Circle Sculpture

An introduction to the Theatre of the Oppressed

This lesson plan is to accompany the Teaching Tolerance magazine article "Flipping the Script on Bias and Bullies"

"It isn't easy theater," director Jeannie LaFrance said. "But it's awesome."

She was talking about the Theatre of the Oppressed, a set of theatrical techniques that challenge our most basic assumptions about drama. By blurring the line between actor and audience, Theatre of the Oppressed can shake your students out of complacency and make them feel empowered to confront injustice in an effective, nonviolent manner. These techniques can attract students who wouldn't normally get involved in drama – and implementing them doesn't cost a lot of money.

It does take work. However, if you take the time to introduce these techniques and create a safe environment for self-expression, you will find that students make rapid progress.

The four-day plan, based on the "circle sculpture" technique, gives you a step-by-step look at how to introduce the Theatre of the Oppressed in your classroom.

Students will learn the techniques of "circle sculpture" and perform as "spect-actors" in a performance about a topic that is important to their community.


  • Chalk and chalkboard (or marker and dry erase board)
  • Newsprint or posterboard 
  • Markers

A Note on Classroom Environment
The first step this multi-day lesson involves safety and trust building. Take special care while guiding the activities to ensure that each student feels valued and heard, and that all opinions, thoughts, and feelings are considered equal.

Remember, once trust has been established, the community's growth and learning can be both rapid and deep. At the conclusion of these activities, students can emerge with a shared experience that is powerful and transformational. Trust the process, your students and yourself.

Day 1

By deconstructing a quote from theater artist/educator Michael Rohd, and engaging in a warm-up activity, students will begin to explore the techniques of the Theatre of the Oppressed.

Quote Activity
1. Write the following quote on the board:
"Theatre allows us to converse with our souls, to passionately pursue and discover ways of living with ourselves and with others."
Michael Rohd, theatre artist & educator

2. Ask three or four different students to read the quote aloud.

3. Ask students to pair up and share with their partner an example of a play, movie, television program or other performance piece they believe is an example of what Michael Rohd is describing.

4. Brainstorm a list of emotions associated with their examples. Write the responses on the board.

Explain to your students that the series of activities you have planned for them over the next few days may bring up some emotions mentioned on the list. Let them know that you will do all you can to create a safe space for learning. Encourage them to take personal responsibility for doing their part to maintain that safe space.

Warm-ups and energizers are essential in preparing students for theater work. They create a safe space for self-expression and cause shift in the way students engage with a particular theme.

Warm-ups and energizers not only get the group started, they foster a safe and playful interaction among the participants. In addition, the group gets an opportunity to begin participating in structured activities in which they will be asked to use their bodies in a new way. This shifts them from their automatic responses and habits, and sets them up to engage a topic from a new perspective.

Cover the Space
This movement activity will help students shift from the traditional classroom format. With the exception of directions coming from you, this is a silent exercise.

Designate an open space. You may mark it off with physical boundaries like desks or chairs, or you may simply designate the space.

Tell students to start walking around the space. Direct them to try to cover every inch of the designated space. They should keep walking. No talking or physical contact are allowed. After a few minutes, ask students to be aware of their bodies. Though they can't talk, they should look at one another. Ask to them become aware of the floor, the space underneath their feet. After a few more minutes, let them know it is their job, as a group, to ensure that the entire space is covered at all times. Tell them when you call "freeze" they should stop. Once they have stopped, give them feedback on how well they are covering the space, then "unfreeze" and resume walking. Keep it going until you are satisfied that the group has become completely focused on the task of "covering the space."

Follow-up questions for the class
1. How do you feel about the energy and focus you brought to the exercise?

2. What helped to keep you focused? What happened when you were not focused?

3. How did it feel to do this in silence? Were there times when you wanted to speak?

4. Did the group "cover the space?"

Framing the Issue
Everyone sits in a circle and brainstorms about an issue you will be exploring with the group. For example, you can ask the group to share thoughts or concerns they have regarding the increase in anti-black hate incidents across the country after Barack Obama's election.

You can either go around the circle or call on students to raise their hands. It's not a dialogue at this point. People briefly say what's on their mind and others listen.

After hearing the thoughts and concerns just shared, you ask the group for single words that come to mind around this issue. These can be themes or emotions (i.e., fear, anger, guns, crime, jealousy, race, harassment).

You write them down as they're called out. Aim for a list of 30-50 single words. When you've finished, read the list back to them. This list will serve as a blueprint for the rest of the activity, but it is also one that you'll likely return to again and again.

Students should return to pairs to share feelings raised by today's activities. After each partner has an opportunity to share, ask the pairs to select one feeling word that captures some of what both partners shared. They should write the word on an index card, without signing their names, and turn it in. (You will add the words to the list created earlier.)

Return to whole group and thank everyone for their participation. Let them know when the process will continue.

Day 2
Warm up/game

The Wind Blows

Start by having everyone sit in a circle of chairs. Pull one chair out of the circle so that one person does not have place to sit. You may want to ask who would like to volunteer to pull their chair out.

The object of the activity is to have one person stand in the center and share a statement with the group – a statement that is true for the student. For instance, if the student is nervous about a test, she or he can share that. The statement doesn't have to be true for everyone, just for the student in the center.

The statement must be shared in this format: "The wind blows if...(insert statement)". The person in the center can share anything they feel comfortable sharing. For example, "The wind blows if you are feeling happy today" or "the wind blows if you are the eldest in your family."

The "wind" has just blown, and the participants, like leaves, must find a new location if this statement is also true for them. This is the opportunity for the person standing in the center to take an open chair before another individual takes it. Whoever is left in the center, without a seat, is the one who will share next.

You can play the game for 10-15 minutes depending on your group. As they find a rhythm, you may remind them that they can share about experiences, likes and dislikes, family, etc.— whatever feels safe.

Follow-up questions
1. Were you surprised by the things people chose to share in the group?

2. If you were in the middle, how did you decide what to share?

3. Were you honest in your responses? Did you change seats each time the statement was true for you?

4. How do you feel about being a part of this group right now?

Reframing the issue
Ask students to recall the community issue they explored in the last class session. Read students a recent news report about that issue (for instance, if your class chose to talk about racial backlash incidents following the election of Barack Obama, you might select a story about one of those incidents.)

Ask each person to select a single word from the list they generated during the last class session – a word that characterizes what was shared from the news report.

Partner Sculpt
Everyone gets a partner. One partner will start as the sculptor, the other as clay.

Demonstrate to the group how to sculpt human clay. The sculptor can sculpt by touching the "clay" and moving his or her partner into place or by mirroring and showing them the position they should take. The sculptor cannot talk. The activity is silent.

You call out a word from the list and the sculptor uses the clay to create an image in response to the word, to make a piece of art. The goal is not to illustrate the word or to play charades. It is to shape, imagine, and create. The image can be realistic, abstract, concrete, or symbolic. There are no right or wrong images! It doesn't have to have a "meaning". It can come from a thought or a feeling.

After the sculptors have sculpted, they can walk around and look at others' images. There should be a gallery of responses to the word. When every sculptor has returned to their image you say "clay, relax" and the clay and sculptor trade places.

Go back and forth through a variety of words until you feel ready to move on.

1. How do you feel about your participation today?

2. Did you prefer being the clay or the sculptor?

3. Were you able to express what you wanted through this exercise? Why or why not?

Congratulate the students on their hard work. Encourage them to talk to others about what they experienced today. Remind them when the group meets again.

Day 3
Group Sculpt

Everyone gets into groups of four or five. Each group will pick someone to sculpt first.

You call out a word and they sculpt. This time they have more pieces of clay to work with. However, just because they have more bodies, doesn't mean that they have to sculpt a realistic story or scene. They can, but they can also sculpt abstract images. They have to sculpt quickly and silently.

During each round of words, you can relax all the images but one and allow everyone to see each other's work. You go around the room until each image has been featured and then move to the next word. You want to make sure each group member has a chance to sculpt at least once before moving on.

Day 4
Warm up/game

Shape & Number

Circle Sculpt
Everyone stands in a circle and three people get in the middle. You call out a word from the list and the three people create an image on their own. They are all clay and they simply find a position in relation to each other as you count to five. On "five," you call out "freeze" and they hold whatever position they are in.

Explain to the rest of the group that they are looking at one out of an infinite number of possible images for this word. They will now have a chance to re-sculpt that image as much as they like. Anyone can step into the circle and re-sculpt. One at a time, the group tries to share as many images as they can. They sculpt silently and pause a few seconds between images. This continues until you stop the round and go on to a new word.

Tips on Processing the Images

• If you want to talk about an image, ask what people see. Whatever responses they give are valuable. Make a point of not trying to have them answer in a certain context. Just ask what they see.

• Have people tell the story they see in the image. Push for as many different stories as you can get.

• As they walk around and look at images, remind them to see the images, not just glance at them.

Michael Rohd. 1998. Theatre for Community, Conflicts and Dialogue. Heinemann.

Augusto Boal. 1992. Games for Actors and Non-Actors. Routledge

Augosto Boal. 1985. Theatre of the Oppressed. Theatre Communications Group