Gender Shadow: An Invitation to Interrupt Injustice

By Evan Hastings

In the street and in our minds, the shadows of gender oppression dance against the fabric of society. At Srishti School of Art and Design, in Bangalore, India, I collaborated with Arzu Mistry in facilitating Gender Shadow, a participatory theatre project interrogating gender though shadow puppets, movement, improv theatre, and masks.

Gender Shadow was a 10-week endeavor of 20 young design students from all over India. Because our personal experiences of gender are part of a larger social narrative we creatively addressed gender violence and oppression through playful and personally meaningful dialogue.

In reality, even as an anti-oppression theatre project our improvisations were still saturated with gender stereotypes. The tension between traditional gender values and the modern desire for gender liberation was playing itself out in our rehearsals. Young women played ditzy characters objectifying themselves for chauvinistic males. Although the performers knew better, stereotypical characterizations were ever present. We were
at a sort of stalemate, at the crossroads of traditional patriarchy and modern feminism.

We challenged our own assumptions through sounds and hand shadows to dramatize gendered conflicts. Although we didn’t always embody the values we discussed, we remained open to seeing our own contradictions. This was critical as we moved to take our project to public venues.

Engagement from the participants was different than we anticipated. New ways of using the materials in space emerged as we spontaneously facilitated continuous engagement. Regardless of what we intended to happen, actual participation means relinquishing total control over the outcome.

We kept ourselves attentive to what was emerging in the moment as we entered a deeper phase of personal sharing with purpose. We all wrote out stories of how we or someone close to us has been impacted by gender violence and selected the most resonant pieces to expand into scenes for our public performances.

In our public performances, we warmed-up the audience to participation through creating a non-threatening, playful and inviting atmosphere. The responsibility to facilitate participation fell on the Jokers (Boal, 1979). The Jokers (like wild cards in the deck), kicked the show off with interactive games to engage spect-actors (spectators with the potential to be actors) with their bodies, the people sitting around them and the
actors on the stage (Boal, 1979).

With an engaged audience the play was performed once with shadows, music, masks and dance. Then the Jokers replayed a few scenes and invited the audience to interrupt the injustice on stage, replace a character who’s lacking power and try out an alternative action. The performers spontaneously responded to interventions by reacting in character, providing realistic resistance to any tactics brought by spect-actors. In the
end there was no right or wrong intervention, just a wider range of possible actions and consequences.

In Gender Shadow tradition all our show’s end in a dance party. It’s amazing how smoothly we can go from intense dialogue to night club style dance party. That’s Gender Shadow though, transforming trauma with rowdy resilience.

Photographs by Jackson Porretta.

Boal, A.(1979) Theatre of the Oppressed . London: Pluto


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