Acting for Change: Integrating Social Justice, Somatic Awareness and Theatre

Linda Stever, Leticia Nieto, & Liz Goodwin

Posted  March 8, 2007

Acting for Change is an experimental improvisational theater company focused on anti-oppression. Headquartered in Olympia, WA, the group formed in the fall of 2004 under the direction of Leticia Nieto, PhD. It sprang from her vision to integrate social justice education, transformative conflict, somatic awareness, and theatre to address the realities of oppression and create tools for liberation. Dr. Nieto, experienced in playback theatre and psychodrama as well as teaching and psychotherapy, provides the essential direction and training for the group. In its first two years, 2004-2006, the format for the group was a series of monthly classes totaling 36 hours and spread over nine months. The classes were taught by Dr. Nieto to ground members in her anti-oppression model and skills sets as well as the key theater forms. The format for 2007 is two weekend intensive sessions, also totaling 36 hours, with the same content: anti-oppression theory and techniques, playback theatre, theatre of the oppressed, authentic movement, and performance art. Eighteen students are currently enrolled. Counselors, teachers, healthcare-providers, and directors from all backgrounds join Acting for Change to expand their toolbox of skills in conflict resolution, healing, education, and leadership.

By the end of the course, participants are familiar with Dr. Nieto’s pioneering anti-oppression training model, Beyond Inclusion. In addition, participants become fluent in a series of playback theater forms such as chorus, tableau, fluids, pairs and self-presentations, as well as theatre of the oppressed techniques. We also explore transformative conflict and peacemaking. Each year the course closes with a performance by the group.

At this year’s first day of Acting for Change, Dr. Leticia Nieto described the course as a place “to develop alternative channels and ways of consciousness.” Instead of thinking, writing or dialoguing about social change, this project dives into the automated, programmed places of our socialized, physiological make-up to access our authentic self. Acting for Change is about embodying the work we too often limit to discussion. Instead of the oppressor or the oppressed, in Acting for Change we work with the mover/actor and the witness, attempting to be present, open, and available for movement and change. In Acting for Change theater is a lab to liberate untapped resources and states of awareness to discover pathways for re-humanization. Nieto believes that if you appeal only to the literal layer of diversity work, you’re appealing to a far too limited, thin layer of consciousness. “Let your body talk,” she says, “and we’ll have a revolution on our hands.”

The program has several core elements, including ritual space, anti-oppression theory and practice, pure witness, playback theatre and theatre of the oppressed, and performance art.


Acting for Change follows a ritualized sequence of activities, predicated on working with a clear intention, both for individuals and the group, truly a case where the whole is bigger than the sum of the parts. By using ritual in numerous ways and in multiple layers, we create a facilitated space for transformation, also called the “integrity of the field.” As in any playback theater performance environment, the space must be permissive, allow for confession, and support expression of the uglier sides of ourselves. We begin each day with warm-up activities, connecting us through encountering and embodying our present feeling states and what is currently active for each of us. Guided relaxation and visualization are used to support group members in entering a meditative state from which they can call out the transpersonal voice, a voice that speaks in images, metaphor, allegory, and narrative, much like the language of dreams. We end each class with activities meant to touch on and remember pieces of the day, connect with one another one last time, and ritually close the space.

Circle activity: In this warm-up activity, there is an inside circle and an outside circle. Everyone on the inside of the circle starts with a scarf in hand and stands facing a partner in the outside circle. Those in the outside circle are asked the first in a series of self-revelatory questions. The partner in the inside circle only listens. This is not a dialogue. When the person is finished speaking and the bell rings, the partner plays back what they heard. Their job is to really listen to the core feeling or theme and become that. It could be freedom, pain, fear, love, or sleepiness. After this exchange is completed, the circle rotates and each person on the inside circle takes a turn to speak to a new partner. This cycle goes on until each person ends where they started, with that same original partner.


Acting for Change is grounded in a model of anti-oppression theory and practice developed by Dr. Nieto. The model includes three layers of social analysis and interaction: status, which is about style; rank, which is about social membership; and power, which is about transpersonality. Examination of rank memberships uses the classification of social roles developed by Pam Hayes in her ADRESSING Model: age, disability, religion, ethnicity, social class, sexual orientation, indigenous background, national origin, and gender. Our intention is to create work actively with the notion that the truth about people transcends their social memberships, and simultaneously that the reality of social memberships results in the marginalization of some and the unearned privilege of others. The group learns Dr. Nieto’s skills development model for the agent, or dominant parts of a person's social memberships, and her skills development model for the target, the marginalized parts of a person's social memberships. The three layers of social interaction and the related skills sets anchor our work.

Skills simulation: In this exercise, 5-10 participants volunteer to participate. Others witness them as they embody the developmental skills of the agent, from indifference about target group members into distancing, inclusion, awareness and finally allyship. These are the five agent skills sets. Participants are guided through each skills set through narrative. They start out hearing – “Walk like you do each day – maybe you’re busy, you’ve got things to do and places to go.” As participants walk around the room, they are reminded – “You deserve to be happy,” “Everything will work out for you,” or “You are smart, capable, and important.” As the exercise continues and participants embody each of the five skills sets, they gradually experience the reality that the floor they’re walking on consists of the heads of people and that every step they take is very, very painful to others. They must be careful and yet even when they are careful, being aware of their social rank requires holding a certain level of both tension and thoughtfulness.


Witness work is at the heart of Acting for Change. Personal, interpersonal and social transformation evolves more fully from the experience of being an authentic witness rather than from verbal processing or dialogue. So often in conversations about difference, the amount of interference, conditioning, translation, and context is so extreme that even if the experience is positive and people think they have communicated, they actually have not. With access to layers of consciousness beyond our conditioned, patterned ways of operating and thinking, we are more available to witness, listen, and be moved. As a witness, you are not claiming to understand but simply to receive or be moved.

Authentic movement technique: A group of participants volunteers to go first. There may be 5, 8 or 10 people who do the movement. The rest of the group acts as a witnesses to the movers. Before the exercise begins, everyone learns the witness stance, arms outstretched. Elbows are even with shoulders and hands are open instead of closed in, conveying receptivity. Each mover chooses a witness and makes eye contact with that person. The witness meets that eye contact and agrees to be partnered as a witness. The movers are then guided to the center of the room to close their eyes and begin moving freely. If they touch or bump into another mover, they are asked to gently say hello and good-bye with their movements instead of abruptly touching and/or pulling away. The role of the witness is two-fold: to listen with their eyes and whole body to the mover and to listen to their own internal experiences unfolding. Ideally, witnesses are moved by the movers. After a few minutes of movement, movers open their eyes, connect with their witness, and come back to the larger group. They sit in a circle at the center of the room and share whatever they would like about their experience. The group switches roles and now the movers are the witnesses and vice versa.

Playback Theater / Theatre of the Oppressed

Our theater practice is a model for working with people in a variety of venues. The experience of improvisation and spontaneity prepares one for the role of mediator and translator. When we are actors in someone else's story, we are mediating between one part of the teller and another part of the teller. The person that watches the story being played and receives the story being played is not the same person who told the story. It is as if we are practicing mediation skills with just that one person and at the same time mediating between, for example, a target teller and all the agents in the audience, a task that would be impossible in another setting. As a result, the teller is affirmed, confirmed, and most important, freed from the drama. In that way, the experience is very healing. Further, audience members who have no direct, personal experience with the type of marginalization represented in the story are less likely to fall into the trap of thinking they know what it's all about or minimizing what they have just heard in order to take care of themselves. Since the experience in our company allows us the luxury of being teller, actor and audience, those of us who work as counselors, mediators, and in other professional roles have the unique opportunity to transfer our learning to that work.

In our playback pieces, we work with training ourselves to be neutral witnesses to each other's stories, to be mediators between the teller and the story, as well as between the teller and the audience. We rotate through the roles of conductor, actor, artist and musician. We are also actively building community, not through dialogue about oppression, but through giving each other as teller the utmost trust and respect to be the expert about our own story and experience. We find that when we bear witness in this way, from a consciousness that is deeper and more resourced, a consciousness that we've awakened through interactive and authentic movement exercises, we are able to move beyond interpretation of the teller's story. This intensifies and deepens it for the teller. The fact that we have five actors simultaneously participating in the performance, as well as the conductor, musician and artist, means that each of us on stage brings the most raw and fresh version of whatever rises in us, and that we are midwifing a story that is multi-faceted, multi-layered, and complete for the teller. As audience members for each other, we are able to be moved and changed, completely and radically, not by what we understand, which would naturally be fraught with our conditioning and our filters, but by what we witness, a phenomenon we hope to bring to audiences in future public performances. We find that the stories told in our sessions are not old news, but are current, available, alive, unresolved stories that give all of us the invitation to be transformed by their immediacy.

Teams of three: Get into teams of three. Two people stand facing one person. Then one person will tell their story. The two listeners will play back the story by essentializing the feelings. This means that you become that feeling rather than being a person with the feeling.

Tune in a question: Walk around the room. Do not walk in a circle. Just walk in whatever way your body tells you to walk. Now tune in a question. Walk like your question. Embody it. Gather around into a circle. Two people at time will walk out into the circle and be their questions with each other, in dialogue. Communicate your questions interactively. You can use sound. Enter into the center of the circle, share your question dialogue, and go back to the larger circle.

Theatre of the oppressed: Get into groups of four. Each person freeze the rest of your group into a scene from your life related to oppression. Each person in the story has a motion and a statement. Tell them what that is. Have the group activate the scene just as you asked. After they have done three rounds of the scene, freeze them. Say the title of the scene. Now go to the next person and do the same thing for each person in your group.

Performance Art

The final goal for Acting for Change has been to do a yearly performance that includes a performance art installation, a gallery of actors working with agent and target memberships and archetypes, open to audience interaction. The performance space also includes an arena where actors perform agent/target conflicts and where those conflicts are replayed using different skills sets or are mediated. We also include a playback theater stage, where audience members have the space to tell stories that have been activated by what they've seen and experience all the dimensions of witnessing those stories being played back. This once-a-year event is the culmination of our company's work, an event where all of us come together to take our collective experience, consciousness, and ongoing practice into direct action.

In 2005, AFC members finished the course with an interactive installation of animal-like characters in a zoo-like setting. The gallery of actors worked with one of their agent memberships (gender, class, race, etc.) and one of their target memberships (gender, class, race, etc.). One performer flowed between her agent role as White/Caucasian and her target role as Jewish. In her target role, for example, she would engage with audience members, as she would ask them, “What is a Jew?” then write down and frantically organize responses from audience members into piles on the ground. She would become suddenly upset, begin to cry, then frantically ask again, “What is a Jew?” “Are you Jewish enough?” After audience members circulated from one piece to the next and had time to interact with all of the performers, the troupe reworked the space into an audience/stage set-up. The group then performed playback, using stories told by people in the audience.

In 2006, AFC members finished the course with an interactive performance featuring a medical motif. Audience members entered the space by completing a medical examination involving a survey of their agent and target memberships in medical jargon. Instead of asking audience members if they are a target or agent of racism, the form might ask if they have a certain symptom or not. If they ended up with lots of symptoms, they were deemed in need of serious medical treatment. Performers greeted audience members at the door in funky doctor/nurse uniforms, pink wigs, netted tights, and high heels. Inside the space, audience members watched a series of performances by AFC members – all with psychological/medical themes and depicting agent and target memberships in a self-revelatory way. After these short pieces, the group invited and played back stories from the audience in a full playback theater performance.

Three Branches

Graduates of Acting for Change can take their learning in many directions. The first branch is a group of educators who are interested in conducting anti-oppression training in ways that reflect our work. The second branch are those who will incorporate their experiences in our group into their professional lives as counselors, mediators, and others kinds of agents of change. This can include organizational consultation with Dr. Nieto and/or incident response/conflict resolution work as well. The third branch is to become part of a group interested in service-oriented performance. This troupe will do performances with legislators, non-profits, state agencies and teachers/educators.

If you would like more information, please contact Dr. Nieto at CUETZPALIN@AOL.COM.


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Boal, Augusto and Jackson, Adrian. The Rainbow of Desire: The Boal Method of Theatre and Therapy. London: Routledge, 1995.

Boal, Augusto and Jackson, Adrian. Legislative Theatre: Using Performance to Make Politics. London: Routledge, 1998.

Boal, Augusto. Games for Actors and Non-Actors. New York: Routledge, Taylor & Francis Group, 2002.

Hays, Pamela A. “Addressing the Complexities of Culture and Gender in Counseling,” Journal of Counseling and Development, March/April 1996, Vol. 74.

Nieto, L., Boyer, M., and Johnson, G. Beyond Inclusion: A Developmental Strategy to Liberate Everyone. Unpublished manuscript draft, June 2006.

Salas, Jo. Improvising Real Life: Personal Story in Playback Theatre. Dubuque, IA: Kendall/Hunt Publishing Company, 1996.