The Wildcard Workbook: Why Forum Theatre and Why Now?

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.