Interview with David Diamond

Interview David Diamond, founding member and Artistic Director of Headlines Theatre Canada, originator of “Theatre for Living” as well as community artist that has worked in various contexts all over the world.

February 2014 by Robert Klement

Photo: Tim Matheson
Photo: Tim Matheson

Theatre to help us live.


Robert: How did you get into the theatre? When did you realize “That’s my thing, that’s the thing I want to work with”?


David: I fell into the theatre. When I was 13years old, all of the sudden I started writing. It came from nowhere. I did not grow up in a cultural house. But poetry started pouring out of me. I couldn’t stop it. By the time I was 15, I decided I wanted to be a writer. I tried to get into a writing program in my school but here weren’t any. There was a drama course…I had never been to see a play before in my life. I had no relationship to the theatre but I managed to organize a theatre class in my school.

So I took this drama course. All of the sudden I was doing things in drama that I would have gotten punished for outside and I was getting applauded for in the drama course. I looked at that and went “Wow!” So I decided to go to theatre school. I ended up in one of the two professional theatre training programs in Canada – I went to Edmonton, Alberta - a very good classical training in the theatre but very few things about that prepared me for what I’m doing now. I graduated from there in 1976, became an actor in radio, film, television and theatre all across Western Canada and was unhappy. Because the actor’s job is to sit by the telephone and say “yes” to any shit that comes along. It wasn’t in my nature. Eventually I and other people decided to make a play of our own that meant something. Headlines Theatre was born out of that in 1981. We were good at doing Agitprop-Theatre. We would decide what the issue was, we would go and interview people living those issues and we would lock ourselves in a room pretending we were them and write a play about them…for them… and we were good at it. It can be very powerful but I wanted to know if you could do it with people, not for or at them. I made some friends in the UK, John McGrath, who was the director of 7:84 theatre company in Scotland and David Johnston who was the director of the Theatre Centre in London. I got them to invite me to come. Before leaving I wanted something to read. I walked into a bookstore and found this book by this guy I had never heard of: Paulo Freire. I liked the title “Pedagogy of the Oppressed”. I had no idea what it was. I was travelling through Europe reading this book and it was blowing my mind because it was answering the question I had. Then, I got to Manchester to a conference where there was a demonstration about this Forum Theatre thing by this guy Augusto Boal. I was sitting in the audience going “Wow! That’s what I’m reading about in this book.” Boal was in Paris, the beauty of Europe. He was doing a skills sharing session in 10 days. Off I went to Paris. Augusto and I hit it off. We became friends and here we are.


The theatre story is one thread of a larger story, though. This is how life works. I also have an interest, since childhood, in human rights. Of course as a child this starts from a very personal place. I have been very fortunate in that I have been able to bring together these two (and other) interests….theatre and human rights…into my vocation – into how I spend my life.


R: I read your book last year and just joined your 5 day masterclass in Rotterdam. Much of your work refers to and is based on things that are part of the “Theatre of the Oppressed”. So why did you chose to give it a different name, why make another method – and why “Theatre for Living”?


D: By around 1986 I was really doing Theatre of the Oppressed. It was really powerful. I liked it, communities liked it. By 1992 invitations started to come that were asking me to really change the model. People loved the work but they didn’t like what it was doing inside their communities. They didn’t like turning their communities into oppressors and oppressed. They needed something different where it wasn’t about the good guy and the bad guy. They needed work that acknowledged that the person who we would label the oppressor actually was in crisis and needed healing…inside a family that needed healing; inside a community that needed healing. This was very challenging for me. I come out of a family where there was a lot of violence. I was very connected to the idea that there were monsters out there who were simply the oppressor. It was just that clear. It also made my political organizing much simpler. But the people making this invitation, a First Nations organization in Vancouver, were right.

We created this very powerful play and yes, there was an abuser. We hated what he was doing but we had compassion for the man in the crisis. People recognized the crisis he was in. The abuser was inside them for so many different reasons. They could replace him – not with magic, not to abuse better but to break the cycles of abuse. This was very powerful work. It was not magic and that really challenged me. It made me rethink my own work. That was one step in many steps that tied into my own interest in physics and how everything is interconnected with everything else energetically. So the work started to change over many years. Theatre of the Oppressed-practitioners were coming to me and they were going “You’re doing it wrong.” But I wasn’t doing it wrong, I was doing it different. I felt like I was being put in a prison. This wasn’t Theatre of the Oppressed anymore – so what was it? I needed to call it something else- both, out of respect to Augusto and to free myself.

I know it sounds like a strange story: I was doing Tai Chi one day and the name “Theatre for Living” bubbled up out of the Tai Chi. Theatre for Living, theatre to help us live. Part of that was also me getting tired and frustrated as an activist with making theatre that was against the world I didn’t want. How do we change that paradigm to try to create the world that we do want? I think that Theatre of the Oppressed is a tremendous gift and in a healthy ecology there are many different ways of working. The Theatre of the Oppressed is a language. People need to be very careful – it is not a dogma. When Sigmund Freud died, Freud’s disciples dug their heels in, tried to freeze psychotherapy and almost killed it. This has happened over and over again with many different things. When Freire died his disciples dug their heels in and tried to freeze Freire’s work. I think in some parts of the world this is happening now with Theatre of the Oppressed. My hope is that time will pass and things will relax. Trying to write a rulebook for Theatre of the Oppressed is very unhealthy. I understand it’s trying to protect Boal’s work but it’s actually disrespectful to his work. Because what he did, the gift he gave us, was to break the rules. So we don’t respect him now by writing a rulebook.


R: A living organism is a learning organism - what do you think is the learning that is needed for the Theatre of the Oppressed community (or participatory theatre community) at the moment? What do you think are the new challenges or tasks for this organism, for this community?


D: To understand that a healthy movement has a diverse ecology. We turned Augusto into a guru. We did that – he didn’t do that. Boal and I were very fond of each other. We had conversations about being brothers. So, this is not meant to be disrespectful to him. He was a tremendous human being – but he was not a god. He was a man. We have to understand that, because all of us have the ability to innovate, to create our own work. If we can’t do that then Theatre of the Oppressed dies. The proof that something has died is that it stops evolving. We have a responsibility to keep innovating Theatre of the Oppressed, Theatre for Living, Theatre for Dialogue, Theatre for Liberation….theatre. And to understand that regardless of what label we attach to the work, we are all part of the same diverse community.


R: Theatre of the Oppressed as well as Theatre of Living and many other techniques, in one way or another, are community theatre techniques. What’s in there for the communities? What do you think communities actually gain from this work?


D: A number of things. They gain the ability to speak – as Boal would say a primal language that belongs to all of humanity. The very active speaking of that language, regardless of the subject matter, is healthy for a community…to express itself, even if it was just that. That would be a good thing. But there is, of course, more than that. Through the work communities that are integral communities but also communities that are in disagreement with each other can go into real dialogue and create a space where they can actually see, hear and feel each other. This is a way to bridge differences and to recognize, in fact, that we don’t all have to be the same. In my own terms, regardless of what it feels like, in the end there really is no “them”. There really is only “us” here. Regardless of how different we may be from each other and how much we might disagree with each other.


R: Last question – that we have discussed yesterday. Is David Diamond your real name or is it an artistic name?


D: (laughing) Yes, it’s my real name.


R: Thank you for this interview!