Boal and the Theatre of the Oppressed
"Boal achieved what Brecht only dreamt of and wrote about: making useful theatre that is entertaining, fun and instructive. It is a useful kind of theatre ... a social therapy ... giving people a new handle on their situations." (Schechner 1988:29).
Augusto Boal was a Brazilian theatre director, writer animateur, theorist, visionary and politician who developed the Theatre of the Oppressed, a radical theatre form that has been used for theatre, education movements and social change. Born in 1931 in Rio de Janeiro in Brazil, Boal first started to become seriously involved in theatre while studying Chemistry at the University of Brazil. While studying in Brazil, he became director of the School's Cultural Department, a post that got him free tickets to theatre but also introduced him to the Brazilian playwright Nelson Rodrigues (Babbage 2004:5). In 1952, Boal moved to New York to study Chemistry and Theatre simultaneously at Columbia University. One of his tutors was the playwright John Gassner, who introduced Boal to both Brecht and Stanislavski's techniques which he saw as not mutually exclusive and he encouraged Boal to form links with theatre groups like the Black Experimental Theatre. In 1955 he staged productions of two of his own plays The Horse and the Saint and The House Across the Street.
"As I was not a director, I had no fear of directing... and as the actors were not actors, they were not afraid to act; they were great." (Boal 2001:136)
He returned to Sao Paulo, Brazil in 1956, to work at the Arena Theatre. At that time in Brazil, the traditions of Italian Opera and Italian Farce dominated theatre. As a director at the Arena Theatre, Boal proceeded to experiment with the techniques of Stanislavski and Brecht that he had learnt in New York at Columbia University and through his dealings with the Actor's Studio. As part of the Arena Theatre, he established a theatre laboratory and he concentrated on using and adapting Stanislavski's techniques to the Brazilian context. In the 150 seater in-the-round Arena Theatre, Boal made his Brazilian directorial debut with the 'gritty' realism of an adaptation of John Steinbeck's Of Mice and Men.
In his book Theatre of the Oppressed (1979), Boal describes his work at the Arena Theatre in four phases:
· Realist (1956-1958) characterised by Of Mice and Men
· Photographic (1958-1961) a Living Newspaper style political realism evident in the production of Eles Nao Usam Black Tie ('They Don'y Wear Black Ties')
· 'Nationalisation of Classics' (1962-1963)
· Musicals (1964-1967) shown in Areana Conta Zumbi
“I cannot give the population the artistic product, so what I am going to do is to try to give them the means of production. Then me and a group of my colleagues of the Arena Theater, we started developing what we called the Newspaper Theater, in which we would translate news from the newspaper into scenes of theatrical scenes. But we would teach them how to do it. But we would not do for them. So we wanted to democratize the means of production. Then we developed lots of groups that did the Newspaper Theater about their own problems. We worked in factories. We worked in churches, because in Brazil there is a church, which is very reactionary. But there’s also a church which is very progressive, the theology of liberation and all that. Well, then we start doing that.”
The Origins of the Theater of the Oppressed Augusto Boal began his experimentations in participatory theater in the 1950s and 60s while he was artistic director for the Arena Theater in Rio de Janeiro. He went beyond the stage and organized performances with the Arena troupe in the streets, factories, unions, churches where they could reach the people of the favelas or slums of Rio. His company also created Invisible Theatre pieces in the streets of Brazil. Some of these pieces started off with what is often nowadays called a Flashmob and then at some point Boal and his troupe would leave the scene to see how the narrative of the Invisible Theatre emerged and progressed.
Invisible Theatre is a public form of theatre which involves the general public as participants in the dramatic action without their knowing it. They become the spec-actors. There is little obvious theatrical context with an audience in Invisible Theatre. The idea is that an issue can be raised without advertising that this is a piece of theatre. It is important that the audience should remain unaware that they have seen an action. Invisible theatre can generate public debate in a public space. It normally involves:
- the actors find an issue that is of importance to them and their community or society
- the actors create a small scenario of the issue that may provoke debate among the general public
- the actors decide where and when this scenario should be played out to best provoke reaction
- the scene or action is enacted (often it is conducted in a realistic fashion and is rehearsed but has room for improvisation)
- at some point the actors leave and allow the scene and the audience or spec-actors to take the theatre in the direction they want
Boal’s work during the late 1960’s was evocative and soon the military and rulers in Brazil during the 1960′s looked upon Boal’s activities as a threat. In 1971, when walking home from an Arena performance which he had directed of Brecht’s The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui, Boal was kidnapped off the street, bundled into a car, arrested, tortured, and eventually exiled to Argentina. Boal then went to Peru where he completed and published his seminal theoretical work The Theatre of the Oppressed and consolidated his conscientizaacao (consciousness-raising) theatre work based on the ideas of Brazilian educationalist Paulo Friere (Babbage 2010:17-19). He also spent some of this period in exile also in England.
Friere's methods were a revolt against the elitist 'top down' approach to education and he advocated critical awareness based education models. Boal's work in Peru with the ALFIN project, a movement which sought to use a range of languages including 'artistic languages' to eradicate illiteracy, developed his ideas and methodology away from the agit-prop of his Brazilian Arena Theatre days and sought to engage theatre as a pedagogical tool. Crucial to this time was Boal's attempts to break down the divisions between spectator and actor. It is around this time that invented the term 'spect-actor', a term which he saw as establishing the frameworks within which he wished to work. He saw that the passivity of the spectator could be broken down by the following steps by which the spectator becomes the spect-actor:
1) Knowing the body (by body he means both the individual 'body' and the collective 'body' in a Marxist sense)
2) Making the body expressive
3) Using theatre as a language
4) Using theatre as discourse
Crucial to Boal’s work during his period in exile was the development of his Image Theatre techniques and his concept of Forum Theatre.
Following the removal of the military junta in Brazil, Boal returned to Rio de Janeiro in 1986. He has established a major Center for the Theatre of the Oppressed there (CTO – Rio). The vehicles for these presentations were primarily Forum Theatre and Image Theatre. Image Theatre usually involved presenting images of a situation or process of oppression. The still images normally can involve:
- An Image of the situation of oppression
- An Image of what causes the oppression
- An Image of the Solution or other possible solutions
Image Theatre is an ensemble's collective visual perspective on an issue that is being dramatically created. The idea underlying Image Theatre is that a picture paints a thousand words and that our over-reliance on words can confuse or muddle issues rather than clarify them. Boal believes our bodies can short-circuit the censorship of the brain which he often refers to as the ‘Cop in the Head’. Image Theatre physicalizes or makes dynamic physical transitions from one moment of enacted theatrical oppression to another. Boal believed these transitions provide a way for the spec-actors to question, discuss and analyse and try to solve the problem.
Sculpting is important in Image Theatre since '… it requires sensitive physical interaction… and develops physical communication skills (Babbage, 2004, p.123), since the sculptors must use their bodies, rather than words, to give shape to their ideas. Image theatre uses individuals to sculpt events and relationships sometimes to the accompaniment of a narrative.
Forum Theatre became a crucial part of Boal’s Theatre of the Oppressed.
Forum Theatre is a Theatre of the Oppressed devising method in which a scene demonstrating an oppressing is presented by actors and then replayed with spontaneous intervention by audience members who replace the protagonist. The aim is twofold: to find ways to combat a specific oppression, and to create maximum opportunity for participants (Babbage, 2004, p.142).
Forum Theatre normally involves three crucial facets - The Joker, Spec-actor and Dynamisation in the performed act. The Joker is a person who facilitates the presentation of the theatre act, along with its analysis. S/he is like a narrator of the action for both the actors and the audience. S/he can intervene in the dramatic action and help propose ways of dealing with the problems or to seek explanations from characters. Through the Joker the spec-actors understand the issues raised by the characters in the performance and s/he acts as mediator between the actors and the non-actors.
Boal's term for the audience who are turned into actors is the Spec-actor. The spec-actor has a participatory role in the play. This involves both reflective and evaluative discussion of the issues at hand as well as active intervention and participation for change in the performed act.
Dynamisation is the act that permits the actor and spec-actor to take control of political and social problems and to probe and inquire, whilst trying to invent new ways to confront oppression.
In 1986, the military lost control of power in Brazil and Boal returned to Brazil after 15 years of exile. He set about creating in Rio de Janiero the CTO (the Centre for the Theatre of the Oppressed) whose prime objective was study, discuss and express issues concerning citizenship, culture and various forms of oppression using theatrical language. Boal's work in the CTO made way for the approval of a new law that protects crime victims and witnesses in Brazil.
In 1992, Boal published his second major work, Games for Actors and Non-Actors which gave an outline and introduction to Theatre of the Oppressed theory and practice in a format useful to people involved in the theatre and those interested in education and social change. 1992 also saw Boal see theatre as being able to change society and oppression on a larger political scale and he ran for city councilor in Rio de Janeiro as a theatrical act, and he was elected. Boal's support staff was his theatre group, with whom he quickly developed various legislative proposals. His objective was to work out issues citizens might be facing in their communities through theatre, and also to discuss the laws of the city of Rio with people on the streets. After having worked to transform spectator into author in Theatre of the Oppressed, Boal saw Legislative Theatre as applying the theories and processes of the Theatre of the Oppressed to political structures and processes. Local politicians were not fond of Boal and his methods and out of the forty laws and changes he proposed, only thirteen were approved. Boal’s term ended in 1996, but he continued performing legislative theatre acts with different groups in Brasília, where other laws were passed. Boal also worked during this period with prisoners in Rio and São Paulo. Boal argued that people in prison are not free in space, but that they are in time, and that the Theatre of the Oppressed strives to create different types of freedom so that people are able to imagine and think about the past, the present, and invent the future instead of having to wait for it. Boal and his son Julián continued the work of the Theatre of the Oppressed in various communities in Brazil and around the world. Boal published his ideas and findings around Legislative Theatre in a book entitled Legislative Theatre finally published in 1998.
In 1994 saw Boal’s work starting to become embraced in the United States with the arts and the social services community. Around this time Boal’s third major book, The Rainbow of Desire was published. This book and the practices of Boal from this period broadens the work and theories of the Theatre of Oppressed into psycho-therapeutic applications.
In 1997, Boal worked in England with the Royal Shakespeare Company and he used his Rainbow of Desire techniques in directing Hamlet. Typical of Boal’s work, this piece concentrated on the oppressed and characters who are usually cut from the play, and thus imagined a text of the marginal characters, the ones who are oppressed or without power.
The objective in Boal’s later life was to leave behind at least a core of people who could offer Boal-style workshops, analysis, and ideas to continue his theatre of liberation and the Theatre of the Oppressed. In 2007 Boal scaled back his tours so that he attended the PTO Conference in Minneapolis in New York.
Early in 2009, Augusto Boal was in France, working and writing trying to complete his book The Aesthetics of the Oppressed. However, he suddenly became quite tired and it was feared perhaps his leukemia had returned. On May 2nd, Julian Boal sent an email to family, friends and colleagues stating: “My father is gone – he went away sleeping.”
Lesson and Activities
The students decide on an issue they want to address. Three issues that have worked well with Senior classes I have taught are teachers and students going to the front of the canteen lines, homework set without a specific focus or purpose and students sitting not being inclusive in the groups they sit in at lunchtime. The students discuss how they are going to approach this issue and how they will set up the scene. External actors such as other teachers and students are enlisted into the preparation so that the Invisible Theatre can seem more authentic. The students run through the scene and decide at what point they can leave or let the Invisible Theatre take on a life of its own. Very important to this exercise and lessons on this is to either not give the students the theory and background to Boal's practices before the exercise and to thoroughly discuss the theories after the Invisible Theatre has been performed or to thoroughly discuss prior to the 'performance' the concept of Boal's umbrella term of Theatre of the Oppressed and how audience participating but not realising that they are part of a piece of theatre is important to Invisible Theatre.
Theatre of the Oppressed and Image Theatre Lesson
The workshop begins with theatre games and activities which focus on building basic performance tools such as learning to use the voice, body, and imagination as well as skills such as collaboration, listening, observation, improvisation, and story-telling. These activities also work to break down boundaries in order to create a safe and trusted group dynamic. Once these have been established, the next step is to choose an issue that is important to the group as a whole. The focus for this first thirty minutes of this workshop was the challenge of breaking down the students‘ barriers.
As soon as the group was relaxed, the concepts of Power and Oppression are introduced. One exercise which works well to show this is called Handshake Interpretation. This explores power, relationships and the way we view power while also introducing the idea of Image Theatre and Freeze Framing action. The exercise begins with two people shaking hands and freezing the pose. The audience speculates about what sort of relationship the couple may have, who has the power in the relationship, and the possible situation. The students acting in the freeze frame can also be given a relationship and a scenario and the audience has to guess what the relationship is and who has the power. If this seems to be working well then an audience member can come into the frozen scene as a spect-actor and replace the person who has less power and find a way to show that the ‘oppressed’ can show more power in the relationship presented.
In pairs, the students rehearse a scene that shows Power and Oppression. One student is the Oppressor and one is the Oppressed. Homework, Peer group issues and playground issues work well for school students. For college students, issues of homelife or life in a shared house or dorm work well. The participants decide who will play each role first and mutually agree on a conflict scenario before beginning the improvisational scene. The oppressor can reply in the scene with an expression of an attempt to express their opinion with a statements such as “Yes, but…”
Once the students grasped the idea of oppression, larger social scenarios can be attempted. Then the students can try to show the scenario in three still images – The Situation, the Cause and the Solution. Initially the Solution presented in the scene of the act of Oppression should be shown. The audience then act as spect-actors to suggest, or sculpt the actors or come up and replace an actor to show a different solution that would end the Oppression.
Babbage, F. 2004. Augusto Boal. Routledge. New York.
Boal, A. 1974.Theater of the Oppressed, trans. Charles A and Maria-Odilia Leal McBride and Emily Fryer, London: Pluto (2000 Edition).
Boal, A. 1992. Games for Actors and Non-Actors, trans. A Jackson, London: Routledge.
Boal, A. 1995. Rainbow of Desire: The Boal Method of Theatre and Therapy, trans. A Jackson, London: Routledge.
Boal, A. 1998. Legislative Theatre: Using performance to make politics, trans. A Jackson, London: Routledge.
Boal, A. 2001. Hamlet and the Baker's Son; My Life in Theatre and Politics. Augusto Boal. etrans. A Jackson and C. Baker. Routledge. London.
Schechner, R. 1988. Forum Theatre. Theatre Research International. Vol. 34, No. 3. New York.
Schechner R. & Taussig, M. 1990. Boal in Brazil, France, the USA: An Interview with Augusto Boal. TDR. Vol. 34, No. 3 (Autumn 1990). New York.
MacDonald, S. & Rachel, D. 2000. Boal's Arsenal of Games. Retrieved from https://organizingforpower.files.wordpress.com/2009/03/games-theater-of-oppressed.pdf
Osburn, A. 2010. Forum Theatre Empowering Students to Act
Theatre of the Oppressed Laboratory