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The life and work of Augusto Boal:Theatre for the oppressed

Augusto Boal presenting a workshop on the Theatre of the Oppresse in New
York City. Riverside Church, May 13th 2008.

I have just learnt that Augusto Boal passed away on May 2nd. I'd like to write an appreciation of his work creating Theatre of the Oppressed -- as a useful political and artistic medium. But for the moment here is a piece I wrote for Green Left Weekly in 1995 on Augusto Boal.

Augusto Boal is a major figure in world theatre. Any contemporary discussion about taking theatre to the people, of popularising it and renewing its relevance, cannot proceed without reference to him. Enthusiastic exponents of his ideas seem to be everywhere, oftentimes working at grassroots -- each in their way dedicated to adapting Boal's theories to their own theatrical practice.

So when Boal addressed the Second World Congress on Drama/Theatre and Education in Brisbane, more than 1500 people were in attendance. The Congress -- IDEA '95 -- ran for five days from July 1 so that teachers of drama could exchange their ideas and workshop their achievements.

While the great bulk of the participants came from Australasia, delegates attended from more than 50 countries, and Boal's was a keynote address open to the general public.

The general enthusiasm for this man rests on his notion of “the theatre of the oppressed”. For the past 40 years, Boal has been developing new forms of theatrical expression which have attempted to fuse politics, practice and poetics into a sustained and integrated dramatic position.

His early experiments were undertaken in his native Brazil during the time of the military dictatorship. In 1971 he was kidnapped by government agents and for three months held in secret until an international campaign secured his release. Thereafter in exile in Argentina, Peru, Portugal and finally France, he developed his ideas into the form that he advocates today. Currently resident again in Brazil, he is an elected member of the council of the city of Rio de Janeiro.

Given this history, it may seem strange that he asked of himself recently: “What am I doing now? Am I doing theatre or psychotherapy? Before, what I did -- was it politics or theatre?”

Boal is an entertaining speaker and is relentless in pursuing the essential components of the creative theatrical process.

He recognises that he has changed his ideas over time. Because experience is what goes on now and reality is slippery, “theatre of the oppressed” must also change. Nonetheless, the pressing reality of Brazil -- the landlessness, urbanisation, mass poverty -- demands that the theatre must be against this injustice.

Back in the 1950s and '60s his Arena Theatre in Sao Paulo took a position about the oppressed and wrote and performed plays -- despite the pervasive censorship -- about these problems. “We did plays about the oppressed, plays against racial prejudice to teach black people to fight (even though we ourselves were white); we taught peasants to resist even though we were living in cities; we told women to organise -- but we were men.”

On one occasion in Brazil's north-east, Boal and his troupe were performing before the local peasants. With prop rifles in their hands and clenched fists held high, the actors would sing: “We have to spill our blood to free our land”. And the peasants loudly applauded. But when the peasants insisted that the actors should march with them on the local hacienda, the gross misunderstanding became apparent.

“Why do you make rifles that do not shoot?”, asked the peasants. Taken aback, the actors said that they were not truly peasants, just make-believe ones.

“You artists”, replied the peasants, “say we shall spill our blood to free our land, but you are talking about our blood, not yours.”

For Boal, the lesson was clear: “I was not prepared to fight. I was asking people to do something I would not do myself. You only have true solidarity when you run the same risk. While I do employ agit/prop [agitational/propaganda theatre] on occasion, I don't say go and do something unless I am running the same risk.

“We artists cannot do didactic theatre. Artists may know how to use the theatre, but that doesn't mean that we know about the people for whom we perform it. I tried to find ways in which the audience could also be actors.”

His first development along these lines rested on “simultaneous playwrighting”. The play would be stopped at a crisis point where both danger and opportunity presented themselves. The actors would turn to the audience and say: the play stops here because we don't know how to go on. Suggestions would then be canvassed and the proffered solutions tried out in performance.

“This was a good way”, says Boal, “to go beyond didactic theatre. Not: do this, do that. There was no sense of an imperative.”

Later Boal recognised some of the limitations even in this approach. Instead of asking the audience how to proceed, when the nature of the topic was close to them, members of the audience were invited to come on stage and show the actors what they meant.

This led Boal to reconsider what theatre was about. While theatre is an event, what makes it so engaging, he asks? “This building here with its lights and stages, in itself is this `theatre'? Of course not! But if a person does not get the point of the performance, there is no theatre.

“Humans make theatre but animals cannot because we carry in ourselves this theatre -- even for those who do not do theatre. Theatre is inside us because we are each our own actor and spectator. I am conscious of what I am saying because I am a spectator and an actor at the same time. Only humans can do that. A bird can be a beautiful singer, but it is not a composer because it is genetically programmed to sing as it does. But we are spectators of ourselves and create culture. We can create an alternative to nature.”

“What is this extra power offered by the stage?” he asked. “It is the activity of the spectator. This is the strength you give me. We extrapolate that strength. You give me power to use this energy you have created.

“But we should try to democratise this relationship between spectator and actor. When we come to a crisis, we performers should ask: do you know better? -- and ask the spectators to replace the major protagonists.”

Boal then drew an analogy between theatre and politics. “Only the spectator has the power to create the space for theatre. Only a spectator can give power to the action. Similarly, citizens give power, but the moment you vote you lose that power. We should do the same in politics as we do in the theatre.”

In dealing with the challenge of people's power, Boal developed the analogy further by trying to mix direct and representational democracy in practice by running for city council. On his election, he hired his actors to do political theatre and set up 19 acting groups to “interact with reality” by taking their democratised performances to the electorate. This method acted as a form of ongoing consultation.

“Theatre”, said Boal, “is an interaction, a form of give and take. Be democratic. Everyone has the right to say what they think. Theatre, just like politics, should always be a dialogue not a monologue.”

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