This article is a form of oppression.
Think about it. I write the information that I want to convey, you sit there and read it, and you don’t get to comment on it until long after I’ve had my say and moved on with my life. UNO Professor Dr. Doug Patterson would probably not approve of this form of exchange.
That is why he is busy organizing the 20th iteration of the Pedagogy and Theatre of the Oppressed (PTO) Conference, running from June 26th-29th at the University of Nebraska-Omaha. For the last two decades, Patterson and others have spearheaded the PTO Conference as a means to support people whose work challenges oppressive systems. They do this by promoting pedagogy (better known as critical thinking) and social justice through libratory theatre and popular education.
Patterson said the event sprouted from a series of conferences held in the early 90s based around the teachings of Augusto Boal and Paulo Freire. Boal was a champion of Brazilian politics and art who developed the system known as Theatre of the Oppressed. Freire was best known for his work Pedagogy of the Oppressed, a book that is the groundwork for empowering oppressed peoples around the world in education and politics.
“His basic assumption was that humans are at their best when in dialogue,” Patterson said. “Not just words but sounds and gestures. This is how we are created as human beings. In the earliest stages of life, we have dialogue with our parents, siblings, extended family, etc.”
“Then we find out after a couple of years that sometimes there is no dialogue, there is only a monologue. Mom saying ‘Don’t put your hand on the hot stove. Don’t dump the wastebasket in the living room.’ We don’t like that; we don’t like monologues because we’ve already had a couple of very rich years of engagement with the adults. We don’t like the one-way kind of things. But those monologues are important. Clearly, when we are young people, they are very important.”
The issue, Patterson says, is when those monologues start popping up from positions of power in our world. These monologues are one-sided affairs of supremacy where those in power do all of the talking and those without (the oppressed) can’t be heard. They exist with issues of color, class, wealth, privilege, poverty, gender, sexual orientation, education, language, and more.
“And in education, probably the wrong forum for these people is where they come into a classroom and get lectured at. It’s just another monologue. They get told what the world is like because that’s what oppressed people experience all the time is a world of monologue,” Patterson said.
Imagine a lecture class at a university or high school. The teacher tells you ‘You don’t know anything’ and begins to spout off what Patterson called ‘the official information’ of the class. Towards the end, the teacher measures the amount of information you retained and that’s the grade you get.
“That information is usually something that is oppressive to people lacking power,” Patterson said. “It’s what you retain of official information through the monologue.”
This is the sort of thing PTO is attempting to remedy using techniques and methods developed by Boal and Freire.
“Freire said ‘Let’s teach each other’. Let’s find out what we know and, in that process, begin to engage in dialogue. Then, feel free to interrogate the material. Let’s ask questions of the text and material in front of us. This is where we get to pedagogy or critical thinking,” said Patterson.
Once engaged in dialogue, oppressed peoples can start to learn and ask question about the world around them and why the dynamic of oppression exists.
“In this, oppressed populations begin to understand the importance of not only dialogue but of critical thinking. This works so that when they leave the classroom, they begin to ask questions about their circumstances. It’s those kind of questions that are truly important to oppressed populations.”
Artistically, the art form of theatre has long been a monologue. It uses all of its tools and techniques to convince an audience of a reality that’s not really there. Augusto Boal thought this type of theatre was not well suited for oppressed populations.
“He said what we need to do is have an interrogative theatre,” Patterson said. “A theatre that presents something and then asks questions about it and then asks the audience to change it.”
The whole idea comes down to three actions the PTO tries to share.
Present. Ask. Change.
The upcoming PTO Conference will give area residents a chance to learn and interact with some of the world’s top practitioners of Pedagogy and Theatre of the Oppressed. The conference will consist of keynote presentations and workshops designed to empower people by giving them a means for dialogue in the hope of stimulating change throughout our communities.
“One of the things that’s important to understand is that no one needs to be remotely experienced in theatre to do this kind of work or even remotely experienced in formal educational theory,” Patterson said. “It’s deeply community based. What we are trying to do is erase those barriers between educational process and the community. Invite everybody to engage.”
As a workshop begins, participants take part in a series of games, both verbal and physical, discovered by Boal. Games were a core to Boal’s teachings as they revealed to people how good they were at dialogue.
“Boal wants us to truly see what we are looking at. To truly listen to what we hear. To truly feel what we touch,” said Patterson. “All of the sudden, you’ve got something in common with the other people around you, and now you’ve got a dialogue.”
Participants are then asked to ask questions about issues that are important to them and their community. They take three or four and begin to create performances that deal with those issues.
“That is what it is really about. It’s about the human exchange, the human encounter. That’s the payoff of life. That is what really matters to us,” Patterson said.
Notable to Patterson is how much the world has changed since the initial conference 20 years ago. With the dawning of the Internet and the technological age, he sees the potential for massive transformation and progress around the world. All of it starts in small communities.
“This is what I think is the great promise of the future,” he said. “I foresee the capacity of a truly democratic culture. That’s democratic with a small ‘d’ whereby the Internet and technology very much become a part of the public dialogue.”
“I’m not talking about Yahoo! or YouTube comment sections. That’s just scandalous and anonymous. But if we were able to get a real community dialogue going by putting technology in public places all over the world so everyone can come and register points of view and engage in dialogue online, I can conceive of a culture that can become enriched by these kinds of contacts and take away some the toxic elements that exist currently.”
That culture begins with events like the PTO Conference. With any luck, people throughout the community and all over the world will start to think critically about the world around them and, in doing so, begin to plant the seeds of change.
“We are looking for people who are interested in asking questions about the world.”
The Pedagogy and Theatre of the Oppressed Conference will be held at the University of Nebraska-Omaha from June 26th-29th. Pre and post-conference workshops are offered to the public as well. Special funding has been provided to make additional registration scholarships for people living, studying and working in the Omaha Metro area available.
For more information, contact Doug Patterson at (402) 672-8377 or visit www.ptoweb.org.