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.