The Theater of the Oppressed Laboratory (TOPLAB) is an all-women facilitation team dedicated to teaching the techniques and methodology of the Theater of the Oppressed (TO) and to providing a forum for the practice, performance and dissemination of TO.
TOPLAB is the oldest organization in the United States practicing and teaching Theater of the Oppressed; it was founded in New York City in July 1990 as an outgrowth of a series of workshops presented by Augusto Boal at The Brecht Forum that same year.
TOPLAB is a group of educators, cultural and political activists and artists. Some of its members have received extensive training from and collaborated closely with Augusto Boal until his death in 2009. From 1990 until 2008, a year before his death, TOPLAB had initiated and organized intensive workshops in New York City, led by Boal, through the auspices of The Brecht Forum. Today, we continue a close collaboration with Julian Boal.
TOPLAB has also planned and led hundreds of training workshops in the techniques of the Theater of the Oppressed for specific organizations, communities and constituencies, and this practice is ongoing to the present day. In this capacity, TOPLAB has brought together people from diverse backgrounds, occupations, and organizations, and functioned as a resource, information, and networking center serving individuals and groups interested in theater for social change by conducting on-site training workshops on theater as an organizing tool for activists in neighborhood, labor, peace, human rights, youth and community-based organizations. We work with educators, human service and mental health workers, union organizers, and community and political activists who are interested in using interactive theater as a tool for analyzing and exploring solutions to problems of oppression and power that arise in the workplace, school, and community—problems connected to racism, sexism, xenophobia, homophobia, unemployment, AIDS, substance abuse, family violence, homelessness, etc. TOPLAB views these problems structurally, and recognizes them as, ultimately, problems inherent to capitalism.
TOPLAB also presents monthly one- and two-day intensive workshops in the various techniques of Theater of the Oppressed at several different venues in New York City. These monthly workshops, which take place from early Fall to late Spring, are open to the general public and no prior theater or TO experience is needed to participate.
Just as the principal goal of popular education is to change the power relations in our society and to create mechanisms of collective power over all the structures of society, so too the principal goal of TOPLAB is to help groups explore and transform power relations of domination and subjugation that give rise to oppression. Within this learning process: 1) all participants are learners; 2) all participate in and contribute equally to the production of knowledge, which is a continuous dialogue; 3) the learners are the subject and not the object of the process; 4) the objective of the process is to liberate participants from both internal and external oppression, so as to make them capable of changing their reality, their lives, and the society they live in.
The problem directly addressed by TOPLAB is one that underlies the very process of organizing for democratic and radical social change: the relationship of means to end. The way people conceive of a specific problem—how they see themselves within it, how they interact with others who share similar oppressions, and how they organize (or not organize) to propose and achieve solutions, is part of the problem itself. In other words, the nature of group process—specifically, the need to establish democratic group process as the means to achieving participatory democracy—needs to be addressed. One of the challenges of organizing, for example, is that marginalized people often lack confidence in their own thinking and ability to strategize, and therefore look to organizers for answers, and due to expediency, they may not find within the group the necessary support structures for developing strong leadership skills. Thus, despite meaningful victories the group may be able to achieve by following the lead of the organizer, this dynamic perpetuates long-term dependency and disempowerment.
In addition to the monthly workshops in New York City, TOPLAB and its facilitators have presented workshops for both the general public and for specific constituencies elsewhere in New York and throughout the United States, and internationally in Afghanistan, Azerbaijan, Colombia, Cuba, the Dominican Republic, Guatemala, India, Iraq, Japan, Mexico, Pakistan, Senegal and elsewhere, and TOPLAB facilitators have participated in Theater of the Oppressed festivals in Brazil and France.
In addition to English-language workshops, TOPLAB can present workshops in Spanish and French, and can also do multilingual facilitations.
TOPLAB will neither facilitate workshops for, nor accept funding from for-profit corporations and similar enterprises.