Empowerment and the individualisation of resistance: A Foucauldian perspective on Theatre of the Oppressed

SAGE Publications
Publication Type:
Journal Article
Critical Social Policy, 2020, 40, (3), pp. 331-349
Issue Date:
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Waterloo, in Sydney, Australia, is a neighbourhood currently dominated by a large public housing estate. The estate is to be redeveloped to be a ‘socially mixed’ community largely comprised of private residents. Many current residents of Waterloo have organised in opposition to the redevelopment. At the same time, government and community development agencies have implemented a number of capacity building and consultation programmes for residents, including a theatre performance. Programmes of empowerment are increasingly used by the state and the third sector to encourage disadvantaged or marginalised citizens to ‘take responsibility’ for their own lives. In this article, I examine a performance coordinated by a community theatre group that uses the ‘Theatre of the Oppressed’ format, intended to allow participants to identify ways to overthrow the forces that oppress them. I use a Foucauldian conception of power, subjectivity and resistance to critically examine the performance in its context. I explore ways in which the Theatre of the Oppressed format was applied (perhaps unintentionally) in such a way that it reinforced a vision of the situation as immutable and unchangeable, placing the onus on residents to transform their own actions to deliver change. Such framing makes any effort at resistance appear absurd, and is anything but empowering for residents.
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