by Bronwen Mullen
When I formally began studying Theatre of the Oppressed at Sarah Lawrence College, the words of founder Augusto Boal resonated deeply: “Theatre is a rehearsal for life!”; “The most dangerous weapon theatre possesses is empathy!”; “Theatre is change! It is becoming, not being!” These words more than resonated. I felt these words as if I had known them always. I felt these words in my bones. The fact was, I had known these words long before I entered that classroom. I knew them from the Passover seder.
When I was 10 years old, sitting at my 2nd night seder, my mother, the sociologist, feminist and activist, would push me to consider the different aspects of the Passover story: “If you were Shifra and Puah, (the midwives who delivered the Hebrew children in the book of Exodus) would you have defied Pharoah?” “Would you have killed the Egyptian task master beating the Hebrew slave? Why do you think Moses did it? And why does God seem to forgive him?” “How did the Jews survive 400 years of slavery?” We would talk for hours and hours, late into the night, just like the rabbis of the Haggadah, (the guide that accompanies the seder) did nearly 2000 years ago. My mother would always say to me: “Bronwen, this story, the Passover story, plays out again and again in history. You have to decide who you’re going to be, an oppressor or a redeemer.”
10 years later, I realized that to expound upon the story of the Exodus, to make midrash, was exactly what I was being asked to do in Theatre of the Oppressed: I was being asked to look at an unjust situation through a number of improvisational exercises and to bring my experience of it into a controlled narrative setting where I could play out the different parts involved and evaluate the complexity of the conflict. The process allowed me to embody my understanding of these archetypes of ‘oppressor,’ ‘oppressed’ and ‘redeemer,’ and identify how they were playing out in real time, from the Million Man March, the Free Mumia Movement, the Columbine shootings and gun control to issues of body-shaming, homophobia, transphobia, and rape culture on college campuses. Theatre of the Oppressed resonated with me because it created awareness, and awareness is the impetus for action.
Now another 10 years after that first class, I’ve been using these techniques as a midrashic method for engagement with Jewish texts and prayers, following in the footsteps of our rabbinic tradition.
Soon we will be listening to the familiar melody of the Kol Nidrei prayer which begins the 25-hour period of critical introspection that is Yom Kippur. The words of this prayer, however, are challenging to engage. It is a litany of legal terms for different kinds of vows, contracts and promises that we ask to be annulled. So why begin such a soul-stirring holiday with something so legalistic in nature? I’m going to leave you in suspense, for now.
On September 20th we’re going to explore how Theatre of the Oppressed exercises can help unpack the complicated power dynamics in the contractual relationships we form throughout the year, whether they are with businesses, governmental institutions, or between neighbors and friends. Kol Nidrei may become an embodied prayer like you’ve never experienced before, but perhaps how the rabbis always intended.
Click here to register for “Knocking at Our Hearts: Embodied Learning for the Days of Awe” on September 20th, 2:15-5pm. Registration Deadline is September 17th
Bronwen Mullin is a playwright, composer, educator and rabbinical student at the Jewish Theological Seminary of America (ord. 2017). She is the co-founder of Meta-Phys Ed with director Jesse Freedman, and has taught classical texts through theater-methodology at Limmud NY and Philadelphia, the Academy of Jewish Religion in NY and the Havurah National Institute.