What Is the Theater of the Oppressed?

Bill Koehnlein nyms1 at nyxfer.blythe.org
Thu Apr 6 00:42:48 MDT 1995

The Theater of the Oppressed Laboratory
122 West 27 Street, 10 floor
New York, New York 10001-6281
(212) 924-1858
(212) 741-4563 (fax)
nyms1 at nyxfer.blythe.org (e-mail)
toplab at transfr.blythe.org (e-mail)


The Theater of the Oppressed, established in the early
1970s by Brazilian director and Workers' Party (PT)
activist Augusto Boal, is a form of popular theater, of,
by, and for people engaged in the struggle for
liberation. More specifically, it is a rehearsal
theater designed for people who want to learn ways of
fighting back against oppression in their daily lives. In
the Theater of the Oppressed, oppression is defined as a
power dynamic based on monologue rather than dialogue; a
relation of domination and command that prohibits the
oppressed from being who they are and from exercising
their basic human rights. Accordingly, the Theater of the
Oppressed is a participatory theater that fosters
democratic and cooperative forms of interaction among
participants. Theater is emphasized not as a spectacle
but rather as a language designed to: 1) analyze and
discuss problems of oppression and power; and 2) explore
group solutions to these problems. This language is
accessible to all.

Bridging the separation between actor (the one who acts)
and spectator (the one who observes but is not permitted
to intervene in the theatrical situation), the Theater of
the Oppressed is practiced by "spect-actors" who have the
opportunity to both act and observe, and who engage in
self-empowering processes of dialogue that help foster
critical thinking. The theatrical act is thus experienced
as conscious intervention, as a rehearsal for social
action rooted in a collective analysis of shared problems
of oppression. This particular type of interactive
theater is rooted in the pedagogical and political
principles specific to the popular education method
developed by Brazilian educator Paulo Freire: 1) to see
the situation lived by the participants; 2) to analyze
the root causes of the situation; and 3) to act to
change the situation following the precepts of social


The purpose of the Theater of the Oppressed Laboratory,
founded in New York City in July 1990, is to provide a
forum for the practice, performance and dissemination of
the techniques of the Theater of the Oppressed. We work
with educators, human service and mental health workers,
union organizers, and community activists who are
interested in using interactive theater as a tool for
analyzing and exploring solutions to problems of
oppression and power that arise in the workplace, school,
and community--problems connected to AIDS, substance
abuse, family violence, homelessness, unemployment,
racism and sexism.

Just as the principal goal of popular education is to
change the power relations in our society and to create
mechanisms of collective power over all the structures of
society, so too the principal goal of the Laboratory is
to help groups explore and transform power relations of
domination and subjugation that give rise to oppression.
Within this learning process: 1) all participants are
learners; 2) all participate in and contribute equally to
the production of knowledge, which is a continuous
dialogue; 3) the learners are the subject and not the
object of the process; 4) the objective of the process is
to liberate participants from both internal and external
oppression, so as to make them capable of changing their
reality, their lives and the society they live in.

Since 1990, through the auspices of The Brecht Forum, the
Laboratory has initiated and organized intensive
workshops led by Augusto Boal in New York City--the
latest to be held May 18-23, 1995. It has also planned
and led more than sixty public training workshops in the
techniques of the Theater of the Oppressed. In this
capacity, the Laboratory has brought together people from
diverse backgrounds, occupations, and organizations, and
functioned as a resource, information and networking
center serving individuals and groups interested in
theater for social change.

In the past years, the Laboratory has given workshops in
the New York City public schools, and has developed and
conducted on-site workshops with different community
organizations to explore problems specific to their
particular work: the role of the arts in the struggle
against racism at the North Star Conference; building
solidarity among women at the Urban Pathways/Travelers
Hotel Women's Shelter; AIDS prevention with the Shaman
Theater-Pregones-ASPIRA coalition; and promoting health
among homeless people with HIV/AIDS, at the Foundation
for Research on Sexually Transmitted Diseases. The
Laboratory also led a workshop at the recent teach-in in
New York, "Out from under the Bell Curve: A Teach-in on
Confronting Right-wing Ideology and Social Policy."
Members of the Laboratory attended the International
Festivals of the Theater of the Oppressed held in France
in 1991 and in Rio de Janeiro in 1993, strengthening
relations with theater activists from twenty-two
different countries, while planning the creation of an
International Association of the Theater of the

The Laboratory also gives advice and support to
individuals and groups who use the techniques of the
Theater of the Oppressed in their particular field
(education, social work, community organizing, the arts).
The Images Theater Collective, for instance, grew out of
the meetings and study sessions led by the Laboratory on
the political potential of interactive theater. In
1992, as part of the movement to counter the official
Columbus Quincentennial celebrations, the Collective
wrote and performed a play, based on Image Theater
techniques, on colonial oppression and resistance in
Latin America. In addition, as a result of Laboratory
activity, Theater of the Oppressed theory and techniques
have been integrated into the basic curriculum of both
the Puerto Rican Traveling Theatre Training Unit and the
Education Program of the Shaman Repertory Theater.
Finally, in 1993, the Laboratory became an independent
affiliate of the Institute for Popular Education at The
Brecht Forum, established to promote the Paulo Freire
approach to popular education.


For more information, or for workshop schedules, please
contact The Theater of the Oppressed Laboratory, 122 West
27 Street 10 floor, New York, New York 10001 or call
(212) 924-1858 or fax (212) 741-4563.


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