Bronxville Union Free School District

Bronxville High School Teacher Helps Afghan Refugees Find Hope in Theater

Victor Maxwell – a Bronxville High School English teacher and professionally trained actor and playwright who often incorporates the power of theater into his classroom lessons – recently assisted a group of Afghan refugees with their play in Malaysia to help give them a voice.

While traveling to Indonesia over the summer, Maxwell was asked to help Saleh Sepas, a theater director and playwright who had found refuge in Malaysia, with his play, “The Bitter Taste of History.” Performed by Afghan refugees in the Parastoo Theatre group in Malaysia, the play tells a story about life in war-torn Afghanistan. As a practitioner of the Theatre of the Oppressed – a methodology devised by Brazilian director Augusto Boal with the idea of promoting social and political change through empowering nonprofessional actors to tell their stories theatrically – Maxwell arrived in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, just two weeks before the final performance to begin his intensive work.

“Only one of the cast members had had any acting experience or training,” Maxwell said. “We worked intensively, using some of the rehearsal and ensemble-building techniques drawn from Theater of the Oppressed, other physical theater techniques, and classical acting training to allow the actors to do justice to the play.”

Maxwell worked with the children and adults on being emotionally truthful when portraying their characters and helped transform them into actors. He also assisted the director, helped sharpen the play dramatically through rewriting, and helped with costumes, special effects, sound and lighting.

“There was a lot of pressure of time, and almost everything I said as a teacher had to be translated, so it was complicated, but really amazingly rewarding to witness these refugees find the strength in their voice and bodies to really represent their former lives,” Maxwell said. “Their pride in their work increased dramatically as we worked together.”

Maxwell, who also trained at the Royal Shakespeare Company in England, brings many theater tools and techniques into his classroom. As part of their curriculum work, his students have acted out scenes from plays to better understand the meaning of an author’s words. Maxwell said he believes that the techniques of the Theatre of the Oppressed can be used by many different kinds of nonprofessional actors in all kinds of situations to build ensembles and help people tell their stories – whether political or personal.

“Students often surprise themselves with how quickly they learn to work collaboratively and think theatrically,” Maxwell said.