Forum theatre: A spec-actor’s perspective

Anisha Lazarus* 

Have you ever imagined being blind, if you’re not visually impaired? How about trying it for a few hours? And how about trying it in public in a completely new space?

This was just one of the theatre exercises determined by Radha Ramasamy as part of the workshop on Forum Theatre that took place in the first week of September at Sangath. I was able to attend the workshop for two days, with Radha’s kind permission. The exercise mentioned above involved the participants splitting into groups of three and taking it in turns to be “blind”, with the other two members playing the role of guides in turn. Our group, which comprised a student from Oxford, a theatre graduate from Maharashtra, and myself, chose to take a bus to Mapusa. It was a lesson in safety, the change in sensory perspective, the public response to impairment, and it made us very dependent on each other. Standing in Mapusa market, eating a custard apple that I could not see with my fingers, interacting with people whom I would never be able to recognise again because I had not seen them, was only part of the immensity of the experience. 

Theatre of the oppressed, developed by Brazilian Augusto Boal, sees humans as theatre, actor and spectator in one, allowing for critical reflection and movement towards change and liberation. It uses a set of techniques, including game playing and imagery to do this. Forum theatre is a technique in which an audience member, watching some kind of oppression, has the ability to shout ‘stop’ and to try to change the situation to enable a different outcome, as a ‘spect-actor’. This puts the performers and audience on an equal footing.

The workshop at Sangath also included physical exercises, meditation, deep breathing, spatial awareness, and group activities that, for me, are part of why I love theatre so much. Language and cultural differences ceased to be an issue as the group grew together into one body. The cognitive hypnosis exercise which involved an ‘oppressed person’ having to follow the hypnotic hand of ‘the oppressor’ was a particularly powerful exercise: the striking figure of the oppressor, the writhing submission of the oppressed are images that will stay in my mind.

A significant part of the workshop was the chance to listen to the stories of people from the community, as well as each other’s stories. Many of the group seemed to have a personal interest in mental health in addition to their passion for theatre and performance. At one point in the workshop, one of the Sakhis (lay counsellors) from the SHARE team came to speak to the group about her experience. She was very articulate and, for me as a leader of the SHARE team, it was a joy to hear how motivated she was to be a true Sakhi (friend) to other women going through pregnancy and stressful situations. We also had another visitor speaking to us about his experiences with bipolar disorder. For the group, it was important to hear how a person from a different socioeconomic background could face difficulties with his mental health and with stigma, and could overcome these to the point where he could see his experience as a strength.

For me, the culmination of the workshop was in the performance for Sangath staff at the regular staff meeting. The haunting melody of the singer who began the performance, the poignant face of the mother who was depressed and could not

respond to her child, the black figures of the dark thoughts that oppressed her, the physicality of the cameo of the man with bipolar, were all segments of a brilliant performance. However, the thrust of forum theatre is to get the audience involved, in an attempt to change the story. Ordinary people from Sangath tried in different ways to make it better for the mother, by stepping into different roles in the play: trying to change how her husband responded to her, how she responded to the situation, how she responded to the thoughts in her head. What was significant though, was that it was much harder to negate depression than one thought, as one ‘spect-actor’ found out as he first wrestled with the dark thoughts and then tried to flee from them.

What is the connection between the research I do and the joy of theatre, apart from the obvious point of raising awareness? Theatre is always a medium, a meeting point of actors and audience, of story and response, of cultures and characters. In this experience, these all became merged to the point where you could no longer tell where one left off and another began, in the true spirit of Forum Theatre and Theatre of the Oppressed.


*Anisha Lazarus is the Site Principal Investigator for the South Asian Hub for Advocacy Research and Education in mental health (SHARE project) at Sangath and has a background in mental health research. The SHARE project aims to provide support for pregnant mothers with depressive symptoms through other mothers in the community (Sakhis), in order to increase accessibility to mental health care in the region.