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” … cover(s) a broad terrain, yet manages to go into a lot of detail, venturing well beyond sloganeering.”

Carl Rowlands, New Left Project

Legislative theater

Contributed by

“Theater can help us build our future, rather than just waiting for it.”

Augusto Boal
Common Uses

Legislative theater takes Augusto Boal’s interactive forum theater exercises from the stage into the real world – as a tool for proposing and enacting legislative and policy changes at any level of government.

In 1992, Augusto Boal, the creator of Theater of the Oppressed (see THEORY: Theater of the Oppressed), was faced with a dilemma. His theater work was an international sensation. Centers for the Theater of the Oppressed were up and running in both France and Brazil, and people all over the world were practicing his ideas. At the same time, he was facing pressure at home in Brazil to run for the position of vereador (a position similar to that of a City Councilor in North America) in the city of Rio de Janeiro. Faced with a choice between the two, Boal decided not to choose. Instead, he combined the two possibilities and passions into one — and legislative theater was born.

Legislative theater is essentially a forum theater performance — a short play about a particular issue or set of issues that ends in a crisis, which the audience is then invited to help solve by taking the place of one of the characters on stage (see TACTIC: Forum theater) — but with a key difference. The difference is that the audience interventions are followed by a brainstorm and discussion of policies or laws that could help solve some of the problems that came up in the performance, or that could help bring about some of the solutions “spect-actors” (the engaged audience) had offered during the performance. In some iterations of legislative theater, a later step involves mock legislatures being created to debate bills drafted based on the laws or policies previously suggested in the theater exercise.

Boal’s election campaign literature explained his rationale:

“I want to make politics but I don’t want to change my profession — I am a man of the theater! For me, this was always possible and now it is necessary: theater is political and politics is theater.”

Boal was one of 42 vereadors elected from a field of 1,000 candidates. Over the next four years, he developed the methods of legislative theater, forming 19 permanent Theater of the Oppressed companies in Rio, and from that work, introducing 30 pieces of legislation. In 13 of these 30 cases, as Boal put it, “desire became law” and laws were changed based on the proposals that emerged from the exercises.

To those who say that theater is nice but has no tangible outcomes, legislative theater may be the answer. Its intent is policy change… and it boasts all of theater’s educational and artistic virtues to boot!

Key Theory at work

Theater of the Oppressed

Like all Boal’s Theater of the Oppressed practices, legislative theater trusts the wisdom of the audience, and provides them an opportunity to try out their ideas on stage to see how they might work in real life. Legislative theater simply takes that process one step further, making a direct connection between the ideas generated in the theater and the legislative process, which so desperately needs creative approaches to problem solving.

Potential Pitfalls

The version of legislative theater that Boal developed while he was a vereador was, understandably, an ideal arrangement that has proven difficult to match since. In his case, the elected official was the main convenor of the process, and was therefore in a position to act on the recommendations that emerged. In other cases, without one or more elected officials directly involved in the project, or without a firm and genuine commitment to the project from elected officials, it may be much harder to achieve such results. Therefore, it is advisable to seek out legislators who are willing to play a role throughout the process, including fighting for the recommendations in the actual legislature.

Tracey Mitchell facilitates creative and courageous conversations for community organizations. Based in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, Canada, Tracey uses engaging techniques to help groups establish and accomplish goals, build teams, develop leadership skills and make decisions together. Tracey is also a forum theater practitioner (aka a “joker”) and has developed plays with groups around issues of poverty and social justice. She is also a campaigner, zinester, organizer, reader and board game player. Tracey lives and works from her home in Saskatoon.

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