Human Body Theater: A Non-Fiction Revue

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Human Body Theater: A Non-Fiction Revue

Human Body Theater: A Non-Fiction Revue

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Brazilian playwright and radical activist Augusto Boal is the founder of a number of experiments in radical theatre. The most widely known terms for his overlapping contributions are Forum Theatre and Theatre of the Oppressed. These approaches were originally designed for use in Brazil during the era of the struggle against the dictatorship. They went hand-in-hand with radical organising in this period. Boal’s methods have also been used in diverse settings marked by oppression, and today, Theatre of the Oppressed is performed all over the world. An International Festival of Theatre of the Oppressed was held in Palestine in 2013, and there are groups in the UK too. Theatre makes a special contribution in enabling dialogue. For Boal, all human relations, especially those across difference, should be dialogues. Real dialogue is not simply a set of overlapping monologues. It requires listening, and respect for difference. Boal also draws a recurring contrast between really seeing or hearing, and simply watching or being silent. This is exemplified in his critique of mass media. Television encourages watching, but not seeing. In contrast, art and science help us to see or hear. Boal shows what he means by this distinction with various examples. Newton really saw the apple fall to earth, where others had simply watched it. Beethoven makes us hear silence, a psychoanalyst hears what is not said. The implication in each case is that to really see or hear is to perceive or intuit an underlying, inner or qualitative dimension which is obscured in the surface appearance. Too often, we only watch or absorb sounds, without really seeing and hearing in this sense. More broadly, oppression undermines the artistic capabilities of the oppressed. Oppressors generally seek to pare down the symbolic life of the oppressed, reducing them to mechanised work and numerical representation. For instance, workers’ capacity to produce art was partly taken away when artisans were turned into workers. In contrast, Aesthetics of the Oppressed seeks to expand metaphoric activity, symbolic languages, and sensitivity. Forum Theatre seeks to create actions which project one’s values into the future, rather than simply reacting to situations.

Culture of all forms (not only theatre) emerges from this aesthetic nature. We are all cultural producers, in that we produce our own lives, and produce things we need to live. Culture is necessarily diverse, because it is a set of ‘ways of doing’, which in turn are ways to reach different dreams. Hence, while the essence is in a sense common, it manifests in ways which produce diversity and difference. This is because the essence is a creative force, rather than a fixed type of being. The underlying worldview informing Boal’s position is a view of human beings as active producers of reality. Boal embraces a humanist position in which humanity has an essence, and this essence has overwhelming value (relative to particularities, “inhuman” aspects of human beings, and non-human entities). Hence, Boal aims to relate to participants as human beings, rather than specific groups or types. This results in the expected rejection, both of “inhuman” aspects of humanity, and of nature – a ‘cruel’ other we need to transform to survive. Boal’s view of the human essence, akin to Marxian species-being, is also specifically aesthertic. Humanity is the greatest masterpiece of nature. What sets us apart from animals is the ability to invent (rather than await) the future. Humanity has five basic properties: sensitivity, emotion, rationality, sex/gender, and movement. The first three of these – sensation, emotion, reason – are specifically mental.In urgent tones, a call for action as climate change and continuing waste and pollution of available fresh water pose imminent threats to human health and agriculture.

It’s a lot to take in at one sitting, but this anatomical extravaganza really gets to the heart of the matter. Not to mention the guts, nerves, veins, bones…. Boal situates his theatrical work in relation to a particular politics of knowledge. He contrasts a desirable, human state of creative freedom with various oppressive social realities. Oppression goes hand in hand with voicelessness and the inability to act on one’s own desires. As such, Boal insists that ‘to speak is to take power’. Theatre is one of the domains of the resultant struggle. Theatre is necessarily political, because all human action is political. Theatre is about power, human relationships, and who gets to speak. In his earlier works, Boal writes of theatre as a weapon to be fought for. The ruling class will seek to hold onto it. The oppressed need to wrest it from their hands. It is clear from such statements that Boal is both a conflict theorist and a believer in an underlying human potential for creative becoming.My kids (4 and 7) loved it when I read this to them, even though there was a lot of information. It's been one of their favorite books of the school year so far. I may not always enjoy graphic novels, but now I'll never question whether they can be used to present important information in an engaging, fun, reader-friendly format. It's like the perfect cross between a child's science textbook and a comic book. I learned a few things myself, and getting to really see the relationship between body systems was helpful. Even when the text was humorous and the images presented used non-anatomical analogies (for example, showing an antibody storage room for the immune system), these served to enhance the information rather than distract from it.

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