Theatre of the Oppressed

I wrote this article whilst I was a PhD student at Cambridge University. I am still trying to initiate these ideas. "Theatre of the Oppressed" is a very powerful practice. I wonder how it can be constructed and applied in the context of social distancing... In any case, the most important things is say "I have the courage to be happy" as does the man in the quirky cartoon in my post.

I was reshelving books in the library at Jesus College the other day, and came across a book called Theatre of the Oppressed. This title seemed compelling, so I finished shelving the books, borrowed it, and then went back to my current work—that day I was writing a research proposal to try and win funding from the AHRC to pay for my doctorate.

Later on (fed up of having to transpose my own ideas into the unnatural idiom of academic protocol, to make them sound more likely to win me a grant) I delved into the book I had found earlier. Here I learned about a dynamic and exciting new form of performing arts that generates a transformative power to theatre, and provides a “weapon of liberation” to all participants.

This is the work of Augusto Boal, a Brazilian director, writer and politician, who writes in an inspirational, punchy style that seems toned to ‘pull in the punters’ and raise an activist fever in the reader. His book describes the theatrical practice that he founded and developed in reaction to the catastrophic dictatorship that crushed (and ruled) Brazil during the 1960s. Boal’s own story is gripping – in 1971 he was imprisoned and tortured for his ‘cultural activism’. He exiled to Argentina, and then fled to Europe, building local practices of Theatre of the Oppressed in communities across the globe. He then became a governor in Rio de Janeiro and had laws passed as a result of his theatrical workshops with oppressed minority groups, which then legislatively changed the situation of their oppression. In 2007 he was short listed for the Nobel Peace Prize.

His Theatre of the Oppressed is a practice built from the understanding that ‘to act’ means both to perform and to take action. In Boal’s form of theatre we are all actors – the actor/audience split that demarcates traditional performance is realigned. Spectators become ‘spect-actors’ and have the chance to react, improvise and invent possibilities for new action in a performance. This is ‘Forum Theatre’.

It is a theatre ‘of the Oppressed’ because the enterprise is motivated by the need to act upon, and the desire to change, situations where people are oppressed – disempowered, marginalized, silenced, or subordinated. The drama brought to the Forum Theatre presents scripted instances and examples of these situations, which the spect-actors then replay, experiment with and invent new possibilities to change the situation of oppression.

Working in prisons, and with homeless people (in particular) Boal found that his simple system of simultaneous dramaturgy empowered people, and promoted a creative, democratic dialogue that could provide an instrument of social change. Participants act out the scene of a particular situation that is problematic in their lives. They interact with the scene, change what happens, and think about what the ideal action might be. The point is to keep changing the situation until a way to resolve the matter is found. This generates dynamic new ways of dealing with oppression, and preventing it. It prompts suggestions that can be taken to the protagonists who implement the oppression in the first place, to pressurise the necessity and suggestions for legal change. Forum Theatre becomes ‘Legislative Theatre’; theatre transforms reality.

By now, in my reading, I was hooked. I’d raced through Boal’s Theatre of the Oppressed and was conducting some quite profound but lengthy time-wasting (since I really should have been writing the damned AHRC proposal), by Googling the subject. I began to think about how we might set up a Theatre of the Oppressed in Cambridge.

A workshop for Theatre of the Oppressed begins by thinking about an issue that profoundly affects the group who have assembled. This might have something to do with harassment, discrimination, or an instance that made you feel that you don’t fit in and no one accepts who you truly are, because you won’t live or think according to the rules of the dominant social code. You might be able to think of a particular situation when you felt like this, when you felt marginalized, or left out, because you would not act by the accepted order of things.

This set order of things is made up of social codes; these are something like a man not wearing a dress, or eating dessert after (rather than before) the main dish at dinner, or the set up in the lecture hall where (mostly) the students are silent and take notes, whilst the lecturer reads out what they want to teach the students. The social code that determines how we should or should not behave is to some extent authoritarian, because is not always implemented to answer the needs and desires of the people to whom it is addressed. Sometimes we are forced to do things we don’t want to, or barred from doing those things we yearn to do. When this occurs the social code can provide the vehicle for some form of oppression, and we cannot be true to ourselves.

In a Theatre of the Oppressed workshop we can replay situations that occur as a result of these social codes, and think about whether they do or do not answer our needs and desires, and how they could do this if things were different. When we replay situations of manifest oppression, this may relate to issues as drastic and profoundly important as instances of racism, harassment, violence or war; it may equally relate to local, seemingly more ‘minor’ situations that occur in our daily college life (like the code one has to submit to write a successful proposal for funding, or an essay, and be accepted here).

We can also play with scenes that simply provide some fun and games …imagining a world, somewhere away with the fairies (or where a dream comes true)… which offers a release from life’s pressures, and the chance to have some fun with friends. Boal has written a book full of exciting exercises we can kick off from: Games for actors and non-actors.

I’d conducted some quite exhaustive time-wasting by this point, since Theatre of the Oppressed isn’t really something I could squeeze into the French department (where my research is based), and so I went back to the mundane task of writing my proposal for funding, to try and win the approval of the academy. If only they would listen if I said what I really think.

Perhaps Theatre of the Oppressed would give us all the chance to say what we really think. Who wants to be a spect-actor, say what they think, experiment with new ideas, and play with Theatre of the Oppressed? Email me!

Lorna Collins


Augusto Boal 1985. Theatre of the Oppressed.

1998. Legislative theatre; using performance to make politics

2002. Games for actors and non-actors

2006. The Aesthetics of the Oppressed

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