In the late 1980s, Mark Weinberg then a professor in the University of Wisconsin system) and Doug Paterson co-founded the Theatre and Social Change focus group of the Association for Theatre in Higher Education. Intrigued by their reading of Augusto Boal’s Theatre of the Oppressed, they decided to invite Boal to be the keynote speaker for the 1992 annual conference and to give workshops on his techniques.
Boal’s keynote address was breathtaking and transformational for Mark and others at the conference stimulating long conversations about the meaning of theatre, the nature of oppression, Freirean teaching, and the place of TO in the worlds of theatre and progressive politics. Mark continued to take frequent multi-day workshops from Boal until his passing in 2009 and from other like-minded theatre-makers until the present. He introduced TO in traditional theatre classes and used the techniques to raise questions about oppression and exploitation in a variety of circles. During those early years, he taught TO, gave workshops at schools and conferences in the US, Australia, and Canada, and helped develop and joker Forum Theatre with activist groups.
During those same years, Jenny Wanasek was working in the commercial theatre as an actor and director. While in those fields, she was drawn to community-based theatre making in marginalized communities and with children with physical and emotional challenges. She developed performances about racism with youth in several venues including the 2000 Dreams project, which brought teens and younger children from several of Milwaukee’s segregated neighborhoods to devise a musical about barriers to their realizing their dreams. During this time she was also a faculty member at UW-Milwaukee.
In 1999 Jenny participated in TO workshops that Mark offered at UW-M. 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. Jenny and Mark shared play devising techniques and TO and found a common language to serve communities. Jenny took her first workshop with Boal in 2000. Mark and Jenny married in December of the same year.
In 2001 they were asked by Milwaukee Public Theatre to develop a program about drug addiction that could tour to schools. That first Forum Theatre play was developed with 22 community members, all of whom had experienced tragic losses related to drugs and alcohol. The Center for Applied Theatre was formed later that year to continue the tour that play and 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 of school.
While the performance arm of CAT continued to tour, Jenny and Mark developed workshops and residencies with young people and the organizations that served them. They adapted TO and related techniques to work with activists, faculties university students, NGOs, service organizations, unions, support groups for LGBTQ teens and runaways, half-way houses for ex-inmates, and other groups.
In addition to work in schools funded by Milwaukee Public Theatre, CAT also became Teaching Artists with Arts at Large and Milwaukee Public Schools. For the last 18 years they have worked to create cultures of respect, responsibility, and empathy and support liberatory pedagogy in and around educational institutions. Their work in schools has included the creation of Forum plays, incorporating theatre techniques into various curricula, and the creation of videos and graphic books exploring the genesis of violent choices and imagining positive transformation. They also created an interactive video exhibition on bullying that ran for three months and gave workshops to visiting school groups.
In 2010 Jenny took a workshop with The Virtues Project and experienced firsthand the transformation that can occur when one uses the language of virtues with others in workshop and educational settings. Virtues such as courage, compassion, assertiveness, gentleness, etc., can be integrated into goal setting and boundary setting to clarify needs, objectives, and aspirations. The techniques of The Virtues Project are powerful tools to help community members and activists, themselves to find sustainable ways to stay in the struggle for social change.
CAT has developed a set of workshops and residencies drawing on Theatre of the Oppressed and The Virtues Project designed to serve groups and individuals who want to use the techniques to explore their own power to promote justice and create progressive social change.
During the quarantine, Mark was part of a group of TO practitioners from six countries who met online for over a year to share techniques, try out new ones, and develop ways of using TO online. Mark played a crucial role in a collaboration with Rangbhumi – A Happy Playground in India, ANAMUH – Arts for Dialogue in Greece, Spiel_Raum and Theater der Unterdruckten Wien in Austria which brought Rangbhimi’s play, Raise Your Hand, to an international audience.
Jenny and Mark delivered an online series of workshops designed to improve facilitation of race dialogues for Conner Prairie Museum in Indiana and a workshop for the 2021 international Play, Perform. Learn, Grow (PPLG) conference on using the language of virtues and image making for healing and inspiration in activism.
Jenny and Mark remain active in the Pedagogy and Theatre of the Oppressed (PTO) organization, sharing ideas with TO practitioners around the world. Mark served on the board for nine years and edited the PTO Journal from 2018-2021. We are looking forward to participating in the next international PTO Conference in June 2022.