Augusto Boal & the Theater of the Oppressed

Bill Koehnlein nyms1 at
Sun Apr 23 00:35:59 MDT 1995

The Theater of the Oppressed Laboratory
The Brecht Forum
122 West 27 Street, 10 floor
New York, New York 10001
(212) 924-1858
nyms1 at (e-mail)
toplab at


Augusto Boal and the Theater of the Oppressed

The article that follows originally appeared in the March
1995 issue of _Red Pepper_, a British magazine, under the
title "How to Play Boal" and was written by Aleks Sierz.

[Augusto Boal will conduct two 15-hour workshops in the
techniques of the Theater of the Oppressed in New York
City from May 18 to 23. The first workshop deals with
Forum Theater and takes place from Thursday, May 18 to
Saturday, May 20. The second workshop, Cop-in-the-Head,
will be held from Sunday, May 21 to Tuesday, May 23. For
additional information, please contact the Theater of the
Oppressed Laboratory at 122 West 27 Street, 10 floor, New
York, New York 10001; (212) 924-1858; or e-mail to
nyms1 at or toplab at

[In addition to the two workshops, Augusto Boal will
present a performance-demonstration of Forum Theater.
This event is open to the general public and will take
place on Saturday, May 20 at 7 pm at ACTWU Local 169-C,
33 West 14 Street in Manhattan. Admission is $10. On
Wednesday, May 24 at 7:30 pm Boal will present
"Legislative Acts: Mother Courage Goes to Rio," a
discussion of Theater of the Oppressed techniques as
adapted for use in the Brazilian Workers' Party's
successful election campaign in which Boal ran for a
seat on the Rio de Janeiro City Council, and how he used
these techniques, with some hilarious--and sometimes
rancorous--results once installed in office. This
discussion will take place at The Brecht Forum, 122 West
27 Street, 10 floor, Manhattan. Admission is $10 and
includes a wine and cheese reception.]


How to Play Boal

Agit-prop legend Augusto Boal has spent his life
galvanizing passive spectators into action. Now he's
tackling subjective as well as objective oppressions.
Aleks Sierz met him.


Political theater cannot work miracles, says Augusto
Boal, the Brazilian author of the radical classic _The
Theater of the Oppressed_, but it can be used to change
the law. Having been elected to the city council of Rio
de Janeiro in 1992, Boal is turning techniques first
devised to encourage audience participation into a way of
making popular legislation.

Boal calls this new development Legislative Theater. A
group of twelve "cultural animators," members of his
theater center, go to "places in Rio where the oppressed
are already organized, such as schools and churches in
the slums." There they use a device called Forum Theater:
the animators call a meeting a perform a short play on a
specific issue, such as racism or problems with
healthcare. Then, the piece is replayed, with the
spectators encouraged to become "spect-actors" by
stopping the action when they can see a different
outcome. Then they go on stage and act out their

"This is a process of thinking together," says Boal, "a
way of dynamizing spectators instead of just giving them
a show. Unlike the dogmatic political theater of the
1960s, which told people what to do, we now ask them what
they want." What excites him is the unexpected creativity
the process generates. "Many times we come up with a
simple idea no one has ever thought of before."

The next stage is to use the resources of the Rio city
council to put these new ideas on the statute book. One
success has been a law which alters the design of public
telephones on the street to help prevent blind people
from crashing into them. In the pipeline are ideas for
improvements in healthcare funding and on the rights of
pregnant factory workers. In Rio, says Boal, who is a
member of the left-wing Workers' Party, "We are using
theater to make changes."

Despite the party's local electoral successes, its
leader, Lula, was defeated in the November 1994
presidential election. One reason was a dirty tricks
campaign waged by the right. "Because we used to show the
enthusiasm of the masses for Lula at our rallies on
television," says Boal, "the government passed a law
forbidding the screening of public meetings." Another law
discriminated against the Workers' Party by forbidding it
to use union resources to campaign. "Lula was almost
prosecuted for using a union's loudspeakers," he says.

Even worse were the "subliminal attacks on Lula." As well
as denigrating his private life, the right used an open
palm with five fingers outstretched as a campaign symbol
representing their five goals--Lula is known to have one
finger missing, the result of an industrial accident. The
implication was that the left was deformed.

Yet Boal is confident that the Workers' Party--whose
support continues to grow and which includes senators who
still live in slum areas, "close to the people"--can
still make an impact. "We are not fighting to get power,
but because we want the happiness of the people," he
says. "If the government does good things, we will
support it."

Though the party is "not at all homogeneous," and
includes liberation theologists as well as socialists, it
does have a precise program of land reform, health
measures, and educational expansion. Boal also stresses
the need to tackle international debt, which he calls "a
form of modern slavery." As president of Rio's Human
Rights Commission, he has been able to release prisoners
being held in jail illegally. "We are a workers's party,"
he says, "we want to improve the life of the majority."

Born in 1931, Boal has spent most of his life as a
theater director. Now head of two centers for the Theater
of the Oppressed (TO) in Paris and Rio, he holds
workshops around the world to teach TO skills. What makes
his eyes sparkle, and gives you an idea of the energy
that keeps him going, is his faith in the creativity,
spontaneity, and ability of all people, however
underprivileged, to change their situation. Each new TO
method originated when audience members showed him new
possibilities. TO is about creativity from below.

Boal was initially an author (_Lean Wife, Mean Husband_,
1957), and then pioneered political protest theater with
_Revolution in South America at the Arena in Sao Paulo in
1961. Breaking with European models of drama, Boal began
to use local traditions. Inspired by the educational
ideas of Paulo Freire (author of _The Pedagogy of the
Oppressed_) and outrage at social injustice, he started
doing agit-prop theater in Brazil's poorest areas. In the
1960s, he was performing plays about taking up arms. On
one occasion, a peasant in the audience stood up and
suggested an armed raid on an oppressive landlord.
Embarrassed, Boal and his actors backed down. But the
incident taught them to listen to the people.

Boal then progressed to the more audience-based TO. At
first he just asked spectators for ideas to alter his
plays' endings. But the real breakthrough came when he
asked an angry woman, who was dissatisfied with how his
actors interpreted her suggestions about how to deal with
an unfaithful husband, to come on stage and show them. By
inviting spectators to act out their ideas he created
Forum Theater, which generates solutions to problems and
also functions as a rehearsal for action in "real life."

Arrested, tortured, and "persuaded" into exile by the
Brazilian military in 1971, Boal came to Europe. Here he
found that as well as "concrete oppressions such as poor
wages, and objective problems about how to make a strike
or fight racism," there were also "introspective and
introjected repressions" such as "fear, loneliness, and
the inability to communicate." In Paris in 1981, he
started workshops designed to tackle what he calls "the
cop in the head."

The Rainbow of Desire is his name for the skills needed
to combat our internal police. His new manual of
techniques has just been translated into English by
Adrian Jackson of the London Bubble theater, which
specializes in participatory drama and educational

In Manchester and London for the launch of his book, Boal
held four five-hour workshops for thirty to thirty-five
people, mainly "psychotherapists, social workers, and
theater people" to teach therapeutic drama. In this, Boal
is aided by his wife, Cecilia, a psychoanalyst based in

By confronting the "cop in the head" collectively, Boal
says we can generate the confidence necessary to tackle
social problems. Answering the criticism that such
methods only "cure" participants and have no wider
impact, he says: "We can never measure the social effects
scientifically--but wherever this work is done people
notice that they have changed, often profoundly." Whether
in Africa or Scandinavia, "people discover needs they
didn't think they had." In India, for example, peasants
who were confronting "objective oppressions," such as
poverty, also "suffered subjective problems to do with
family, couples, and sex."

Since 1990, Boal has worked with Deptford-based London
Bubble. His work inspired them to set up Cardboard
Citizens a year later. It is an eight-member theater
group of homeless people, which takes Forum Theater to
hostels, youth centers, and schools. It has completed
four nationwide tours. New members are recruited through
workshops held at hostels and day centers. As well as
performing to the homeless, Cardboard Citizens also
spreads the word at conferences and other public events.

Widely praised for its summer tent tour, which attracts
audiences that don't normally go to the theater, London
Bubble's next project is _Too Much, Too Young_, an
ambitious New Wave punk musical which tours in March.
Other British applications of Boal's ideas include young
people educating their peers about AIDS, theater groups
for people with learning difficulties in Bradford and
Newcastle, Deaf Forum, and drama work in prisons. Each
case exemplifies Boal's dictum: "People are tired of
being preached at--they want to have their say."


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