Friday, October 17, 2014

Prophetic Theatre OR What does Theatre of the Oppressed have to do with Jesus?

Imagine a theater in which the very presence of God mingles with the audience, a grand, mystical, magical mess! Oh, what merriment! Imagine a theater in which an audience goes expecting to see one thing and encounters so...much...more! Oh, I'm not talking about bait and switch. I'm speaking of desires and expectations EXCEEDED! The Jesus I know is a God of excess. Why should it be any different as he steps into a theatrical space?

The following are the lyrics from a song I wrote many years ago, encapsulating much of my passion for this industry. (Note: The line about nations bowing down is less an image of spiritual servitude and moreso a representation of glad reverence to a God who is oh so good.)

"I want to see heaven open,
And you're healing pouring down!
I want to see hearts unbroken!
Whoa-oh! Oh! Oh!

I want to see the dead reviving,
And the nations bowing down.
I want to see the culture thriving.
Whoa-oh! Oh! Oh!

Come and savor God's great favor.
Comfort all who mourn.
Crowns of beauty instead of ashes
Our heads he will adorn.
Oil of gladness, no more sadness,
Praise and not despair!
We'll grow strong as righteous oaks.
God's splendor we declare!"

For a further foray into my heart for the theatre and its connections with theories behind Theatre of Liberation (aka Theatre of the Oppressed), I invite you to read the following paper that I wrote towards the end of my Advanced Theatre of the Oppressed course at NYU last semester.

Theatre of the Prophetic:
A Spiritual Perspective of The Rainbow of Desire

by David Ello

Augusto Boal believed in the power of discourse to affect lasting change, arguing that
dialogue can help those involved in the conversation to come to new or heightened
understandings with potential to lead to a better world. He believed that all of this could be
accomplished through the language of theatre, relying on images and words where dependence
upon words alone sometimes fails at realizing what is there. “We are conscious of something
when we are capable of explaining it---however well or badly, totally or in part” (Boal, 1995, p.
34). When there is a problem at hand, whether internal or external, it cannot be solved until the
nature of the problem becomes clear in the consciousness of others, and I believe Boal's
therapeutic theatre methods described in The Rainbow of Desire provide useful insights for the
amelioration of human problems on both the physical and spiritual plane. My introduction to
Boal's more therapeutic branch of T.O. known as The Rainbow of Desire mirrored many of my
own beliefs about transforming human brokenness, and I am excited to further explore the
connection between Boal's work and a type of “prophetic theatre” that calls out the best in others.

Reading The Rainbow of Desire, I was reminded of why I first got excited about Boal's
work when I learned about it years ago: the theatre's potential to change an old reality into a new
one, moving aesthetically from what was and what is to what could be. In this book, after some
eloquent discourse on the actor's ability to conjure the worst parts of the inner self to endow a
character on stage with malevolent attributes, Boal flips the idea around, proposing that through
acting, humans can all awaken the best in themselves, even that which is hiding underneath the
surface (Boal, 2005, p. 38). Whatever is needed within a person that has not manifested in
present reality has the potential to be called out through theatrical discourse, as in Boal's example
regarding fear and courage: “I am afraid, but inside of me there also lives the courageous man; if
I can wake him up, perhaps I could keep him awake.” Beginning with a more individualistic
approach, then branching out into the communal, The Rainbow of Desire techniques continually
point towards what could be, presenting numerous possibilities of hope to participants who
desire to change, to be more than what they have been. “Our personality is what it is, but it is
also what it is becoming. If we are fatalists, then there is nothing to be done; but if we are not,
then we can try” (Boal, 1995, p. 39).

As a man who has spent considerable time and energy conquering my own fears and
internal limitations, enjoying the deep rest and freedom that comes as so many internal obstacles
are dismantled, the theatre's potential to affect such positive, relational breakthroughs resonates
with my heart on a very deep level. While the personal breakthroughs I experienced preceded my
knowledge of Rainbow of Desire, I can see several parallels in the way that this work brings
hidden obstacles to the surface to begin the process of overcoming them, especially as it relates
to my experiences as a follower of Jesus.

The charismatic, Christian culture with which I identify the most is replete with language
that calls upon individuals and groups to overcome obstacles and rise up to their true identities,
ones which may not be visible in the present moment but are nonetheless what they believe God
to be calling them to. This kind of encouragement we refer to as “prophetic,” given its tendency
to look beyond the limitations of the present and declare an experience of greater freedom that
has yet to be tasted, whether it be freedom from fear, from feelings of inferiority, from jealousy,
or from another oppressive state. Similar to Boal's language about awakening the deeper
qualities of good in a person, the Bible offers several invitations for people to rise beyond their
present limitations, calling upon greater strength from within, such as this encouragement from
the apostle Paul to his protege, Timothy:

For this reason I remind you to fan into flame the gift of God, which is in you through the
laying on of my hands. For the Spirit God gave us does not make us timid, but gives us
power, love and self-discipline. (2 Timothy 1:7 New International Version)

I also think of Jesus' words to his disciples, a rabble made mostly of uneducated
fisherman, a tax collector, a political zealot, and a few others. Jesus declared prophetically what
he saw them to be once he brought the greatness out in them, which was still to come: “You are
the salt of the earth. But if the salt loses its saltiness, how can it be made salty again? It is no
longer good for anything, except to be thrown out and trampled underfoot” (Matthew 5:13).

Unfortunately, it would appear that the latter part of Jesus' prophetic words to his
disciples have come true as much as the former, given how tasteless the actions of so much of the
church has been in its relation to the world at times, not always embodying the flavorful,
preservative mineral that Jesus intended his disciples to be, then and now. But what if more who
subscribe to Jesus' teachings, myself included, were to carry a positive prophetic attitude, calling
out the best in others as Jesus did in this case, rather than pointing fingers and casting judgment
based on so many externalities? Regardless of where an individual stands on issues of faith and
morality, anyone could reasonably argue that we could use more love in the world, and if I can
emulate more love through a prophetic theatre practice that calls forth the best in people, I
believe others will benefit.

Although Boal did not write his Rainbow of Desire techniques from a Judeo-Christian
perspective and they are not intended for use as a pseudo-spiritual practice, I nonetheless see
other parallels in this work which inspire me to ponder the spiritual implications that this or work
like it can have in settings where prophetic theatre is the intention. One such parallel is the idea
of “Metaxis” which Boal defines as “the state of belonging completely and simultaneously to
two different, autonomous worlds: the image of reality and the reality of the image” (2005, p.
42). He describes how participants of Rainbow of Desire techniques create a theatrical image
which at first represents the image of reality that participants drew from—their past or present
experience—while taking on a life of its own in the theatrical space: “The oppressed creates
images of his reality. Then, he must play with the reality of these images...The oppressed must
forget the real world which was the origin of the image and play with the image itself, in its
artistic embodiment” (2005, p. 44). So too, in prophetic spiritual practice, one is aware of the
present reality but must put what is seen aside in order to envision what is unseen and begin to
speak and act in reality as if that unseen realm is visible. In this regard, Rainbow of Desire feels
very prophetic to me, though its intentions are not spiritually aimed, and whether or not one
chooses to frame the oppressions in a spiritual light, it excites me that Boal has written so
thoughtfully about this delicate balance between playing in two realms at once. In a similar vein,
speaking of the renewal of the inner man, the apostle Paul writes, “So we fix our eyes not on
what is seen, but on what is unseen, since what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is
eternal” (2 Corinthians 4:18).

One of the most exciting connections between Rainbow of Desire and the prophetic is
that the two realms of play are connected, whereby action taken in one realm bears upon the
other. Boal writes, “He practices in the second world (the aesthetic),in order to modify the first
(the social)...If the oppressed-artist is able to create an autonomous world of images of his own
reality, and to enact liberation in the reality of these images, he will then extrapolate into his own
life all that he has accomplished in fiction. The scene, the stage, becomes the rehearsal space for
real life” (Boal, 2005, p. 44). Taking this idea a step further, what if the action accomplished in
the fiction by a theatrical participant is not simply rehearsing for reality or acting in fiction but
actually shifting reality on another plane? Historically, some Jewish prophets would not only
make verbal declarations of what they believed God to be telling them would happen in the
future but would actually act out the prophecy as it was given, such as the prophet Ezekiel who
the Biblical account records as staging a siege using a block of clay, an iron pan, and a few other
props (Ezekiel 4: 1-3). What if the act of performing a prophetic word was part of the means
which God was using to bring that word into a spiritual reality—in other words, starting with the
physical to affect the spiritual? What if participants of Rainbow of Desire techniques are not only
shifting their inner worlds as they work through oppressions that they face in the real world but
are actually altering the atmosphere around them such that their rehearsal for reality has a greater
opportunity to take root when and if applied in an actual oppressive scenario? These are
questions that I have begun to ask in my exploration of Rainbow of Desire and which I plan to
delve into further through actual praxis, both with those who subscribe to a particular faith and
with those who do not. Boal's techniques have provided me with new tools to explore the idea
that “faith is the substance of things hoped for and the evidence of things not seen” (Hebrews
11:1, King James Version). Or in Boal's words, “Actors search the depths of the soul and the
infinity of the metaphysical. Bless them!” (2005, p. 37). May we search on, given his blessing!

Works Cited

Boal, A. (1995). The rainbow of desire: The Boal method of theatre and therapy. London and

New York: Routledge.

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