Using Theater to Heal

The Hindu

‘Theatre of the Oppressed’ uses games and exercises to create images of a situation of oppression for the target audience.

Click image to enlargeHector Aristizabal — Photo: N. Balaji 

Theatre can be used to heal, to teach and to bring about change. So, Hector Aristizabal, a Colombian who now lives in California, is in India to take his shows hopefully to Gujarat among other places. He talks to R. Sujatha of his experiences and aspirations.

HECTOR USES theatre to bring out in the open hate, distress, and fear and help people deal with it. Though not a new concept, `theatre of oppression’ has turned into a powerful tool for helping communities the world over face difficult situations — by finding alternatives using images.

Evolved by Brazilian theatre artist Augusto Boal in the 1950s after his experience with villagers who lost their farms to land grabbers, `theatre of oppression’ uses games and exercises to create images of a situation of oppression for the target audience.

Hector recalls his visit to Tanzania where he worked with tribal women. They walked miles to fetch water but they were against a well being dug closer to home. “They used the occasion to socialise and if water could be fetched from the vicinity, they felt it would encroach upon the time spent away from family.”

Hector presented their problem in a series of images and encouraged the women to come up with answers. Soon, they learnt other skills like basket weaving and built a community hall to socialise.

He understood problems because of his rural background. But the going was never easy. Paramilitary `death squads’ in Colombia tortured him; his brother was kidnapped, tortured and murdered by them in the 1990s.

These memories are difficult to forget. There are scenes in the shows depicting the escape to the U.S., from his captors 14 years ago. But he continues to work with communities in Colombia and with minorities in America. Hector says his theatre “empowers people by teaching them to use their imagination, and come up with alternative solutions to their problems.”

He has worked with `incarcerated youths’ in Los Angeles through his Centre for the Theatre of the Depressed. While “middle aged men build infrastructure and provide for the family, the adolescents are neglected and get recruited into gangs. It is about identity crisis. Most people go through an ordeal of death and life and think it is initiation (into peer group).”

During adolescence, a child is taught why he, his surroundings and his people are different from others. “Initiation starts in high school. Some tribes require boys to shoot a lion, with others it is tattooing. In men, initiation is looked upon as a group affair. If you succeed then you are considered a man.” This is why teenagers get involved in gang shootouts and pregnancies, he says.

This is his second visit to India. Last time, he visited Mumbai, Thane and Pune, where he worked on domestic violence.

Last week at Auroville, Pondicherry he screened Juvies, a film on America’s gang culture.

He has watched the banned documentary Final Solutions, the story of Hindu-Muslim riots in Gujarat.

“I was fascinated to see such extreme expression of violence. Ordinary society is repressed. In Colombia, nearly 20 people are killed a day. Something similar is happening in Iraq” Hector says he would like to take his theatre to the communities in Gujarat.

Next year, he proposes to hold an international conference of theatre therapists in America, which will be attended by Augusto Boal. Hector can be contacted by e-mail at: