The Best Lack All Conviction and the Worst are Full of Passionate Intensity

This line from the WB Yeats poem The Second Coming kept popping in my mind last week while I was in Graz for the World Forum Theatre conference. OK, not exactly this line, it was more the version Joni Mitchell sings in her song of the poem, which goes like this The best lack conviction, Given some time to think, And the worst are full of passion, Without mercy.

Certainly Augusto Boal’s death has left the people who knew and worked with him feeling bereft, but I dont get the sense that things are falling apart, now the centre has gone. In fact, it’s the opposite. Several conferences, which were perhaps arranged to make the most of Boals bright burning twilight; in Pula, Croatia in June; in Rio in July and this one in Austria this October, have had to do without it. But continuing anyway they have brought together some of the family of organizations and peoples practicing his amazing legacy to the world -The Theatre of the Oppressed (TO). The range of uses for TO demonstrated at these events, their worldwide use and the vast experience of its diverse delegates is encouraging. What to me is most encouraging is the desire between jokers (TO practitioners), to engage in dialogue in an atmosphere of friendship and mutual respect. That is not to deny that there are serious differences in how TO and with whom TO is practiced and in particular how we can maintain the ethical basis to the work which is essential if we are to have any hope of bringing about equality and justice.

Epitomising this difference is where people stand about working with the Theatre of the Oppressed within the business sector. This is a very complex issue because the idea of benign or even beneficial business is quite a foreign concept in some countries. In the developing world corporations get away with injustices they are less able to inflict in the developed world since slavery was abolished. Of course, slavery was’nt abolished; it was exported, to countries where workers have no rights. What a perfect solution; you don’t have to clothe, house and feed these slaves. You don’t even have to control them because their governments will do that if you control the government and what’s more they won’t even realize they’re slaves because it’s a free market.

My ancestors working in the slate quarries of North Wales suffered similar injustice to what might be experienced by a worker in India, China or Africa today; but in Europe, especially since the 80s, the idea of a benign capitalism has become sediment in our culture and marketed as the reason why we can all live like Pharaohs. Of course, this comfy arrangement is only achievable within the capitalist system because workers are exploited mercilessly elsewhere. And rather than struggle directly against the capitalist world view, the movement for justice and equality, which has always been present in the human potential, has tried to inveigle its way into the whole spectacle. In the UK we have businesses who are not for profit, or whose profit is put back into the community, and working within these businesses we have social entrepreneurs who use their skills and creativity in business to improve people’s day to day lives. The extent to which an enterprise can work for the oppressed when it is working within a system which is innately dehumanizing is a question that needs to be explored taking into account a global perspective. I wonder whether we in Europe are so embedded within our culture of consumption and convenience and in times of self-doubt compare ourselves to the poor souls struggling with the working conditions of our ancestors, that we are blind to our slavery within this system. A system within which everything is a commodity and our only function is to be consumed by consuming.

Personally, I dont recall ever having worked for an enterprise, and frankly don’t think they would have me, not because I am in some way a Marxist revolutionary who would turn up to a workshop in a beret waving a red book and talking about how the bosses would be the first up against the wall. Rather because I am profoundly unprofessional and admit readily that I don’t know what I’m doing until I’m doing it; which is a little against their grain. Everything about the business world is about ascertaining certainty, or exuding false confidence in the face of uncertainty. In the UK it is called the private sector and from a metaphysical point of view the two factors that come to mind when I think of the word private are greed and denial. Private is a word that comes from Roman times which described the walled area around a house. It means, in effect, the power to define and separate what is MINE and not YOURS and is the doctrine of those cultures which have predominated in our world: cultures where taking has more value than giving and where land is owned rather than land owning us. Of course, the cultures which valued giving more than taking have all but died out since people don’t kill in order to give. But they survive in isolated pockets where indigenous peoples remain and are celebrated in most cultures with occasional festivals and traditions that celebrate giving.

While greed and capitalism is almost acceptably synonymous the denial factor is less admitted. There is a fundamental denial at the heart of the capitalist paradigm which is not merely about the fact that resources are limited. More ingrained in the mentality is the idea that humans are resources that can be managed and at the epicentre of this denial is the construct of the company or the organization or the institution, an idea made fact and then used as a basis for the denial of the human dimension. John McKnight from Chicago University explains how institutions dont (cannot) care about people and this is precisely because the institution is just an idea to which people ascribe, a mask people wear so that they can fuck you over without feeling guilty or responsible e.g. because its company policy. And this is where the capitalism problem can be seen as just one manifestation of a problem that is at the core of the human condition and to which no one is immune. I would say the same thing about any ‘ism’ you care to select. Because any system of thought or any structure that is brought about by thought, even if that thought is to help people, cannot bring equality, justice and peace.

The reason for this is so simple that is sometimes escapes reason. Thought is implicitly divisive and reductive. It works through inclusion and exclusion, polarization and duality. That is not to say it is somehow inherently bad because by itself it denies us the possibility of peace. On the contrary, it is a wonderful facility. The problem occurs when we confuse what thought is and attach ultimate importance to our thoughts because they are our thoughts, and since we respond physically to our thoughts some of them sound so right we feel them to be true in our bones. To the point that everywhere people would rather be right than be happy All internal oppression occurs when thought thinks its a fact and this writ large in society is what legitimises the abuse of power, the domination of many by a few, the destruction of the environment, cultures and communities and just sometimes in a million ways doing the wrong thing because you got the wrong idea.

Why the Yeats quote kept coming into my head at the conference in Austria was because I felt a very real danger of TO becoming a fixed idea we defend at the expense of its effective application. In my opinion, those jokers who are most certain about things and the most passionately intense about oppression, are less effective jokers because they are also pretty certain what the problem is and therefore the solution. A common fault in jokering is assuming that there is agreement about what the problem is. Democracy is the lesser of evils because at least a majority agrees on what the problem is and it can therefore be addressed, so to go into a foruming phase without first even having a debate about what the audience perceive to be the problem presented is wholly undemocratic. Often, the forum theatre pieces I have seen recently are so loaded (setting out the problem in no uncertain terms) that it is more or less Agit Prop in which you are invited to participate as long as you toe the party line. A core understanding that every joker should recognize is that at the root of the problem lies the answer, so if you have come to the conclusion about what the problem is then you have also concluded what the answer is. The real power of Forum Theatre is its capacity to help communities travel to the root of the problem, and the role of the joker is not to let the audience come to a cosy conclusion or to impose his/her own but to be urgently passionate about the question; this is what I call context orientation and the more towards context you travel the more generic the solutions found. In my experience these ‘fundamental solutions are not some thought out strategy but actions that come from a transformation of the way we perceive ourselves and our world.

The point I’m trying to make is that TO can solve the problem presented by Yeats poem by dragging this rough beast into the aesthetic space, into the republic of the imagination. There we can explore the possibility of acting from a higher self. But we must start from a place without conviction, and from there with the passionate intensity born not from belief but from compassion travel to the root of the problem. Whether enterprise and compassion can coexist is another question.

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.