In the second essay of his series on Augusto Boal, the Brazilian playwright, director and political activist, Andrew Robinson explores Boal's Theatre of the Oppressed. He examines the classic forms of Boal's work, its key methods, and the centrality of concepts such as oppression and bodily alienation.
By Andrew Robinson
The most widely known form of Theatre of the Oppressed, often identified with the name itself, is Forum Theatre.This type of theatre presents a scene which is normally run from beginning to end. Afterwards, it is re-run, but spectators can interrupt (by calling out “stop!”) and take the place of an actor. Usually, the scene is exemplary of a certain type of oppression – workers on strike confront a manager or police officers, a racist swimming pool attendant demands papers from a black family, an authoritarian father throws his daughter out for getting pregnant, and so on. (The script Family, used during the Legislative Theatre process, is included in the book Legislative Theatre and provides a sense of how this works, on the basis of the last of these examples). ‘Spect-actors’, i.e. spectators who take on the role of actors, take on the role of the oppressed person, and try out alternative responses.
Suppose, for instance, that the problem being addressed is exploitation in a factory. Members of the audience might try out responses such as leaving the job, going on strike, reasoning with the manager, blowing up the factory, sabotaging machinery, organising a go-slow, and so on. There is no limit to the possible responses, except the audience’s imagination. Unintended consequences or difficulties carrying out actions often become apparent. The performance tests the responses and their effects. Blowing up the factory leaves the workers jobless. Unionising might entail confronting the bosses if they fire union organisers. Actors can then run through ways to respond to these further effects. So they realise, for instance, that if they unionise, they need to be ready to strike if organisers are fired. And often, alternatives unthought-of by the facilitators appear. The point is not to show the correct path. The point is to try out different paths.
When a tactic works, other spect-actors then replace the oppressor and try to re-establish oppression. This creates a dynamic situation. The method shows the available arsenals of tactics available to both oppressors and oppressed. Theatrical practice operates as a rehearsal for challenging oppression in everyday life. In principle, the effect of “catharsis” is completely removed. People don’t experience a vicarious revolution as a substitute for real revolution. The rehearsal provides an inspiration for real acts of resistance.
The dynamic nature of the situation is both a strength and a challenge. Spect-actors’ interventions create new scripts or responses to the situation. The theatrical techniques are in the service of the people, or participants. This means that flexibility is needed in applying the techniques, and modifications are allowed. Sometimes, a particular solution proposed by a spect-actor requires other characters from outside the initial scenario. This is achieved by recruiting new participants from the audience. Spect-actors often modify scenes and even methods, in ways which reflect their ideologies or psychologies. However, it is not usually permitted to change the basics of the situation, such as the characters’ relationships, the nature of the problem, or the characters’ desires. “Magical” solutions, like winning the lottery, are discouraged – though it is up to the spectators which solutions are deemed magical.
The purpose of all forms of Theatre of the Oppressed is to transform spectators into protagonists. This process is meant to cause people to change society, rather than accepting it as it is. In Boal’s words, the objective is to encourage autonomous activity, transformative creativity, and the process of changing oneself into a protagonist. It is intended as an endless process that expands into participants’ lives, providing a source of energy and subjective action.
Whereas conventional theatre uses a code of non-interference by the audience, Boalian theatre proposes interference and intervention. This means that, instead of the classical position of catharsis, spectators undergo dynamisation. They see themselves as potential actors in the scenario, who can invade the stage – even if they don’t. Dynamisation – not just avoiding catharsis – is needed, so that people fight oppression and injustice. According to Boal, theatre should be dynamising. It should encourage people to act or “do” things in real life. And it should make people more aware of their own and others’ possibilities.
The aim of Theatre of the Oppressed is to turn spectators (or passive oppressed people) into actors (or fighters against oppression). The spectator takes on the role of the actor. Everyone is both spectator and actor, at least potentially. Everyone is a protagonist – the spectator does not delegate power to the actor. Even though some people might choose not to come on stage, the fact that they decide not to intervene is itself a form of acting.
Boal theorises Forum Theatre as a type of question asked of the audience – in the form of a theatrical scene. The question should be as clear as possible. Participants are encouraged to formulate the conflict in advance, as a statement: “I want”. This kind of structure is common to all the variants of Theatre of the Oppressed. Other forms, such as ‘invisible’ theatre and ‘newspaper’ theatre also use theatrical spectacles to stimulate discussion of political topics.
In Theatre of the Oppressed, the spectator is encouraged to “invade” the stage. The actor or director loses the ability to speak in monologue. Many forms of Theatre of the Oppressed, such as forum theatre and invisible theatre, remove the wall between actor and spectator. Earlier forms involved spectators writing scripts for actors on the spot, and rewriting scenes. Boal describes such an approach as transferring the means of artistic production to the people. In contrast to bourgeois theatre as “finished theatre”, Theatre of the Oppressed presents images of a world which can be transformed. It is never a finished spectacle. It is a work in progress. Hence, it models the world theorised in Boal’s view of the role of aesthetics, in which humanity and life are processual and incomplete.
Boal favours the “invasion” of the stage because it combats alienation. Alienation is here seen as a reduction to a status of less than fully human. The traditional spectator is alienated in this way. S/he is less than fully human, because s/he delegates the power to act to other people. Theatre of the Oppressed “humanises” the spectator by restoring her or his capacity for action “in all its fullness”. It restores the spectator to equality with the actor – rather than treating the spectator as a passive receiver of an imposed, finished worldview.
The invasion of the aesthetic space symbolises and prefigures the trespass, or seizure of power, needed to challenge oppression in other spheres. In other words, the split between powerful actor/director and powerless, passive spectator symbolises and instantiates the broader split between powerful and powerless. The role of the spect-actor prefigures a broader reversal of this relationship. Just as a spectator can become an actor, so workers can take over factories, students can teach, oppressed people can fight back against abusers, and so on. Boal goes as far as to say that we cannot be free without such an act of ‘trespass’, outside established roles and norms. This theatre assumes, or models, the possibility for change.
Boal’s method transforms the relationship between actor and spectator. The aim is to democratise – not destroy – the stage space. Theatre of the Oppressed should create a dialogue between actor and spectator, rather than a monologue. The role of spectators is still crucial in creating an aesthetic space of observation. Such a space is created when others’ gaze is focused on one area, and is more intense the more are watching. Such a space is desirable. It has a power of enchantment. And it can signify a separate space which is invaded.
Theorising and Combatting Oppression
As the name suggests, Theatre of the Oppressed aims to combat oppression. Oppression is both individual and general. Theatre of the Oppressed comes up against a problem that people are unwilling to publicly perform what they see as individual problems. Part of its work is to show that these problems are actually “plural”, rather than personal. They are social effects which have resonances with others’ problems. Theatre of the Oppressed moves from the individual to the general, rather than the reverse. Oppression is always modelled in terms of particular experiences. However, a good Theatre of the Oppressed session works with oppressions which are also suitably general. Part of the purpose of this selection is to move from problems to social causes, and to address these causes.
Oppressions can be revealed to be general or universal, by finding which aspects of a particular situation are more widespread. Emphasis might also be put on social needs, rather than desires which are simply a matter of will. Personal problems are placed in a wider social, economic and political reality. Such distinctions and approaches are typical of consciousness-raising approaches of the 60s-70s era, such as feminist consciousness raising, militant inquiry, and Freirean pedagogy.
The idea of oppression was straightforward in the early years. Boal was working against tyrannical systems with visible oppressors, such as military dictatorships, landlord-owned latifundias, and authoritarian workplaces. In these situations, there is an external oppressor who is easily identified, because this person uses violence and coercion to control other people. Later, the method was expanded for use in dealing with more complex situations, such as gender and family relations. In these cases, Boal suggests that conciliation is possible. Oppression is less obviously one-sided. More recent techniques, such as the Rainbow of Desire, also work with concealed and internalised oppressions.
Although general oppressions are the best ones to address using this approach, it is also important not to give the impression that oppression is the same everywhere, which would encourage fatalism. Also, all oppressions should be treated as equally important. This is because they are subjectively important to those subject to them, and because others’ oppressions should not prevent someone from fighting their own. Forum theatre provides a kind of rehearsal for fighting oppressions one faces in one’s own life. Everyone is always the protagonist of her/his own life. Boal does not force people to participate, or exclude non-participators. However, he encourages everyone to participate.
Usually, the method is used with groups of people facing similar experiences of structural oppression – such as class power in the workplace, systematic racism or sexism, or abuse by the police or army. There are three degrees of affinity between experiences of oppression:
- Absolute identity, where two people experience the same oppression. Problems like intimate partner violence and police harassment are common to many people, even if they feel personal.
- Analogy, where two problems are structurally similar. For instance, different kinds of workplace exploitation or police abuse might be analogical.
- Resonance or solidarity, where problems are simply reminiscent of one’s own situation, or the actor sympathises with a problem without having experienced it.
In true “Theatre of the Oppressed”, only the first two types qualify someone as a spect-actor. Only in these cases is someone preparing for real resistance to real oppressions. However, resonance can also be used in Forum Theatre and other approaches, such as ‘Rainbow of Desire’, where the problems discussed are more personally unique.
Boal also argues that part of the project of Theatre of the Oppressed is to interlink different groups of oppressed people. Transformative power is increased when different groups know and express solidarity with each other’s oppressions. Boal believes that fighting any one oppression is inseparable from fighting all oppressions.
Any oppression provides a way into sympathising with oppressed people. For instance, Grace Telesco controversially tried to use Boal’s method with police recruits, to discourage brutality. The average recruit is very privileged and does not feel oppressed. However, their experience of subordination as recruits provided a way into the issue of oppression for them. This suggests that even very privileged people can sympathise with oppression based on resonance.
Muscular Armour, Schemas, and Habit
Theatre of the Oppressed sessions often start with games and bodywork. Such activities are seen as creating a kind of communion, and existence as a group. Even in his last years, Boal still invented and appropriated new exercises, often borrowing traditional games from new settings.
The function of these exercises is to destroy what Boal calls “muscular alienation”, and to perform a ‘de-mechanisation of the body’. This theory is similar to Reich’s concept of character-armour. In the course of work and everyday life, people adopt certain habitual bodily postures and repeat particular acts. The body produces a muscular mask in response to the stimuli it receives. People’s bodies are mechanised. Their muscle structures, posture, personality, and so on are rigid and constrained. Usually this rigidity reflects someone’s job or social roles. This structure means that emotions cannot manifest themselves expressively. A person who is rigid in this way is unable to act, in the sense Boal means. S/he can’t act creatively, because s/he always reverts to the constrained gestures of the constricted body.
Boal exemplifies this idea in relation to work. Workers in factories, mines, farms and so on often form their muscular armour in terms of particular physical postures which are repeated. Miners have to crouch a lot, factory workers have to repeat certain movements over and over. Someone who works at a computer spends a lot of time sitting, with eyes facing forwards and hands at the keyboard. A fast food worker, in contrast, might be more mobile, but is expected to keep up particular appearances of happiness, to smile and say “have a nice day”. People might also get bodily structures from family life, consumption patterns, or recurring emotional states – from constant anxiety or hypervigilance, from physically sitting watching TV or doing standardised forms of exercise, or from housework or childcare. There are also corresponding psychological structures. Someone whose job involves sorting things, or filling forms, learns to think in categorising ways for example. These are the kinds of muscular rigidities and constricting roles people can pick up from repetitive actions in their lives.
There is also a sensory equivalent to this kind of muscular rigidity. People filter reality in line with particular assumptions. These assumptions are culturally relative. They make habitual settings seem orderly. For instance, people raised in cities can filter urban stimuli, but not usually those of a jungle. On the other hand, someone who has always lived in a jungle will find it more orderly than a city. Such filters or breakers can act in a similar way to bodily rigidities. They predispose people to see or hear in particular ways, and to filter other things out as irrelevant.
This sensory problem has its roots in categorisation. Boal argues that everything in the world is ultimately unique. But humans and animals cannot handle awareness of all this diversity. People need to use categories and habits to make the world more comprehensible, and avoid being overwhelmed. People also form expectations of conventional phrases, binaries, and so on – similar to computer cookies. They develop socially and environmentally specific sensory breakers, which select and structure the otherwise overwhelming input. These breakers mechanise people’s actions, repeating the same selections over and over. These are similar to what are called schemas in cognitive psychology. On a mental level, too, neurons which should be forming complex networks can become locked in the repetition of similar information. They can become closed circuits which refuse dialogue.
Habit is not all bad. It allows people to act more efficiently. And it stops people from being overwhelmed. But it also reduces the range of bodily expression. For instance, “cookies” do not get on with genuinely creative, original artists, because these artists’ work frustrates expectations. There is therefore a need to undermine habit in art. Habit is exacerbated in today’s societies. Capitalism encourages habitual rigidity, because it creates more efficient, more robot-like workers.
According to Boal, all of these habituated postures, and corresponding psychological habits, are alienating. They are a small subset of what the human body is capable of. They keep us, as people, trapped in our restricted social roles – which are usually imposed by capitalism and other oppressions. Boal insists that personal rigidities are not primarily matters of personality or essence. They are effects of social relations, or of habits. A form of bodily rigidity is the basis for a particular social role, or ‘mask’. For Boal, these rigidities restrict what people feel, see, hear, and so on. People start to feel little of what they touch, to listen to little of what they hear. The process of authentic hearing/seeing, and of dialogue and creativity, is stunted or blocked.
To regain the ability to act (in the full sense), people need to re-harmonise their bodies so they can send and receive all possible messages. Actors need to learn to counter the usual tendency to synthesise reality in line with a particular standpoint or interest. Boal theorises games as sensory dialogue, which brings out creativity by breaking down muscular rigidity.
Ritual and Fear
Many of Boal’s techniques are designed to denaturalise habits and rituals which seem natural or ordinary. One source of oppression is ritual. Rituals are actions people perform without thought or passion, without their heart being in them. People are said to perform many rituals without recognising them as such. Often, rituals (or habits) have to be revealed before they can be questioned. Rituals include things like fighting, gestures of friendship, conventional forms of power, and so on. Examples of rituals might include clocking in at work, sitting down in class, saluting a senior officer, but also things like going to the pub every Saturday, reading a newspaper every morning, or always protesting in a particular way. Certain techniques help people see the rituals for what they are. Not all rituals are bad, but they should be seen and questioned.
Many rituals take the form of social roles. When acting a role, people put on a particular “mask”, to cushion their relations while in the role. This isn’t usually a literal mask, but a kind of persona or social self, performed in a particular setting. Removing or modifying the mask is often enough to explode the ritual. Most people modify themselves in line with masks, and thereby constrain their self-expression. Sometimes this constraint is invisible, and theatre can reveal it.
Boal lists seven techniques to disrupt rituals:
- breaking them up into independent parts
- reversing the sequence of events
- showing something from several viewpoints
- applying a ritual from one situation in another
- repeating rituals in the same or modified ways
- performing two rituals simultaneously
- transforming one character into another.
Often, rituals are not performed in their original form, but in a symbolic or surreal way. For instance, resistance to workplace agitation can be performed as putting a bag over one’s head or fingers in ears.
Another source of oppression is fear. Oppression continues because of the hold it exerts on its victims. Boal suggests that oppression is only possible because people value life more than liberty. People are oppressed because they tend to make concessions to prolong their lives. If someone is unafraid, they might be killed, but they cannot be oppressed, because they will not accept oppression. Exceptionally brave people are fearless even when captured by enemies, but most of us accept intolerable conditions because of fear. Fear creates a kind of general vigilance, conditioning how people live.
For the other essays in this series, please visit the In Theory column.
Andrew Robinson is a political theorist and activist based in the UK. His book Power, Resistance and Conflict in the Contemporary World: Social Movements, Networks and Hierarchies (co-authored with Athina Karatzogianni) was published in Sep 2009 by Routledge. His 'In Theory' column appears every other Friday.
In the fourth essay of his series on Augusto Boal, Andrew Robinson examines the process through which Theatre of the Oppressed came into being and explores the key features of Boal's technical approach.
By Andrew Robinson
A mural homage to Boal and Brecht, Porto, Portugal. (Source: Flickr)
Previous columns have explored the work of the radical dramatist Augusto Boal, explaining his theory of oppression, his critique of classical theatre, and his encouragement of forms of theatre in which spectators become participants. In this essay, I will examine the process through which Theatre of the Oppressed came into being, a number of Boal’s plays and productions, and Boal’s technical preferences for selecting narratives, forming characters, and using props and spaces.
Boal did not simply formulate Theatre of the Oppressed as a direct response to cathartic theatre. Rather, he was part of a process of transformation within Brazilian theatre, which had gone through a process that started with importing European classics, then performing local realist scenarios, then “nationalising” the classics. Boal was involved with the third stage, in which European classic plays were performed in Brazilian settings, rewritten and localised. In Boal’s account, this approach is connected to the growth of “Popular Centres of Culture” in early 1960s Brazil. The role of these centres was to share local artistic knowledge.
At this stage, in the early 1960s, Boal was involved in the Arena Theatre of São Paulo. He pioneered the Joker system, mainly as a way of distancing performances from the classical mode, as in Brecht (see below). Techniques used at this time included role-switching, the reduction of characters to an alienated social mask, genre eclecticism, and the use of music to supplement or contradict dramatic action. Characters are treated as effects of social causality, rather than individual psychology. The Joker in this system would often explain things to the audience, or ask actors for their opinions. The idea is to create a patchwork which alters how audiences relate to the play.
Boal’s early work follows this kind of eclectic patchwork approach. For instance, he was involved in producing Arena conta Zumbí (Arena tells of Zumbi), of which he was co-author. This musical based on Afro-Brazilian revolutionary history broke many theatrical conventions. It has been described by other commentators as “stylistically eclectic” and fragmentary. Different sections relate only thematically (not through narrative), focusing on avoiding present and future evils. Empathy or identification with characters was undermined. Indeed, Boal claims it dispensed with empathy.
Another work of this period, Arena conta Tiradentes, dealt with a nationalist uprising in the eighteenth century. These works were characterised by stylistic eclecticism and a collective approach to storytelling. Historical stories were filled with contemporary information to make them relevant, and presented in a mainly fantastic way. Different actors played the same role in different scenes. In Tiradentes, actors were assigned functions (such as the protagonist) rather than characters. When actors circulate in this way, costumes and other markers are used to identify characters.
Boal portrays this period as mainly a period of destruction of theatrical conventions, after which it was necessary to rebuild. He suggests that such early theatre was fuelled by a sense of injustice and a rebellion against cruelty. But he also suggests that his sense of oppression at this point was too general, too connected to an idea of Truth. Boal later argues that theatrical conventions are not good or bad in themselves; but rather are good for certain purposes. However, conventions tend to be fixed, whereas purposes and circumstances change. Also, people get stuck in habitual, mechanised patterns of action which need to be shaken up.
The Emergence of Forum Theatre
The incident that brought revelation, according to Boal, followed a performance of agitprop theatre in the countryside. A peasant named Virgilio asked the actors to take part in an armed insurrection. When they refused, he rejected them. This, for Boal, showed a fundamental problem with Marxist theatre – the actors were not taking the same risks as the audience. They were taking a vanguard role, telling others how to act.
After this incident, Forum Theatre (see part 2) was designed, which modelled and acted social problems based on audience suggestions. The idea in forum theatre is to allow people to formulate their own solutions, rather than the play presenting solutions. Boal’s work has continued to evolve in response to emerging situations.
A second story is used to explain how the “spect-actor” came into being, because the actors couldn’t follow an audience suggestion to the suggestor’s satisfaction. Another story suggests that the later ‘Rainbow of Desire’ techniques were unfolded from problems arising at a workshop in Paris.
Boal on Brecht
Boal suggests that his approach is inspired partly by Bertolt Brecht. He sees this German Marxist playwright as the first to break with classical Aristotelian conventions. Brecht used a style of theatre which sought to raise workers’ consciousness, sometimes called agitprop or agitation-propaganda theatre. Like Boal, Brecht opposed the use of empathy. Instead, he tried to make spectators watch plays in a detached, estranged way. He does this through a distancing effect which makes the social relations underlying theatrical stories visible.
Aristotle’s approach, and all its successors, treat individuals as actors. Theatre is an objective collision of subjective forces. Actions precede from personal character. In Brecht, theatre is instead a subjective collision of objective forces. Brecht denies that characters have freedom. Instead, he portrays them as objects of external socio-economic forces. When characters act, there is always an objective cause which causes them to act. Characters also become spokespeople for economic forces, in an almost puppet-like, stereotypical way.
Brecht denies that people have character-traits that are simply their own, or which stem from human nature. Instead, dramatic characters express socially constructed roles and personality-types. Brechtian characters are not so much individuals as the totality of possibilities for action in a particular social position. Characters act in line with how their role functions. For example, rich characters have to be nasty, otherwise they would lose their wealth. A bourgeois character is driven by profit maximisation, not their own goodness or badness. Characters are also broken-up into component parts, and reassembled. The narrative indicts rather than justifying the existing society, and presents this world as capable of being transformed.
Boal contrasts two series of characteristics of Aristotelian/Idealist theatre and Brechtian theatre – among others, human nature vs social construction or alteration, emotion vs reason, action vs narration, empathy vs the historicisation of action, and maladaption vs social problems as the cause of dramatic action. The replacement of empathy with historicisation is particularly important, in that it allows the spectator to act.
While Boal praises Brecht’s approach, he also tries to move beyond it. Boal’s main criticism of Brecht is that the division between actor and spectator is still in place. The actor or director is still in a position of telling a story to a passive audience, even if the story reflects what the director takes to be reality. This means that there is still only one way of thinking allowed. Speech is power. The director, not the spectator, has the power to speak. Hence, Brecht’s theatre is vanguardist. The spectator no longer delegates power to think, but still delegates power to act. The finished worldview is that of the enlightened vanguard. For Boal, this keeps the spectator alienated.
Boal rejects the view that popular art should be emotive or circus-like. Rather, he emphasises that it should be clear, and not mystified. Popular audiences prefer experimental approaches to closed spectacles. However, he is not opposed to emotion in theatre as such. The problem with most popular art is not emotional stimulation in itself. It is the lack of reflexivity and reversibility.
Instead of historically desituated emotions, a materialist art should show how the world can be transformed. This does not mean that emotions cannot be used. The audience can be sad at a tragic moment in a play. But they should be sad and angry at an oppressive situation, not sad at an unstoppable fate.
In this early period, Boal also wrote a number of other works. Boal’s play Torquemada was initially written in 1971. At the time, Boal was first a political prisoner, then an exile. Torquemada the torturer is clearly an allegory for the dictators and torturers in Brazil at the time. In the play, Torquemada’s allies in seizing power later become his victims. The middle-class and bourgeoisie back Torquemada to guarantee stability. Torquemada himself is an instrument. But he becomes the sole power-holder himself. He does not let the middle-class have their power back. This provides a warning that backing dictators for the good of stability is fruitless. Those who do so will suffer along with their enemies. Like most of Boal’s work, the play uses distancing techniques, such as the same actor playing several roles.
The essay Categories of Popular Theatre was written in 1971, but not published in English until the 1990s (in the volume Legislative Theatre). Boal suggests in his introduction that things were more “black and white” in those days. He has moved away from the dualistic Marxism he deployed in his earlier works. Boal’s piece defines the “people” as workers in the broad sense, distinct from the “population” which also includes bosses. It divides popular theatre – connected in various ways to the people – into six categories:
- Propaganda Theatre – which explains and makes apparent a past event or present reality, such as the pervasive presence of American imperialist products in Brazil. Such work is urgent and aims for an immediate response, such as supporting a strike or voting for a candidate.
- Didactic Theatre – which deals with more general problems. It usually deals with a general ethical problem with indirect political consequences – for example, legal inequality. This encompasses Arena Theatre of the type discussed above.
- Culture Theatre – which uses established cultural forms and folklore, ranging from carnival to classic plays, and/or which addresses broader cultural questions such as personal relationships. The fact that such questions are abused by bourgeois media to depoliticise does not mean that they cannot be used for popular ends.
- Theatre whose content is popular, but aimed at non-popular audiences. This can be either explicit or implicit in content.
- Anti-people perspectives, aimed at the people. See the section on television and reactionary media (in Part 3).
- Newspaper Theatre, which is an early form of Theatre of the Oppressed. This will be discussed in more detail later (Part 5).
Theatrical Techniques and Theory
The goal of theatre in Boal’s model is closely connected to its political function. Emotion itself is not desirable for Boal. Traditional aesthetic criteria of emotional expression, naturalistic realism, and originality are largely abandoned. What matters in dramatic performance is what the emotion signifies. People should transmit meanings unconsciously, on what Boal calls the “undercurrent”. Rather than originality, theatre should aim to preserve and build on existing “conquests” or successes.
Realism is as subjective as any other style, because a cosmic or universal viewpoint is not possible. A universal viewpoint would have to see reality from all the individual viewpoints at once. Realism is therefore somewhat dangerous, because it creates a misleading illusion of objectivity. Art and theatre always represent – they never reproduce. Furthermore, the reality of someone’s social role is often how they are seen by their victims, rather than their self-conception. When people portray themselves, they usually use realistic images. When they portray an adversary, they use subjective, almost expressionist images. Michael Taussig suggests that Boal’s approaches are modernist or postmodernist, because they break up and play with narratives .
Theatre selects which human actions to represent. Boal suggests that passionate actions are those most worthy of artistic representation. Passion should be understood as a vital force: Passion is libertarian; it breaks down barriers and re-creates the world. True passion is total and unsubmissive. People spend too much of their lives suppressing passions – their own or others’ – or dressing them up. There is tragic passion, which justifies life – but Boal seems more inspired by the other type, “clownish love”, which alters life. Against religious objections, Boal argues that passions do not cause suffering. Rather, obstacles to passions cause suffering.
Boal argues that a character’s will, and not their being, is the crucial aspect of the dramatic action. Spectators should not ask “who is this?” but “what does s/he want?” This will should be something specific and concrete. The will is a concrete expression of a particular desire or idea. For Boal, it usually expresses a particular social dynamic. He argues that the essence of theatre is a conflict of wills. This conflict happens both internally – between the will and counter-will of a character – and externally, between characters. Actors should seek to seduce audiences into participating in the drama.
For Boal, incidents chosen for theatrical treatment should usually obey the three unities of time, action and place. Life-stories do not make good theatre and should be discouraged. Instead, narratives should be broken down into moments or incidents. The implication here is that life is a series of distinct molecular components, rather than a continuous, novelistic progression.
Situations of immediate aggression, with no plot development and few options (e.g. an arrest, execution, or rape), are not generally suitable for Theatre of the Oppressed. The lack of options might encourage resignation, and the only way to resist in these cases is physical. Rather, Theatre of the Oppressed concentrates on the events leading up to aggression. Boal also warns against the view that all situations have solutions.
The protagonist should have a will, which is precise and situated: a desire for a particular object or outcome. This will should be “necessary” or ongoing, not capricious. Boal links this to the idea of social needs. A good protagonist has a psychology which expresses a social function rather than an idiosyncrasy. It should be justified by the protagonist’s ethics. The oppressor characters must have similar wills, which are justified on their own terms, though unjust more broadly.
Suitable incidents involve a conflict of wills, not a simple self-realisation. This is one of the differences between political theory and theatre according to Boal. The various wills should express particular social forces within a situation which expresses a social structure. The best cases involve what Boal calls a “Chinese crisis” – at once opportunity and threat, like the Chinese characters for the word “crisis”. A conflict might, for instance, focus on a contradiction between will and external duty, such as pressure to do something unethical. In such cases, a “heroic” stance is encouraged, in which the protagonist stands alone in defence of principles and refuses to compromise.
Boal tries to find a balance between structure and flexibility. Punctuality should be encouraged (as a sign of “respect”), but its absence should not be punished. Concentration should be sought, but the relative chaos of community settings should also be embraced. Theatre requires a separate aesthetic space, to enable a reflexive seeing or listening distinct from immediate life.
Special techniques are proposed to create such a space. For instance, in a noisy setting, music can be used to create a separate sound-space. Boal says that games and techniques are similar to society: they have rules, but also require creative freedom. He emphasises the need to establish a creative atmosphere. Games should not be competitive, and should not be done with violence or cause pain. They should cause pleasure and understanding.
Theatre of the Oppressed involves less control and order than traditional theatre. But Boal also seeks to eliminate distractions which undermine the aesthetic space. He aims for a stage which is a distinct space, but also penetrable. Boal’s approaches tend to involve rules which function to enable rather than block innovation and play. The dialectic of rules and invention (conceived as both necessary) is central to their operation. Rules seem to be designed to create new settings with different dynamics, rather than to produce necessary responses.
Props are used in ways which break with habit, to increase sensitivity. Boal suggests that props are always “speaking”, in a similar manner to everyday objects. All objects on stage should have a definite use. Objects should also be transformed or “aestheticised” on stage. They should be used in different ways, so as to draw attention to their function. An object such as a telephone must be altered before it is used in a play. Otherwise, it carries the message of the shop or the designer, rather than the makers of the play. Boal encourages the use of “unusual objects”, which are out of place in a scenario. Their role is to cause a fissure in perception.
Objects should usually be aestheticised rather than naturalistic, to emphasise awareness of theatre as performance. But they should never seem expensive, so they feel within reach. The aim is to give the impression of a reality which is not directly present, but symbolised. In theatre, symbols and images are ‘polysemic’, with different layers of meaning covering further layers, like an onion. Some objects and images are designed to allow multiple projections by spectators.
For the other essays in the series, please visit the In Theory column page.
Andrew Robinson is a political theorist and activist based in the UK. His book Power, Resistance and Conflict in the Contemporary World: Social Movements, Networks and Hierarchies (co-authored with Athina Karatzogianni) was published in Sep 2009 by Routledge. His 'In Theory' column appears every other Friday.