Q&A with Dr. Kelly Howe: provoking social change through Theatre of the Oppressed
From co-coordinating workshops led by Julian Boal to teaching a seminar at Loyola, Howe draws on experience and expertise in furthering the presence of Theatre of the Oppressed in Chicago.
How were you introduced to Theatre of the Oppressed?
Like many people--particularly many people in the US--I first learned about Theatre of the Oppressed by reading a few of Augusto Boal’s books in college—at Muhlenberg College, where I went to undergrad.
What about Theatre of the Oppressed particularly intrigued you?
At first it was Augusto Boal’s way of writing that intrigued me. The oppressive systems of the world give people so many reasons to think that there’s very little that can be done to change the existing order of things. In a world full of reasons to be cynical, Boal’s writing never felt cynical to me. It felt curious and critical and analytical and hopeful and angry, but not cynical. He genuinely wanted to experiment—in the fullest sense of that word—with how people could use theatre to analyze and help dismantle the systems that cause so much suffering in the world. I love theatre, but it interests me most for its potential to imagine possibilities in the world outside the theatre. I was drawn to Theatre of the Oppressed for that reason and so many others. I also loved that it is intended to be done by anyone regardless of whether they think they are an artist. Boal believed that all you have to do to be an artist is to make art.
When and how did your involvement with Theatre of the Oppressed increase?
While I was in graduate school at UT-Austin, I started working with some other local activists and teachers in Austin using TO off and on. I didn’t think of it as the only way to do activism, but one exciting way of many. That’s still how I think about it, by the way: one compelling activist mode, among others, to be combined with others. In those same years, I also continued to read and write about TO as a scholar, including for my PhD dissertation. But TO only became a primary focus after I became involved with the organization PTO(Pedagogy and Theatre of the Oppressed) in 2006. PTO hosts an annual international conference and connects people who want to use theatre and education for social justice. Not long after going to a PTO conference, I started working as an organizer and administrator with PTO in various ways—as a board member, as its president, organizing some of its conferences. I have met many people through PTO—Julian Boal among them—who have shaped much of how I think about politics and collective struggles against oppression.
What is Theatre of the Oppressed and Activism in Chicago?
Theatre of the Oppressed and Activism in Chicago is a loose collective or coalition of people in Chicago interested in the intersection of Theatre of the Oppressed and social movement activism. I’ve really enjoyed organizing meetings alongside my colleagues Willa Taylor(Walter Director of Education and Engagement at Goodman Theatre) and Jasmin Cardenas(an independent artist, educator, storyteller, and activist). There have of course been other people who have used Theatre of the Oppressed in many ways in Chicago for quite some time, but in September 2016, we kicked off our first set of meetings under this name, which is obviously kind of long! We might change it as we continue to define ourselves. Basically, we try to cultivate spaces and opportunities for people to learn more about Theatre of the Oppressed and other forms, to learn more about other aspects of political organizing happening beyond the theatre, to practice, to experiment, and to get to know each other.
What excites you most about the Goodman Theatre workshops?
I’m excited for many reasons. First, because Julian Boal is an excellent facilitator and teacher. I’ve learned a lot from him over the years, and I’m happy for others to have the opportunity to do so, too. His analysis of Theatre of the Oppressed is extremely rigorous, pointed, and concrete. I also love how these kinds of workshops create yet another opportunity for people to meet and possibly find comrades and collaborators in the other workshop participants.
How can Loyola students learn more about TO?
Well, I hope you’ll forgive the course advertisement here, but one concrete way coming up soon is Loyola students could join us for the full-semester course workshop on Theatre of the Oppressed in the theatre department THIS fall—meaning starting in just a few weeks. There are a few spots left in the class. We’re going to study the work of some amazing people doing Theatre of the Oppressed in various parts of the world, and then we’re also going to do Theatre of the Oppressed a lot ourselves, focusing on the struggles that students in the class feel are urgent for them. But even if students can’t take the course, they can come chat with me about TO, or they can let me know that they’d like to be on an email list for other TO events at Loyola and in Chicago more broadly. I also want to help connect students with opportunities for travel outside the US to witness TO in other contexts. Theatre of the Oppressed aligns with so many things Loyola students tend to care about, at least in my experience, and I’m hoping to help organize a range of opportunities for students to learn more about TO as a way of analyzing the world around them.