow of Desires which for my money best articulates the theoretical basis for TO, Boal proposes three hypothesis on which lie the effectiveness of TO as a social and personal intervention. Ill paraphrase these three in order so that I can add another three hypothesis which I believe also relevant and which direct the way I apply TO.

The first hypothesis Boal calls Osmosis how conditioning permeates society and the individual; the second is Metaxis, which is that truly wonderful capacity that humans have of being in two places at the same time, the stage and wherever the shared imagination dictates a moor in ancient Scotland, the Parthenon or the living room of a dysfunctional family; and the third is Analogical Induction, which distinguishes TO from Therapy by the action facilitated by the Joker of moving from the particular or personal to the general or social – finding the generic mechanisms of oppression or what Zizek calls implicate laws, rather than delving into the addictive and distracting narrative of an individuals suffering.

The hypothesis which I would add are –

Multi-Valence Boal hints at this when under the hypothesis of Analogical Induction he says that TO is not about interpretation but about offering multiple points of reference, but I think this only scrapes the surface of the underlying hypothesis or paradigm which TO promotes through this pluralistic stance. That is that perception is participative. Just like ancient Hebrew and Islamic text omitted vowels&so reading was an act of interpretation depending on where you placed the vowels and which vowels you placed in effect where and how you breathed. In this same way the language of TO is a divergent rather than convergent signifier. It opens up multiple possible interpretations rather than closing them down into something conclusive, and what is more all interpretations are simultaneously true. In this way TO is a celebration of subjectivity and inter-subjectivity. The simple action of making it permissible for participants to project creatively with the proviso that everyone is aware that it is only a projection can liberate different ways of perceiving our human condition: a meta-cognition if you like that thoughts are not facts, that we make the world we live in first my the act of perception.

Proprioception Again, Boal hints at the idea that in TO the protagonist is observing and being observed. Through Analogical Induction there is this essential distancing or alienation effect from your own predicament, enough to be not too emotionally caught up that you are able to seek the underlying social cause of the personal difficulty. But I think again this is only hinting at an underlying paradigm which lightly held allows one to access a more fundamental activity going on in a TO workshop.

The great scientist David Bohm talked of how while we have physical proprioception, that is that we know what our body is doing, we do not have psychological proprioception. We are not aware that we are indeed creating the world in which we live: that it is not something that is just happening to us. Psychological proprioception happens when we catch sight of the whole mechanism by which we are perpetuating our suffering and this happens when we observe the observer; that is when we witness the primary mechanism of oppression which is the illusion of the separation between what I observe and is observing.

Communitas This concept, borrowed from anthropology and coined by Victor Turner to describe a property or quality brought about by people sharing an experience of liminality that is where the osmosis Boal mentions is disrupted and conditioning falls away to reveal basic presence. Put simply concepts of having and doing are overwhelmed by just being. Communitas is the resulting quality of relationship between people experiencing this together, this shared space-less timelessness: and this is the glue which makes community.

It is my contention that TO can and does create Communitas through the actions of Multi-valence and Proprioception and this has an intrinsic value which augments the political, social or personal development ambitions of TO and alone is worth the price of the ticket.