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Games are at the foundation of Theatre of the Oppressed, and no game characterizes TO better than Colombian Hypnosis. The game's name comes from its point of origin: While in exile from his native Brazil, TO founder Augusto Boal developed many wordless techniques with indigenous Latin Americans. It was with a group of non-Spanish-speaking Colombians that Colombian Hypnosis was first realized.
Here I give the basic technique, as taught by Boal and many people in the U.S. and Europe. In a workshop, the game is often used as a transition point out of ice-breakers and into deeper conversations about power and oppression. Jana Sanskriti—the Indian Theatre of the Oppressed movement founded in West Bengal—uses Colombian hypnosis as a segue into working with still images, as well as a surrealistic theatre technique in their Forum plays. Their techniques are given below.
Colombian Hypnosis in pairs:
- Participants pair off and choose who's Ⓐ and who's Ⓑ. Ⓐ puts a hand—fingers pointed up, palm facing out—about 8" (20cm) from Ⓑ's face. Ⓐ is the hyponotist. Ⓑ is hypnotized.
- Moving very slowly and in total silence, Ⓐ leads Ⓑ around the space, playing with height, angle, position and rhythm, yet always keeping the movements very slow. Ⓑ must follow Ⓐ's hand, keeping the same distance and perspective at all times, as if hypnotized by it. Ⓐ's job is to challenge Ⓑ while remaining within the range of possibility as far as what Ⓑ can do.
- After several minutes (as few as 5, as many as 30) Ⓐ and Ⓑ switch roles. Now Ⓑ hypnotizes Ⓐ for the same length of time that Ⓐ hypnotized Ⓑ.
- After each has had a turn playing both hypnotist and hypnotized, both Ⓐ and Ⓑ put a hand in front of each other's faces, both hypnotizing and being hypnotized simulataneously.
- Debrief, first in Ⓐ/Ⓑ pairs, then as an entire group—this part is very important. For most groups the facilitator need do very little to get an insightful dialogue going!
Variation in threes:
Same as Colombian Hypnosis in pairs, but now with Ⓐ, Ⓑ and Ⓒ. Each takes a turn using two hands to hypnotize the other two.
Variation in fives:
A single hypnotist hypnotizes four others, one on each hand, one on each foot.
Variation in groups:
A chosen hypnotist stands in the middle with all others choosing to be hypnotized by different body parts at different distances. The hypnotist must move very slowly in this variation, as the smallest movement can send certain people flying across the space at great speeds!
Endless Hypnosis combinations are possible: a single hypnotsist can manipulate long chains or large mobs of hypnotized masses with each hand, or group members can randomly select to be hypnotized by body parts of unknowing participants—be creative!
Colombian Hypnosis in India: a gateway to Image Theatre
I learned this method in workshops with Sanjoy Ganguly, one the founders of Jana Sanskriti Centre for Theatre of the Oppressed in Badu, West Bengal. It begins with any game of Colombian Hypnosis given above—usually the 2-person or 3-person versions—with the following steps added:
- All participants freeze or resume moving at a signal from the facilitator. These freezes can be rapid intervals, or long (sometimes uncomfortable) holds.
- During a freeze, the facilitator can select one pair or group to remain frozen while all others come and look at the image and voice their observations. These first observations are objective, meaning that they are factual, physical characteristics of the image, not speculations as to what's going on.
- After several objective observations, people can offer subjective observations: Who are these people? What are they doing, thinking, and feeling? What is their relationship? What happened before this? What will happen next?
- After a number of observations, people resume the game until another freeze and another image is chosen for analysis.
This technique can go in many directions, and it tends to move the surreal narrative of Colombian Hypnosis into something more concrete. The facilitator may ask for participants to modify the image, or to dynamize it with movements, sounds or words. Jana Sanskriti also uses Colombian Hypnosis in their plays (pictured here) to illustrate power dynamics in a symbolic fashion. If you're rehearsing a play, try using Colombian Hypnosis as a rehearsal technique by having one character hypnotize one or two others while they say their lines. Or use Colombian Hypnosis as a "Mini Forum" by instructing the hypnotized to creatively break out from under the control of their hypnotist—again, the possibilities are endless!