Known also as participatory theater, community theater, protest theater, action theater, theater for social change, and theater of the oppressed, popular theater uses theater as a tool for social transformation. It typically involves the “audience” as participants in the story-telling, relies heavily on improvisation, and invites groups to explore attitudes and social problems and imagine a range of potential solutions. All opinions are welcome, questioning is vital, and critical analysis is encouraged. It often serves as the entry-point into a larger conversation about life circumstances, injustice, and, ultimately, justice.

We encountered several groups experimenting with popular theater as an entry point into—and a vehicle beyond—the often emotionally-charged conversations about racial and ethnic stereotypes that reinforce divisions among communities of different backgrounds.

Resources for incorporating popular theater into your work

In partnership with community groups, ImaginAction invites participants to use experiential workshops, theater performances, and other creative events to explore embodied knowledge, challenge the inevitability of violence, and use their imaginations for a more just and joyous life for all people. Founded by acclaimed Creative Director Hector Ariztizábal, ImaginAction draws its inspiration from Theater of the Oppressed, psychodrama, traditional storytelling, mask-making, drumming, improvisational drama and creative ritual. It offers workshops on multicultural understanding as well as interfaith dialogue. ImaginAction’s website also offers a list of books on Theater of the Oppressed.

Pedagogy & Theatre of the Oppressed is a non-profit organization that organizes an annual meeting that focuses on the work of liberatory educators, activists, and artists; and community organizers. Its mission is to challenge oppressive systems by promoting critical thinking and social justice. PTO’s website includes an extensive list of links to organizations, websites, and efforts dedicated to popular and social justice theater.

The Theater of the Oppressed Laboratory (TOPLAB), founded in 1989 and located in New York City, is a forum for the practice, performance, and dissemination of the techniques of the Theater of the Oppressed (TO). Its co-founder Marie-Claire Picher has facilitated thousands of hours of TO trainings throughout the U.S. and internationally. TOPLAB’s website houses an events calendar of its various workshops and other activities. In fall 2011 many of its workshops supported the Occupy Wall Street movement.

People’s Theater: Institutional Racism Workshop, by Californians for Justice , is a 90-minute plan for a workshop that uses popular theater to engage participants in an analysis of intrapersonal, internalized, and institutional racism. It explores issues of immigration, law enforcement/incarceration, and education and can be accessed online at Build the Wheel .

Ben ni walen: Mobilising for human rights using participatory theatre is an introductory guide to using participatory theater methods for exploring human rights issues. Produced by the Amnesty International Dutch Section’s Special Programme on Africa as part of an effort to promote awareness of human rights in rural African communities, the guide introduces the basics of participatory research and theater methodology. It can be accessed online by searching “Ben ni walen” on the website of Human Rights Education Associates.

Study participants with experience using popular theater for intergroup dialogue

Network of Immigrants & African Americans in Solidarity (NIAAS) (An initiative of the Center to Support Immigrant Organizing)
UC Berkeley Labor Center
Coalition of Immokalee Workers
New Orleans Workers’ Center for Racial Justice
Tenants and Workers United
Causa Justa :: Just Cause

Image: BlueRobot, http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc-sa/2.0/deed.en