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Student uses theater to examine, inspire social change

Theatre major Pablo Hernandez Basulto, AMD’18, poses for a portrait. Photo by Matthew Modoono/Northeastern University

Northeastern student Pablo Hernandez Basulto spent five months earlier this year working on theatre projects in Rio de Janeiro and London that engaged homeless people in the arts. The impactful opportunities, he said, allowed him to delve deeper into his passion to explore theatre for social change.

Theater, Hernandez Basulto said, can offer a window into larger societal questions, and through these global experiences he saw firsthand how art can be used as a tool for social change. “It clarified my priority as an artist that, even if I’m not working directly with the people in oppression, I have the opportunity to present a larger question that does lead to change,” he said.

Theatre with and for the homeless

Hernandez Basulto, AMD’18, began in Rio with a four-month co-op with the People’s Palace Project, a British arts organization that operates there as well as in London. He focused much of his work on “With One Voice,” a music program through which homeless people come together for choir performances at popular landmarks and government buildings. The program began in London at the 2012 Olympics and then was brought to Rio for the 2016 Olympics.

When Hernandez Basulto arrived in early 2017, he was part of an effort to ensure the program’s sustainability after the Olympic-year activities had concluded. His work involved managing digital marketing materials such as photography, video editing and graphic design, and interviewing the homeless for a crowdfunding video he filmed and edited for the program. He also sang with the homeless in the choir rehearsals.

“It clarified my priority as an artist that, even if I’m not working directly with the people in oppression, I have the opportunity to present a larger question that does lead to change.”

Pablo Hernandez Basulto AMD'18

Following his co-op, the People’s Palace Project connected him with a monthlong internship in London working for Cardboard Citizens, another organization that makes theatre with and for the homeless. For the first half of his internship, he collaborated on a theatre piece focused on mental health. The piece, dubbed “Sound Minds,” also included creating a music album. His myriad responsibilies ranged from lighting design to stage management. For the other half, he assisted on a workshop for adults focusing on forum theatre, a technique pioneered by Brazilian artist Augusto Boal.

(More on Boal, and the impact his work had on Hernandez Basulto, a bit later.)

‘A love that matured’

Hernandez Basulto is from Cuernavaca, Mexico, and his first theatre experience came at age 6 at his elementary school’s annual theatre festival. By age 10, he was asking his teacher if he could direct the performances. He participated in theatre both in school and through a local theatre company, and continued to explore his passion by attending summer camps. As he put it, theatre for him was “a love that matured.”

But it was a pre-college theatre program at Carnegie Mellon University in 2012—his first theatre experience in the U.S.—that changed everything. While he focused primarily on musical theatre during the six-week program, he also participated in a workshop where he discovered “Theatre of the Oppressed,” a series of techniques devised by Boal to promote social and political change and engage those in attendance with the performance and become “spect-actors,” rather than passive audience members.

Theatre student Pablo Hernandez Basulto spent five months earlier this year working on theatre projects in Rio de Janeiro and London that engaged homeless people in the arts. Photo by Matthew Modoono/Northeastern University

Hernandez Basulto was mesmerized by Boal’s techniques. He enjoyed musical theatre, which his theatre experience primarily consisted of until that point, but he wasn’t set on pursuing that track long term. Boal’s innovative approach opened his eyes to how theatre can be used to bring people together to address important, and sometimes challenging, social issues.

So it was a dream come true when, as part of his co-op, Hernandez Basulto got to spend time at Boal’s home working with a librarian to help archive, digitize, and curate the late artist’s archives. (Boal died in 2009.) He called it a “life-changing experience,” particularly noting the impact that spending time with Boal’s family had on him. What’s more, during his internship with Cardboard Citizens, he found himself leading some of the exercises on forum theatre, one of Boal’s techniques.

Hernandez Basulto described how his perspective on Boal evolved from idolization to inspiration, being moved to react to Boal’s work and to use it to address issues relevant to the current times.

‘Crossing Borders’

 Hernandez Basulto arrived at Northeastern in fall 2013 eager to explore not only theatre but also other disciplines such as politics, philosophy, and activism. “I didn’t want to go somewhere to study theatre in a bubble,” he said. “Theatre doesn’t exist separate from these other fields. Rather, it’s a way of communicating all these ideas.”

He has long been interested in U.S.-Mexico relations, and having gained a newfound curiosity for Boal’s techniques, he pursued opportunities to use the arts to explore one issue close to home: drug trafficking and violence. That inquiry began at the pre-college program, and continued at Northeastern in his freshman Honors inquiry course, “History of Modern Violence.” For his final exam, he delivered a series of monologues detailing the history of drug trafficking in Mexico.

A couple years later, an essay he wrote in a philosophy class and also wrote and directed a short play called The Guilty Ones for Silver Masque student organization about two brothers in Mexico dealing with the effects of drug-related violence. These experiences inspired him to develop a performance piece in 2016, supported with an Undergraduate Research Award. For the project, dubbed Crossing Borders, he created a fake border wall in Ryder Hall, with each side featuring reflections and questions from youth from the U.S. and Mexico about the 2016 presidential election and U.S.-Mexico relations. Hernandez Basulto and another student actor performed as security guards in the piece, engaging passersby to visit and explore the wall.

Next act

For his senior capstone, Hernandez Basulto will direct a play in February as part of the Department of Theatre’s 2017-18 performance season. The production, The Exception and the Rule, is based on a short play by German playwright Bertolt Brecht about a merchant in Mongolia in the 1930s who must cross a desert at any cost to obtain an oil deal.

“The play will address issues of capitalism and the relationships between the powerful and the oppressed in a way that I hope will help audience members engage in discussion,” he said.