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Theatre For Living: The Art and Science of Community-Based Dialogue

Theatre For Living: The Art and Science of Community-Based Dialogue by David Diamond

Here are some of my favourite excertps…

Many of these qualities are displayed by the Joker in the Theatre for Living. As Diamond explains, a Theatre for Living project happens because a community wants to deal with certain issues and has invited the Joker into the community. His role there is often to create disturbances by giving a voice to people who would normally not be heard, or by enabling individuals to manifest conflicting voices. These disturbances then set in motion the group dynamics that lead to change. The role of the Joker, as conceived by Boal and Diamond, reflects the recent discovery in science that living systems respond to disturbances in their own self-organizing ways. One can never direct a living system; one can only disturb it.

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Theatre, like all other forms of cultural expression, used to be ordinary people singing, dancing, telling stories. This was the way a living community recorded and celebrated its victories, defeats, joys, fears. As the Cartesian or mechanistic model took root, and later as colonialism spread across the planet, coinciding with the mechanization of capitalism, this primal activity of storytelling also evolved in a mechanistic way. Like many other things we can think of, cultural activity became commodified. It transformed from something that people did naturally “in community”, into a manufactured consumer product. Today a vast majority of people buy theatre, buy dance, buy paintings, buy books, buy movies; the list goes on and on. We now pay strangers to tell us stories about strangers. But when do we use the symbolic language of theatre, dance, etc., to tell our own stories about our collective selves?

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Theatre for Living. It is about how communities function as living, conscious organisms and about how we can use theatre, a symbolic and primal language, as a vehicle for living communities to tell their stories.

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Theatre for Living views the world through a systems theory lens. As such it recognizes that the binary poles of the oppressor and oppressed are actually part of the same large organism living in some kind of dysfunction. In order to get to the root causes of a problem, Theatre for Living investigates the oppressed, but also makes space to investigate the fears, desires and motivations of the oppressor – with integrity. Why? Because oppressors of the world do not come from outer space. Living communities grow them. The clear boundaries we like to think exist between oppressor and oppressed are very often not clear.

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I believe the oppressor is always in the audience in some manifestation. In some way, he is always part of the living community, whether this is at the micro or the macro level, as an individual human or as an internalized sensibility. When we create a production on family violence, statistics being what they are, it is very likely that there are perpetrators of violence in the audience. This also, of course, can manifest in the form of an internalized perpetrator – in this case, that sensibility may live inside the oppressed and be turned on one’s self.

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The invitation in Theatre for Living is to engage in the struggles of the characters, which we recognize as also our own struggles – not to break the oppression (getting rid of what we don’t want), but to create healthy community, or safety, or respect (getting what we do want).

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Is it then the case that in order to change the local and global structures that seem to control our lives, it is not effective to focus solely on structural change? That we must work to change the patterns that create those structures, otherwise the structures will be recreated in their same form again?

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The steps are comprised of games, exercises and spaces for internal feedback that are potential patterns for relationships.

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The focus of the theatre is interpersonal relationships. The experimentation on how to change the patterns of the relationships in a Forum Theatre event is a step along the path to altering the structures that emerge from the patterns.

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Machines can be worked on from the outside.

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If however, we embrace the systems view, it becomes impossible to consider that a family, or a community, an organization or a nation, can benefit from being worked on from the outside. Living things change and grow in a healthy way, not because they are made to by outside forces, but because they want to, or because they do so naturally. Even in instances where the impulse to change has come from an outside stimulus, actual behavioural change occurs from within. It cannot be imposed. For this reason, an invitation from the community is essential.

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Another way, I thought, could be that Headlines `calms’ itself; recognizes it is part of the larger community – not an entity that exists separate from our potential audience. Having calmed ourselves, we could wait for project invitations to come to us – to present themselves. We would no longer stomp through the forest.

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It made sense that community-based projects would be initiated by community invitation. That is, not initiated by the company. Headlines Theatre took on the properties of a social network. In a hierarchical structure, power is controlled in a linear way. Most theatre companies work that way: a small group gets together, although sometimes it is just one person, and decides what the
company’s season of plays will be and then presents it to the public. The theatre company’s task is then to convince the public to come see that production or season of plays.

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A Theatre for Living project happens because a community wants something and has imagined that whatever it is they want can be achieved through theatre.

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What to do? We started going door to door. Imagine the reaction. `Hello. We know you have no idea who this white guy that is obviously dying in the heat is, but would you like to come with us and make theatre about the issues in the community?’ Slam. Slam. Gales of laughter – slam. Why wouldn’t they slam their doors?
As we travelled, we started to notice that the children were very curious about what was happening – who was this alien? A parade of children was building behind us. We stopped at a large tree and started playing games with the kids. We had a wonderful time. We asked them if they wanted to come back tomorrow. Yes. Try to bring your parents, OK?
The next day, many of the children came back. Still no adults. We played more games and as the day wore on, the parents started coming out to see what was happening with their kids. Slowly, a group built. By the third day we had a working group of about 20 adults and children. We made a very powerful play about lack of safety because of gangs, drug dealing, alcoholism, unemployment and violence in the community. It was staged beautifully, with characters making entrances over hills, and in a truck that came racing up the road.

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Going door to door in Namibia, I was in a position of trying to sell people something they didn’t want – a travelling `expert’ with services that no one knew anything about – and had every reason to distrust. There was no way out of this role until the games started generating actual relationships with the children. Through the games the power could become more balanced. I would lead a game that they didn’t know and they would show me a game I didn’t know. It was through this process that we started to get to know each other, to be humans together. The building of trust made it possible for them to engage.

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In the end, this project turned out quite well, even though we also angered and alienated some people by the way it got started. We were fortunate. The lesson for me was that a workshop does not start on the first day of the workshop. I should have asked far more questions when the invitation came, and taken responsibility for trying to ensure that the invitation really was coming from the community with which I would be working.

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As we went around the circle that first morning, what I heard from the youth was that not only did they not know what the workshop was about, but when they discovered we were supposed to be making theatre about their struggles with alcohol and drug addiction, some of them informed me they had no problems with alcohol and drugs. Of course, under the circumstances we were in I am pretty certain that for some of them these statements were not ioo percent accurate, but what was certainly true was that they had no desire or intention to create theatre about these issues, or to discuss them with me.

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It cannot be the workshop facilitator or Joker’s role to peel workshop participants off the walls and beg, cajole or try to force them to engage in an activity. I have worked very successfully in prisons. In those instances, of course, the prisoners had no choice about whether or not they were in prison, but they had a choice about whether or not they would work with me. Here, the youth, also prisoners, had not made any choice. They had simply been marched into a room and handed over to me, so I could work on them from the outside, like one works on a car. In this way they had (once again, I imagine) been dehumanized. It was a violation of their human rights.

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I told them that if they wanted to work with me I would work with them, but that I wouldn’t try to convince them more than I had already. They needed to want to do this work, and if they didn’t, that was OR What did they want to do? They said they wanted to go back to their rooms. I did something that led me into conflict with the organizers. I agreed with the youth and cancelled the workshop.

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The manner in which a Theatre for Living project enters a community is constantly evolving. Since the experience with the healing centre, part of the contractual obligation with the project organizers is to have at least one of the theatre workshop participants on the organizing committee.

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It is also important that the organizing committee, through discussions with other community members, decide on the general subject matter before participant recruitment starts. What the organizers are doing is creating a container, a space, in which the living organism that is the workshop group is going to gather and work. They are extending an invitation and, like any invitation, it needs to be clear what people are being invited to do.

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There is a desire that voices will be heard that are most often not heard in the mainstream theatre; that issues will be discussed that are very seldom discussed; that through the interactive Forum Theatre process, the community will have a dialogue about solutions to the issues with which it is struggling.

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People kept asking Boal the same question over and over again: “If `x’ happens, what do I do?” It was as if there were supposed to be a formula.

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The notion that a formula can exist is a manifestation of the idea that a process with a community can be mechanical.

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If we relate to the community as a machine that will always react the same
way to the same game or exercise, we lose our ability to really listen, to really see. We lose our ability to direct the creation of this theatre project because we are no longer in a real dialogue with this living community.

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There is a question to ask other than “what”, and that is “why”:

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We are making this investigation: “to learn how to deal with violence in the schools”; “to understand how not to criminalize poverty”; “to help doctors understand how to provide health care to First Nations patients in a culturally appropriate way.” If that is why we are here, then what can I do as a Joker right now to take a step in that direction that is relevant to this moment? What kind of exercise or game can I suggest? What kind of direction can I give the actor? What kind of question can I ask the group or the audience? Moment-specific answers flow from the “why” question.

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If we want to end cycles of oppression, the empowerment of the oppressed
is only one necessary step along a path of numerous steps that lead to a healing of the larger network or organism. Empowerment cannot be an end unto itself without working to change the patterns of behaviour that create structure.

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If the community organizers already know the answers to the issues they want to look at, why do Forum Theatre? Perhaps it is better to make a play that communicates the answers to the audience that the organizers already know. In this case, the decision should be to create a purely presentational play that delivers the answers. There is a fine and worthwhile tradition of this kind of theatre, and I engage in it myself sometimes, as mentioned previously. Forum Theatre is the most valuable, when the desire is really to create a community dialogue, about issues the community is truly struggling to resolve. It is an invitation to seek solutions, or at least a deeper understanding of the issues, together.

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It would have been possible, when Mike first started his intervention onstage, to tell him to stop fooling around. “Mikes” come onto the stage often, in one form or another. If we are honest in our request for the living community to express itself, then we must accept whatever comes onto the stage and treat it with respect.

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An invitation has come from someone who wants to use theatre to explore community issues. Through a consultation process an organizing committee has been formed and a broad topic for investigation has been decided. The organizing committee has done the recruitment of participants.

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A woman in the workshop started to cry. Boal did not draw attention to her tears. Some of the other participants were very angered by this and challenged him on his seeming lack of caring. He looked around the room and asked a question.
“If she was laughing,” he said “would you go to her and say, there, there, it’s not so funny, stop laughing!?” Many people in the room started to laugh, including the woman who had been crying. Boal crystallized something very profound for me in this moment. Emotions are not good or bad. They are just emotions.

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Pushing
Take a partner – any partner will do. Stand facing each other and place your hands on each other’s shoulders, and push. Really push. Use your muscles. One of you is going to be stronger than the other. That’s life. The person who is less strong, push harder. The person who is stronger, push less hard. Don’t try to push each other over. This isn’t about winning or losing. The idea is to find the balance of strength between the two of you. Do this without speaking. Have the conversation with your bodies. You should always be moving. Don’t just lean against each other, push!
Use different parts of your bodies. And again. And again.

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Pulling
Facing each other, take each other by the wrists. Now lean out, taking each other’s weight, so that if one of you let go, the other would fall. Now, without talking, continuing to lean out, sit down. Bums to the floor. Now, pulling against each other, stand up. Repeat this a few times. Now in circles of four, then in circles of eight, and 16, etc.

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We are going to make plays where the characters are struggling with each other about the issues we are investigating. They are all, regardless of how symbolic the play might get, pushing against each other. If they don’t do this, there can be no drama.

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This is also a very important concept in the interactive Forum. It is not the actor’s job to be onstage saying “no, no, no, no” to every person who comes onto the stage – pushing them over. Nor is it the actor’s job to be overly agreeable and do whatever the audience member asks – letting the audience member push them over. It is the actor’s job to push against the audience member – to make him work – to give him the opportunity to engage in the struggle and in this way really try his idea.
Inside the struggle, the actor must be listening and seeing and sensing in every way. If she is, she will be able to respond truthfully – saying “yes” if the intervener moves her character to do so, and saying “no” when he does not. It is all contained in the balancing game.

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Language is very important in setting up the game. Say something like: “Someone come in and make a shape. It doesn’t have to mean anything – just a shape in space. It doesn’t have to mean anything.” If you are patient, the group will start to make images of the subject matter that they have come together to investigate without you telling them to do so. This might take some time, but in my experience it will always happen. After it has happened, ask them to start making images of the subject matter, as above. This will enable you to point out to the group that they have done this on their own, even though you were very specifically not telling them they should do so. This kind of realization of their own collective power and collective consciousness is an important step in building the group’s ability to trust that they can work together.

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Ask each character to begin their sentence with “I want…” Giving the participant a prefix for a sentence is not determining the content of the sentence. It is a tool to help them focus and to discover motivations of the character they are portraying.

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“I want him to behave.” “I want her to go away.” “I want him to succeed.”
This is what the participant wants the other person to do, not what the participant wants for himself. What do you want?
“I want to feel safe.” “I want to be alone.” “I want to feel useful.”

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Other possible prefixes are “I wish,” which is different than “I want.” “I hope,” “I wonder,” etc. The Joker can use these to great effect to help peel the layers of complexity away from the frozen image.

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Different individuals become ready to communicate, to trust, to improvise, to make plays, at different times in the process. For some it happens early, maybe even by the end of the first day. These participants gather in a metaphoric area and become somewhat impatient. Their impatience energizes others in the group. Each day, more of the group gathers in this energized place, and the more of them there are, the more urgent the organism’s impulse to make the plays. They are not allowed to do this. Critical mass has to build; more of the group needs to arrive into this place of readiness, until, on the fourth or fifth day, as many of the group as possible are straining against the constraints of Image Theatre.

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Why do the play, people asked, if all we were going to show was the problem? In the end, the participants were able to see the value of solutions coming from the audience, and how powerful a vehicle for change Forum Theatre could be.

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We participated in a lot of circles in the middle of the day, in order to process the strong emotions in the room.

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Why was Out of the Silence so powerful? From the very first spark of the idea, a conversation with Ron George from United Native Nations, through the community workshop, and all the performances, it was a collaboration with the living community. Every aspect of fundraising, administration, artistic creation, tour management and reporting back was affected by the collaborative nature of the project. Out of the Silence was a true voice of the living community. It broke the pattern of projects before it, in that while it did not condone the actions of the abuser(s) in the play, it did present that material with humanity. That is why I believe it became a catalyst for real community dialogue, which led to real change in living communities.

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They said themselves that it was not about condoning their parents’ behaviour towards them as children, but about putting a perspective on it that they could now understand. Forgiveness lay in this understanding – and through forgiveness, the ability to let go of the voices within themselves so that they would not hand them down again, to their own children.

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The audience members were coming on stage to try to get rid of what they didn’t want. We were asking them to come onto the stage, replace an oppressed character, and try an idea to break the oppression. They didn’t want to get abused, so they were doing that – trying not to get abused. That’s what they didn’t want. I asked if this was indeed what was happening. If so, what did they want? Did some of them have ideas to try to get what they did want?
Instantly the interventions changed. Instead of entering the playing area and doing battle alone against Chuck, interveners started talking with their sister, with their mother, trying to reach out of their isolation and create safety, not alone, but with other members of their family. Sometimes these interventions included treatment for Chuck. Changing the invitation created a subtle but profound change in the investigation in the room.

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Entrainment is a step along the path to emergence. Humans entrain to rhythms all the time. Sometimes we do it consciously and sometimes we do it subconsciously. When we are walking along the street, and there is music, and we start to walk in rhythm to the music, that is subconscious entrainment.

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“A machine can be controlled; a living system, according to the systemic understanding of life, can only be disturbed.”115
“The goal of the Theatre of the Oppressed is not to create calm, equilibrium, but rather to create disequilibrium which prepares the way for action.”116
We see through the work of Prigogine and Capra how disequilibrium, being off balance, is necessary in nature and in organizations; it is in reaction to disequilibrium that novelty occurs. It is how life has evolved. Interestingly, I have also heard Boal, in discussion, refer to a Joker as being a `difficultator’, not a `facilitator’.

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“What is inside this game/exercise for you?”

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Cops in the Head132 deals with other people who have taken up residence inside our heads. These learned voices from parents, bosses, teachers, friends, lovers, etc., that tell us we are stupid, or are incapable of achieving something we want, are not voices that are inherently our own. They have come from somewhere else and are masquerading as our own voices. How do we identify these voices and exorcise them from our psyche? Or at least learn to recognize them and cope with them in healthy ways? I would also ask, do these voices exist in our collective psyche? If they do, is it possible to work on them at the community level in the same way it is possible to work on them at the individual level?

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It is not necessary to actually find real solutions to defeat the Cops, although this can and does occur. What is important is the investigation, because many insights for redefining one’s relationship to the voices will arise for many people in the room and, by extension, for the living community.

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I have used Cops in the Head in many different circumstances. As discussed, during Reclaiming Our Spirits we used Cops to investigate issues arising from Residential School. I have also used the technique on issues of climate change to investigate: What stops us from taking action?

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Many mothers came onto the stage to `stand with the mother’, and when they spoke, none of them knew what they wanted for themselves. Always it was: “I want him to stay, to stop his behaviour, to be a good son,” etc. That’s what you want HIM to do, I kept saying – what do YOU want? They couldn’t answer – and so this was obviously the answer – and also, we realized, part of the problem. The mother, being focused so completely on the son, wanting the best for him, also pushes him away. The group talked about how he leaves because he has no space – he goes to find `family’ in which he can feel safe, because he does not feel safe in the claustrophobic environment in which he is living. The mother gets exactly what she fears, by allowing her fear to govern her behaviour.

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The Journey163 helped them understand, experientially, that reality is perception based. In one of the pairings, the leader created a scene where her partner was getting ready to go to work at a construction site – putting on boots, a hard hat, etc. The partner’s experience was of taking off his shoes, preparing for prayer. Which one is the true experience? Both, of course. And it’s easy to see how this translates into different perceptions inside a family. This doesn’t mean that everyone is right – the abusive father isn’t correct in what he is doing, but can we understand that he has a perspective on the events that lead him to believe he is correct? We must do this if we are going to portray a character with integrity – especially a character with whom we disagree.

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There is a cultural disconnect between generations. There was a long discussion about how the generation (sometimes agrarian) coming from India has great difficulty communicating with the younger generation (in the city and now urban) in Canada. They have different values, experiences, expectations. Words, which are always symbols, have very different meanings for each `side’.

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Finally, I told them I had no problem with them leaving the theatre frustrated, and brought the Forum to a close. After we closed the Forum, many of them came to me and the actors privately and had suggestions for interventions.
Here’s my theory: these professionals give people advice and, in their positions, have a great deal invested in `being right’, in succeeding. The possibility that they might come on stage and fail in public was too much. And this is, in fact, reflected in the problem with many programs and politicians’ proposals: there is so little innovation – so little risk-taking. People feel they need to play it safe.

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It is so easy for many of us to stand back and say “call the cops” – but it isn’t as easy as that. There are so many strings that are interwoven, and if you tug one, it impacts all of the rest – there isn’t one almighty fix-all. Thank you for allowing us, as a family, to view this.”

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One of the insights from doing Meth has been the realization that addiction (to substances, consumption, work, etc.) fills the spaces that open up between us and inside us; spaces that were once filled with a sense of `home’, of belonging and of true interconnectedness.

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One way to encourage this shift is to find ways to tell and honour our collective stories, stories of living communities, stories that help us recognize that on our tiny planet, there is no “us” and “them”. As happens so often during Forum Theatre events, we must come to understand that our own stories are intricately woven into the plots of others’ stories. We must understand that the decisions we make and the actions we take – both publicly and in the privacy of our lives – affect not only ourselves and our immediate circles, but people, situations and locations far outside our own perceived boundaries. We are all actors in our universal, collective story.

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Boal, Augusto. Games for Actors and Non-Actors. Oxford: Routledge, 1992.

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Headlines Theatre
http://www.headlinestheatre.com

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Chopra, Deepak. Quantum Healing: Exploring the Frontiers of Mind/Body Medicine. New York: Bantam Books, 1990.

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Each game, each exercise, is an opportunity for movement towards individual and group epoche (suspension, conversion and letting go/receptivity).153

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The Joker isn’t trying to determine the conclusion that the group comes to – she simply provides the opportunity for the group to move in a direction together.

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Choose a leader
Everyone stand in a tight circle, shoulder to shoulder. Close your eyes. As I walk around the outside of this circle, I am going to choose one of you to be `the leader’. You will know you’ve been chosen to be the leader when I touch you on the back. Your leader, though, is going to lie to you. It will be the job of the leader to hide the fact that she is the leader. It will be the job of the rest of you to try to figure out who the leader is. When you think you know, stand in front of that person. Leader, you can do whatever you need to do (without actual violence or talking) to deflect the attention of the group away from you. OR Open your eyes and break the circle. You can walk around the room. Who is hiding? Who is the leader?
Joker Tip: This game is done in two parts. The first time, choose no one to be leader. After a while, bring the group back into the circle and repeat the process of choosing, this time choosing everyone.
(During the second time, after the group has tried to find the leader for a while): OK, now, leader, be a leader. Without talking, get them to follow you. What does a leader do? What does a leader look like?
Joker Tip: After you have done both parts, ask the group about what happened, what was different between the two times? Then tell them what you did.
I often do this game after the group has made its plays and before we start rehearsals. I use it as a way for them to understand how powerful it is for characters to have secrets – just like people. (Because of the nature of this game, you can only really do it with a group once.)

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Lead the blindl
Take a partner. You are both going to do both parts of this, but don’t switch over until I ask you to. One of you is going to be the leader (eyes open); the other will be blind (eyes closed). Decide on a sound together. No words; not language. Also not a mechanical sound, not clapping or stamping feet, but something you can make with your breath. The leader makes the sound and the blind partner follows. The leader has two signals: sound and no sound. No sound means stop. Everyone is going to be doing this at the same time, so you really have to listen! Take your blind partner around the room and don’t have any collisions.
After a couple of minutes: Freeze. Take four or five steps away from each other. This is the closest you can get to each other. Continue.
After a couple of minutes: Freeze. Leaders, go as far away from your partners as you can. Not behind any furniture, please, and you must stay in the room. Leaders, stay where you are now, and start making your sounds, bringing your partner `home’ to you. Partners, once you reach `home’, please just wait silently until everyone is finished.

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Bellies
Someone, lie down on your back. Now, a second person lie down, at a right angle, with your head on the first person’s belly. A third person lie down, at a right angle, with your head on the belly of the second. A fourth lie down, at a right angle, with your head on the belly of the third. Etc., until you are all lying down, on your backs, with your head on someone’s belly.
Now, everyone, breathe. Don’t talk; just breathe together.
Joker Tip: Now, wait in silence. After a while, almost certainly, someone will start to laugh, and their belly will move up and down, moving the head of the person lying on them – who will start to laugh… This is a wonderful, infectious tension release for a group. It can sometimes lead to wave after wave after wave of deep laughter.

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Cat and mouse
Everyone stand on your own in the room, with as much space between you as possible. Who wants to be the cat? OK. Who wants to be the mouse? OK. The mouse is safe and cannot be tagged if the mouse stands behind someone. When the mouse does stand behind someone, the person in front becomes the mouse and runs from the cat. If the mouse is tagged by the cat, the mouse turns into the cat and chases the old cat, who is now the mouse, who is trying to stand behind someone…

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Fox in the hole
Everyone needs a partner. Spread out in the room, but no one against a wall. Stand facing your partner, holding her hands so that the two of you create a horizontal `O’ with your arms. I am going to choose two of you to be a Fox and a Hound. OK. The Hound chases the Fox. This is a tag game. The Fox is safe if he gets into one of the holes (the `O’ of people’s arms). The fox gets into a hole, takes the hands of the person he is facing, and pushes the one at his back out, which turns him into a Fox who is now being chased by the Hound. If the Hound tags the Fox, they switch roles and the `new’ Fox must get into a hole before being re-tagged.
Joker Tip: Groups (both youth and adults) love this game and sometimes ask to do it many times a day!

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Group yell
Joker Tip: At the end of a particularly emotional day, after the final circle, it seemed we needed something more to end the workshop session, but we were out of time. I suggested the following and now use it in almost every workshop.
Stand in a large circle, holding hands. Everyone together: Exhale. Inhale. Now, let’s rush together into the centre of the circle, with our arms up in the air, and everyone yell as loud as you can, shooting your voices up through the ceiling. Now that we understand the mechanics of it, let’s do it again.

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Hug tag
This is a tag game. Who wants to be `it’? OK. You can tag anyone. People are safe from being tagged as long as they are in a hug. People can stay in a hug up to the count of three, and then they must separate. If a person is tagged, they become `it’.

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Sometimes the plays groups make are 30 seconds long and incredibly rough. However, the group has had to figure out how to work together and how to use a theatrical language to tell its collective story. They now own the play because they have made it together, on their own. This ownership is extremely important.

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Analysis by emotion
Play a scene focusing on one emotion only, such as `love’ or `hate’ or `joy’. Primal emotions work the best. This layers the characters’ relationships with each other. Subtext discoveries become possible.

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