Cardboard Citizens, the theatre group, is well known for working with homeless and displaced people to create vibrant, edgy shows. Its latest play, Glass House, opens today and is expected to garner rapturous reviews. But the group is less known for its role as an international hub for the Theatre of the Oppressed, the practice they use to create shows here in Britain. Developed by Brazilian practitioner Augusto Boal in the 1960s, the Theatre of the Oppressed creates a dialogue between the performers and the audience. Audience members become "spect-actors", with the ability to intervene in the action. By changing the theatre’s reality for the better it becomes, in Boal’s words, “a rehearsal for the revolution”. The charity recently flew an Israeli ex-officer to London, to share his experience of practicing the Theatre of the Oppressed in Israel/Palestine. I went along to hear more about the practice. Was it just another way to make drama lovies feel warm inside? Or was it powerful enough to have an impact on one of the most entrenched conflicts in modern history?
Chen Alon. Image: Dubi Roman
In the charity’s new Whitechapel offices, tucked away between kebab shops and Islamic clothes stores, Chen Alon addresses us. He’s built like a tank and looks every inch the officer before his troops. "Do I look like a killer to you?" he banters with the chair. Adrian Jackson, CEO Cardboard Citizens, laughs and shakes his head. They're old acquaintances, and there was nothing threatening in the question. After fifteen years service in the Israeli army and reserves, Alon became a ‘refusenik’ and served time for his decision to stop bearing arms. But that doesn’t mean he doesn’t like confrontation. “Conflict is development,” he tells us. That’s why he helped to found Combatants for Peace, a movement of Israelis and Palestinian veterans who have found new ways to fight for an end to the violence.
Combatants for Peace use the Theatre of the Oppressed to communicate experience, combat myths and ultimately help build a shared world for Israelis and Palestinians. Alon founded the movement in 2005 and they currently work with around 150 activists from both communities, most of whom have seen violent action. They advocate a two-state solution and an end to the occupation, stopping the building of Jewish settlements in the West Bank and East Jerusalem that perpetuate the conflict. However they believe change won’t only come from a political settlement but from building new ways of relating between individuals and communities on the ground.
They perform in the West Bank and elsewhere, often in risky situations. A video of a performance staged at a road block of Shufa village shows a scene all too familiar to both communities. A sick Palestinian grandfather is trying to get back to his home in the village and is stopped by Israeli soldiers. As they act out the scene, a group of actual IDF soldiers hover nearby, as do a crowd of Palestinian villagers. The blurring line between theatre and reality becomes too much, and the soldiers order them to stop. Against their will, they have become a kind of “spect-actor”. Alon describes how the actors confront the guards by "mirroring how they look" in order to "shoot embarrassment on them”. That was in 2010, and after four years in Shufa the company had helped provide electricity to the village and remove roadblocks. Today, they are trying the same in Izbat Tabib, as in this recent performance on the demolition of homes, where the audience is invited to stop the action and intervene.
Members have narrowly escaped arrest following performances and a group were severely beaten in 2011 while carrying out an action to farm olives on occupied land. Despite the danger, Alon believes that "theatre always reduces violence" through its ability to “change minds”. His own life supports this belief. He describes how he grew up as a boy with the story that “Zionism saved my grandfather”, who had left Nazi Germany for what was then Palestine and became the sole survivor of his family. Alon’s dad fought in the wars of '67 and '73 and it was never a question that son would follow father. After his extended four years conscription, Alon joined an acting school in 1992, beginning the period of his life when he would swap treading the boards for a month every year as an officer in the reserves. He recalls how he took part in a night arrest in a Palestinian home, and the shock as he discovered that the "terrorist" was a 10-year-old boy. Later, as he was delivering an explanation to his soldiers, he had the curious feeling of acting a role that felt wrong. "I needed more to justify the character than what I was telling them," he says with a wry smile.
The Theatre of the Oppressed can expose and challenge the roles that Israelis and Palestinians play on a daily basis. Alon talks of "making everything which is invisible between us visible" by “putting ourselves in the shoes of the other." This doesn't only apply to war veterans. He is concerned that, while the Israeli members of Combatants for Peace have roughly equal women and men, there are hardly any women amongst the Palestinians. "I ask them, where does your responsibly lie? What part of this oppression of women is the occupation?" He tells me that the Theatre of the Oppressed has changed his relationship with his wife, leading him to confront inequalities between them.
Here in Whitechapel, Alon sees many examples of “Us and Them” that could benefit from what Combatants for Peace have learned in Israel/Palestine. “I look around here… in London there is a lot of polarisation.” He mentions prisoners and free citizens, drug addicts and non-dependents, the Islamic community and those that harbor fear and anger against them, a tension with which he has more than enough experience. An important aspect of Cardboard Citizens’ work is to bring together practitioners from across Britain and the world to share knowledge and learn about the Theatre of the Oppressed. They train around three hundred people a year, most of whom work in theatre, but also social workers and others who confront oppression in their work and lives.
Can theatre really bring about social change? Alon is fiercely aware that the situation in Israel/Palestine has only worsened since he began Combatants for Peace. An end to the occupation remains a distant hope. What is certain is that the movement can provide an alternative to the idea that non-violence is passive. It is a way to struggle for a resolution without bearing arms. Last year, around 2,500 people came to the Combatants for Peace joint memorial service, instead of the all-Israeli Memorial Day celebrations. This was not ‘drama’ in the strict sense, yet the Theatre of the Oppressed sees performance as only the start of the process. “The objective is to encourage autonomous activity,” Boal said, “to set a process in motion, to stimulate transformative creativity, to change spectators into protagonists.”
While fervent advocates, Cardboard Citizens are aware of the potential weaknesses of the practice. Jackson touches on the dangers of “losing a political compass in the warm fuzzy feeling of we’re all human together, wooly and reconciled.” Yet it’s clear that concrete gains have been made in Israel/Palestine. It may be easier to point to an ended roadblock than to gauge the number of homeless and displaced people in Britain who have benefited form the work of Cardboard Citizens. Overall, I am convinced that the Theatre of the Oppressed can make real social change – but perhaps that’s the wrong way of phrasing it. It’s the blurring of reality between drama and real life that appears to make the practice so effective in confronting injustice. The Theatre of the Oppressed doesn’t end when the curtain falls. You could argue that this is when it really begins.