Image Theatre: Opening a Dialogue through Our Bodies

Photo by Julio Albarran

How can we create more meaningful dialogues among museum learners as well as with works of art?  How might we effectively explore abstract concepts such as power, struggle, class, and interpersonal relationships through objects in our galleries?

The Image Theatre technique, an exercise developed by Brazilian director Augusto Boal (author of Theatre of the Oppressed), can provide a fresh way to activate museum learning for all ages. I was reintroduced to this technique last year, when educators from the Metro Theater Company led a series of teacher workshops at the Saint Louis Art Museum. These workshops all focused on kinesthetic learning and participant-centered drama strategies as ways to make stronger connections with artworks on view in the galleries, but the Image Theatre exercise has stuck with me ever since.  It is such a flexible teaching tool, and great for breaking down the passive museum viewing experience and transforming a quiet museum gallery into an interactive, imaginative space.

While I know that every theatre group has its own way of practicing the Image Theatre technique (and I love keeping these strategies “open source” and adaptable), the steps below were inspired by Metro Theater Company’s approach. Although this strategy can be extended in various ways, the basic exercise outlined below can be completed in about 20 minutes (although a larger, very-engaged group can easily push this activity to 40 minutes).

  1. Form a Circle: Invite your group (whether students or adults) to form a circle in the center of the gallery, standing around the space that will become their “theatre.”
  2. Identify Actors: Ask for 2 volunteers to become actors enter the theatre space in the center.
  3. Construct an Image: Quickly work with these actors to move into a pose that you construct (something as simple as a handshake works well, or you can ask the actors to quickly create a pose). Ask the actors to freeze their pose, creating an image or snapshot.
  4. Describe & Imagine: The group participants standing around the outside of the circle can now take some time to look closely at the image in front of them, and the facilitator invites group members to begin describing what they see — using their imaginations to construct stories, narratives, and relationships based on the visual and physical evidence they have before them (body pose, gestures, facial expression, clothing, etc.).  Begin to delve into questions of power — who has it? who doesn’t? what evidence indicates that?
  5. Thought Bubble: After you “interview” the group’s imagination and develop several stories about the image created by the 2 actors’ bodies, you can also use a paper or cardboard thought bubble to ask participants what they think the characters might be thinking — probing their internal thoughts and emotions.
  6. Shift & Re-Examine: Now, have the actors’ make a simple change to their pose that will flip the dynamic between their characters — sometimes as simple as having one of the actors kneel down, sit, or take a different physical position.  Re-interview the group participants about the new image, and what is different.  Has the power relationship changed?  Why?  What else might be going on here?  You can use the thought bubble again to probe the internal thoughts of the characters.
  7. Reflect: Wrap-up the exercise by inviting the entire group (including the actors) to reflect on what just happened?  What did they notice about this exercise? Emphasize how this exercise may have heightened their observation skills and brought out complexity from a series of simple body poses.
  8. Move to an Artwork: Direct the group to gather in front of a nearby painting or sculpture, bringing their close looking, excitement, and imagination from the theatre exercise to their analysis of the artwork.  Identify the “actors” in the painting, and probe the power relationships and dynamics among those figures or visual elements.  While this can work really well with a painting that includes figures, you can also take the leap to a more abstract work and challenge participants to see colors, visual forms, and brushstrokes as “actors” or characters within the work.  Discuss what the group sees in the work, and you can even pull out the cardboard thought bubble to gather insights into the thoughts or feelings of the characters or elements in the artwork.

Over the past year, I have used this exercise many times in the galleries with groups ranging from elementary school students to museum docents.  Each time, I feel that the experience taps into the social dynamic of museum learning and helps make visitors’ engagement with art (and with themselves) more active and meaningful.  And it’s fun!

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