Imagining Change Through Image Theatre

No student is too young to participate in conversations about equality and social justice, but words are not the only means through which students can imagine a better future. 

No student is too young to participate in conversations about equality and social justice. Classrooms should be safe spaces in which young people are free to share their own experiences, learn from the stories of others and creatively imagine change. This, however, can seem like a daunting goal when teaching ESOL students whose facility with English may not yet allow such abstract conversations. Thankfully, words are not the only means through which students can imagine a better future. 

Image Theatre is a term created by theater artist and activist Augusto Boal to describe an accessible theatrical technique based upon the creation of still images. Participants are given very simple words or phrases that describe abstract concepts or real-life situations and invited to impulsively respond by creatively positioning their own bodies or those of partners. Once students become comfortable with the still images, those images can then be dynamized by adding sound and movement. Concepts such as love, freedom or even prejudice can be engaged deeply and organically without the need of a complex spoken vocabulary.

I introduced this theatrical technique while working with third-grade ESOL students from Somalia. Many of these children had recently moved to the United States and were dealing with high levels of anxiety and fear. We started off by creating images inspired by words such as happiness, surprise and confusion before slowly working our way up to the word fear.

When this word was given, one group of 10 students quickly moved together to create a still tableau, a frozen picture or representation of the word, using their bodies. They didn’t need to speak. They simply physicalized their truths while also responding to the truths of others. After 30 seconds, they froze. I asked the students in the image and the rest of the class to silently observe what they saw. Some students in the image were crouched down, faces covered, while others were huddling together. Some students were frozen with their fists held high—ready to take on some unknown assailant. 

After the group had taken in the scene, I asked them what would need to change in order for the image to be become a picture of the word safety? Silently and slowly, the students began to move, once again responding to their own internal impulses and the choices of others. One student gently moved the fists of a frozen classmate, removing that element of tension from the scene. Other students lifted their classmates’ faces and helped one another up off the ground. Many held hands and smiled. They froze in their new positions and the class once again took in the image.

No discussion was needed for these students to kinetically explore their own experiences and their collective hopes. They simply needed a space to use the tools they already had at their disposal. Image Theatre is a powerful technique for initiating deep engagement with important issues in a diverse classroom setting. Perhaps this technique may even help students communicate more profound truths than those which words can hold.

Editor’s note: For details on having students explore vocabulary through tableau, check out our Perspectives for a Diverse America strategy “Vocabulary Tableaux 6-12.”

Sachs is a Fulbright English Teaching Assistant in the Czech Republic who is passionate about the intersections between social justice, religion and the arts. 

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