On the Record With Hector Aristizábal, Actor
Hector Aristizábal is the founder and artistic co-director of ImaginAction, a non-profit theater arts organization based in Los Angeles. ImaginAction uses techniques from Theatre of the Oppressed, Playback Theatre, Theatre of Witness, Psychodrama, traditional storytelling, mask-making, drumming, dance and creative ritual to facilitate dialogue, community-building, liberation and healing in communities worldwide. Educated as a theater artist and psychologist, Aristizábal has won numerous awards for his art, including the 2012 Otto René Castillo Award for Political Theatre, and is the co-author of The Blessing Next to the Wound: A Story of Art, Activism, and Transformation. This week, Aristizábal has been leading workshops on campus to produce a forum play with students and community members, which will be performed today. During his stay, he also partnered with the Oberlin Drama at Grafton Program, which provides opportunities for residents of the Grafton Reintegration Center to perform classic theater works.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
What is Theatre of the Oppressed?
In Theatre of the Oppressed … we develop plays with … people who are not necessarily actors as a profession, but we show them that we all have the capacity to tell stories. We believe that every person is an expert in their own lives, so when they develop scenes that are connected to their stories, they act very well because they know the tribulations and the ordeals that the characters are going through.
The modality that I’m using is called forum theater, which is basically using theater to ask a question about an issue that we do not resolve in the play. Hopefully the audience that identifies with the issue is excited and invited to enter into the play and try different things. It’s very improvisational, [and] it’s a kind of aesthetic dialogue where we ask the question and we look for alternatives — not how to solve it, but what to do to try and change it. The plays in forum theater end very badly, but an ‘oppressed’ is not a victim. An ‘oppressed’ is a character that is trying to change the conditions of their lives but, in the play, they are unable to do it. But hopefully the audience will see that the characters could have done something different to change the terrible outcome, and that’s what we invite people to do.
What exactly are you doing at Oberlin and at Grafton this week?
This is my 13th year [coming] to Oberlin College — brought by students, not by the College — and every year is some kind of magical process, by which a student felt inspired to bring me back and does all the work to make that possible.
Three years ago I started going to Grafton … and the first two years, I did workshops with the inmates that participate in [the Oberlin Drama at Grafton Program]. They do mostly Shakespeare, but after the workshops the last two years, they wanted me to show them the other techniques that I use, which use Theatre of the Oppressed and other modalities. So this year, we are doing a short-form theater play that we are going to show [Thursday] afternoon to a larger group of inmates. The play is developed through improvisations about issues that they are interested in, both things that happen inside the prison and things that happen in their lives when they are in prison — for example, a loved one gets sick or dies, and how difficult it is for them not to be able to attend the funeral or be with their loved ones. It’s a way to humanize the very dehumanized position that most prisoners are in in our society, because the way we treat prisoners is based in mostly punishment. It’s not any way to see them as human beings who have made a mistake — sometimes a huge mistake — or committed a crime. So theater is a way to bring that to the surface and create dialogue.
I’m going [through] a very similar process with [Oberlin] students at the Cat in the Cream in the afternoons [this week], where we meet for two hours and do games and improvisations about the issues that the students are interested in. … Sometimes we have members of the community that come and participate as well. Whatever comes out of that process, we’re going to show it [today] to the larger community.
What sort of questions have Oberlin students and community members been interacting with this week?
Several things have been brought out — one is issues and questions about water, and the future of water. Some people have mentioned Flint as an extreme situation, but they are also questioning: “What is happening with the water that people at Oberlin drink from the faucet directly?” “How do we know that water is clean, and for how long are we going to be able to guarantee that that water is being protected?” Then the Lakota issue with the [Dakota Access] pipeline, and the fact that [the NEXUS] gas pipeline is going to pass very close to [Oberlin]. So there are questions about how … we as communities react to that, knowing the power that the oil and gas companies have, and also the current government, … [which] has given free rein to these kinds of projects in the country, to fracking and oil and gas exploitation, because they deny that there are any problems with the environment.
So these questions have come out, [as well as] questions about students feeling overwhelmed, feeling, some of them, even depressed, asking questions about their futures [and] about how what they are studying is going to really serve them in their lives — beyond economic possibilities, but existentially. Some people have talked about how overwhelmed we all seem to be with how chaotic the world seems to be right now. The Earth is warming and melting and shaking, and the social institutions no longer seem to serve people. So where do we go? There’s a despair that we’re feeling as human beings.
We use theater to create scenes to ask these questions — not to resolve them, but to project them out so we can take a better look at them as a group.
Your workshops are advertised as exploring political, social and environmental oppression and trauma, expressed and released through music, dance, movement, storytelling and puppets. How do all these things come together in the workshop? What does that look like?
In theater … we always start with games. What games do is they democratize the room. When we play, we’re no longer men and women, or people who know each other and those who don’t know each other, or those who are members of the community and those who are college students. When we play, we humanize each other. We connect to each other through our energy, through our bodies, and also when we play … imagination and spontaneity get activated. Then we go from the games into creating images about things that we’re interested in.
From the images, we go into improvisations. We create scenes about issues in our lives, and then we start questioning. We often create scenes about the things that we don’t know how to resolve, so in that way it’s political. It’s a reflection on our lives, and it’s a reflection not to be critical or to be judgmental, [but] to be creative. It’s an invitation to say to the group “What do we do in this situation?” “What would you do in this situation?”
[On Tuesday], we brought costumes and wigs and masks, because those are tools that actors use to explore different ways [to] transform ourselves. When you put on a mask, somehow it connects you with parts inside of you that are often not expressed in daily life. The mask gives you some permission to be who you are, and also to explore with your body and to explore with each other. They bring humor. They also allow you to express very strong emotion without hurting [anybody]. So I work a lot with creating spaces for imagination. We use music, sound, masks, images, pantomime, drums, etc. as a way to use the symbolic languages of theater to ask questions.
You have been involved with the movement to end torture and change U.S. policy in Latin America using theatrical performance. What does that look like?
For many years I have worked with different organizations, like the School of the Americas Watch, which organizes demonstrations and lobbying in Washington. We have developed vigils that we do every year in front of the school, recognizing the role that the school has had in South America in teaching torture and promoting dictatorships. Theater allows us to bring those messages in a way that — hopefully — more people can look at. We use giant puppets to tell the story of some of the massacres that have occurred in Guatamala, El Salvador and other places. We invite people who attend these demonstrations to mourn the deaths of the people who have been killed in our name, with our taxes.
I have been part of that process also because of my own personal history. I was tortured in Colombia, so it’s something that I have had to heal in myself, but also it has allowed me to meet people from all over the world who unfortunately have gone through that. When you go through something like that and you start healing, part of the healing process is to do whatever you can to stop it.
Right now, I’m going back to my country … Colombia, to work [using theater] in the peace process. The Colombian government just signed a peace agreement with the … Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), and so we are engaging in a whole new moment in our history in which we want to figure out how we can live in peace even though there are people who think very differently.
The problem in Colombia is that, when you think differently than others, you could be killed or tortured or disappeared by the government or by the paramilitary groups or by the guerilla groups, depending on what ideological spectrum you were in. Now, we’re saying, “You can think very differently, but it doesn’t mean that I have to hide from you because of fear that you will kill me, or I need to plan how to kill you.” We can discuss and we can create a more democratic country where we can all fight for our ideas using words and using democratic means, not using weapons.