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Setting the Stage for Empowerment with Theatre of the Oppressed

Jennifer Schaupp is a US-based adjunct professor, storyteller, and comedic improvisor embarking on a PhD in Creativity examining how applied theatre can enhance the English language learning process, mental health, and civic engagement of those new to the country. She presented a trial workshop “Gestural & Spoken Language as an Act of Personal Freedom” at the summer 2023 virtual Pedagogy and Theatre of the Oppressed (PTO) conference where she met Ghana-based applied theatre artist and University of Ghana professor Dr. Felicia Owusu-Ansah, who attended Jennifer’s workshop and also presented her paper “My Image, My Conscience, My Story: Image Theatre as a Gateway between Silence and Blast." Theatre of the Oppressed (TO) includes Forum and Image Theatre, two styles that involve everyday people embodying solutions to problems they're facing either through bodily-sculpted images or scene enactments—essentially a rehearsal for real life. There are so many different ways that founder Augusto Boal and other applied theatre artists, like Felicia, have utilized the form over the years. Jennifer was struck by how Felicia unearthed relevant social issues with the use of Image Theatre and connected with various communities in her country. Jennifer and Felicia sat down for an interview to discuss TO’s potential as an empowering theatrical form.

Jennifer Schaupp: Welcome, Dr. Felicia Owusu-Ansah! When we met, I was struck by the number of people you've worked with, the ways you've used TO, and just how much you’ve learned about the communities around you.

I remember during your conference talk that you said TO was not very popular in Ghana. I'm curious, how did you start to get people excited about TO?

Felicia Owusu-Ansah: I teach and practice Theatre of the Oppressed. I use TO tools to explain concepts. For example, on the topic “Identifying Community Issues for TO projects,” I asked my students to take photographs of anything in sight for a class discussion. A student captured a photograph of a sculpture depicting a woman carrying a basket of cocoa, gritting her teeth while balancing her load with a baby strapped at her back. According to the student, he saw in the photograph an image, a theatrical item that is compelling and vivid, conveying his mother's spirit.

A performer holds a basket of fruit over their head in an outdoor courtyard.

A Final Year Applied Theatre Project at University of Ghana, 2022. By Joshua Benumanson.

And then he comes to class and during the discussion of his photo project, he said, "Women of this part of our world go through so much.” This statue is image theatre. That gave us his final year project topic “Creating Awareness in Appreciating the Toil of a Ghanaian Mother: Forum Theatre as an Intervention.”

With Image Theatre, I was just trying to explain to them how important it is to examine issues from the perspective of the people around whom the issue revolves. So, students now became very inquisitive after practicing, they want to know more, and they want to practice it elsewhere.

I poured out all that I had harbored in me, all my pain, all my sorrow, all my inability to speak the way things should go in my life, all my oppression—I bundled them in another form, and I gave it to him.

Jennifer: It’s easy to share TO when you have found its value yourself. What’s your personal “aha” moment with TO?

Felicia: I got into this when I began my undergraduate studies in this course called Theatre for Extension Communication. Later, just before my PhD studies, I chanced upon the PTO conference. I think that was in 2011. I attended and was overwhelmed with the practice of TO in other parts of the world and so I thought of advancing in the area. Then, I attended David Diamond’s Theatre for Living in Canada, and on stage when we began exploring moments, oh! I found myself. I intervened in one of the processes which led to a significant change. I spoke back vehemently to my father (on stage) so much that he actually cried, not just acting. And reminiscing right after that, I realized that he was a victim of circumstance. I poured out all that I had harbored in me, all my pain, all my sorrow, all my inability to speak the way things should go in my life, all my oppression—I bundled them in another form, and I gave it to him.

That was the day I found myself. I realized that I had been living a borrowed life. The life I had been living was not me. Because I was brought up in a community where, as a sign of respect, when adults/men speak, you don't retort unless you are required to. On my return to Ghana, my husband was surprised at my newfound confidence and strong sense of self-awareness. He realized some kind of liberation in me and admired me more for that. I said, "I am me now, ha! This is me. I'll give you all the respect but will call a spade a spade."

In fact, I use TO in my family to settle family issues. I do image works. There are certain things children cannot say in front of their father. So they sculpt themselves into an image to tell us how they feel. Then we all discuss.

That is my connection and it's become a part of me. I'm very passionate about TO. And it's also because I have seen it work.

Three people pose like pop stars for a group photo.

Image Theatre (TO) in a community theatre class with a theme of addressing body shaming issues for academic success—a workshop with Level 300 students, 2019. Photo by Felicia Owusu-Ansah.

Jennifer: I love this idea of the personal, that you're using it personally but also nationally for your country. Do you think TO could be used on a global level for countries and cultures to understand each other better?

Felicia: Yes, yes. I don't know much as to the ratio, as to how much TO is used in the United States as compared to Ghana. But in Ghana, TO, it's not very popular, but the students are sending it out there. But I think yes, especially with the TO conference, a lot of people come and see what TO is used for. And so people will learn like I did. And it is true that there are some misconceptions about us, about Africans, and there are some misconceptions about the Westerners or other parts of the world. Let me share this with you.

In a conversation with a white lady friend of mine, she said something to me, then later, she said, "I lied," and I was shocked. I was surprised. Because growing up we were made to believe that white people don't lie. Then, I told her that in all my life I thought white people don't lie. And she said, "How could you say that?" David Diamond’s conflict resolution tool of “Us and Them,” which uses Augusto Boal’s Forum Theatre, could easily apply to this situation.

Jennifer: You mention David Diamond’s approach in Canada as an extension of TO. What do you see as the extension or evolution of TO in Ghana?

Felicia: For me, I see TO as a huge personality that has a big heart and big open arms because I realize that you can situate TO everywhere. For instance, I always had thought that it is for the oppressed. But attending Diamond's Theatre for Living, I learned a lot. And exploring it I realized that it is also a supportive tool for the oppressor, not the oppressed alone. This is because sometimes the oppressor can be a victim of circumstance. There could be some huge force behind the oppressor, a bigger oppressor, that is forcing the oppressor to perpetuate. Perhaps under normal circumstances, this oppressor wouldn't do it. But maybe there's an unseen gun pointed to his head, that if you don't do it, this is what will happen to you. And it’s like I love my life, so I do it for my safety. That's why I'm saying it embraces a lot. And in my case or in my country, what I see is that in the future, TO's going to have an influx because we don't have that culture of going to the theatre hall to see plays. We do have the national theatre, which fills up during performances. But this is a country where theatre’s a luxury to many people; some people don't even have access or the means. And so, to me, taking theatre that creates a platform for the people to have a stake in addressing their own issues will reign. From my practice, the high participation in community productions, I see a mammoth evolution of TO in Ghana soon due to its quality of breaking the silence while maintaining the people’s good values. Some communities in which I have worked have accepted TO, such as they’ve formed drama troupes to further address issues challenging their community and the communities around them.

A performer stands and speaks to a seated audience.

Forum Theatre with the Adehye Community Drama Group of Nkoranza in collaboration with Akuaba Theatre Productions, at the Seventh-day church on Irregular Migration at Nkoranza-Akuma of Ghana. Photo by Akuaba Theatre Production.

Jennifer: It sounds like there’s some entertainment value that you see TO can bring. How can the fun be integrated into the serious intentions of TO?

Felicia: TO is intense and serious because we are trying to find solutions, but you have to make it fun for the people to enjoy it. And I always liken it to some cough mixtures which are tasty, and so the kid will easily take it, but it does wonders in the kid—healing takes place. And that is how I treat my TO projects. I make sure it's fun. I surely incorporate the traditions, norms, and games of the community into it so they identify with it, they own it, and it becomes like their baby—something that even when they sleep, they wish that the next day comes fast for them to attend rehearsals.

I always try to make it practical as it can be, but fun with their own community gimmicks, their culture, and their games especially. And when adults come and they play, sometimes children’s games, it's so fun that after every game, whether it is their traditional game or it is a TO game, we discuss "What do you find in this game? What is your experience and the wisdom you find within the game? What does it give you?"

And when they can express themselves this way, it's like they always want to participate. And when you are done with the project, they are asking when you are coming again. So even though they have not practiced theatre before, they are able to conduct things so well for a successful production.

Jennifer: I can tell there’s a feeling of joy that you get from seeing others do TO and teaching, but how do you care for yourself in the process? Because sometimes it can be easy to focus on everyone else, and I just wonder how you make time for that, especially in an age when we're talking a lot about self-care and mental health.

The joy and solace I obtain from doing what I love to do, engendering revolution and transformation among the vulnerable, compares to nothing else.

Felicia: Yes. Sometimes after going through all this and I return home and I see I have so much to do again—that is when devastation sets in. So once in a while after the production, after everything is done, I come home, and I don't go out for two days to rest as I reminisce on the work done and to think through what's next that I have to do.

But I think what helps me is that I try to enjoy my projects and make them feel like I have taken some kind of vacation. Because many a time, I move into the community and stay with them. And what is interesting about it is what you see in the community, let's say in the villages especially, you may not have internet, your telephone might not work as it would work in the city. A lot of things are very different; people go to farm and sometimes I go with them, and there is a total difference in the daily routine.

Three students stand with two chairs in the middle of a circle of audience members outside.

“The Beast Among Us,” an HIV awareness initiative at Mamprobi in Accra. Forum Theatre with Dr. J.S. Bannerman Junior High School students in 2002. Photo by Felicia Owusu-Ansah.

I go and fetch water and carry it on my head as they do, chatting with my new “family,” and you know, I leave my family back home and have enough time for myself. So, that also takes care of me. By the time I return home, I am refreshed. You see, the joy and solace I obtain from doing what I love to do, engendering revolution and transformation among the vulnerable, compares to nothing else.

But I think I may need advice from you as to some of the things I could do to take care of myself.

Jennifer: Ha, I'm still learning myself how to do that. But I do think it sounds like in a way it's all about perspective, which is what you said earlier that TO work is about: perspective. And here your perspective is, I think of my work as a vacation rather than just work. It’s a great honor to feel that way nowadays.

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