Gopal Midha Part 2: Theater as a Method for Developing Educational Leaders

We are excited to learn more from Dr. Gopal Midha on his unique methods for understanding and developing educational leaders. If you have not yet checked out Part 1 of this blog on the role of “unplanned meetings” please do so by clicking here.

In the previous post, I shared about my journey from banking into education as a way to do something more meaningful than achieving financial security. My upbringing in a middle-class neighborhood in New Delhi led me into experiences of celebrating the richness of diversity and facing discrimination based on what language I spoke and what caste I belonged to. These experiences etched into me the desire to support diversity, equity and inclusion. It was not until a cold winter at Amherst, during my Master’s in Education, that I got formally trained in Augusto Boal’s Theater of the Oppressed (TO) and realized that theater was a powerful method for developing educational leaders and teachers. What I loved most was that, as compared to conventional scripted theater which brings up performance anxiety, Boal’s unscripted and improvised TO gave me a toolkit that required people to connect with their bodies to explore ideas and concepts. Subsequently, I adapted games and activities from Playback theater, theater of Living, and Improv theater to add more to my building leadership through theater toolkit. In the last decade, I have facilitated more than 30 workshops and classroom sessions using theater inspired games and activities to people ranging from ages 18-70 years in both India and the US.

Since theater evokes multiple images, I first illustrate one activity from using theater for educational leadership to describe what a theater for leadership workshop looks like which I will also situate the points I make later. 

Imagine a large classroom with chairs set against the walls. There are 20 people present: school principals, teacher-leaders, and assistant principals. Today’s agenda is to explore instructional leadership. 

Stage 1 (Come back to the body). We begin with a few minutes of physical check-in. The focus is to come back to the body for which I will use activities like mindful breathing, walking fast and slow, and/or simple stretches based on participants’ physical ability. 

Stage 2 (Let the silent group image begin). As participants begin to get more into the flow of their physical bodies, I ask them to form groups of 4-5 members. I do this a couple of times to get people to form different groups and not just get together with their friends. Now, I give them cue-words (e.g., fan, clock, lamp, time, coffee-shop) and the groups have to form a group image (frozen picture) using just their bodies—in silence. I usually give them 10 seconds to make an image for the first couple of cue-words and progressively reduce it to 5 seconds to form the group image. The lack of talk and the less time usually encourages participants to create an improvised image together. Often the participants tell me later that they were surprised by how they did not require a “leader” to make a cohesive group image and that silence made it easier to create a group image. And yes, 5 seconds is usually enough!

Stage 3 (Educational leadership images) My next cue-words relate to concepts in education (E.g, classroom, instruction, leadership). Again, we move from having 10 seconds to 5 seconds and honoring the pact of silence. To illustrate, I show here images from a theater workshop with school principals and senior officials in Mumbai who were asked to form a group image that represents their conception of “leadership.”

Stage 4 (Debrief). Now, I provide a few minutes of silence for everyone to breathe and reflect on the process of creation of educational images. Then, I will bring back one group image and debrief it with the participants. For debrief, I use questions to bring out the nature of the concepts embodied in the group image. For example, as you might see in the pictures, both the leadership images are formed with participants standing, with their arms surrounding a person in the middle. So, my questions were:

  • Who is the person in the middle representing? 
  • Who are the people surrounding this central person? 
  • Why are people not sitting? Why are their arms outstretched?
  • What is going on here?
  • What does this say about leadership?
  • If you could, what would you change in this image to show a more equitable conception of leadership?
  • How could you show a celebration of diversity in this image?

While the process above does not capture the complexity of the questions and how these build on participant responses, I hope it gives you an idea of how I use the group images to make visible the participant preconceptions of leadership and when needed, nudge them towards more innovative models of equity and inclusion. 

I have used this approach to uncover many other ideas such as “what they believe it means to be an inclusive school leader?” and “what a staff meeting or board meeting should look like?” This image shows one example of how school leaders illustrated a staff meeting. What emerges from these methods is that leaders may often hold unconscious preconceptions that do not match what they say. In the terms coined by Argyris and Schon, people’s espoused theory is at odds with theory-in-use. Theater helps surface the difference. More importantly, leaders become aware of their current approach and begin to shift to one they may actually want to adopt in their school. The objective here is not to determine whether one approach is better than another, but to create a space to unearth these understandings through fun ways and expose leaders to different models of leadership or meetings that they might consider. 

I have found many benefits of using this kind of theater-based approach to understand and support educational leadership. First, the use of the body provides participants a felt-sense of leadership concepts and ideas. These experiences, I have been told by participants, stay with them longer. Secondly, the group images provide a visual object to discuss and debrief leadership concepts. Thirdly, the swiftness of the process also uncovers hidden assumptions about leadership. Fourthly, the participants (and I) have more fun while conducting these sessions- which I believe is essential to learning.   

Having worked across educational contexts in India and the United States, I have found theater to be an effective method to nudge leaders to reflect on their practices in a safe, supportive, and fun environment. I have found that leaders in both these countries welcome the opportunity to reflect on their models of leadership practice in an embodied way. The leaders often tell me that when they heard theater they were intrigued (sometimes scared), but it turned into a pleasant surprise when they used their bodies to enact their work and thinking. I hope this encourages more educators to embrace and bring the body back into teaching-learning and leadership. Theater transcends the barriers of language and playing with the silence can transform mundane moments into moments of revelation and revolution. To quote Augusto Boal, “…theater itself is not revolutionary: it is a rehearsal for the revolution.”

If you are interested in learning more about this facilitation approach or even trying it out I welcome you to access my theater of the Oppressed A Manual for Educators or contact me at gm2hx@virginia.edu.

Thank you Gopal for this enjoyable introduction to your work and your innovative style. We look forward to hearing more from you moving forward!

Maxie and Paula