The Power of Showing Up
By: Miriam Kopelow
It was a beautiful sunny day in May as I walked towards the registration desk of the 15th Annual International Pedagogy and Theatre of the Oppressed Conference being held in Minneapolis, Minnesota. The Pedagogy and Theatre of the Oppres (PTO) is committed to the use and practice of Paulo Freire’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed, and the late Augusto Boal’s Theatre of the Oppressed. For those of you who are not familiar with Freire and Boal, they have created movements of theatre and pedagogy to “work with oppressed peoples of the world to develop critical literacies and actions to overcome social systems of oppression” (Pedagogy and Theatre of the Oppressed, 2009).
I attended the three-day preconference workshop led by Augusto Boal’s son, Julian Boal. Sadly, Augusto Boal passed away a mere three weeks before the conference began and his absence was truly felt. Julian Boal honorably kept his commitment and led a workshop where for the first time, had to speak of his father in the past tense. Tearfully we all commemorated the work Augusto began and together kept his methods alive and took them to new dimensions.
As I stepped through the doors of Augsburg College, I was hoping to be absorbed into a chattering group of activist-types. They all would be eager with anticipation and young, college-student self, walking in lacking coworker or companion. Instead, I became one of five people silently standing in line to get our materials and nametags. As we waited, I could not help but overhear a conversation between two women close by. They were recalling the times they had learned with Julian and Augusto and filled each other in on the work they each are doing in their own communities.
In our corners of the world, we each have those moments where we feel the weight of being an “only one”. Sometimes it is because of the color of our skin or perhaps because of the way we think. I am a part of nearly every majority and privileged group that exist in this country. It’s true. I am batting over .500 on the Big Seven. Nonetheless, I often feel as thought I am the only one in my classes who hears the social injustice in a recent comment or protests an oppressive vibe in conversation. Although I have my allies, it frequently feels more isolating than liberating. The first day of the PTO Conference I walked into a room full of strangers, but I instantly became part of the family. Everyone at this conference was full of passion and activism and simply by showing up, we believed in and supported each other. Together we launched into the next three days and I will never be the same.
The sixty members of this workshop came to create and perform numerous pieces of Legislative Theatre. PTO describes this to be a variation of Forum Theatre that consists of short plays in which audience members stop the action and enter it themselves to experiment with ways in which the protagonist(s) could break their oppression. Legislative Theatre is similar, except it is performed by citizens/constituents in concert with members of legislative body with the goal of passing laws to lift oppression. (Pedagogy and Theatre of the Oppressed, 2009) Our goal was to construct plays grounded in creating change to relevant issues facing the Minneapolis community.
Each day began with theatre games and activities to warm up the actors within us. Some were improvisation and others only asked us to introduce ourselves to each other. Normally, I would be shy and hesitant, but the enthusiasm
We had shown up and were ready for action. Time and time again I paused with amazement at the level of talent in the group, willingness to release boundaries and trust in each other. I was one of the youngest people there, but who cares? We were family.
In between and after sessions, all I wanted to do was meet more people and hear more from those I had met. Our conversations lasted for hours and we were rarely on time for the sake of cutting off fascinating discussions. As the days passed, I discovered that I was in the presence of true heroes. The chatty fellow who befriended everyone was on the PTO board and one of New York City’s finest activists for LGBT youth. The guy who hugged you after a great improvisation was a world-renowned actor and playwright. The woman I shared lunch with was the reason conference scholarships were available to local students. I felt rather simple in saying I was a mere college student, void of impressive careers and projects. To my surprise, each time I shared who I was I was met with overwhelming support and happiness in my being there. To these individuals, this was proof enough that I was worthy and honorable.
By the end of the three days, we created five plays that were performed before members of the Minneapolis City Council. The topics we presented included unjust loitering laws, police brutality, health care reform, immigration, youth violence, racial profiling in education. Dozens of alternatives to current legislation were suggested and true dialogue between constituents and legislators was achieved. I returned to my campus in Madison, Wisconsin with a newfound sense of accomplishment, community and direction. Activists, actors, teachers, professors, parents and community organizers from across the US and Canada came together, each working with PTO techniques in their corner of the globe. We spanned ethnicities, ages, origins and professions and every minute I was surrounded with strength, determination, and passion. It is important to recognize that regardless of our own persistence, we all need a support network. You never know where you will find it. Sometimes all it takes is showing up.
Miriam Kopelow is a senior at UW-Madison majoring in
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