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Compassionate Listening Meets The Theatre of the Oppressed in the Classroom

By Katie Sarah Zale, Compassionate Listening Facilitator

Paulo Freire, one of the most influential philosophers of education in the twentieth century,

advocated for an active rather than passive approach to learning. He believed knowledge should be linked to social activism. What we learn should prompt us to action, to make the world a better place. His pedagogy has been foundational to my own for over twenty years of teaching.

Freire (pronounced Fray-ree) eschewed the well-established "banking" philosophy of education, whereby teachers deposit information into the minds of students for them to withdraw for classroom playback and tests. In its place, he proposed "problem-posing" education in which students, teachers, and communities interactively utilize research and their personal experiences to generate many answers that, in the service of curiosity over certainty, spawn more questions.

The drama theorist, political activist, and Brazilian compatriot of Freire, Augusto Boal,

was inspired by Freire's Pedagogy of the Oppressed (1970). He went on to found Theatre of the Oppressed (T.O.), also called Forum Theatre (1973). As with Freire's approach to education, T.O. invites critical thinking and encourages analysis over acceptance; it evokes questions over regurgitation of banked information. Boal transformed theatre so that members of the audience become active participants in the play; the audience has the opportunity to alter—not the premise of the play nor the main problem—but the outcome.

Students create a two-minute play about an ongoing problem in society. The roles of the

characters in the script are based on Stephen B. Karpman's & "Drama Triangle" (1961), a tool used in Compassionate Listening workshops. Demonstrating one side of the triangle, the characters are victims, rescuers or bystanders, or oppressors / persecutors.

The play is presented to the audience once, and then again. During this second time,

anyone in the audience may call out, "Stop!" and enter the play, replacing one of the cast, typically a rescuer or bystander. The idea is to see if the new actor, the "spect-actor" can bring insight to and mitigate the problem. Once the new actor has completed their effort, they explain what they were trying to do and receive feedback from the other actors as to what success was achieved.

This process is repeated with a new spect-actor. Ideally, the new spect-actors learn from

the success and mistakes of those spect-actors who came before. The goal is to flip Karpman's triangle to other ways of addressing a conflict, to transform oppressors into challengers, victims into creators, and rescuers or bystanders into allies.

Unfortunately, transformation is often elusive. The typical guest audience soon realizes

their skills have failed them in altering the problem. They learn they are quite adept at acting as oppressors, spectators or rescuers, and victims.

It is then that I invite students of mine—who have been trained in Compassionate

Listening—to volunteer as spect-actors.

The result? Fireworks of the imagination! The Compassionate Listening spect-actors are

sparks of promise for ways to address a conflict previously dismissed as hopeless.

This is the beauty of Compassionate Listening: it offers hope. Possibility.


Katie Sarah Zale is the creator of The Listening Tree Project (LTP), an academic program with Compassionate Listening and interactive theatre (Theatre of the Oppressed) as its foundational tools. Formerly an English teacher at Shoreline Community College and Cascadia College in Washington, Katie used LTP as a vehicle to introduce Compassionate Listening and interactive theatre as across-the-curriculum tools to increase multicultural understanding and to create citizens of the world. LTP promoted a climate of equality, justice, and respect for all people, and facilitated student leadership development. Katie published her first poetry book, The Art of Folding, following her travels with the Compassionate Listening Project to Israel and Palestine. Her collection, Sometimes We Do Things, celebrates a re-envisioning and celebration of Detroit. She is the co-editor of the anthology Strange Fruit: Poems on the Death Penalty. In addition, she runs a dog training program entitled “Compassionate Communication with Your Dog.” Visit her website:

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