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Students Become Spec-Actors at the Theatre of the Oppressed

Professor Carla M. Guerron-Montero’s students attend the Theater of the Oppressed as part of their class called African Diaspora. Here the students move around the space of the studio in a circle and are given commands that change the meaning of the language they know. For example, the instructor tells the students to jump, and they must walk, or the command to stop, means to jump.

Professor Carla M. Guerron-Montero teaches Africa Diaspora, the study of movement of people from Africa to other places around the world either forcibly or voluntarily.  This semester the focus is on movement from Africa to countries around the Mediterranean.

In order for students to actually experience some of the concepts of oppression and migration she teaches in class, Guerron-Montero took her students to the Theater of the Oppressed, in Istanbul, Turkey.

The Theater of the Oppressed was founded by Augusto Boal in 1971. It’s based on the principle that each person has knowledge that can, and should be, shared. In order to allow people of all backgrounds to participate, he created an interactive theater where people are not actors or spectators, but rather, spec-actors. He believed this forum would help humanize humanity and establish dignity for everyone.

On this day, Guerron-Montero’s students become spec-actors themselves. They perform a series of exercises that each relate back to specific readings they have done in class. Her students describe some of the scenes that impacted them most; a scene that demonstrated how names change and get lost over time, one that allows each spec-actor to change a scene from oppressive to their own version of ideal, and one in which each spec-actor is required to quickly think outside the norm to utilize something common in an uncommon way. All agreed that the Theater of the Oppressed was an experience they will never forget, and one which brought to life the emotions of diaspora.

Ms. Helen Nilsson, workshop leader at the Theater of the Oppressed, talks with students about the image of the oppressed and how body language can be different from culture to culture.
Workshop leader Ms. Helen Nilsson helps students understand common and shared oppressions. The students pose to act out these oppressions. All scenes start with an image of the oppressed, for example immigrants to a new country or people that have been abused, then the spec-actors leaves their seats to move the actors around to change the oppression to a more positive scene.  Boal envisioned that all participants would come away with a changed opinion of the people being oppressed and have a better understanding their situation.
During the experience everyone explores new feelings and overcome challenges presented by the workshop leader. Guerron-Montero’s students all agreed that this field lab brought them closer together and brought to life the emotions of the people they are learning about in class.
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