The Wildcard Workbook: Why Forum Theatre and Why Now?
Theatre of the Oppressed NYC (TONYC), a grassroots arts and social justice organization, recently published an illustrated workbook to guide artists, activists, educators, and facilitators through forum theatre and other creative community-led change processes. The Wildcard Workbook: A Practical Guide for Jokering Forum Theatre poses questions towards an ethical, joyful, and radical practice of Theatre of the Oppressed. Available for anyone to download for free or by donation, this book can accompany other Theatre of the Oppressed training or stand alone as a resource for anyone leading a group through a devised theatre process. It can also guide facilitators leading embodied diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) and anti-racism trainings or moderating complex dialogue in any public event.
As a visual guide, it complements academic books and research-based texts about Theatre of the Oppressed published over the past half-decade. In this conversation, co-authors of the workbook Liz Morgan, director of training and pedagogy at TONYC; Sulu LeoNimm, executive director of TONYC; and Katy Rubin, former executive director of TONYC, dialogue about their vision for the book, the values and ethics of Theatre of the Oppressed, and the dramaturgy of forum theatre.
Katy Rubin: We’ve been writing this for three years, in two different countries, through a global pandemic. In our Zoom calls, we spoke about how we wished this resource had been available when we were starting out as “Jokers,” which is what we call facilitators of Theatre of the Oppressed processes. There are wonderful books by Augusto Boal, who originated the Theatre of the Oppressed methodology and Pedagogy of the Oppressed by Paulo Freire, which we reference in the workbook. Those are core texts, but they can be hard to read and don't always translate into, “How does this exercise work? How do I get the audience to improvise in the forum? What are the logistics I need to think about—not just philosophies but also the practicalities of facilitating interactive theatre for social change?” For me, Theatre of the Oppressed NYC has always focused on “multiplying” the opportunities to facilitate creative social change in a very practical way.
Liz Morgan: I'm smiling, because you’re talking about how we support people, which is definitely a part of Joker work. I’m also thinking about the militant, challenging part of Jokering. I hope this book gets people to reexamine their ethics. In the wider theatre community, it has become very normalized to oppress actors in the room; to treat them as objects inside of a capitalist machine. People don't have to be doing Theatre of the Oppressed to borrow some of its ethics and start bringing them into their rehearsal rooms and classrooms. Some people might be working in a nonprofit arts group that's “serving marginalized communities,” but that industry has become tainted by saviorism. Our book talks about how to start unlearning that and make sure that as we facilitate—and even as we administrate—we are rooted in collective liberation and solidarity. We can’t just be trying to save somebody else; we’ve got to try to save ourselves too. I hope that becomes embedded in theatre practitioners in a profound way.
I also want to talk about the ethics of Theatre of the Oppressed work and how we translated those into the values behind the creation of The Wildcard Workbook. One important value is accessibility: we try to make our workshops accessible, so we wanted this resource to be accessible too. We wanted this to feel fun and to fill it with stories and images. When I look back at how long we thought it would take and how short we thought it could be, it makes me laugh. Being accessible is a lot easier said than done.
The second is “problem-posing,” which is foundational in Freire’s work and informs how we practice Theatre of the Oppressed. We could have just filled the book with what we think are best practices and stories from our rehearsal rooms, but we felt it was really critical to create worksheets that ask people to apply and figure out which parts of how we apply this methodology at TONYC will actually work for them. We wanted people to rip out the pages, challenge this book, and be in dialogue with what we've presented because we know that this isn't the only way to do Theatre of the Oppressed.
Sulu LeoNimm: Yes! One of my values is to make sure I keep learning. There's a little icon in the book that we use to indicate when readers will have to choose a strategy for collective decision-making, and there are so many strategies we’ve experimented with over the years. That is an area where I’ve been trying to get training as a facilitator. We’ve brought in some amazing people to start to develop our Joker team’s trauma-informed practices. I took an interesting training to better understand Indigenous consent and consensus practices. Recently, we've been working with the United States Federation of Worker Cooperatives on TONYC’s own internal structure. There are so many resources about collective decision-making strategies out there. A book cannot contain all the answers. We've got to keep learning as Jokers by experimenting in, participating in, and leading creative spaces to see what works and what doesn't.
Katy: TONYC usually works in co-Joker teams for that exact reason: one person is never the perfect facilitator, artistic leader, or solver of any problem. Directors and facilitators have different skills, different consciousness, different privileges, and we bring people together to do a better job. But we're still not going to hit all the things. One of my values is that everybody can be an actor, facilitator, and even a policy-maker. At the same time, excellent facilitation is not at all easy. When I experience it, it makes me so happy I want to cry. Rigorous, energizing, and power-informed facilitation is a superpower for the change we need to see. As co-authors, we each took the lead on writing different parts of this workbook. It was amazing to then read Liz or Sulu’s sections and think, “Whoa, I never could have expressed it that way. That opened my eyes to something new about the work I’ve been doing for fifteen years.”
Liz: Speaking of our favorite parts of the book and sections that illuminated Theatre of the Oppressed in new ways, mine is the section illustrating the dramaturgy of forum theatre. In TONYC’s trainings, we teach forum dramaturgy and how that differs from a traditional Aristotelian dramaturgy arc. We meet the protagonist and understand what they need, the antagonist says “no” or blocks the protagonist, and then there’s a “failure.” But what I love—much credit to the illustrators—is that this workbook also shows what happens during the forum: we jump back in and the story changes. We take action towards creative, collective interventions.
In this section of the workbook, the story example focuses on John Pierre, who needs to find housing for himself and his partner. He meets the antagonist: a landlord who refuses to rent to John Pierre when she realizes that he wants to move in with his same-sex partner. That's a gatekeeper saying no because of who John Pierre is or who she perceives him to be. We have this moment of crisis in which John Pierre may get what he needs or may be denied.
In this forum play example, the story ends in failure: John Pierre and his partner break up because of the stress of finding housing. But after the play, when the Joker turns to the audience to begin brainstorming solutions, that moment of crisis becomes a moment when intervention is possible. A “spect-actor” (i.e., an audience member) can enter the scene and interact with the antagonist (e.g., they might try calling a lawyer), and then the actors play out what might happen next. For example, in this improvisation, the characters may discover that court fees are prohibitively expensive. The problem often isn’t “solved” right away; the problem changes, and new information equips everyone in the theatrical space for the next actions that may be taken on stage and hopefully in real life.
Katy: My favorite section was “Mistakes We Try Not to Make,” also called “Unhelpful Intentions.” This section spells out—in a way that makes me laugh out loud—some mistakes I’ve certainly made before but might have been afraid to admit to. If I imagine, for instance, that I am unbiased or that I “never oppress anyone,” those are both impossible. To my mind, one definition of a Joker is a director or facilitator who goes home every night and plays over the “recording” in their mind of the rehearsal or performance and asking themselves, “Where was I biased? Where did I miss something or privilege a specific point of view?” In the book, we’ve created worksheets for creative facilitators to reflect on their practices. One of those worksheets asks the Joker how they relate to power, oppression, and privilege in their own lives. I think it is really important for Jokers or any community-based practitioners to have that conversation with themselves and with their collaborators.
I love that the book makes me laugh. TONYC considers fun and humor crucial ingredients for the revolution. Fun was a baseline value in creating this book, from the colorful and playful illustrations to our own process of discussing and appreciating each other’s work.
We could not offer a definitive map of what is ethical and what is not, but we aimed to highlight the questions we consider in our everyday work.
Sulu: People ask us: “So is it okay to do a forum theatre if I'm working in this kind of space? Or if I'm working with this particular group of people or with this kind of story?” We held space in the workbook to help folks think through that. We can’t judge for anyone, but we try to help people have that conversation with themselves and with the group that’s developing a forum theatre project. So many people don't truly understand what forum theatre is until they've done it. Once they make the play and do the interactive forum, then everybody involved says, “Whoa, I get it!” So, it's hard.
We also get questions about whether it is okay to ask people to share their stories in a development process, which is really a question about the power dynamics: Who is the asker and who is being asked? In a focus group we held with TONYC community members while we were developing this book, we had a conversation about being able to say no to a facilitator. One of our actors shared that in every group space he’d previously been a part of, he never felt allowed to decline a request. In order to be safe and avoid being penalized, he felt like he had to say yes. It was only through being in rehearsals with TONYC’s Jokers that he realized he was being offered that option, and it took multiple years of being in those rehearsal spaces before he could start using the word “no.”
These dynamics of power in theatremaking spaces are crucial. We’re talking about Theatre of the Oppressed, but we might as well be speaking with the general theatremaking world and reflecting on some of our personal experiences of power imbalances and harm in those spaces. We could not offer a definitive map of what is ethical and what is not, but we aimed to highlight the questions we consider in our everyday work.
Liz: We’ve mentioned that in Theatre of the Oppressed, a core concept is that everyone can act because we define “acting” as taking action in their lives to fight oppression. If that’s true, everyone can all, in some form, also become facilitators or educators, those who move themselves and their communities towards spaces and tools that spark creative alternatives. Therefore, The Wildcard Workbook is a tool for all of us to take steps beyond creating change in our communities and towards becoming the kinds of leaders that can guide others towards solidarity-building and movement-building. This resource is about making this work sustainable and preparing for the next generation of artists and activists. It’s our way of passing the baton.