Eva Lopez on Act4Change: Applying Theatre of the Oppressed to building social justice in The Bronx (Transcription of the episode)

Jon M: 00:14 Hi, I’m Jon Moscow.

Amy H-L: 00:16 And I’m Amy Halpern-Laff. Welcome to the Ethical Schools podcast where we speak with educational innovators about creating ethical educational environments and instilling lifelong ethical habits. We often underestimate the power of the arts to support SEL and to create ethical communities.

Jon M: 00:34 And by SEL you mean social emotional learning?

Amy H-L: 00:37 Exactly.

New Speaker: 00:38 Yeah. You know, it’s interesting because schools so often downgrade the arts or they think of them only in terms of whether they can raise reading or math scores. But when you see children literally jumping up onto a stage to figure out how they can help resolve situations such as bullying or domestic violence, you see how incredibly limiting that way of approaching things is. And today we’re going to be talking with Eva Lopez, who is encouraging and empowering children to do exactly that kind of thing. Eva Lopez is the artistic director of Act4Change. She’s a founding member of the Shaman Repertory Theater in New York, the Teatro Del Pueblo in Minnesota, the Casa Cruz de la Luna in Puerto Rico. She’s just received a community arts grant from the Bronx Council on the Arts. She teaches Latin American and Latino/Latina studies at John Jay College. Dr. Lopez is also the senior director for high school and community programs at SoBro, an economic development corporation in the South Bronx. Welcome, Dr. Lopez.

Eva L: 01:40 Thank you.

Amy H-L: 01:43 Welcome. This is Amy. So could you tell us a little bit about Act4Change? Just what is it, how does it work?

Eva L: 01:50 So, Act4Change actually is a project that I developed as a part of my research at Union Institute and University. And it’s an adaptation of the Theater of the Oppressed technique, which comes out of Brazil and was developed by Augusto Boal. It actually consists of a series of about eight weeks or 10 weeks of Theater of the Oppressed exercises and games. And then it moves into and allows, communities, young people and adults, to address the social conditions in their community. So they develop original work and then create a forum theater presentation in their community and involve the audience in a social action project afterwards. So it’s a pretty comprehensive program. But the goal is really to allow community members, children, and young adults to engage in very meaningful dialogue on the social conditions in their community.

Jon M: 03:07 How does it do that? How does it impact students’ decision making? And do you think that it helps students to make more ethical decisions?

Eva L: 03:18 I do. I think that what happens, because we’re using so much of the theory that is grounded in Theater of the Oppressed, it allows young people to engage in the critical thinking and the, the thinking process in a slower mode. And so what happens is that young people and actually the audience begin to take a look at the nuances of human interaction and social interaction. And as a result, you begin to start thinking about what is the most ethical behavior, what is the best course of action that would stop oppression? And because at the core of the conversation is how does oppression play itself out in community, within people, within society, then you’re able to take a look at these things because you’re not looking at it from your immediate perspective. Instead, it is, you know, this is a character that you’re looking at. It’s not real. And because it’s not real, it becomes more real than real.

Jon M: 04:41 For people who don’t know Theater the Oppressed, can you give a very brief description of what an actual Act4Change session might look like and therefore how, how it does help this decision making process?

Eva L: 04:55 Okay. So part of the Act4Change process, as I said, is to engage in a series of theater games and exercises. And then about halfway through the work and the course, young people and whatever group I’m working with, I also work with parents and do parenting engagement, engaging in one of the theater techniques, which is called image theater. And so image theater is sort of this, it’s a series of sort of frozen statues that get created. And so we address the social issue that is of concern for that particular group. So it might be bullying, it might be domestic violence, it might be substance abuse. Any of those topics right, would then be created in a sort of frozen statue. And then that statue begins to sort of come to life. And it happens in very slow stages. So first it starts maybe with a word, then it starts with one sentence, then it starts with whole sentences, then it starts with images interacting with one another. And so the actual creation of the theatrical work, the scenario, goes through a series of stages. And I think because of that young people and, and also audience members, get to think very meticulously about what it is that they are viewing and what it is that they are seeing.

Amy H-L: 06:44 Dr. Lopez, could you give us an overview of how the program works over time? Do you work with a community over weeks or months? I mean, typically how many sessions make up an Act4Change program?

Eva L: 07:00 An Act4Change program takes about about 10 weeks. As I said before, the young people or whoever I’m working with works on a series of first, games and exercises and then they identify the conditions or the issues that they want to address in their community. At that point, the group then creates a piece, an original work. It’s usually very short and the presentation actually stops at the height of the conflict that then is presented before an audience and the audience is called upon to become a spect-actor. A spect-actor is a very important role in the performance because what happens is that the audience sees the performance once and then it’s called upon to see the performance again and then stop the performance if they have a solution and an alternative intervention that they think may resolve the conflict on stage. And so an example of that, I guess, would be one that we did recently on bullying where the young person is bullied through a period of time. And finally at the end of the last scene attacks the other student who is making fun of her and and has been bullying her for all of this time. And so what happened was that the audience during that performance, uh, some students and adults as well, said, “stop” and then got up and and showed us their alternate possibility or solution. Actually I recall in the performance there was one adult that that got up, stopped the performance, came on and became the protagonist and actually started to address not the bully, but the person who was the instigator and having the bully telling the bully what to do. And so it was the first time that anyone had addressed that character up on the stage. So it was really, it was very interesting.

Amy H-L: 09:30 And when you do these programs in schools, does this does the impact extend at all beyond the walls of the school?

Eva L: 09:39 Yes. It does I think that’s why we adapted Theater of the Oppressed to include, and we call it Act4Change because after the performance, I mean we understand that social change doesn’t happen necessarily just because we do a theatrical presentation and someone says, Oh, let’s try to resolve this problem in this way and boom, everybody still gets up and goes home and life continues. So what we advocate for is to have the audience members at that point begin to really think about what are we going to do about this issue. Yes, we’re going to present it. Yes, we’re going to examine possibilities for intervention. But now, now that you’re a spect-actor, you have to act on the solutions that you said are possible. And so what happens is that young people then come back together. The audience members actually come back together. They begin thinking about what they’re going to do, what are the, what, what can they do to send the message out that they want to send about, whether it’s bullying or domestic violence or any of the other topics that get addressed.

Jon M: 11:11 So what might be some of those forms that that action might take or those activities might take? Do they involve, creating other forms of art or are they community organizing or going to meetings or what kinds of things?

Eva L: 11:30 So they can come up with a variety of options again, because it becomes student centered. Um, and we really sort of support the idea of really giving young people voice. What ends up happening is the last year one of our groups decided that they wanted to do a peace walk. And so they created, they created chants, they did a lot of posters and drawings, and then they did a peace walk around their community advocating for peace, advocacy of bullying, telling folks in the community that love is important, not to bully. So as all of this is going on in the community and then the teenagers organized a health fair. So one of the things that I think is was interesting about that particular group was that not only did they use other art forms to convey the message that they wanted to convey and to make the community aware of what they were thinking about, but they also drew the connection between this idea that if you stop bullying, you are also advocating for the health and wellbeing of other people. And so the teenagers did a health fair after the peace walk. They invited people to come into the community center and to get information about healthy living, about insurance. So making that connection between something that happens to individuals and how it impacts the social fabric of the community, I think was a very important learning outcome for the youth.

Jon M: 13:37 You mentioned teenagers. Can this be done with younger children as well?

Eva L: 13:41 Yes. So the peace walk was actually was actually organized by middle-schoolers. The teenagers organized the health fair and then the elementary school children did all of the artwork and the chants. So it was really sort of a full community effort.

Amy H-L: 14:04 That’s exciting. Dr. Lopez, could a whole class or school be based on the principles of Theater of the Oppressed?

Eva L: 14:11 You know, that’s something that you’re like the third person who has, I think the universe is telling me something. You’re like the third person that has brought that up. I think it’s very possible. It’s certainly, that’s something that I’ve toyed around with a lot, but I do know that in Newark there is a school that has, actually it’s a charter school ironically. But it’s a charter school on Paolo Freire’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed. I think to create a school based on Theater of the Oppressed, especially if it were an art school, I think would be very, very exciting. And it’s certainly something now that I’m, I’m going to keep twirling around.

Amy H-L: 15:03 Yeah. It’s an exciting concept, isn’t it?

Eva L: 15:06 Yes it is. Yes, it is.

Jon M: 15:08 Well, is there anything that you’d like to add?

Eva L: 15:11 Yeah, I think that, you know, one of the reasons that I started doing the project was because I realized that so many of the young people in the Bronx and in Brooklyn, as a result of some of the reading that I did, have not been exposed to the arts. And I think that’s a real detriment to the learning of our young people. I think that it really stops young people from having the tools that they need to address some of the skill sets that they need in the workplace. And so not knowing enough about the arts, not being exposed to the arts, you know, hinders someone from imagining things that are impossible, making the impossible possible. Persistence and persevering is working in a process-oriented manner until you get your solution. Those are all skill sets that are critical not only in the workplace, but critical to people’s wellbeing. And so I think it’s a very important part of the learning process and something that we have to advocate for. And I think that it also gives us a real strong possibility for rethinking social justice and ethics.

Jon M: 16:48 Wow. Yeah.

Amy H-L: 16:49 Thank you so much. How can our listeners find out more about Act4Change?

Eva L: 16:56 Well, they can certainly send an email to us actforchange@gmail.com and we’ll be more than glad to send them information. We’re in the middle of getting a a website together and with the help of Jon getting a lot more sophisticated in technology.

Amy H-L: 17:15 Because I think a lot of people will want to know more about this program.

Eva L: 17:22 Oh, thank you.

Jon M: 17:24 Yeah, it’s been very exciting for me just learning about it and actually getting to go and watch a couple of the episodes you did with spect-actors and to see the excitement in the participants and one of them was with very young children and older children and one was with primarily adults and everybody really got into it and you could also see the impact on the members of the audience when they actually said “stop” and then went up and did their piece in front of their classmates or their colleagues and it was just a very exciting process. So thank you again.

Amy H-L: 18:12 And thanks to our audience. Thank you for listening. Please tell your colleagues and friends about the Ethical Schools podcast. You can go to our website, ethicalschools.org and sign up for this podcast and for our newsletter. Follow us on Twitter. Our handle is @ethicalschools. If you’d like to suggest a guest for a future show, please let us know. Reach us at jon@ethicalschools.org or amy@ethicalschools.org. Thanks so much.

Jon M: 18:46 If you’re doing jon@ethicalschools.org, it’s Jon without an h. Otherwise, who knows where it will go.

Eva L: 18:53 Thank you, Amy.

Jon M: 18:56 Bye bye.

Click here to listen to the episode: https://ethicalschools.org/2019/05/eva-lopez/