“The current political moment calls for bold leaps of imagination, new forms of organizing and a fearless blend of confrontation and celebration.”

Naomi Klein, author of No Logo & The Shock Doctrine

Theater of the Oppressed

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“The theater itself is not revolutionary: it is a rehearsal for the revolution.”

Augusto Boal
In Sum

Theater of the Oppressed provides tools for people to explore collective struggles, analyze their history and present circumstances, and then experiment with inventing a new future together
through theater.

Origins:

Drawing inspiration from Freire, Brecht, and Stanislavski, Augusto Boal developed the Theater of the Oppressed in practice throughout his career, starting in the ’50s in Brazil and later in Argentina, Peru, Ecuador and France while in exile from the military dictatorship.

Theater of the Oppressed is an arsenal of theater techniques and games that seeks to motivate people, restore true dialogue, and create space for participants to rehearse taking action. It begins with the idea that everyone has the capacity to act in the “theater” of their own lives; everybody is at once an actor and a spectator. We are “spect-actors!” — a term which Boal coined.

Boal points out that when we are simply passive audience members, we transfer our desire to take action onto the characters we identify with, and then find that desire satiated as the conflict resolves itself on stage, in films or in the news. Catharsis substitutes for action.

Boal, following Brecht, calls this bourgeois theater, which functions to reproduce elite visions of the world and pacify spectators. He says bourgeois theater is “finished” theater; the bourgeoisie already know what the world is like and so simply present it onstage.

In contrast to bourgeois theater, “the people” do not yet know what their world will be like Their “authentic” theater is therefore unfinished, and can provide space to rehearse different possible outcomes. As Boal says: “One knows how these experiments will begin but not how they will end, because the spectator is freed from his chains, finally acts, and becomes a protagonist.”[1]

Theater of the Oppressed encompasses many forms, including the following:

Image theater (see TACTIC) invites spect-actors to form a tableau of frozen poses to capture a moment in time dramatizing an oppressive situation. The image then becomes a source of critical reflection, facilitated by various kinds of interventions: spect-actors may be asked to depict an ideal image of liberation from that oppression, and then a sequence of transition images required to reach it, or to reshape an image to show different perspectives.

Forum theater (see TACTIC) is a short play or scene that dramatizes a situation, with a terribly oppressive ending that spect-actors cannot be satisfied with. After an initial performance, it is shown again, however this time the spectators become spect-actors and can at any point yell “freeze” and step on stage to replace the protagonist(s) and take the situation in different directions. Theater thus becomes rehearsal for real-world action.

Legislative theater takes forum theater to the government and asks spect-actors to not only attempt interventions on stage, but to write down the successful interventions into suggestions for legislation and hand them in to the elected officials in the room.

Invisible theater (see TACTICis a play that masquerades as reality, performed in a public space. The objective is to unsettle passive social relations and spark critical dialogue among the spect-actors, who never learn that they are part of a play. Augusto Boal said of one invisible theater intervention, “The actor became the spectator of the spectator who had become an actor, so the fiction and reality were overlapping.”[2]

A final point that perhaps can’t be stated enough: our movements need to be more strategic and community-led! Theater of the Oppressed offers arts-based strategy-developing exercises that foster collaboration and community-led engagement. What could be more awesome?

  1. [1] Augusto Boal, Theater of the Oppressed. London: Pluto Press, 2000.
  2. [2] Interview, Democracy Now! June 3, 2005

Levana Saxon is an organizer and educator with Practicing Freedom, using participatory action research, popular education and Theater of the Oppressed to generate collaborative community-led change. Over the last seventeen years she has trained and facilitated thousands of children, youth and adults. Some of the groups she has worked with include the Paulo Freire Institute, Rainforest Action Network, Center for Political Education, Ella Baker Center for Human Rights, Youth In Focus, El Teatro Campesino and multiple Oakland Public Schools. She currently co-coordinates the Ruckus Society’s Arts Core and facilitates trainings and dialogues with the White Noise Collective (www.conspireforchange.org), which she co-founded. She can be found at www.practicingfreedom.org.


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