Campus & Community

Interactive theater resolves conflicts from Boston to Tanzania

4 min read

A Harvard University professor is employing the power of theater to prevent real-world tragedies.

As director of the Cultural Agents Initiative, Doris Sommer has spent the past few months engaged in creative demolition, breaking through Harvard’s ivied gates as well as theater’s traditional “fourth wall” and other roadblocks to using art in the world. Employing the practices of Brazilian artist and politician Augusto Boal’s “Theatre of the Oppressed,” Sommer and colleagues have taken the lessons to create innovative solutions to problems in Boston-area high schools and to teach the physiology of AIDS in sub-Saharan Africa.

In the theater workshops, participants are asked to perform dramatizations of problems they may face on a daily basis. After that, members of the audience improvise and change the script in order to avoid “tragedy.”

“In traditional theater, tragedy is an inevitable conflict, which – to our relief – happens to someone else,” said Sommer, the Ira Jewell Williams Jr. Professor of Romance Languages and Literatures in Harvard’s Faculty of Arts and Sciences. “But Boal shows that calamity is not the result of innate personal failures or of intractable conflict. Instead, it is a failure of the imagination. Through our workshops we teach people to exercise their imaginations and create innovative solutions that can derail everyday ‘tragedies’ before they occur.”

Founded in October 2002, the Cultural Agents Initiative brings together academics, artists, and public leaders to develop the arts and interpretation as resources for a democratic society. The initiative is currently housed in the Center for Government and International Studies and has benefited from grants by the Rockefeller Foundation, the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study, the Harvard Humanities Center, and the David Rockefeller Center for Latin American Studies.

“Cultural studies has for too long specialized in producing critique and denunciation, since alternatives for current practices seem misguided or counterproductive,” said Sommer. “The result has often been to align scholarship with social hopelessness. Through the Cultural Agents Initiative our love for the arts and interpretation develops constructive practices. This is a reformist step out of the ivory tower and an invitation to expand humanistic theory and artistic creativity through engagements in public life.”

Sommer’s most recent theater exercise worked hand in hand with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), offering a corporate managerial training session titled “Pre-emptive Acts: Creative Moves to Avoid Discrimination Litigation.” Through this proactive collaboration, Cultural Agents and the EEOC aim to stop infractions against anti-discrimination laws before they start.

“What the regional directors realized is that litigation has been too costly and too slow to be truly effectual,” she said. “By engaging conflict resolution through theater we have helped provide corporate managers with a new resource for resolution: the employees themselves who can play out problems and then play variations that avert crises.”

Beginning with the Cultural Agents workshop that Augusto Boal himself directed at Harvard in December 2003, Sommer has seen the influence of “Theatre of the Oppressed” spread throughout Boston and beyond. Workshop participant Betsy Bard, counselor at Cambridge Rindge & Latin High School, has just completed the third year of directing a diverse mix of student actors to improve their academic environment. Members of the school board are now used to participating at the interactive shows.

Bard’s compelling program ignited interest from Harvard Medical School professors Felton Earls and Maya Carlson. Earls and Carlson then incorporated Boal’s technique in their Tanzania AIDS prevention program. Engaging Tanzanian youth in interactive plays, Carlson and Earls were then able to effectively teach them the physiology of AIDS, combating the influence of folk alternatives to prevent AIDS transmission.

The results of Boal’s workshop, from the “pre-emptive acts” played with the EEOC and the series of explorations at the local high school to learning lessons in microbiology of HIV, are what Sommer calls “ripple effects” of art in the world. “The Cultural Agents Initiative is making more ripples, through photography, literature, fashion, radio, and more,” she said. “Stay tuned.”