Explorations in Digital Forum Theatre

Written By Malia Rogers

A parent, up against a stubborn employer insistent on office-based work, is asked to choose between the safety of her child and the security of her job.

Three roommates, suddenly spending more time in their shared space as the pandemic rages on, find their relationships becoming tense and hostile as they try to balance each other’s employment, social, and health needs.

An activist living with an aging parent debates the pros and cons of attending a packed protest against another critical issue: anti-black racism.

These dilemmas feel like they could be my neighbour’s, my friend’s, my own. Instead, they are the marrow of three experiments in Forum Theatre conducted by Mixed Company over a summer of COVID-19 isolation — stories co-generated by a group of artists in their own living rooms, rehearsed and performed online by actors, and ‘intervened’ in by audience members who attempted (and sometimes succeeded) to positively change the outcome of the drama.

Augusto Boal, the pioneer of Forum Theatre, calls the form a “rehearsal for reality”: communities are invited into the work as ‘spect-actors’ to mobilize their knowledge and practice individual and collective actions against oppression. Because Forum Theatre was conceived to engage with and catalyze critical dialogue around sensitive and highly charged topics, great care goes into creating an atmosphere where audience members feel strongly enough (and simultaneously, safe enough) to stop the play, to shatter the engrained barrier between performer and audience, and to step onto the stage and act in the place of an existing character.

It can be argued that all live performance relies on careful dynamics and exchanges of energy between audience and performer. Actors and arts organizations the world over have been grieving the loss of this specific current of electricity since COVID-19 shuttered performance spaces, restricted gatherings, and decimated already-precarious artistic revenue streams. Many have keenly, and with varying success, “pivoted” their works to meet spectators online. But Forum Theatre was built on the premise of a careful intimacy between actors and their audiences, who become spect-actors only when the performance environment empowers them to do so.

So what to do, then, when we cannot gather as a “forum” — etymologically, a place of assembly, a place of public discussion — to make sense of the collective and individual challenges we face and oppressive forces we notice, each made salient and compounded by a global pandemic? Can a practice so predicated on interpersonal relationships be “pivoted” to an online context without the result being prescriptive, top-down, pedagogically and artistically out-of-step with the grassroots, collective-consciousness-raising ethos of ‘popular theatre’?

Mixed Company Theatre sought to find out how we might arrive at a form of Forum Theatre that remained relevant, helpful, and entertaining for communities engaging with it. In these successful explorations, we learned some key lessons about creating online presentations which may benefit other interactive-arts creators as we work to adapt our practices:

Look for the possibilities your new performance-space offers, as opposed to the limitations.

Online performance presents an obvious challenge when it comes to experiencing something ‘together’, let alone interacting with audiences in a communal space. As a room of creators and writers, we discovered early on that writing ‘for’ the virtual environment so that characters would be FaceTiming each other, or participating in a group video call with the rest of the office — helped greatly toward creating a space where belief could be easily suspended. Actors took advantage of the technology by manipulating the camera angles, adding “backgrounds” on Zoom as set dressing, and turning their video on and off to signify entry to/exit from each scene.

When nothing seems “solve-able” on an individual level, work toward healthier relationships.

To build our scenes, we (a room of 12-15 creators) developed themes, embodied images, and key phrases through a series of online workshops. The resulting scenes, crafted as ‘universal’ stories composed based on fragments of our collective’s anecdotes and experiences, were markedly unlike many Forum Theatre scenes in that we often had difficulty identifying an “oppressor” character and an “oppressed” character. More often, while characters in each scene could certainly act as agents of oppression, the true oppressors were environmental: capitalism; COVID-19; white supremacy. We took care to flesh out the characters who acted oppressively toward others to be as human as the rest of the characters, each with their own wants and needs and perspective, each the protagonist in their own story. The result was that in one way or another, the Forum Theatre pieces catalyzed their audiences to advocate for healthier, more care-ful, and mutually compassionate relationships in each scene. Where the oppressive characters showed a lack of compassion, empathy, and regard for public good, audience spect-actors navigated the difficult balance of managing crucial relationships while also advocating for their own needs and the needs of their communities.

Picture this: a friend feels rejected and undervalued because you won’t have lunch with them on a patio. A child resents their parent for enrolling them in school online instead of in a classroom. These types of fraught, interpersonal interactions could well be the subjects of future Mixed Company online presentations, and as an audience member makes clear from their experience of Pandemic Roommates, these types of scenarios are real, immediately relevant, and crave attention:

“My partner, who had been listening [to the presentation] from afar, was super-“activated”! We spoke passionately and at length about the situation your Roommates [characters] were in, but also spoke about the pandemic in very specific terms. It was amazing! Even though he was skeptical about the whole online experience, it certainly served to stir up discussion!!! Nothing on TV or online news thus far has stimulated as much discussion between us as your show has!”

Working in online spaces means reimagining our notions of “access” and “accessibility”.

Those who grew up in the era of Reddit, Facebook, and news-article comment sections know that there’s a wide swath of people out there who feel empowered by the facelessness of the Internet — and will thus say things they would never say in “real life”. This can often mean anonymous racist drivel or incendiary “trolling”, but these experiments in Forum Theatre have taught us that, coupled with an atmosphere of care and safety set by the facilitation team, an online context can also encourage positive intervention — activism? — from audience members who would not otherwise “stop” the action in a live Forum Theatre play. One audience member offers, “There is a curious and unexpected intimacy with Zoom, the actors are quite literally in your personal space and it’s a new experience in theatre.”

Presenting Forum Theatre over Zoom created a wider array of avenues for audience engagement outside of a yelled “STOP”; audience members could use the chat function, Zoom’s built-in reaction features, or choose to speak to a character without revealing their own face. While working in online spaces comes with its own host of important accessibility concerns (Can someone without Internet access engage with the show? Can someone with accessibility needs for visibility or hearing engage with the show?), this way of working with its host of new avenues for “intervening” in the action may encourage some audience members to ‘speak out’ against what they’re seeing in a context where they otherwise would not. What could this type of rehearsal yield for that audience member in their own lives?

“Clearly there’s great potential here for reaching people at a real and profound level.”

Margot Dionne, Theatre professor, Dalhousie University

In the Routledge Companion to Theatre of the Oppressed (2019), José Soeiro and Julian Boal call into question Theatre of the Oppressed as a “dialectical game”. They frame ‘dialectics’ in relation to Boal’s work as “a way of looking at what exists from a dynamic and changing perspective … a way of understanding the world that rejects that the world—or the human being—is what it is“. As it becomes clearer that theatre-spaces will not return to a semblance of normalcy for some time yet, Soeiro and Boal’s assertation that Theatre of the Oppressed is about liberating ourselves from “finished representations” of the world and imagining new and different futures can be turned back on the practice of theatre itself.

Can we allow ourselves to reimagine Forum Theatre (or any theatre) in a radical new form that retains the same ethics of care and the same groundedness in relationships? Can we experiment with our practices not for the purpose of cobbling together a temporary, for-the-time-being solution, but so that the resulting adaptation is actually designed for and augmented by the constraints of our pandemic environment, which could last for some time?

According to Mixed Company’s Artistic Director, Simon Malbogat:

“We started with the question ‘How are we going to adapt to this new situation?’ Mixed Company associates started to learn and develop how to translate a forum theatre experience into a virtual format. What we ended up doing is creating a new form of virtual presentation which catalyzes critical dialogue, which is the core of our creative work. We are reaching a provincial, national, and global audience that was not possible before. We are devising new innovative ways of collaborating creatively with all communities to understand multiple perspectives and to have true open communication.”