Theatre of the Oppressed and Children

In this section of the website,, Ravi Ramaswamy, a member of CCDC, will lead discussions on the subject of "Theatre of the Oppressed with Children  and Young adults". He starts off with this piece based on a widely quoted paper on this issue

TO with Children- some points to consider 

Ravi Ramaswamy

Though lots of people are using Theatre of the Oppressed (TO) with children, there is not much literature available on this work. Some of the work is presented in conferences and workshops but serious studies are usually about work with youth or adults. There is a need to document work with children, because there are several issues that facilitators grapple with in their work with children and discussions will benefit everyone.

Here I shall draw out some of the points raised in a research study conducted in an American school with 4th and 5th Grade students using Theatre of the Oppressed (TO) techniques. This study was conducted in Spring 2000, over a period of 8 weeks and the aim was to assess the influence of TO on the children’s  social interaction with their peers. The report (1) highlights some of the issues which need to be discussed when doing TO with children. I wish to highlight  the points that are of value to everyone, and am not focusing here on details of the population the study worked with, the research design or details of the methodology used.

1.       The school had a set of classroom rules for children which were prominently displayed in each room. The TO facilitators/researchers initially found these rules contrary to the principles of TO but they had to follow these rules while doing the study. This raises the question of to what extent can TO facilitators negotiate with an institution and how do TO facilitators maintain a balance between the spirit of TO and the institutional framework.

2.       As the study progressed, the teachers remarked that there should not be negative exploration in TO. “The children need to be geared towards positive thinking”. However, while doing forum and image theatre, the researcher wondered “are we giving the children the freedom to be oppressive?” In fact, after the forum theatre a girl said that “sometimes you cannot be nice to deal with oppression”. So, there seemed to be different standpoints on the goal of the workshop. As a facilitator it’s vital we believe that TO creates a safe space for the children to vent out their feelings.  In TO the body is used to express oneself and this exploration of oneself  can help children to identify for themselves the triggers for their behavior . This creates self-belief and self confidence among children resulting in a transition towards change.  

3.        In the group there were both boys and girls, and while playing ‘Cover the space’ the researcher noted that when forming groups of 2,3,4,and 5 , the groups formed were all boys  or  all girls.  An interesting situation was that in one instance a boy who was not part of any group was not allowed into an all girls group and was pushed away and occasionally when a girl went to a boys group she was not accepted willingly or touched. As a facilitator its vital to explore these situations during debrief. As the researcher remarked “if we need to get over our oppressions, one of the things we need to do is be willing to just accept who comes and not exclude.  We may not like everybody but it’s important that we respect everybody.”

4.       While doing image theatre with children it’s important to repeatedly stress on “freeze the image” though  at times holding an image can be difficult as children are restless or very self conscious and want to move on. The images that are created are very powerful and freezing them for a moment gives oneself time to “listen to the image”.   Stressing the point that image theatre is done for oneself and not for others and that it does not matter what others think about the image can help children to hold the image. Every image that one creates comes out of his/her understanding of that theme, which is the truth.  Therefore holding an image becomes crucial.

5.       In dynamising the images, the children found it difficult to understand the instructions for “moving in slow motion”. The counting to move to another position was difficult for the children to follow as the children very quickly changed to another image instead of following a transition. The children also found the count to 10 too long.      

6.       A forum play was performed titled “I do not mix”. This was about a girl taunting a boy for the way he looks. When the spect-actors came up to replace the protagonist, they either had a fight with the antagonist or walked away from the situation. The teachers had instructed the children to walk away from such real life situations. Facilitators need to encourage children to explore various options to solve the problem. 

7.        Working with children cannot be seen in isolation. Children are part of the larger community and society which influence the way they behave. To create a community through TO there needs to be long term engagement with not only children but also with family and society.

8.       Thus as Boal advocates, “we may have planted seeds in hopes that they would take root and one  cannot tell from a seed just  planted whether it will die underground;  sprout but then wither; or grow, flourish, and mature”.  


1.Saldaña, Johnny(2005) 'Theatre of the Oppressed with Children: A Field Experiment', Youth Theatre Journal, 19: 1, 117 — 133