Forum Theatre: Empowering Students to become Self Directed Learners

Forum Theatre: Empowering Students to become Self Directed Learners

Forum Theatre: Empowering Students
to become Self Directed Learners

Anjali Chaudhry

The 2016 Ambedkar University Self-Development course 2016 is just over and TFC has begun its reflection on learnings. This year we used Forum Theatre in our Masters’ level course on Self-Development. And for me it was a revelation that I feel compelled to share.

In the Indian context, few academics, theatre practitioners or campaigners have heard about Forum Theatre. So, before beginning to deconstruct its pedagogical value, I will briefly explain its origin, processes and nuances.

Forum Theatre, also called ‘Theatre of the Oppressed,’ was brought into existence by Augusto Boal, a Brazilian dramatist and a close friend of Paulo Freire. Freire introduced the concept of ‘conscientization’1 or the development of critical consciousness, of the oppressed about their oppressive social realities, so that they could take charge of changing them. Inspired by Freire, Boal proposed the use of theatre as a method to examine and practice this consciousness raising in a performance space2. Forum Theatre calls for a script with an oppressive situation targeting social, economic and emotional realities. It calls for an oppressor, an oppressed person and an onlooker3. The onlookers are not the typical theatre audience seeking temporary entertainment. They are people whose stories are being played by the performers, onlookers as “spect-actors” who are encouraged to intervene during the performance and change the scenario, by critically analyzing and reversing the oppressive conditions.

In my own experience of working with ex-inmates of prison, in the Oval House Education Outreach programme in London, I witnessed powerful moments where the inmates would passionately change the scenario that led to the committing of a crime. Many would intervene in the performance to add a scene where they communicate with their “self” and renegotiate the breaking point. This experience led me to the question “How can something like this, presenting the oppressor, the oppressed and the oppressive condition, be a tool of learning for students?”

Susan Haedicke’s definition of empowerment in theatre practice sheds some light on the issue: “Empowerment is a term that is very difficult to define, but it is closely tied to notions of self-esteem and self-reliance, to the belief that one has worth and that one can make things happen, either at an individual or at a community level”4. Thus, theatre can build self-esteem, self-reliance and self-worth. And Forum Theatre enables students to take charge of their own learning, as they observe a piece first as an onlooker when other classmates perform a critical issue or a topic, and later intervene to change the process in the performance space.  By critically examining and re-examining a situation and generating a solution to it, students understand how to use theatre as a tool to own, challenge and change their own learning and become more self-directed and self-reliant.

The TFC team introduced this pedagogy to Masters’ students at Ambedkar University. It was a new pedagogy for students and TFC’s first attempt to test its efficacy in such a context. Though students were not trained, nor had they been introduced to this idea in any previous sessions, there were several instances of deep learning through the process. One such instance can be described as a flash of ‘critical consciousness’ as defined by Freire-where, after witnessing a class-mate perform a scene on racial discrimination, one student immediately reacted by saying that “we all attach such racial tags to people unconsciously and act as oppressors ourselves, basically we never realize our own actions before calling someone else an oppressor.” This was a student-led session on ‘identity and stereotypes’.  I would see this as an insight or deep understanding derived from the act of reflection.

In another instance, in a session on understanding interpersonal communication skills with respect to power dynamics, an otherwise shy student depicted an argument with a parent with great fervor, as if he were rehearsing the negotiating point of a conversation soon to take place in his life. Other students responded with the insight that their communication with others is deeply affected by power relations.

While these students were not trained in accordance with the specific norms of Forum Theatre and the classroom presentations were not really Forum Theatre performances, even with some rudimentary tools of Forum Theatre, students encountered several learning moments. It has become clear to us that with more time, training and engagement, Forum Theatre would likely lead to deeper learning in our future work with students.


  1. Freire, Paulo. ‘Pedagogy of the Oppressed’, 1968
  2. Performance space means the role-play or the act of performance within a specific setting
  3. Tempest, Kate. ‘How I handed by play over to the audience’ in The Guardian , 20th February 2014
  4. Haedicke, Susan. ‘Dramaturgy in Community‑Based Theatre’ in Journal of Dramatic Theory and Criticism 8.1., 1998

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *