Sophie Coudray introduces Augusto Boal's Theatre of the Oppressed.
This paper aims to clarify the original project of Augusto Boal's Theatre of the Oppressed, which is a set of dramatic techniques whose purpose is to bring to light systemic exploitation and oppression within common situations, and to allow spectators to become actors. This poetics uses different techniques, including Newspaper Theatre, Image Theatre, Invisible Theatre and its major technique, Forum Theatre. All those have been elaborated to pursue a clear objective that is to transform spectators into actors. Indeed, we should not take the word “spectator” just as an artistic term but also as a political one. By becoming actors within the dramatic setting, Boal thinks that we can become political actors in everyday life.
Nowadays, Theatre of the Oppressed is quite well known worldwide, but because this theatre is intended to react to specific political circumstances, we often tend to forget where it comes from, when it was born and even more important, why it was made. So this article will present some information about Theatre of the Oppressed’s historical and political background, in order to understand precisely the artistic and political approach of its creator, Augusto Boal. An entire book could be filled with Theatre of the Oppressed's history and another one just to explain and analyze its theory and its place within the landscape of political art. So this article does not claim to be anything more than an abstract or an introduction to a huge field of study.
First step: Brazil and popular theatre
The roots of the Theatre of the Oppressed lie in Brazil during the late fifties. Prior to founding the Theatre of the Oppressed, Augusto Boal was a director in Sao Paulo in the Teatro Arena company. For fifteen years, he had written and staged plays, in order to lead the Brazilian theatre away from its classical, bourgeois and European roots and become national, popular and political.
Boal started his career at a time when all nationalist and especially anti-imperialist enterprises were strongly encouraged by the Kubitschek government. Under the influence of Boal on one side and of other actors coming from student groups and close to the Brazilian Communist Party (the PCB) on the other, the Teatro Arena quickly became a theatre promoting local playwrights whose productions were popular in the sense that they showed the real living conditions and struggles of the Brazilian working class.
One of the most successful plays of that time is They don't wear black-tie (Eles não usam black-tie) written by Gianfrancesco Guarnieri. During that time, Teatro Arena's shows asserted the Marxist background of the troupe. Boal himself talks about the plays of this period as “urban and proletarian drama[s]”. They broke with the former bourgeois aesthetics to adopt realism, and Teatro Arena really helped Brazilian theatre to evolve both esthetically and politically. For example, the Teatro Arena was among the first companies to promote black actors on stage, and actors with heavy accents expressing their countryside or suburban origins.
After a few years, the Teatro Arena would come back to European or North American dramaturgy, but with the aim to “nationalize” the plays, which mean to re-contextualize them within the Brazilian conjuncture. In his early practice, Boal refers mainly to Stanislavski. References to Brecht would come later, around 1965, when the troupe would develop a new theatrical form with musical shows telling the history of famous Latin American popular struggles, such as the struggles between colonial forces and insurgent slaves around the leader of a fugitive settlement, Zumbi dos Palmares (Arena conta Zumbi).
During that time, the will of the Teatro Arena was to be considered as popular theatre. However, the troupe failed to reach a broader audience than its regular urban middle-class public, mostly composed of intellectuals, teachers and students. This factual situation couldn't satisfy the political ambitions of the troupe which decided to meet the Brazilian people (which means the proletariat) where it lived: in the suburbs, in the favelas, and mostly in rural areas. Teatro Arena decided to organize tours to perform for more popular audiences around Brazil. To achieve their goal, they didn't hesitate to perform their plays in the streets, in church squares and even on the top of trucks! Of course, there was no admission fee.
All this activity, driven by political motivations, took place during a favorable time for activist theatre and more generally for cultural and political movements, under the progressive government of Joao Goulart of the Brazilian Labour Party (PTB). His quite short presidency (from 1961 to 1964) was a time of reforms, during which the Cuban revolution was considered as a powerful model for left-wing political parties, when Marxist forces were quite strong and Liberation Theology was spreading through popular classes, mostly in the North-east of the country.
This was also the time of Paulo Freire's literacy and consciousness-raising programs as part of the Popular Culture Movement (Movimento de Cultura Popular) developed in the state of Pernambuco with broad political support. It was also the time of the Popular Cultural Centers (Centro Popular de Cultura) born, by the way, out of a split within the Teatro Arena in 1959-1960 when Oduvaldo Vianna Filho and Chico de Assis left the troupe to start the CPC in Rio de Janeiro, with some people and intellectuals close to the Student National Union (União Nacional dos Estudantes). At that time, activist theatre was part of the artistic and political landscape. Even Teatro Arena used to perform agit-prop plays for members of the Peasants’ Leagues and Boal himself led workshops for factory union members in Santo André. Why portray the historical context? Because it’s very relevant to an understanding of the political background of Theatre of the Oppressed, and Boal's development of a radical conception of popular theatre which would become the cornerstone of Theatre of the Oppressed.
According to Boal, popular theatre is certainly meant to be performed for the people, but he also considers that it should be performed by the people, that is to say produced by the people and no longer by the bourgeoisie, which has been historically in possession of the cultural institutions. By the way, his definition of “the people”, appears to be very close to the Marxist definition of the proletariat, unlike the Brazilian Communist Party (PCB) for example, which was much more nationalist – even anthropological – in its own definition of “the people”.
Second step: a theatre of the emergency
Frightened by so-called rampant communism, the military high command decided to march on the capital to overthrow the president. Then came the coup, in April 1964, and the establishment of a deeply conservative military dictatorship. All political dissidence became extremely risky. In order to avoid censorship and repression, in 1970 Boal developed new ways of practicing political theatre in unofficial ways.
That's how Newspaper Theatre was born, a technique aimed to demystify the ideological content of the press, controlled by the authorities. It focused on revealing the ideological background of the media, and is a technique intended to be used by non-professionals. Common people would just read newspapers in the morning, elaborate and repeat short scenes during the day, and perform in the evening, before the police could even hear about it. For the first time, Boal elaborated a theatre technique as a method that anyone can perform, just by following the steps.
This represents a major turning point in his theatrical trajectory. Through this method, common people would be able to control the whole creation process, without needing to be helped by the artists. In the meantime, Boal still directed plays with Teatro Arena. After having created Brecht's Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui, he was arrested by the police in Februrary 1971. He was held and tortured for a while, until an international solidarity movement forced authorities to release him. Freed but forced into exile, he fled to Argentina with his family.
There, he carried on developing drama techniques in response to the political situation. Thus arose Invisible Theatre, when practicing openly activist theatre was far too dangerous for him as he was a refugee known for his “subversive activities” and potentially threatened by anticommunist militia operating in Latin America. Invisible Theatre is meant to be performed in public spaces, even in the street, without revealing its theatrical and fictive nature. Actors carefully prepare short scenes in order to bring to light social or political problems, so as to make the “audience” react. A few years later, it would be commonly used in France to talk openly about homosexuality and sexual harassment in public transport.
In 1973, Augusto Boal took part in the literacy plan ALFIN (Operaciòn Alfabetisaciòn Integral) set up by the Peruvian government and inspired by Paulo Freire's method. Boal had to think about new ways of practicing theatre with literacy workshop participants, with whom he didn't share the same language, as there are dozens of languages and dialects in Peru. That's why he decided to use body language instead of verbal communication, and so elaborated and theorized Image Theatre. As he had himself drawn inspiration from Freire, Boal wanted to lead the participants to create theatrical, aesthetical images of their own reality and then try to transform those images into ideal images of the reality they dream of.
The aim here is first to reveal, through their symbolization, the relationships of power and mechanisms of domination and, then, to find a way to act on them so that the ideal image will become realizable. In this context of literacy workshops, Boal also used a technique which already prefigured Forum Theatre, which is the “simultaneous dramaturgy”. Actors begin to perform short scenes that stage well known aspects of their daily living – such as domestic violences – and then ask the audience to find an idea that would help the oppressed character to break from the situation. Audience members are allowed to interrupt the show and intervene by standing up from their seat to suggest solutions to the actors who will immediately improvise it. As a co-dramaturge, the spectator helps re-write the play while actors still play their part. When it comes to Forum Theatre, Boal will allow the spectators to come up on stage and to perform as characters, by substituting themselves for the actors in order to find a way out of the current situation.
With these few examples, three elements become obvious. First, Boal uses theatre to make both the oppressive situation and mechanisms of domination visible. Secondly, the performance is not enough by itself. Drama, here, is aimed to let people try to change representation of their own situation, by acting on stage in the first instance and then by implementing in real life what has been attempted within the safety of the fictional space. Thirdly, Boal conceives theatre as a method so that people can perform by themselves the techniques he created, without needing professional actors to act instead of them. These elements are the bedrock of the Theatre of the Oppressed.
Third step: give the theatre's means of production to the people
From his accumulated experience and theoretical reflections over the years, Augusto Boal presented the Poetics of the Oppressed in a book published in 1974 (Theatre of the Oppressed, Pluto Press, 1979). This poetics, which is a drama treaty, does not precede the practice. On the contrary, throughout his life Boal always built drama theory on previous experiments. Furthermore, I propose that the Theatre of the Oppressed could and should be defined as a poetics of the transfer of the theatre’s means of production to the people.
First, it's important to highlight that this poetics is quite original in that it is a poetics of spectators. Boal appears to be very critical about the viewer's position and often refers to the spectator as an “obscene word”. However, the real target of his criticism is not the spectator himself, but what he's the spectator of. Boal asks the spectators to be suspicious of the kind of theatre or images they are watching. Just as Brecht in The Mother recommended that the revolutionary asks every idea he encounters “Who serves you?”, Boal asks every aesthetic representation “Who serves you?”.
From there, we can infer that through this, the real targets of Boal's attack are the producers of these aesthetic representations. Boal is suspicious of the spectator's position because he doesn't trust the artistic producers whose plays only serve their interests by showing the world according to their ideological point of view. He classifies those images of the world as “closed” ones because of their definitive nature, which is against the idea of a world which can, and must, be transformed.
On this specific point, Boal is close to Paulo Freire's intellectual stance which is to consider the future as a problem to solve and not as something inevitable, regarding which there is nothing to be done and which leaves us in a helpless spectator's position. But he's also close to Brecht, who wrote in a text about dialectical theatre, that theatre should show people so that the public can transform them and not just interpret them. Boal does not hesitate to refer specifically to Marx's eleventh Thesis on Feuerbach, in which he wrote that “The philosophers have only interpreted the world, in various ways; the point is to change it”. That's the point: theatre does have a political role in the transformation of the world, not only through what it shows (the subject) but more specifically through how it shows (the aesthetic, the artistic production process).
Based on these elements, Boal draws an analogy between the spectators and the oppressed. According to him, both are in receiving postures facing a world governed by the oppressors and facing the theatrical representations of this world as the only possible one: a theatre produced by the oppressors themselves in order to consolidate their power. We can recognize here the hegemonic process as defined by Gramsci and taken up by Raymond Williams who wrote in Resources of Hope (Verso, 1989) that
The essential dominance of a particular class in society is maintained not only, although if necessary, by power, and not only, although always, by property. It is maintained also and inevitably by a lived culture: the saturation of habit, of experience, of outlook […] so that what people come to think and feel is in large measure a reproduction of the deeply based social order…
Boal’s response to this is to claim the appropriation of theatrical practice by those who were hitherto spectators, by giving the theatre's means of production to the people. To do that, he uses Marx and Engels’ dictum in the German Ideology that “[t]he exclusive concentration of artistic talent in particular individuals, and its suppression in the broad mass which is bound up with this, is a consequence of division of labour.”
By allowing non-actors to play, Boal intends to overthrow the traditional opposition between actors and spectators. The very core of the Poetics of the Oppressed is that theatre should be performed by the people, by the oppressed themselves and not by professional actors claiming to stand on the stage for them. In this way, Theatre of the Oppressed should appear as the accomplishment of Teatro Arena's research for a popular theatre, as for them, the genuine popular theatre is “performed by the people and for the people”.
This is why this poetics has been conceived as a method to help non-actors to use drama techniques for themselves as political tools or weapons in their liberation struggles.
His second book, Games for Actors and Non-actors (Routledge, 1992) is mostly a collection of games and exercises. In his theoretical work, Boal often refers to Paulo Freire's awareness and critical consciousness-raising, but also to Socratic maieutics. The Socratic Method is indeed at the core of some techniques such as Forum Theatre but also in workshops. This function is embodied by the Joker who is a mediating figure between the stage and the audience during Forum Theatre but also the intermediary between the method and the oppressed. He's the one who guides non-actors in their journey through the appropriation of theatre techniques. A new figure called the “spect-actor” appears, a contraction of the two words spectator and actor, who is definitely not some kind of “active spectator” but who is a non-actor, an oppressed person in possession of theatre's means of production and who intends to use it as a political weapon against the system that oppresses him. A spect-actor is someone who used to be a witness of the world's affairs and who has become, through the practice of theatre, a protagonist.
This poetics is developed as a method and a praxis. As activist theatre, it presented itself as a “rehearsal of revolution” – it encouraged the development of class-consciousness amongst the people, and theatrically elaborated collective strategies with a view to implementing in real life, in concrete political struggles, what was first attempted within the safety of a dramatic fiction. For example, Peruvian workers in the early seventies used Forum Theatre to rehearse different political strategies to fight for better working conditions – they tried to break the engine, to blow up the factory, to go on strike and finally, to create a union. That's why Boal always said that if Theatre of the Oppressed wasn't a revolution by itself, it could be a rehearsal of the revolution.
Theatre of the Oppressed can be compared to some extent to Brechtian didactic works (Lehrstücke) for several reasons. First, because the main interest lies in the acting experience and not the spectating one. At the core of these two theatrical practices is the actor. The essential is to act, not to sit and watch other people acting. Also and for the same reason, both don't necessarily implement public performance, because the biggest part is the process, not the finished work. Besides, none have been conceived for professional actors – Lehrstücke were intended for political activists as training in dialectical materialism. Even if Theatre of the Oppressed's Marxist background is less obvious, yet it asserts itself as a rehearsal for concrete political actions.
An artistically ostracized theatre
The French part of Theatre of the Oppressed's history provides much crucial information about the practical implementation of the Poetics of the Oppressed. The military coup in Argentina forced Boal to flee to Europe. After a short stay in Portugal, he settled in Paris in 1978 and founded the first professional structure of Theatre of the Oppressed (named Céditade and then C.T.O.) whose function was mostly to spread Boal's method through workshops and training sessions, mainly aimed at teachers and activists.
Popular education movements have always been, from Latin America to Europe, one of Boal's main influences. However, Theatre of the Oppressed arrived at a time when the French radical left was at a turning point of its history. By the end of the seventies, the main trade unions were facing a decrease in membership. Hence, the development and institutionalization of this practice as a professional structure of intervention theatre has been concomitant with the progressive collapse of unions’ membership and radical left. As a result, partnership between political organizations and this theatre didn't really get off the ground and remained occasional, except with the Family Planning feminist movement – though it was part of its popular education task – and also with one trade union, the French Democratic Confederation of Labour (C.F.D.T.).
On the artistic side, Theatre of the Oppressed was not considered as theatre either by theatre critics, academics – with the exception of a few such as Richard Monod who is a specialist of theatre and education – or cultural institutions. The aesthetic was considered as poor – they actually did create with little money – or too simplistic and considered as bad realism, and was highly criticized. Moreover, the fact that half of Boal's team was not part of the artistic field before working with him, and that Theatre of the Oppressed appeared as a popular education practice led to its ostracisation. In addition, the French Ministry of Culture never recognized this practice as a professional artistic one. It has been hidden away with amateur theatre.
In fact, the Ministry of Culture, under Jack Lang, made a decisive shift in its artistic policy, deciding to separate aesthetic creation on the one hand and social, interventionist and activist theatre on the other, hence denying the artistic nature of the latter. So Theatre of the Oppressed was not considered theatre at all in France, and became illegitimate in the eyes of the art world.
Boal's collaborators totally deserted the artistic field. They only performed a few times within theatres but most of the time, Forum Theatre and other techniques of the “arsenal” (the collection of techniques, exercises and games of Theatre of the Oppressed) are performed in schools, districts, and sociocultural centres.
What about today?
Over the years, Theatre of the Oppressed has become more professional and more institutionalized, which seems like a contradiction with respect to the original poetics. Theatre of the Oppressed has spread all around the world. Among the most evocative examples of this practice since the 1990's are the Indian one – The Jana Sanskriti, founded by Sanjoy Ganguly – and the Brazilian one – Rio de Janeiro C.T.O. used to work with the Landless Movement (M.S.T.).
Throughout his career, Boal has developed new techniques and new purpose for Theatre of the Oppressed. In the 1980's, he created a new division combining political and therapeutic dimensions: “The Rainbow of Desire” (The Rainbow of Desire: The Boal Method of Theatre and Therapy, Routledge, 1995). Then, in the 1990s, while assuming the function of Member of Parliament for the Worker's Party in Rio de Janeiro's Legislative Chamber, Boal used Forum Theatre as a public consultation and a support to bills, managing to promulgate a dozen laws which were directly inspired by the proposition performed on stage. This was called Legislative Theatre (Legislative Theatre: Using Performance to Make Politics, Routledge, 1998).
Otherwise, even if Theatre of the Oppressed has evolved and was actually exploited by some to pursue objectives which were not in accordance with the original poetics – the method has sometimes been used not to change the society but to adapt people to it – the fact remains that, to this day, the core of its practice remained mostly unchanged for most of the activist-practitioners who see themselves as Boal's heirs.