Phui Yi Kong ’15 plans to bring a unique drama program to Bowdoin College next semester, inviting both Bowdoin students and locals to participate as actors in her experimental ensemble.
The group will use drama to explore pressing social and political issues, developing several interactive performances over the semester. Called the Theater of the Oppressed, the program is designed to build community through theater and encourage participants and spectators to work through some of today’s complex problems at a local level, according to Kong.
Theater of the Oppressed is a worldwide movement that first developed in Brazil in the early 1970s to promote social and political change. As a trained facilitator for the Theater of the Oppressed, Kong leads actors through exercises, movements and games to bring up issues affecting communities, she explained.
To create a Theater of the Oppressed ensemble at Bowdoin, Kong has received approval to pursue an independent study in the fall with Abigail Killeen, assistant professor of theater in Bowdoin’s Department of Theater and Dance. She also received scholarships from Bowdoin’s theater department and the college’s Roberts Fund to attend a facilitators’ training in Port Townsend, Wash. at the end of June, which she calls a “stepping stone” for her independent study. There, Kong said she will focus on studying Forum Theater, which engages spectators, as well as actors, in problem solving by rehearsing different solutions.
Killeen said Kong’s project will give the college community an opportunity to reflect and process in non-traditional ways. “[Founder of the Theater of the Oppressed Augusto] Boal’s work can expose layers of complexity within sensitive issues through theatrical constructs, resulting in a new understanding for both the theater-makers and the audience,” she wrote in an email. “We all yearn to make the world a better place. Theater of the Oppressed can help us toward that goal by creating layers of shared experience around difficult issues where language has has become stale, polarizing, or predictable.”
Kong grew up in Malaysia, and attended what she called an “exciting and eye-opening” two-year high school program in India called the Mahindra United World College, where she first became exposed to and interested in Theater of the Oppressed. At the school, she studied ensemble theater, as well as Indian classical dance and stick fighting. Kong is a martial arts expert, too, which she said helps her express herself through movement.
Although she has only spent one year in Maine so far, Kong has already begun introducing people here to the Theater of the Oppressed. She got involved in the Occupy movement in Portland last fall, when protestors were camped out in a city park to protest the corporate takeover of society. She led as many as 60 people encamped there through a Theater of the Oppressed technique called a social mapping exercise. “[Theater of the Oppressed exercises] help strengthen the message of any group of people,” Kong said.
She also offered a Theater of the Oppressed at Bowdoin event last semester, inviting students who had recently returned to campus from their Alternative Spring Break trips. Over spring vacation, ASB students volunteer with different nonprofits around the country and in Guatemala, helping disadvantaged, often impoverished communities. “They had ideas and thoughts they were still processing,” Kong said. “I offered this to them to help them explore their thoughts and feelings about their trips.” People from the local community were also invited, and Kong said they outnumbered students, turning the workshop into an “integration platform for Bowdoin students and the community around them.”
Kong says Theater of the Oppressed exercises help participants better understand the dynamics that develop in any social group, with people assuming more or less powerful roles. Just by sharing a space with other people, Kong said, “your body is gathering information, learning how to be in a group, and is aware of other people.”
One of the exercises she has people do is to pair off, with one person assuming the leader role, the other the follower role. With their palms up facing each other, the leader moves his or her hand, and the follower mimics the action. “It sets up a basic scenario of oppressed and oppressor,” Kong said. “Then you switch roles and partners to experience different experiences of oppression. There’s many variations.” Some leaders try to trick their followers; others make it easy to be followed. “Oppression can happen anywhere, in any situation,” Kong said.