Eva Licht’s Thesis Production on Forum Theatre and Science Accessibility
One of the best parts of pursuing an interdisciplinary major at Reed is the chance for students to combine separate areas of study in unique and innovative ways, especially during their thesis. Reed’s flexible, self-directed learning style allows students to create projects tailored to their interests, and nobody knows this better than Eva Licht ‘21, a combined theater and bio major. Licht’s thesis show, Rehearsing Reality: Forum Theatre for Science Accessibility, ran for three days over the past weekend and used an interactive forum-based approach to exploring themes of accessibility in Reed’s biology department. Theater may look very different this year with the move to online modes of performance, but Rehearsing Reality was ready to meet the challenges of Zoom theater.
Rehearsing Reality used a method of theatrical storytelling that many Reedies might not be familiar with: Theatre of the Oppressed. Pioneered in the 1970s by Brazilian activist and playwright Augusto Boal, Theatre of the Oppressed is a theatrical form designed to explore social issues and inspire thoughtful problem-solving through improvisational interactions between the audience and the actors. Licht’s show specifically used the forum theater method. In forum theater, actors go through a simple scene of a person being socially oppressed, and then repeat it with audience participation, encouraging viewers to step in as the protagonist and brainstorm ways to resolve the scenario.
In an email statement, Licht explained more about the process. “Rehearsing Reality: Forum Theatre for Science Accessibility was devised and produced in support of my thesis, but the process really helped to inform and guide my thesis more than I ever could have expected. The original goal of my thesis was to explore using Theatre of the Oppressed to support the presentation of science research; I was expecting to use Forum Theatre to present my cell bio research, but as we began devising the scenes and as I learned more about the Forum Theatre process, I realized we needed to take a step back to better respond to our community. I realized what we were discussing in the room felt more urgent and compelling than what I had imagined in my mind. The question wasn’t how can I get this information I’ve discovered in lab to a broader audience, but how can we support our audience’s access to the process of making those discoveries themselves. As we defined our goal as a company (to address accessibility and conflicts in science spaces at Reed) I felt the goal of my thesis shift to match: to use Theatre of the Oppressed to support not only the presentation of science research, but the broader process of scientific research and learning.”
Rehearsing Reality: Forum Theatre for Science Accessibility uses forum theater to investigate ways to make science research at Reed more accessible. Over the course of four short scenes, it shows a protagonist with an unspecified learning disability struggle to overcome disinterested instructors, apathetic lab partners, and punishing workloads as they navigate the biology department. The first time each scene is performed, the protagonist fails, or is failed by others, at every hurdle. Their teacher won’t explain basic concepts, their lab partner refuses to cooperate with their needs, and they ultimately drop out after failing to complete their thesis. The second performance, however, has a very different end result because this time, the protagonist has the audience to help. A special member of the cast called the Joker helps facilitate this process, calling attention to audience members with hands raised, indicating that they would like to step into the scene. Once the Joker spots a raised hand, the show is paused, and the audience member gives a suggestion about what they think the protagonist could have said or done differently to get a better outcome. The audience member is then allowed to improvise a new ending of the scene, implementing the changes they suggested. In the second set of scenes, the protagonist manages to find a happy ending. They assert themselves more quickly and clearly to the apathetic teacher; they communicate more effectively with the lab partner and manage to find a solution; their thesis stays on track for completion.
The writing of the scenes does an excellent job of evoking sympathy and emotion in the audience. The protagonist seems to constantly have the deck stacked against them, and though they are polite and a bit too passive, it is clear that the system failed them by the end of the first performance. This serves to create an intense feeling of catharsis in the second act, when the audience gets to take an active part in creating a better world for the protagonist. Especially for anyone who has experienced a system working against them, the feeling of going back in time to fix mistakes or make people more sympathetic is incredibly satisfying.
If there is one downside to this catharsis, it is that the method of improv and the stated goals of the show sometimes conflict in a way that feels right on the edge of slipping into a victim-blaming narrative. For example, in one of the scenes, the protagonist is dealing with a thesis advisor who is hostile, demeaning, and unhelpful. The scene is well done and successful at conveying the unfairness of the system the protagonist is trapped in. But in some ways, this makes it feel almost cruel to later come back and ask what the student should have done to improve the situation, instead of questioning why the teacher was acting so monstrously to a struggling mentee. There was a small portion at the end of the show devoted to changing the decisions of the authority figures in each scene, but it was treated as more of an afterthought. The show may have strengthened the sense of creating real systematic change if the scenes were presented with a less obvious breakdown of who was in the right or wrong, or if the audience was encouraged to step in for others in addition to the long-suffering protagonist.
Rehearsing Reality: Forum Theatre for Science Accessibility was an excellent, cathartic, and unique show that everyone involved should be proud of. Its messaging was not always perfect, but it was ultimately successful in using the medium of theater to start important conversations about social issues surrounding science research and education.