Dramatic approach to coping with oppression

9th May 2008 at 01:00
Everyone can change - but they have to really want to. Dundee schools are using art and drama techniques to encourage young people to find their voice. Douglas Blane reports
Everyone can change - but they have to really want to. Dundee schools are using art and drama techniques to encourage young people to find their voice. Douglas Blane reports

With a girl on each side gripping her tightly, and a third pointing an aggressive finger in her face, young Brogan is powerless to move or resist. Only the anguish in her face conveys her feelings. It's a silent scene, a human sculpture set up by the central character, that tells a different story to each of her P6 colleagues.

"The girls holding her hands are her allies," suggests one girl.

"It's her wrists they're holding," a boy points out. "I think they are oppressors."

It's an unfamiliar word to most children, but a central concept in the art and drama techniques being piloted in St Fergus Primary and other Dundee schools by Barnardo's Scotland. "I'd have run a mile from drama when I was at school," confesses senior practitioner Anne Taylor. "But I got interested in how it can improve relationships and make young people aware of their feelings, at a conference run by Dundee University.

"We spoke to them afterwards and arranged for training from them. We then developed the programme that we're now running in schools. It is based on the work of a Brazilian director and writer called Augusto Boal. Everyone can change, he maintains, but most people are too passive. So his Theatre of the Oppressed seeks to remedy submissiveness by encouraging people to find their voice and tell their story."

A more conventional approach to telling stories can marginalise the children who would benefit most, says St Fergus teacher Lisa MacPhail. "The art and drama have been a big success with the quieter ones in the class, who find it difficult to respond in a situation.

"Also, because I was involved in the activities, I could see, by an action or an expression on their face, how these kids were feeling - where normally that would have been more difficult."

The effect on the class is likely to be lasting, she believes, as does Gerry Dignan, whose P5s at neighbouring Brackens got the creative approach before Christmas. "It's a big class and they are working together better than before the sessions. They appreciate each other more. They're more aware that everybody is different and you can't have what you want and expect everyone else to just fall in.

"We have quite a few kids with additional needs and it helped them. You have to be open and imaginative to different ways of doing things. I like to encourage all my kids to have a go."

What they were asked to have a go at seemed strange at first, says young Kyle. "We had to make a picture of what it was like to be oppressed - like when somebody was picking on you. We sculpted people to make the picture. Then we had to move them around to change things, make them better."

This was like being in a theatre and acting something out, says Sarah. "You had to make it up from memory, but you didn't tell people what the memory was, in case it upset somebody. The sculpting got you thinking in different ways. Often you just react and don't think. This helps you to think before you do or say something."

The use of past memories in the sculpting and some other activities gave rise to a little initial difficulty and discussion, service manager Graham Haddow recalls. "This project is part of SPACE (supporting primary school-aged children early), which has been going for 10 years. Our purpose is to keep kids who are experiencing difficulties in mainstream education. We usually work one-to-one, so working with whole classes is a departure. Our approach is solution-focused and systemic. Traditional services do assessments, make recommendations. We don't. Children and families guide our work and tell us what they want to change. We help them work towards that. We look for ways forward, rather than dwelling on the past."

It was precisely this future-focused philosophy that caused some initial tension with Boal's whole approach. "We liked what we heard and saw," says Anne Taylor. "But we struggled with his idea that you can't move on unless you understand the oppression you've been under. We had some debates and found common ground in how people managed their experiences in the past and could apply what they had learned in the future."

A focus on outcomes also helped reconcile SPACE to the creative approaches. "A solution-focused saying is that if people don't know where they want to get to, they will probably end up somewhere else," says Mr Haddow.

The clear destination for creative approaches is improved relationships and children who are aware of the feelings of other people. It aims to help them learn about their behaviour and its impact, and to manage it better. It promotes good listening.

Creative approaches encourages children to try things out, explains project worker Kirsty McNally. "It provides practice for them in a safe environment. That then helps them gain the confidence to try something different out in the playground. They learn that they can change their own behaviour, and that can alter how other people treat them."

The games, activities, art and drama allow a wide range of children to explore their feelings and behaviour - including those not especially adept at reading and writing, says Ms McNally. But the scope for self-expression can be disconcerting for some.

"They're used to being asked to do something with a right or wrong answer. So when we ask them to draw what it feels like to be happy or oppressed, they're not sure at first what to do. Once they get the hang of it, they enjoy the freedom to express their feelings - which they often don't have the language for."

Courtney liked learning about herself, she says, but right from the first lesson she remembers how aware she also had to be of other people. "We were playing games and you had to listen to what everybody said, in case you missed something. The most important thing I learned is that you can't change other people. You can only change yourself."

While creative approaches has a serious purpose, it was memorable for the fun the children had, says their teacher Mrs MacPhail. "The time flew past. It was one game and activity after another, and the children thrived on it. There was an ethos of acceptance, enjoyment and trying something new. An important part was that the children, who tend to stick with friends, had to try new partners and find out about other people."

This wasn't easy at first, Courtney says. "I was nervous at first. In one game you had to stand in line and there was another line with people you didn't know but had to work with. It was good because you got to learn about those people. You found things you had in common with them."

These new insights are valuable out in the playground, says Sarah. "If you chat to somebody in one of these games, that you don't normally play with, you get to know them better. Then if some of your friends say something nasty about them, you can say it's not true. You know because you've talked to them. You understand what they feel."

While the programme is spread over five weekly sessions, the benefits will last much longer, Lisa MacPhail believes. "I have seen a difference in the way they cope with difficult situations. They're more confident, more aware of differences in how people feel. They have more strategies to deal with difficulties.

"In the past, they would always be looking to me, the teacher, to resolve conflicts. Now we have a chill-out area in one corner of the class, where they can go to think and talk about things, and to work through their conflicts together. They might miss a bit of a lesson. But they are learning a more important one."


A five-week programme of whole-class sessions of up to one-and-a-half-hours, Creative Approaches uses art and drama to explore oppression. It consists of:

Interactive games in which participants are shifted from habitual behaviour, thinking and ways of interacting. They become engaged with each other, develop relationships, have fun.

Structured activities for trying new possibilities, developing trust, exploring feelings and personal space.

Art work and human sculpting which produce visual images of children's stories of oppression, and encourage them to explore news ways to change.

In "Animals", for instance, the children think about people who have an impact, positive or negative, on their life at school. They imagine these people and themselves as particular animals, sketch these on a large piece of paper, and give them a voice. Examples from the St Fergus P6 pupils include:

The leopard said: "You make me feel very small." The angry tiger said: "So? I don't care about you."

The bear said to the snake: "You get me into trouble." The snake replied: "Well I'm telling everyone your secret."

The bunny said: "When I am sad you make me laugh." The cat said back: "You are my best friend because you are kind."

The big bear said: "When I am upset you are always there for me." The little bear said: "Thank you."


Devised by Augusto Boal, a Brazilian director and writer, Theatre of the Oppressed is a system of exercises, games and techniques to restore dialogue and alter relationships that are built on oppression. The methods are said to be used in half the countries of the world. Among its stated principles are:

Theatre of the Oppressed is a worldwide non-violent aesthetic movement that seeks peace, not passivity;

It helps people recover a language they already possess. "We learn to live in society by playing theatre. We learn to feel by feeling; to think by thinking; to act by acting. Theatre of the oppressed is rehearsal for reality;

All human relationships should be based on dialogue. But dialogue often becomes monologue, which creates the oppressor-oppressed relationship. The main aim of theatre of the oppressed is to restore dialogue;

It is not an ideology or a political party. It is neither dogmatic nor coercive. It is a method of analysis and a means to develop happier societies that is respectful of all cultures;

Theatre of the Oppressed is used around the world in education, culture, arts, politics, social work, psychotherapy, literacy programmes and health.


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