Whether it’s currently part of your syllabus or not, Theatre for Social Justice is a must have unit in your curriculum!
I’ve been living in a relatively sheltered “theatre bubble,” in that our theatre learning outcomes in Canada are flexible and allow me to design my curriculum in whatever way I choose. Of course I include the important foundational elements - improvisation, voice, movement, characterization, etc. And as much as my students participate in each of these with vigor and enthusiasm, the most engagement I ever receive from students is during our Theatre for Social Justice unit.
Most theatre folks are well aware of Theatre of the Oppressed by Augusto Boal, and may even include some study of this in their curriculum. They may review Forum Theatre, or touch on it in a Theatre History unit. But tackling Theatre for Social Justice as a unit in and of itself can feel terrifying! There are understandable fears associated with not doing it correctly and not being able to address prejudice/racism/sexism etc. that will undoubtedly crop up during the unit. But most of all, without support from your administrators it can feel like entering dangerous territory.
So why do a social justice unit if you know there could be backlash? Social Justice is ripe with controversy, but as educators, we have an obligation to provide a space for students to learn about this controversy, address the issues head on, and learn ways of coping with conflict associated with these issues. We know these issues don’t go away by being blind to them and we know that our students are faced with them daily - so let’s use theatre as a way to support students in learning how to confront racism, sexism, mental health, bullying, etc. head on, armed with knowledge and confidence! (if you want more info on the benefits of theatre for addressing these issues, take a look at my Blog post Theatre’s not an important subject, right?)
In my undergraduate degree, I focused on Applied Theatre (Theatre for social justice, community development, and education). This was an opportunity for me to dive deeply into Theatre of the Oppressed, and when I’d thought I’d just about exhausted my Boal reading list, I found David Diamond’s work, Theatre for Living, and it quickly became my go-to resource for guiding students safely through this complicated but important work.
What’s the difference between Theatre for the Oppressed and Theatre for Living? As David Diamond describes it “Theatre for living investigates the oppressed, but also makes space to investigate the fears, desires, and motivations of the oppressor - with integrity. Why? Because oppressors of the world do not come from outer space … The clear boundaries we like to think exist between oppressor and oppressed are very often not clear” (Diamond, 2007, p.38). This doesn’t mean we “side” with the oppressor, but we provide a lens through which to understand them so that we can affect genuine change in ourselves and our communities. It's an opportunity to start to look at how oppressors work within the greater oppressive systems.
Oppressors often look like the people we love. They can be our parents, friends, colleagues, teachers, and administrators. They are not some “other” somewhere out there with an evil mustache and villainous laugh!
This is all well and good, but how do we get buy in from students who only want to do improv? Or want to be world famous actors and want to show of their acting chops with a classic script? The key to get full buy in and engagement is to let students choose their own topics! This way they will find topics that they are passionate about and that feel relevant, but most of all, your students will be exposed to the various challenges their peers face, which will create solidarity - an overall understanding that they have all lived through some shit! And it will help you better understand your students and their needs.
Though every year is different, here are some theatre for social justice topics that my students have devised plays about in the past: Bullying, Eating Disorders/ Body Image, Toxic Masculinity, Suicidality, Indigenous Rights in Canada, Transphobia, Gender-Based Violence, and Students with Disabilities.
This list is by no means exhaustive, but allowing students to choose topics of interest that they are passionate about and have struggled with themselves can lead the way to an exciting and enriching Theatre for Social Justice unit!
In order to have a successful Theatre for Social Justice unit, and incorporate successful Forum Theatre, you need to ensure you start from a foundation of trust, mutual respect between student-student and teacher-student, and take things slowly, so that students do not end up diving into a topic out of their comfort zone before truly understanding the vulnerability associated with Theatre for Social Justice. This is why I have your entire first day done for you here! (A full 4 week Theatre for Social Justice unit coming soon to my TpT store - subscribe to get the notification!)
Above all, Theatre for Social Justice is not just educational, but it is deeply rewarding and SO. MUCH. FUN! Even through all of the difficult stuff.
As Augusto Boal says "Theatre is a form of knowledge; it should be used as a means of transforming society. Theatre can help build our future, rather than just waiting for it."
Go build your futures!
Diamond, David. (2007) Theatre for Living: The Art and Science of Community Based Dialogue. Tafford Publishing.