In the late 1980s, Mark Weinberg (who was teaching in the University of Wisconsin system) and Doug Paterson (University of Nebraska-Omaha) co-founded the Theatre and Social Change focus group of the Association for Theatre in Higher Education. Their positions on the governing bodies of the association gave them responsibility for putting together the annual conference in 1992. They had both read Theatre of the Oppressed and, although a bit concerned by its claim that anyone can make theatre (as any traditional theatre educator might be), decided to invite Augusto Boal to be the keynote speaker and to offer a series of workshops at the conference.
Boal’s keynote was breathtaking, as were his workshops and a long conversation about the meaning of theatre, the nature of oppression, Freirean teaching, the pain of being away from our children when we traveled, and the place of TO in the worlds of theatre and progressive politics. Mark continued taking workshops from Boal and like-minded theatre-makers until he felt ready to joker (the term for a Theatre of the Oppressed facilitator – or difficultator, as Boal liked to say). He began introducing TO to traditional theatre practitioners and using the techniques to raise questions about oppression and exploitation in academia and elsewhere.
During those same years, Jenny Wanasek was working in the commercial theatre as an actor and director. While she was very successful, and remains so, she felt that there were additional ways to use theatre to promote social transformation. She directed an original one-woman show for Milwaukee Public Theatre – a still active community-based arts organization – about coming to terms with loss. She expanded her community work directing the Dreams 2000 project, which brought a racially diverse group of high school students from several areas of the city together to create a musical about discrimination and ostracism in school. At the same time, she began sharing her expertise as an adjunct faculty member in the theatre department at UW-Milwaukee.
In 1999 Jenny participated in TO workshops Mark offered at UW-Milwaukee. At the end of the workshop series, Mark was invited to develop courses in Participatory Theatre and Applied Theatre (a community service class in which students created Forum Theatre with community partners) for the Theatre Department. He was as impressed with Jenny’s play devising as she was with TO. Early in 2000 they took their first workshop with Boal together.
Later that year they were asked by MPT to develop a program about drug addiction that could tour to schools. The resulting Forum Theatre play, Amy’s Addiction, was developed by 22 community members, all of whom were tied together by losses related to drugs and alcohol. The Center for Applied Theatre was formed later that year to continue the tour of that play and to develop others. Over the next 10 years CAT reached more than 16,000 students with Forum plays about drugs, bullying, sexual harassment, pressures to have sex, and dropping out.
Jenny and Mark continue to study TO and related techniques and adapt them to work with groups trying to define problems, challenge perceptions, and combat oppression, including faculties, students, NGOs, service organizations, unions, support groups for LGBTQ teens and runaways, half-way houses for ex-inmates, activist groups, and others. They have been active in the Pedagogy and Theatre of the Oppressed (PTO) organization, sharing ideas with TO practitioners around the world and hosting the 9th annual international conference. Mark is currently on the board of PTO.
Over the years The Center for Applied Theatre has developed a unique approach to social transformation through theatre, but we have remained anchored in the techniques of the Theatre of the Oppressed and in the work of Augusto Boal. Most recently CAT’s work has focused on dismantling cultures of violence and creating cultures of respect, responsibility, and empathy. While they continue to offer workshops in problem solving and Forum theatre play development, many of their recent projects use Theatre of the Oppressed techniques to lead to the creation of videos problematizing violent choices and imagining positive transformation.