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Theatre of the Oppressed: Theatre as a Vocation for All Human Beings

Augusto Boal

Augusto Boal was a theatre practitioner and theorist born on March 16, 1931, in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. His work has had a profound influence on contemporary theatre and social activism. Boal's perspective on the role of theatre in society was deeply influenced by his early exposure to the socio-political turbulence in Brazil, marked by stark inequalities and political unrest. After graduating from Columbia University in 1956 with a degree in chemical engineering, Boal's interest quickly shifted towards theatre. He studied under John Gassner, a drama critic, historian, and artistic producer, who introduced him to the works of European theatre practitioners. Upon returning to Brazil, Boal directed plays in a conventional style before his ideologies began to shift towards a more politically engaged form of theatre. Boal's experiences as artistic director at Teatro de Arena in São Paulo were instrumental in the development of his later theories. He began experimenting with interactive forms of theatre, aiming to break down the barriers between actor and audience. Boal was arrested and tortured in 1971 due to his involvement in radical theatre during Brazil's military dictatorship. He was held and tortured until the international solidarity movement put pressure on the authorities to release him. After being released from arrest, Boal was exiled from Brazil. He fled to Argentina, then to Portugal and France. During this period, his revolutionary theatre concepts slowly started spreading worldwide as he conducted workshops and influenced various theatre groups. Throughout his exile, he was also influenced by the Brazilian pedagogue Paulo Freire.

Boal's contributions were recognised globally, and in 2008 he was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize. He continued his work until his death in 2009, leaving a lasting legacy in the world of theatre. This article explores the transformative impact of theatre, emphasising its role in personal development, social awareness, and cultural evolution.

Figure 1: Augusto Boal.

History of Theatre: From Aristotle to Modern Times

The history of theatre is a rich and diverse subject, with its roots stretching back to ancient Greek times. Aristotle, one of the most influential figures in the realm of drama, wrote Poetics in 335 BCE, which laid the foundation for traditional theatre. The importance of plot, character, and themes were emphasised in his work. Aristotle also introduced the concept of catharsis, where the audience experiences a purging of emotions, primarily through the mechanisms of tragedy. Over the centuries, theatre has evolved to reflect changing societal, political, and cultural landscapes. In the second half of the 19th century, there was a surge in politically and socially conscious theatre. The 19th century was marked by civil rights movements, anti-war protests, and a general questioning of authority, which set the stage for Augusto Boal's Theatre of the Opressed.

The evolution of theatre has been marked by significant transitions. In its beginnings, theatre emerged as a collective and participatory form of art, epitomised by the dithyrambic song. This period was characterised by a communal spirit where free individuals engaged in open-air performances, which were integral to carnivals and feasts, symbolising a shared cultural experience. However, the egalitarian nature of theatre underwent a transformation as the ruling classes assumed control. This change introduced a division between actors and spectators, altering the fundamental dynamic of theatre. What was once a communal activity evolved into a structured form where the roles of performers and audience became distinctly separate, signalling an end to the collective participation that had defined its early days. During this period, the internal structure of theatre became more stratified, with a hierarchical order established between the protagonists and the ensemble within the actors themselves. Additionally, coercive indoctrination was introduced, indicating a shift in the content and purpose of theatre, potentially aligning it with the interests and ideologies of the dominant classes.

In response to these changes, a movement to reclaim the previous vision of the theatre by the oppressed sections of society emerged. This reclamation involved breaking down the established metaphorical divisions. It emphasised the transformation of the spectator back into an active participant through various interactive forms of theatre such as Invisible Theatre, Forum Theatre, and Image Theatre, which will be discussed in more detail later. In addition, the concept of private ownership of characters by individual actors was challenged by the introduction of the Joker System to encourage collective ownership and participation in the theatre. It is a method, inspired by the versatility of the Joker card and pioneered in the mid-1960s with Boal's Teatro de Arena productions, that allows a single character to simultaneously assume the roles of actor, director and facilitator, enabling a unique blend of performance and social commentary that challenges conventional theatrical norms and addresses complex socio-political issues. This historical overview of theatre highlights its journey from a form of shared cultural expression to one influenced and controlled by power structures, and then to a movement of democratisation and reclaiming by the wider community.

A moment from a youth theatre performance using the practices of the Theatre of the Oppressed.
Figure 2: A moment from a youth theatre performance using the practices of the Theatre of the Oppressed (Fočo, 2022).

Theatre as a Vocation for All Human Beings

The Theatre of the Oppressed emerged in the 1970s as a unique fusion of aesthetic and political response to the repression prevalent in Latin America. This innovative form of theatre was pioneered by Augusto Boal and his troupe during their tours across Brazil. Even before developing this concept, he was working as a director with the Teatro de Arena company in São Paulo, and with his group of actors he was creating and staging performances that sought to break out of the classical, bourgeois and European vision of theatre in order to become national and more accessible to a wider range of people, regardless of class. Their performances were called "political spectacles" and were intended to educate the masses about the mechanisms of domination and oppression they faced.

Figure 3: Creating scenes inspired by great paintings (Fočo, 2022).

These performances served not only as a medium of political awakening, but also as an educational tool to empower people to resist oppression. The development of the Theatre of the Oppressed was significantly shaped by interactions with largely rural communities. A key moment in the development of this form of theatre can be illustrated by an anecdote from one of these tours. In a performance illustrating the defence of territorial rights, the actors ended with a powerful scene. They brandished wooden guns and declared their willingness to shed blood for their land. The authenticity and impact of this performance was so profound that the audience of mostly peasants were moved to action and expressed their willingness to take up arms in defence of their land.

This incident led to a significant realisation for Boal and his actors: the ethical implications of influencing their audience to take actions that they, as performers, were not prepared to take themselves. This realisation marked a transformative shift in their approach. Instead of offering solutions or advice, they began to present situations of oppression tailored to specific communities, with the aim of provoking discussion and debate among the audience. This approach laid the groundwork for what would become the fundamental ethos of Theatre of the Oppressed, focusing on audience engagement, reflection and empowerment.

The development of Theatre of the Oppressed into a global movement began with the creation of unique exercises, games and techniques aimed at empowering citizens to critically analyse their social and political environment. Although it originated in Brazil, this form of theatre spread globally after the 1970s, gaining significant traction and developing uniquely in different regions, particularly in Europe and Asia.

Figure 4: Photography by Amel Fočo (Transience, 2022).

The development of these techniques was based on the concept of interactive and participatory theatre, where the audience was not just a passive spectator but an active participant in the theatrical experience. This interactive nature of theatre served as a tool for individuals to reflect on their circumstances, challenge existing power structures and explore potential solutions to societal problems. As Theatre of the Oppressed expanded its reach beyond Brazil, it adapted to different cultural, social and political contexts. This adaptation led to the development of region-specific methods and practices that resonated with local struggles and narratives. The global spread of this form of theatre demonstrates its versatility and effectiveness in promoting dialogue, awareness and potential change in different social contexts.

Theatrical sequences in this style often draw on traditional forms of popular theatre, such as short plays, fairground theatre, farces and sketches. More than conventional spectacles, they tell true stories that are collectively created based on real-life experiences and the involvement of various social groups, including workers, immigrants, women and youth.

The performances are presented within an oppressed and oppressor framework, emphasising the exploration of political logics. The scenes, while rooted in personal and ordinary stories, are designed to highlight and critique the power imbalances, unilateral domination and social and symbolic violence that the most oppressed experience on a daily basis within various institutions. The aim is to illuminate these complex dynamics through a lens that resonates with the everyday experiences of ordinary individuals. Simultaneously, this practice challenges the common tendency to withdraw into oneself when faced with crucial current and collective life events on the pretext of lacking complete information. It suggests that such withdrawal is more dangerous than protective. This approach in theatre emphasizes the significance of engagement and interaction over passive observation or inaction, highlighting the potential risks of disengagement in the face of incomplete knowledge.

Figure 5: Performance scene captured in December 2023 (Fočo, 2023).

The Poetics of the Oppressed is a culmination of various techniques that have evolved within the scope of theatrical research. It is a response to diverse political contexts. The concept aims to transform passive spectators in the theatrical domain into active participants and performers, involving them directly in altering the dramatic narrative. This methodology represents a significant departure from conventional theatrical frameworks.

Aristotle's Poetics proposed a form of theatre in which the spectator entrusts the dramatic character with the power to act and think on their behalf, leading to a process of catharsis. In contrast, Bertolt Brecht's approach allows the spectator to delegate the power of action to the character but retains the right to think independently, often finding themselves in intellectual opposition to the character's actions. This dynamic fosters critical consciousness rather than catharsis. Poetics of the Oppressed differs from previous models by negating the delegation of power from the spectator to the character. Instead, the Spectator assumes a central role in the drama, actively altering the course of the narrative, experimenting with solutions, and engaging in discourse on potential changes. This approach transforms theatre into a space for practicing real-life action. According to Boal (2000, p. 98), theatre is not revolutionary in itself, but it is a rehearsal for the revolution.  

Figure 6: Photography by Amel Fočo (Forward, 2022).

The 'liberated spectator' becomes a holistic participant, engaging actively in the theatrical action, even if it is fictional. The significance of the action lies not in its fictional nature, but in its embodiment of action itself. This underscores the transformative potential of theatre as a medium for social and political change.

The roles of the Joker and the Spect-Actor signify a notable departure from conventional theatrical roles. The Joker plays an active role in shaping the dialogue and encourages the audience to think and respond creatively. This role is essential in creating a dynamic environment for problem-solving and exploration within the performance. This role involves eliciting and integrating ideas and solutions while maintaining the momentum of the interactive conversation. The focus is on engaging participants with the presented issues' complexities.

The concept of the Spect-Actor contrasts with the traditional notion of a Spectator. In conventional theatre, the Spectator plays a passive role, observing and interpreting the performance, and providing a critical audience perspective. In contrast, the Spect-Actor is an active participant in Boal's Theatre of the Oppressed. This position requires more than observation. Spect-Actors are encouraged to engage with the performance by offering responses and potentially influencing the direction of the play. This engagement is central to Boal's vision of theatre as a collaborative and interactive medium for social exploration and change.

Figure 7: Photography by Amel Fočo (Identities, 2022).

One of the Most Well-known Techniques of this Theatre Are:

  • Forum Theatre.  It involves the depiction of a specific problem or situation in a play, which is then presented to the audience. The unique aspect of Forum Theatre is the active participation of the audience, or Spect-Actors, who are encouraged to intervene and propose solutions. This method provides a practical opportunity to rehearse real-life actions, enabling individuals to explore and challenge various forms of social and personal oppression.

  • Newspaper Theatre. It is a technique that originated in Brazil during the late 1960s as a response to the controlled and biased media under Brazil's military dictatorship. The purpose of this technique, created by Boal, is to critique and interpret the content of mainstream media and enable continued engagement in political theatre while circumventing the prevailing censorship. The technique involves using newspaper articles as the basis for theatrical pieces. Participants, often non-professionals, interpret and dramatize these articles, creating short performances that are rapidly devised and executed within the same day. This quick turnaround is strategic, allowing the performances to be presented before they can be halted by government censorship. As a result, it facilitates a form of immediate and responsive political dialogue.

  • Invisible Theatre. After being exiled from Brazil, the author continued to develop various theatre practices in Argentina, responding to political situations. It was during this time that he developed the concept of Invisible Theatre. At that time, he was already known for expressing some politically sensitive opinions. It was risky for him to openly share his ideas or engage in activist theatre. This is a technique where actors perform scripted scenes in public places, like streets, without revealing that these are theatrical acts. The scenes are designed to highlight social or political issues, with the goal of provoking reactions from people who unknowingly become the audience. This method blurs the line between reality and performance, using the genuine responses of the public as a critical part of the engagement and commentary on the highlighted issues.

  • Image Theatre. In 1974, Augusto Boal took part in the Peruvian literacy initiative "Operación Alfabetización Integral," which was influenced by Paulo Freire's pedagogical approach. Due to the linguistic diversity of Peru, which is characterized by a wide range of languages and dialects, Boal acknowledged the necessity of adapting his theatre methods to this context. As a result, Boal shifted his approach from relying solely on spoken language to incorporating non-verbal communication, which led to the development of Image Theatre. This technique allows participants to communicate through visual expression, using body language to create static pictures and overcome language barriers. The approach required participants to delve deeper into their creativity and express their personal experiences and complex societal realities. The method encouraged participants not only to depict their current conditions in everyday life situations but also to envision and artistically portray their ideal futures. Image Theatre fostered deeper understanding and empathy, highlighting the effectiveness of non-verbal communication in social discourse.

In addition to these, Augusto Boal developed other theatrical practices and research, such as Rainbow of Desire and Legislative Theatre which aim to educate and liberate people in the same way.

Figure 8: Exploring visual storytelling in an Image Theatre scene (Fočo, 2022).

Where I becomes We: ReAct Applied Theatre - Theatre of the Oppressed as a Method

The Theatre of the Oppressed was initially met with skepticism as it was perceived as simplistic and diverging from traditional theatre forms. However, due to its focus on interactive participation and social relevance, it has been widely adopted and adapted in various settings, including educational institutions and community centers. This theatre form has proven to be especially effective in addressing social justice, conflict resolution, and empowering marginalized communities. The Theatre of the Oppressed has become a powerful educational and social tool, with a deep impact on various societal realms. An example of its direct application can be seen in the work of ReAct, a youth theatre group from Sarajevo, Bosnia and Herzegovina. Their approach vividly illustrates how this theatrical form can be used to engage with and address both local and global issues, reflecting its potential for effecting societal change.

Under the guidance of Ida Karahasanović-Avdibegović, high school and university students use the Theatre of the Oppressed to create performances that engage their community on various levels. Their approach centres on transforming audience members into Spect-Actors, a key tenet of the Theatre of the Oppressed. This participatory technique encourages a deeper connection with and understanding of the issues at hand.

A noteworthy example of their work is the production Dnevnik Identiteta (Diary of Identities). This performance skillfully merges local post-war narratives with broader international themes. It exemplifies how ReAct uses the Theatre of the Oppressed to explore the interconnectedness of local experiences with wider world events. This enhances audience awareness of the multifaceted nature of contemporary challenges. The production provides a platform for emotional expression and empathy. Additionally, it contributes to personal development and community bonding. Furthermore, ReActs' performances often address social commentary, including issues such as injustice, inequality, and oppression.

Figure 9: Unity in movement. "Dnevnik identiteta", ReAct Theatre (Fočo, 2022).

The dissolution of boundaries between Actor and Spectator fosters a sense of equality and collective responsibility. This approach democratises the theatrical experience and exemplifies the desired societal structure inherent in this theatrical concept. Each individual's voice significantly contributes to the collective narrative and decision-making process. The Theatre of the Oppressed serves as a counterpoint to the prevailing individualistic culture by emphasizing the efficacy of collective action and empathy. It creates a space where shared experiences and perspectives are prioritised, enabling a shift from individual to collective identity. This transition highlights the potential for achieving more equitable and just societies through active and unified participation. The Theatre of the Oppressed is a medium for fostering shared experiences and mutual understanding, cultivating a culture of collaboration and unity in addressing societal issues. It aims to embody the optimism that drives human endeavor towards progress and equity.

In embodying the transformative power of unity and empathy, the Theatre of the Oppressed not only reimagines the stage of drama but also redefines the stage of life, compelling us to act not as isolated individuals, but as harmonious architects of a more equitable and compassionate world.

Bibliographical References

Boal, A. (2005). Games for Actors and Non-Actors. 2nd ed. Routledge.

Boal, A. (2001). Hamlet and the baker’s son. New York: Routledge.

Boal, A. (2008). Theatre of the Oppressed. Get Political.

Gökdağ, E. (2014). “AUGUSTO BOAL’S THE JOKER SYSTEM.” Idil Sanat Ve Dil Dergisi, vol. 3, no. 14,

Johnson, David Read, and Renée Emunah. (2021). Current Approaches in Drama Therapy. 3rd ed.


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