Interview with Roberto Mazzini

Roberto Mazzini is the founder of the Italy-based “Cooperativa Giolli” (1992,, which uses the pedagogy of Paulo Freire and the methods of Theatre of the Oppressed. He is a former primary school teacher, psychologist and promotes a working approach, which combines theatre, psychology and non-violence. Roberto Mazzini is known as one of the leading figures of Italy’s Theatre of the Oppressed scene. With “Cooperativa Giolli”, he organizes biannual methodological trainings and projects in different communities, such as in prison and psychiatric communities. He has published various articles on the theory and praxis of Theatre of the Oppressed.

March 2015 by Robert Klement

Photo by Joschka Köck

…about never getting bored (of Theatre of the Oppressed), the well-covered mechanisms of power and the challenge of becoming united while respecting the differences of others


Robert: You wanted to avoid introducing yourself as you have done it many times before. So I give you the challenge of introducing yourself with only 10 words!


Roberto Mazzini: Theatre of the Oppressed practitioner, non-violence – 7 words are enough!


R: I’d be interested about the methods you use – next to Theatre of the Oppressed, what are the methodological approaches you work with?


RM: I use the community-based as well as the bio-systemic approach, which is a therapeutic approach. I do not use it to make group-therapy but as a way to lead the group. It combines bioenergetics (Alexander Lowen), the systemic approach (Paul Watzlawick, etc.) and the non-directive approach (Carl Rogers). Of course, I work with the pedagogy of Paulo Freire. Those are the main sources of my work.


R: In Italy, you introduced me to “Cooperativa Giolli”. I know about your general work and the biannual Theatre of the Oppressed training you’re offering. What would you describe as the main focus of your work there?


RM: It depends from the periods. We mostly work with psychiatric institutions and prisons. They are our main target groups. Regarding the topics we focus on gender issues, gender violence, conflict-resolution and active/participative citizenship. Sometimes there is also a link with legislative processes. In the past we have been working a lot with schools and communities for drug-addicts and we have also had some good projects with union officers.


R: You have been practicing Theatre of the Oppressed for 26 years. Did you ever get bored?


RM: Never. People often ask me: “Why don’t you change?” Well, I don’t change because I’m not bored with Theatre of the Oppressed. I try to include all the different things that I learn. There are too many things still to be developed. One example is a set of techniques called “Cops in the Head”. As far as I have experienced, some people working with those techniques have the tendency to shift together with the group, into a psychological approach - kind of a wild psychodrama with no limits. We started an year long course developing the idea of SPIC (social, political, ideological and cultural elements that affect the Cops and that should be addressed to avoid psychologizing the personal problems). I feel that we need to explore them more. Furthermore, I’d like to implement more legislative processes or to combine Theatre of the Oppressed with different ideas such as the systemic approach (psychology) or anarchy. In the end, I always work with different groups and every group brings its own challenge. Every time is new for me. So it’s hard to get bored.


R: What would you say has been the biggest change within your practice over the last 26 years?


RM: My colleagues and I have learned the basics of Theatre of the Oppressed from Rui Frati, a member of CTO Paris at that time. He has had a really strong emotional approach. I remember an exercise that was called “HATE AND LOVE”. The assignment was to remember two life events: one full of hate and one full of love. We went into a relaxing mode visualizing those episodes. Our eyes were closed and we tried to feel what we had felt before – kind of a Stanislawskian remembrance exercise. I remember that it was very strong for the group. After that, I used this exercise myself but soon I realized it was too much for people. So I forgot about it. Now I would like to use it in a different style beause is powerful but also risky.

I would like to use this as an example. My first impression with Theatre of the Oppressed was that we have to break down any resistance and any limits in order to push people to liberate themselves. I wanted to create strong events with Theatre of the Oppressed in order to affect people emotionally. I wanted them to react and liberate themselves. Soon I realized that this was not my way. Now, we take a lot more care of the emotions in the group. We have a different attention and we are careful about which kind of emotions we are creating in the group. My colleague is much more afraid than I am because he might not think about himself to be able to manage emotions in the group. So he is more careful. I am not afraid when people cry or scream. So sometimes I push in this direction, but with more awareness than in the past about how to close a session emotionally.

I think we are responsible for the reaction not only during the workshop but also the day after. If I open up something I try, in some way, to close it again. This is the main difference between the beginning and nowadays’ practice.

Secondly, I started with the idea that Forum Theatre is the “best” because the oppression is visible and there is a clear oppressor and a clear oppressed. They fight and our task is to help the audience to intervene and to fight against the person that represents the oppression. We were satisfied if the oppressor was kind of a devil. Later on, we tried to develop techniques to go deeper into the character and to explore contradictions (Boal’s will and counter-will) in order to make it more complex, just like in real life. We realized that otherwise it was too simple. I felt the risk that we would only try to trick or to overcome the oppressor instead of understanding that there is an oppressive system and chains of oppression – a system of forces that brings a person to play the role of the oppressor. Maybe he or she is a kind person and plays the role of the oppressor because of the system around. In order to create a model that was less trivial, we tried to understand how to develop further the forum play, the structure of the forum and the characters.

The third big change was to pass from an event like a Forum-theatre play to a project with many activities for a specific goal, including also activities out like debates, book presentations, meeting - in order to create strategies for real and concrete change.


R: Many people underline that Theatre of the Oppressed comes from a very clear political struggle against oppression and that it is very different nowadays. Oppression is more institutionalized. It’s harder to understand who or what the oppressor is or what the dynamics of oppression are. What do you think is the sense of Theatre of the Oppressed nowadays? How and where can it be applied most effectively?


RM: I hear very often that problems are more complex nowadays. Ok, oppressions are more complex. But when they are more complex, we need to put more complex situations on stage. I don’t think that more complex means that Theatre of the Oppressed is not useful anymore. I try to develop models where this complexity is included in order to help audiences to understand the complexity of the situation. Once, I had a debate about this topic with a sociologist that used the systemic approach and also the approach of Gregory Bateson. He said that “every element in a system has a role. So there is no sense to identify an oppressor or oppressed because in the dynamics of oppression the oppressive element is the relationship and not the person.” Of course, the oppressed person, as Freire said, maintains the system and is co-responsible of the oppression as long as he or she stays in the situation without trying to change it. So there is this kind of dynamics. But that doesn’t mean that they have the same power to change the situation. “Giolli” does not have the same power as our bank that gives us money with great resistence. Of course, the oppression is in the relationship but there are two sides – and one side has more power.

When 20% of the world’s population have 80% of the resources without sharing them but increasing the gap between rich and poor, when human future is in the hand of a restricted elite, when social class determines the probability to go to jail, to have access to education, to end up in psychiatric hospitals or to die of curable diseases, then worldwide oppression is happening. The mechanisms are well hidden but still they are happening.

Nothing of that is new to us – only the instruments of oppression are more sophisticated and hidden underneath the masks of “democracy” and “information”. The ideology that we are the best world that is possible ignores the differences of power within our relations and becomes a “wrong consciousness”, covering the real interests of power.

I think that Theatre of the Oppressed has its purpose as long as in society there is this inequality of power.


R: Imagine we were in a society where Giolli and the bank had the same amount of power. And the bank would give you all the money you wanted. You could develop “THE PROJECT”. What would be the one project that you would realize if you could?


RM:In Italy, I would like to implement a project in an area where organized criminality is strong. Maybe you think of Southern Italy but nowadays the mafia is also strong in the Northern regions of Italy.

Outside of Italy, I have good connections with Bolivia. I went there many times. I love the country and the people there. So I would like to implement a project with the natives, which are the majority of population in Bolivia. They have a very special culture and have their own way to manage justice. They have some kind of community justice, which can be very cruel. But it also reminds me of the possibility that communities or societies re-acquire the possibility to manage crime instead of delegating it to the justice system or the police.

The third project is to write. We have so many experiences, ideas and doubts and so little (paid) time to write. So I would like to write a book, articles and analysis of the different fields we intervened in.


R:And, as a last question: what do you think is the biggest challenge for the Theatre of the Oppressed Community and/or the Theatre of the Oppressed as a practice/method?


RM:The first thought that comes to my mind is about “difference in unity”. I created a workshop about that two years ago in Pula. The Theatre of the Oppressed movement is very diverse. There are different styles (of jokering, of leading workshops), there are differences in methodologies (the way you use the techniques), there are differences in the theoretical and political background (there are Anarchists, there are Christians, there are Marxists, etc.) and sometimes there are also differences in the ethical and political principles of Theatre of the Oppressed (in practice or in theory). I would like that some of those differences, not all of them, could be respected even if the movement would become more unified. What I see in Italy nowadays is that every group (Giolli included) more or less, ignores the existence of the other groups. There is a subtle competition for getting people – which is okay, on one hand, as we try to live from our work. But on the other hand it is a barrier to be more incisive. The same mechanism happens in every movement. Every movement starts and then, some differences show up. The competition between those differences starts to grow and grow until the movement splits. And then splits again. And then splits again and again. The left-wing parties are very good in doing that.

So how to connect each other and create a movement that is inclusive (considering differences on the methodological level, the theoretical level, the practical level, the technical level, styles, etc.)? I think that more confrontation would be useful.

In October, I was participating in the Italian Theatre of the Oppressed-festival in Naples. There were 100 people from all over Italy but mainly there was one performance after another. We have had no debate: because debate is risky? The risk is to be criticized and to criticize? This is really dangerous. One person came to me and said: “I am going to perform tomorrow, but I am afraid because I see you and other people with a lot of experience. So I’m afraid about your judgment.” I said that I wasn’t here to judge the work of other. I wanted to watch and to understand, to learn and maybe to give suggestions, if necessary or to ask questions if something was not convincing me. Then, a second person came to me with more or less the same words. People were afraid because I’m 60 years old and very experienced with Theatre of the Oppressed - not only me, there were also other people that are very experienced. So that is the big challenge that needs to be addressed – “to be united respecting the differences”.


R:Thank you!