This article was written before February 24, 2022, yet the Newspaper Theater Method, elaborated in Brazil during the times of dictatorship, became the first to-go tool that the group of female practitioners of Theater of the Oppressed (TO) resorted to after the escalation of [Russia’s] war [against Ukraine]. Their first session was held in April 2022. Any war instantly switches one’s mindset to black-and-white mode, leading to self-censorship and leaving little space for humanity and critical thinking. In this article, we want to share what a theater, specifically a Newspaper Theater, has to offer to confront this scenario.
So, what does the Theater have to offer? Or rather, the theater created by average Janes and Joes by weaving together their life experiences? A safe space where one can immerse themself in new experiences; a slow pace that allows one to be aware of their choices when it comes to evaluations and outlining your position.
This is exactly what Newspaper Theater, one of the series of techniques within the Theater of the Oppressed elaborated by a Brazilian theater practitioner Augusto Boal, offers, with the audience becoming active spect-actors.
The Theater of the Oppressed is a combination of physical exercises and games, image, and improvisation techniques, aimed at transforming the theater experience into an effective tool for enhanced understanding of both social and personal problems and searching for solutions. The key differences between Theater of the Oppressed and classical theater are that each person is an actor/actress and has the best expert knowledge of their own life, and can use the exercises and games to share the life strategies that have proved to work for them to solve urgent problems in their community. The TO is characterized by direct dialogue between the actors and the spectators, who can choose to be spect-actors and intervene in the performance. This is the Theater seeking to rebuild dialogue between people through analyzing the power dynamics within cultural and institutional violence practices of the society. Such Theater also encourages one to stop being just a passive observer, but take over writing their own life story and act by trying different strategies in a safe place and being unafraid of making mistakes.
Anyone can act
It was the Newspaper Theater techniques that later formed the basis for the Theater of Oppressed, for, in 1960s Brazil, it was crucial to find means of linking theater with the everyday lives of people suffering from violence, injustice, and poverty, dispelling the myth of “unbiased” journalism and showing that anyone could act.
Noteworthy, the founder of psychodrama Jacob L. Moreno also used the techniques of Newspaper Theater to warm up the crowd in the street by acting out actual news theatrically.
The authorities demanded that people only voiced and discussed the official position of Brazil’s dictatorial regime, basically enforcing strict censorship and banning the freedom of voicing one’s own opinions on different events. Thus, to avoid breaking the law, yet at the same time be able to draw people’s attention to important things, Boal and his troupe started staging newspaper articles. To make that staging something more than just reading out texts, the director and his team devised a system of 12 techniques to give the audience a way to transform daily news articles.
Newspaper Theater in the era of populism and propaganda
How do the news broadcasts, with their predefined hooks and focus, affect the way you receive the information? What if it’s a cover page article in a newspaper or a magazine? What if it’s a person reading the article aloud, very slowly, with a Ukrainian folk song playing in the background? And what if they add some impersonation (staging the news), or an image with an opposite meaning, or even transfer this news to a different time in history? Do you feel that freedom to create and those additional dimensions that your mind immediately starts wandering around? Does your mind begin to try those scenarios upon themselves and tell you how it feels within them?
In the Newspaper Theater, information is clay, and you are free to sculpt anything you want, project different scenarios and easily change the outlook, and question the previous image.
The Newspaper Theater method is not a search for real, unbiased information, it is a way of understanding it, and critical contemplation in order to expand the limits of perception. As we are reading texts, we can discuss them — but in the Theater, we can enact them, mirror them, change them…
How does it work?
In April-May 2021, Yana Salakhova and Vladyslava Kryzhna launched an online study to understand the applicability of the Newspaper Theater in the era of social media, adjusted for the Ukrainian context. The group of participants consisted of activists, professional journalists, and practitioners of Playback Theater or Theater of the Oppressed. Over the course of six Zoom conference calls, they study the Newspaper Theater techniques and the applicability of those techniques in their theater performances for promoting critical thinking and analyzing oppression through the media.
“I really liked educating people about draft bills and how they can be perceived by people in reality. Perhaps I’m able to implement a similar project dedicated to draft bills in the social sphere, where there are’ plenty of controversial things,” says participant Tamara Nauk, sharing her experience with the Crossed Reading technique.
What happens if you cross-read a Draft Bill and some philosophical reflections on life and death? You will get a very humane perspective and explanation for people unfamiliar with lawmaking and legal-speak, the one that could make a great opening for a public discussion of that legislative initiative. This given Draft Bill requires that elderly people’s children (or other heirs) to compensate the cost of those elderly folk’s financial support borne by the public sector, should those heirs choose to place them in the care of a nursing home or a psychiatric ward (and thus become indirect beneficiaries of state social services).
Below are a few excerpts from two texts that were read out and enacted using the Cross-Reading technique:
Memento mori, “remember that you must die”,
is a catchphrase we all know.
The Draft Bill introduces a provision
requiring children of elderly people
to compensate for the costs
of their financial support
borne by the public sector.
But how important it is to remind yourself:
“Remember that you must live,
remember the moments of happiness, the mercy.”
In case you enroll
your elderly parents
in a nursing home, or a psychiatric ward,
you have to compensate
for their stay.
After the texts are presented, there is an essential discussion among the audience and the actors on the new meanings that have emerged or a possible shift of perspective that might have occurred.
Participant Ania Na shares, “I gained a more thorough understanding of this phenomenon of TV news broadcasts, where a person is sitting and reading out the news to other people. I never really got it before, but now it dawned on me: when it’s just text, you need to invest more effort to get to the point. When someone is reading it to you, they do a lot of work for you: the focuses are set, the meanings highlighted. Even without byplay, fluctuations of one’s voice can do a lot to the text: ridicule or depreciate it, make it scary or boring.”
As for the abovementioned Draft Bill, it failed to gain the approval of the National Agency on Corruption Prevention and was withdrawn until further amendments are made.
A Ukrainian folk song exposing defenders of “traditional values”
For her reading, the participant chose the news on Odesa deputies demanding to withdraw the book on love between two princesses. The officials were referring to “traditional values”, so a group of participants opted to combine the reading with a Ukrainian folk song “Oy, divchyno, shumyt’ hai…”1, illustrating how lame those deputies’ excuses actually are.
“If you ask me, I’d like to see classes of any language and literature adopt similar methods of working with texts. So that every adult taking the class would make good of this method,” says Ania Na, sharing her vision of promoting the Newspaper Theater method.
Want to have an honest corruption talk? Space-launch it!
A participant brought an excerpt from one Viber chat where people were discussing how to buy fake PCR test results and vaccination certificates. To prevent our Ukrainian mentality from messing up the discussion, they staged a mini-play with the discussion in question being held among the planets of the Solar system. We can’t just project our stereotypes and prejudice that we hold towards our compatriots on random planets, which allows us to actually focus on the risks that such actions impose on our society.
Cannabis “legalization” through historical reading
As of today, people in Ukraine are still unable to legally use cannabis for medical purposes. So the participants presented a text claiming that cannabis was protected from animals and fines were being imposed since the 1950s, so the spectator can imagine that it has always been this way. And once you have imagined it, you are able to accept this reality.
Our society has plentiful taboos and tricky subjects, like lessons of Christian ethics at schools, protection of rights of LGBTQ+ community and the Roma people, and Newspaper Theater is the tool allowing to dream of a different reality in action.
Nata Vainilovych, a workshop participant, explains the workings of the Newspaper Theater method: “Reframing reality is another link to changing the perspective in the perception of public information achieved through the Newspaper Theater. While reading news and articles, our inner voice still “articulates” them in our own particular manner, highlighting one thing or the other. But people who write for a living are equipped with skills and tricks of wording sentences in a manner that narrows the perception of their texts to what they need. That’s why when someone can make adjustments in that text by either taking to synonyms or rearranging sentences, new meanings emerge. In that light, the very same event looks quite different. Besides, such approach unleashes creative energy, a feature of the vibrancy of human consciousness.”
In the book Culture: The Base of Civil Society (co-written with Thijs Lijster), Pascal Gielen ponders a lot about the role of modern art, and quotes Niklas Luhmann as saying, “nothing is inevitable or impossible”, and “everything that exists can exist differently”. The Newspaper Theater crafts a new reality, the one that is critical of existing cultural standards, offers a new perspective on the known facts and can lead to changes in the perception of both oneself and the surrounding world.
With the Newspaper Theater, we regain control over our lives
Ania Na gave wording to her vision for this theatrical method: “The Newspaper Theater is a method used inconspicuously and daily by different people, organizations, and power institutions. Perhaps, it’s the partial reason why those institutions enjoy that power, in the first place — that they are familiar with this method and use it on average people. Who, in turn, can feel that influence, but are unable to explain what urged them to make their choices, opting for a specific sauce, specific bank card, or a specific presidential candidate.
To me, this experimental course by my colleagues, and this Newspaper Theater method gave me access to the instrument used by the people of privilege. It’s just that while they are more interested in power and enrichment, what I care about is my critical thinking and mental health. The only reason those people are more powerful is that they have both the tools and a team. While living through the experiences offered by this course I understood that, whether you have the tools or not, resisting anything alone is much more difficult than with a team of like-minded people and accomplices.
During this course, I came to realize that when we are able to analyze and take a new look at that tremendous amount of information, we regain our power and our control over our lives. You know, like a person on the open sea who, after being tossed here and there by the waves, finally sees a floating board and manages to climb onto it and stand tall. That doesn’t change the wave height or frequency, but that person is not [that] helpless anymore. Perhaps, the Newspaper Theater is that board.”
1 The lyrics of this song describe a maiden who is told to forget whoever she loved, while she strongly rejects. Further on, when proposed marriage by a young man she allegedly likes, she declines, as he doesn’t nave his own dwelling. He insists, saying that he’ll build them a house, and meanwhile, they can go and stay with someone else — to which she replies that she’d rather live in a cabin made of weeds then go live with someone else, because to her it was like living with her [potential] in-laws and being constantly bullied by them.
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