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Theatre of the Oppressed

Theatre of the oppressed as a political method

Originally published: rs21 by Sophie Coudray (July 5, 2019)   | 

Theatre has a unique role among the arts in its ability to enact situations live before an audience. The potential of theatre to be a tool of political education was developed in the interwar period among avant-garde practitioners connected to the workers’ movement (notably Erwin Piscator and Bertolt Brecht in Germany, but also among early Soviet practitioners such as Vsevolod Meyerhold).

Later waves of global radicalisation have renewed this link between theatre and political praxis. In the 1970s, the Theatre of the Oppressed was developed in South America, by the Brazilian practitioner Augusto Boal. This piece by Sophie Coudray  provides an introduction to Boal’s work and the questions it raises about the relationship between theatre and revolutionary political praxis.

This article focuses on the ‘poetics’ of the Theatre of the Oppressed. These are a set of forms and techniques that challenged the traditional model of theatre. Coudray argues that the key to Boal’s politics lay in the form and the process over the content of the plays.

The context for Boal’s work is inseparable from the military dictatorships that dominated in South America during the early to mid-1970s. Boal himself was a Brazilian often working in exile in Argentina and elsewhere, and the attraction to working in theatre lay in its ability to act as a political vehicle when other vehicles were foreclosed.

In subsequent decades Boal’s own work has moved closer to the centre ground politically, but his participatory techniques and poetics remain important in looking at how we can use theatre as a space onto which we can project political conflicts.

Rethinking the Theatre of the Oppressed

The Theatre of the Oppressed was an ‘arsenal’ of dramatic techniques developed by the Brazilian stage director Augusto Boal (1931-2009) in the mid-1970s. It included Forum Theatre and the Invisible Theatre along with less well-known projects including the Newspaper Theatre and the Image Theatre. The projects were set up by Augusto Boal, who began his career in the 1950s. He had spent the previous twenty years in theatre, implementing new ways to stage ‘popular theatre’1, making a significant contribution to the development of avant-garde theatrical art in Brazil. At this point he decided to break with the official Theatre to turn his attention to develop the Theatre of the Oppressed (TO). TO has subsequently become well-known and respected around the world, and his techniques have widely spread since the late 1970s. Boal’s refusal to copyright his ‘arsenal’ of techniques has enabled it to spread and influence hundreds, if not thousands of actors, teachers and activists.

Given the decades that have passed since the development of TO and the publication of Boal’s main works, not to mention the slow decline of activist and far-left art more generally, why discuss the TO now? Many of those who once defended activist theatre, and the revolutionary perspectives it was based upon, have since changed sides, and never let an opportunity pass to denigrate such practices. Others, who have retained their radicalism, criticise the TO for being insufficiently political, radical, Marxist or revolutionary. While among its supporters, TO and Boal’s charisma inspire absolute and uncritical fascination, the indifference of most academics and activists has meant that the true importance of TO has yet to be explored.

If TO can be considered as political drama and revolutionary or emancipatory practice, it is not so much due to the social issues addressed on stage, to the politically engaged content or to the fact that it pretends to be a ‘rehearsal of revolution2’; rather it lies in the process of its production as theatre, or its ‘poetics’. Above all, the originality and its radicalism of TO derived from its ‘poetics of the oppressed’: it was conceived as a theatrical method, enabling ordinary people (often from oppressed groups) who were neither professional actors nor artists, collectively to make use of a set of techniques that brought to light systemic exploitation and oppression as a spur to overcome such situations in everyday life. To do so, Boal had to break with institutional theatre and professional actors.

This line of argument is based on the assumption that the political dimension of theatre lies less in the form and content of the play/script, than in its production: in the way communities and people who are not professional actors are integral to the process of production. So rather than focusing on  how to act, TO was a method that sought to connect acting to changing the world, by elaborating political projects and being politically active. It was about collective organisation and struggle, with actors asserting themselves on the political stage. This article will present TO as a method and explain the radical political implications and potential of such an approach.

A poetics of the method

Even if he is mostly known for being the ‘creator’, ‘theoretician’ and ‘leader’ of TO, Augusto Boal was primarily a theatrical practitioner. He was a stage director and a playwright, and it is only by bearing this in mind that we can understand the continuous dialectic between theory and practice that informed his work. Boal’s writings were based on practical experience and intended for practitioners (actors or non-actors). Even a cursory look at his biography shows that his theorization of theatre was also based on encounters on the stage or in workshops that sparked new techniques. Boal always assumed that the dual role of stage director3 and theoretician as two sides of the same coin.

In looking back on TO’s emergence in 19744, and even Boal’s earlier writings, it is striking how central method is to Boal’s theatrical practice. It is no coincidence that most of Boal’s books are presented as manuals, comprised of a number of progressive exercises explained and illustrated by many examples coming from Boal’s own experience of workshops. His first theoretical book, Theatre of the Oppressed, clearly articulated the stages through which theatre can be acquired as a political tool: (1) ‘Knowing the Body’, (2) ‘Making the Body Expressive’, (3) ‘The Theatre as Language’ and (4) ‘The Theatre as Discourse’. Indeed, before we can use theatre as a political tool, we must get to know our own bodies, and disentangle them from automatisms fixed by the routines of work and social conventions. Then we have to learn how to use our own bodies and other participants’ bodies as means of expression. These first two steps are considered as preparatory. It is only after this stage that Boal addresses the question of performing theatre in front of an audience, raising social and political issues. Theatre then becomes a language and a form of speech. In the last stage, techniques such as Invisible Theatre or Newspaper Theatre5 are used to analyse a situation from the perspective of the oppressed, and to attempt to break the oppressive situation by tipping the balance of power.

While there is insufficient space here to present a detailed account of these techniques (or how they emerged), it is worth stressing how these techniques emerged to meet a specific and often political need. The development of the Invisible theatre is a case in point. As an exile from the military dictatorship in Brazil, living in Argentina, Boal developed Invisible Theatre as a way to avoid the dangers presented by a more openly activist theatre.6 Another example was Image Theatre—which does not require speaking — and was developed while he was working with different groups of Peruvian people who didn’t share the same language. These examples show how the poetics of the oppressed consisted of an ‘arsenal’ of techniques and exercises developed over years in an activist approach under the aegis of the guiding principle: to give the people the means of production of theatre so that the oppressed might use theatre as a political instrument for their liberation struggle. This is why the ‘poetics of the oppressed’ was conceived as a method: to allow people who were neither actors nor artists to use theatrical techniques by themselves and for themselves.

Boal transmitted his method through workshops, which he led himself, and through his books. He then formed a team of practitioners to support him in delivering workshops. These practitioners were known as the ‘Jokers’ and could include actors or non-actors with a focus on commitment that is more activist and political than professional. The role of the Joker was both to animate Forum-Theatre and to be a method-passer, passing the TO method to other people, especially to non-actors from oppressed groups. The Jokers also acted as a broker between practitioners and so-called spectators, breaking the boundary that normally separates them and transforming them into ‘Spect-ators’.

The transfer of theatre’s means of production to the people

It was as a method that TO could achieve one of its main goals—to give the means of production of theatre to the people. In his early writings, Boal broke with nationalist definitions of the ‘people’ (i.e. Brazilians) and thought in class terms that equated the people to the those who sold their labour or were oppressed (including students and other groups who are marginally involved in the labour market).7 During the first part of his career as the stage director of Teatro Arena, Boal was concerned with performing Theatre for the people, by which actors ‘represented’ the people in the kind of class terms outlined above. However, years of experiences, marked by successes, failures and questioning lead him to the belief that popular theatre can only be ‘performed by the people and for the people’.8 This meant people from oppressed groups must have the resources to practise theatre by themselves and for themselves, utilising TO as a method, composed of a set of dramatic techniques aimed at addressing political issues on the basis of people’s everyday experience in their own language. Through TO, oppressed people were to become actors.

From spectators to ‘spect-actors’

One of the most striking features of TO is the way it relates to the figure of the spectator. Rather than being primarily about writing theatre, staging plays and acting, TO is about spectating. More precisely, it relies on a radical critique of the spectator’s stance, probing the boundary that normally separates who can act and who cannot. By treating acting and spectating as interrelated functions, TO challenged the ways these functions were normally distributed. Boal described the firm separation of acting from spectating as the crystallisation of people’s dispossession, undermining the very possibility of the spectator becoming actor—theatrically and politically. He drew an analogy between the spectator and the oppressed, encouraging the latter to start fighting by taking up the role of actor. By acting they would learn how to dispense with their passivity and to face their oppressors without relying on some other political agent to do this for them. Hence, the stakes were all about changing spectators into actors. ‘Spectator’, according to Boal, was a ‘bad word’9, while acting, in this context, carried a dual imperative in which theatrical action implied sociopolitical action. It was from this perspective that ‘spectator’ was a ‘bad word’. For Boal, a spectator was by necessity one who does not act.10

Moreover, if spectating is treated as an obscenity, it is also in the etymological sense of the spectator being placed ob-scaena (‘off-stage’ in Latin), and out of view. In Boal’s lexicon, spectators take the position of the oppressed in that oppressed people are forced to look on and take a spectator’s position in society. This analogy then enables him to set a continuum between acting onstage and political action. The theatre exists within this continuum as a stage, or intermediate step that can enable oppressed people to step out of their spectatorship and onto the stage of history.

Apart from this political analogy between spectators and the people maintained in a spectatorial stance, Boal’s practice raises the issue of whether the audience should be considered as oppressed in such a way that requires a reform in the way theatre is produced. According to Boal, the spectator is oppressed because theatre ‘has imposed [on the spectator] finished visions of the world’,11 that is, representations of a world that cannot be changed or challenged. Besides, ‘since those responsible for theatrical performances are in general people who belong directly or indirectly to the ruling classes, obviously their finished images will be reflections of themselves.’12 Given Boal’s definition of popular theatre, spectators who belong to the people are obviously ‘victims’ of such images just as they are oppressed in their everyday life by the mechanisms underlying these images.

Nonetheless, the analogy between the spectator and the oppressed is less based on a criticism of dramatic art in general than on analysis of institutional theatre and its mode of staging productions— as Boal himself experienced it in Brazil. According to him, the ruling class is responsible for confining the people to a spectating position.13 Hence, the spectator’s passivity has nothing to do with an inherent incapacity or inability of the oppressed classes to act, but is the consequence of an unfavourable balance of power in society which is mirrored by the way traditional theatre is structured. As the French critic Emile Copfermann (who played a key role in the introduction of Boal’s writing in France) puts it:

…there is, in essence, in the experience through which Boal conceived his techniques, a deeply political dimension, but in an utterly general and global meaning which was: the society is repressive, this repression must be revealed. This is where he relies on the political divide; not between left and right, but between the owners of the means of production and us14.

Boal’s approach undoubtedly echoes Marx and Engels’ criticism of ‘the exclusive concentration of artistic talent in particular individuals, and its suppression in the broad mass which is bound up with this’, presenting this phenomenon as ‘a consequence of division of labour.15 Hence, as a method, TO is not aimed at ‘bringing out the artist in all of us’. It is a matter of breaking down the barriers between social functions and not to confine individuals to a single activity that entirely defines and encloses them. That is the underlying reason why the spectator’s position has to be completely re-evaluated: ‘He too must be a subject, an actor on an equal plane with those generally accepted as actors, who must also be spectators’.16 To emphasize this break from the traditional spectator—whose position enacts oppressive social relations—Boal coined the term spect-actors.17

Theatre as pedagogy and praxis

As a method, TO developed its own pedagogy, built on a dialogue with the radical Brazilian educator Paulo Freire’s (1921-1997) Pedagogy of the Oppressed (1968)18 and the idea of conscientization— which sets out how awareness develops into critical consciousness. As a form of practice aimed at transforming society, acting plays a vital role in exposing the social mechanisms that need to be changed, in allowing people to move from being aware of them to becoming critically conscious of them. It is certainly more on this reflexive level than on the directly interventionist one that both TO and the Pedagogy of the Oppressed were elaborated. As Boal puts it in Games for Actors and Non-actors:

these techniques have two main goals: to enhance our ability to know or recognise a given situation, and to help us to rehearse actions which can lead to the breaking of the oppression shown in that situation. To know and to transform—that is our goal. To transform something, first one must know it. Knowing is already a transformation—a transformation which supplies the means to accomplish the other transformation[19].

In this way, TO’s techniques have an important role in a revolutionary movement: firstly as a means of raising political consciousness, but also enabling strategic development by creating a space and set of practices that rehearse the very political acts implied by a revolutionary transformation. The space of the stage provides an environment in which actors from oppressed groups can train and to elaborate collectively actions they plans to implement politically. For example, Boal cites the case of a group of Peruvian workers who used TO’s techniques to rehearse different actions aimed at compelling their boss to improve their work conditions, evaluating the feasibility and the risk inherent to each course of action.20

Paulo Freire used to characterize his pedagogy as ‘praxis’. Following Marx and Engels, human beings are determined by the social reality of their existing conditions but, they also transform this latter according to their needs. As Pierre Macherey writes it: ‘Praxis is what expresses a relationship to the world that is not purely passive.21 Praxis deals with the performative action of human beings on their environment in order to transform their existing conditions. As such, in the vein of Pedagogy of the Oppressed, TO should be regarded as praxis too.

However, praxis can also be understood in another way specifically tied to language, quite relevant for practises binding literacy and theatrical expression to conscientization. As Marx and Engels wrote: ‘language is practical consciousness22’. In the poetics of the oppressed, theatre is conceived as a language and, as such, it might help emerging critical consciousness. The linguist Jean-Jacques Lecercle explains praxis by referring to Aristotle, defining it as a ‘common action’. Yet, the political is closely related to language as, according to Aristotle, men are political animals since they have the power to speak. So we can borrow Lecercle’s formula to claim that in Freire’s literacy program or in Boal’s approach of Theatre: ‘language is a form of praxis: it is the medium of political action23’. Then theatre as language becomes discourse, position statement and the strategic development of concrete intervention on the world. In theatre, speech cannot be separated from the body’s involvement: speaking is acting and the body’s involvement is a language. That is why, in one of his rare direct references to Marx, Boal allows himself concerns the eleventh thesis on Feuerbach that he appropriates to fit his purposes:

Marx said something like: enough! A philosophy interpreting the world. Reality must be changed. Marx might have said something similar concerning Theatre. We need a Theatre that helps us to change reality. Not only that helps changing the spectator’s consciousness. The spectator who will transform his reality will do so with his body. That is, a revolution, a struggle against different kinds of oppressions…. One plays with consciousness, one plays with the body.24

A step towards revolution?

Boal’s aim to dismantle the separation of actor and spectator, and the notion that TO could provide a working space for revolutionary transformations (as opposed to a public spectacle) has obvious relations to the didactic theatre of the German revolutionary, poet and dramatist Bertolt Brecht (1898-1956). TO might be regarded as a potential political training for activists, just as Brecht’s Lehrstücke (‘teaching plays’) were meant to work as a series of dialectical training exercises. So how then do Boal’s political connections to the revolutionary left compare to those that Brecht had to the movement in his day?

There is, as far as I know, no record of far-left parties using TO’s techniques for political purposes, with the exception of Boal’s own practice when he was elected for the Partido dos Trabalhores in Rio de Janeiro in 1992. However, a meeting between Augusto Boal, Emile Copfermann25 and two members of the Ligue Communiste Révolutionnaire (LCR) in 1979 in Paris enables to imagine how this practice might help reform militant practices within the party which often tends to confine activists in a ‘rigid and coercive functioning’.26

Moreover, the Indian branch of TO, the Jana Sanskriti, provides pieces of evidence that this practice, as a method, can be spread widely, throughout a whole region (West Bengal), reaching thousands of people. Over the years, dozens—maybe hundreds—of non-actors (mostly peasants) learned theatre and joined the Jana Sanskriti, creating new cells in their area in order to address local issues through Forum Theatre, and Jana Sanskriti also proved itself to be an efficient instrument for political mobilizations.27

Perhaps considering TO as a ‘rehearsal of revolution’ is over-ambitious, but these examples give us a glimpse at what was latently possible in Boal’s methods. This means that today TO has the potential to stimulate and be part of revolutionary politics. Anyone seeking to engage in activist theatre would do well to refer to Boal, especially in terms of the way he tackled the issues of the Theatre’s mode of staging productions and the issues of professionalization and specialization. That is why, perhaps, Boal’s most radical legacy to activist Theatre and political thought is a method.

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Footnotes

  1.  Sophie Coudray, ‘Réalité(s) et fantasme(s) d’un théâtre du peuple brésilien : Du Teatro Arena au Théâtre de l’opprimé, Augusto Boal et l’idée de théâtre populaire ’, Cahier d’études romanes  35 (2017), 449-60.
  2. Augusto Boal, Theatre of the Oppressed (London: Pluto Press, 2008), p. 119. Emphasis Boal.
  3. Although he never stopped staging more ‘traditional’ plays on institutional theatre stages with professional actors.
  4. 1974 was the year of publication of Teatro del oprimido y otras poéticas políticas (Theatre of the Oppressed), but it drew on experimentations and reflections that had been developing over a decade.
  5. These techniques were respectively developed in Argentina in the early 1970s and in Brazil during the dictatorship (before Boal’s forced exile in 1971).
  6. Following a US-backed coup d’état in 1964, Brazil was ruled by a military dictatorship from 1964-85. Boal was kidnapped in 1971, arrested, tortured, and then exiled to Argentina.—Editor.
  7. Augusto Boal, Hamlet and the Baker’s Son. My Life in Theatre and Politics (London: Routledge, 2001), p. 182. Since he developed this definition of the people in the early 1970s, it is likely his considerations on students might were influenced by the movements of 1968: Augusto Boal, ‘Catégories du théâtre populaire’, Travail Théâtral 6 (1972), p. 5.
  8. Boal, ‘Catégories’, p. 20.
  9. Boal, Theatre of the Oppressed, p. 134. More explicit, the French translation of Boal’s formula is ‘obscene’.
  10. Frances Babagge. Augusto Boal (London: Routledge, 2004), p. 41. Emphasis Babagge.
  11. Boal, Theatre of the Oppressed, p. 135.
  12.   Boal, Theatre of the Oppressed, p. 135.
  13. Augusto Boal, ‘Le “Théâtre de l’opprimé”’, Critique communiste 28 (1979), p. 21.
  14. Emile Copfermann, ‘Le “Théâtre de l’opprime”’, Critique communiste 28 (1979), p. 29.
  15. Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, The German Ideology [1846], trans. Salomea Ryazanskaya (London: Lawrence & Wishart, 1965), ch. 31: https://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1845/german-ideology/ch03l.htm
  16. Boal, Theatre of the Oppressed, p. 135.
  17. This definition of ‘spect-actorship’ is far more complex and challenging than the usual one which tends to reduce the spect-actor to a technical term: the spect-actor being the spectator who, during a Forum Theatre, goes on stage to replace the oppressed character, improvising a part in order to change the course of the dramaturgy. If not actually wrong, such a definition of the spect-actor is at least highly reductive.
  18. Even if they didn’t work together, Boal’s early practice as stage director took place in the Brazilian context of Freire’s culture circles and literacy campaign. In addition, Boal’s theatrical experimentation in Peru was also part of a national literacy campaign based on Freire’s method. The very title Teatro del oprimido was chosen by Boal’s editor, who wanted to emphasize the filiations with Paulo Freire’s Pedagogia do oprimido, even if, at that time, this influence was less relevant for Boal—who admitted that he preferred the title ‘Theatre of liberation’—than it became later: see Jan Cohen-Cruz, Engaging Performance. Theatre as Call and Response (London: Routledge, 2010), p. 43.
  19. Augusto Boal, Games for Actors and Non-Actors (London: Routledge, 2002), p. 207. Emphasis Boal.
  20. Boal, Theatre of the Oppressed, p. 142—5.
  21. Pierre Macherey, Marx 1845. Les « thèses » sur Feuerbach (Paris: Éditions Amsterdam, 2008), p. 50.
  22. Marx & Engels, German Ideology, ch. 1: https://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1845/german-ideology/ch01a.htm
  23. Jean-Jacques Lecercle, A Marxist Philosophy of Language (Leiden : Brill, 2006), p. 151.
  24. Augusto Boal, ‘Au peuple, les moyens de la production théâtrale’, Travail théâtral 26 (1977), 122—3.
  25. Emile Copfermann was a theatre critic but also an editor and the editorial secretary of Partisans.
  26. Pierre Razdac, ‘Le “Théâtre de l’opprimé”’, Critique communiste 28 (1979), 30.
  27. See: Sanjoy Ganguly, Jana Sanskriti. Forum Theatre and Democracy in India (London: Routledge, 2010); and Dia Da Costa, Development Dramas. Reimagining Rural Political Action in Eastern India (London: Routledge, 2010).

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References

  • Frances Babagge. Augusto Boal (London: Routledge, 2004).
  • Augusto Boal, ‘Catégories du théâtre populaire’, Travail Théâtral  6 (1972).
  • Augusto Boal, ‘Au peuple, les moyens de la production théâtrale’, Travail théâtral  26 (1977).
  • Augusto Boal, ‘Le “Théâtre de l’opprimé”’, Critique communiste  28 (1979).
  • Augusto Boal, Hamlet and the Baker’s Son. My Life in Theatre and Politics (London: Routledge, 2001).
  • Augusto Boal, Games for Actors and Non-Actors (London: Routledge, 2002).
  • Augusto Boal, Theatre of the Oppressed (London: Pluto Press, 2008).
  • Jan Cohen-Cruz, Engaging Performance. Theatre as Call and Response (London: Routledge, 2010).
  • Emile Copfermann, ‘Le “Théâtre de l’opprime”’, Critique communiste  28 (1979).
  • Sophie Coudray, ‘Réalité(s) et fantasme(s) d’un théâtre du peuple brésilien : Du Teatro Arena au Théâtre de l’opprimé, Augusto Boal et l’idée de théâtre populaire ’, Cahier d’études romanes  35 (2017), 449-60.
  • Dia Da Costa, Development Dramas. Reimagining Rural Political Action in Eastern India (London: Routledge, 2010).
  • Sanjoy Ganguly, Jana Sanskriti. Forum Theatre and Democracy in India (London: Routledge, 2010).
  • Jean-Jacques Lecercle, A Marxist Philosophy of Language (Leiden : Brill, 2006).
  • Pierre Macherey, Marx 1845. Les « thèses » sur Feuerbach (Paris: Éditions Amsterdam, 2008).
  • Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, The German Ideology [1846], trans. Salomea Ryazanskaya (London: Lawrence & Wishart, 1965). Available at: https://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1845/german-ideology/
  • Pierre Razdac, ‘Le “Théâtre de l’opprimé”’, Critique communiste  28 (1979).
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