2 The Theatre of the Oppressed by Augusto Boal

Augusto Boal (1931-2009) was director of the Teatro de Arena (São Paulo) from 1956 to 1971, when he was expelled from Brazil by exile first to Argentina, then to Peru (where he began to formulate the plays of the political arsenal of the Theatre of the Oppressed), finally in France where he settled until 1991, creating the techniques of Flic-dans-la-tete.

Returning to Rio de Janeiro, he was elected Vereador (a sort of city councilor) for the Partito dos Trabalhadores and carried out his Political-Theatrical Mandate by applying the Legislative Theatre in Rio and other Brazilian and European cities (London). He is the author of dramaturgical texts and theoretical books, some of which have been translated into thirty-five languages. He died in Rio de Janeiro on May 2, 2009.

The Theatre of the Oppressed is based on the dialogue between the public and the actors as a symbol of the dialogue that should take place between all social partners and people. Influenced by the thought of the philosopher and pedagogist Paulo Freire (author of the Pedagogy of the Oppressed), Boal spread his method by traveling all over the world.

Founding elements of Boal's work to which we refer are the concept of “Consciousness” and the mode of intervention of the “Forum Theatre”.

By awareness we refer to the pedagogical and political research of Paulo Freire. The goal is to enhance the knowledge and resources of the groups by facilitating a learning process that becomes critical, “transitive” and dialogical consciousness as well as the potential for “liberation”. Consciousness is a wide-spread practice in many countries of South America, centred on trust in the “knowledge” of the oppressed and on the problematizing role of the conductor who educates and learns by dialoguing.

The Forum Theatre. The Forum Theatre, a mode of the Theatre of the Oppressed, is a research work that a group performs on a situation of discomfort to transform it. We work with various groups of people: with teachers and students on conflict, AIDS, bullying and interculture; with drug addicts in the community and the mentally ill in social services; with adolescents and children, with parents, teachers and principals in schools; with social workers of all kinds; in neighbourhoods where conflicts between generations emerge. In Brazil we also work with peasants and landless peoples, in India with fishermen and street children, in Canada with Indians, in Sweden at school on alcoholism, in Bosnia on conflict and reconstruction, in England, Italy and all of Europe also in prison with projects that have represented “bridges” between the internal reality and the external reality of the various penitentiary institutions.

From the first steps of director and author, Boal has understood the theatre as a dialectical tool of knowledge (inductive and non-prescriptive) and discards any formal obligations, unscrupulously using the self-reflective fiction that is its prerogative.

The secret of the theatre, according to Boal, is nothing more than a mirror artifice: the ability to 'see oneself in a situation', which is peculiar to human nature before being the secret of the actor's art - art that has man himself as its subject and object. If it is true that to know is to recognize, the “mirror” of the theatre works in the way of Platonic dialogue: that is, as a strategy of self-deception put in place to displace the consensus of the collective consciousness, demystify its rituals and unmask its behaviours. The fiction that is the 'structure' proper to the theatre is recovered as a paradigm of social dramatization and, leaving behind the specialized functionality of art made craft, is applied by Boal as a “scaffolding” for the observation and verification of reality.

Boal's approach has been tuned, since the 60s, with sociological premises (such as the definition of the paradigms of theatricality in the public dimension, by Erwin Goffman) and then anthropological (such as the ritual foundation of sociality, by Victor Turner).

These theoretical stimuli immediately take the field, flowing into the theatrical battle against the hypnotic dictatorship of the plausible and for the maieutic affirmation of the “true”. In the battle, on the one hand, the empirical assumption of the “system” of de-mechanizing tasks of the Russian theatrical pedagogue Konstantin Stanislavskij (a disciplinary legacy reformulated by Boal in an “arsenal” of auxiliary techniques to awareness); on the other, the inexhaustible stimulus (which from a critical category is also, for Boal, an existential circumstance) of the search for the theatre “outside the theatres” and, therefore, of the actor in the ordinary man.

This path, which already in the 60s with the Teatro de Arena in São Paulo had led Boal to the abolition of the curtain, the adoption of the circular stage and the experimental application of the coringa system (a narrator-reasoner who interfered in the reception of the story narrated), in the 70s and 80s leads him, with the Forum Theatre to overcome the spatial and concrete dichotomy between actors and spectators. The latter, from passive subjects are actively involved in the realization of the show: from spectators they become spectators-actors.

This reversal is only apparently akin to the search for a “de-theatricalized” theatre that, as a critical aporia, disturbs European stage modernity and moves many “founding” directors (Copeau, Grotowski, Barba) to move their work to community-laboratory, as far as possible from the commodification of art subject to the light of the spotlight. In fact, although already declared, Boal's anti-traditionalism does not yet lead him to the avantgarde taste of desecration, but rather leads him to a generous dialectical and assimilative overthrow: “everyone can make theatre, even actors; you can do theatre everywhere, even in theatres.” Its intellectual crisis is not resolved in isolation but, rather, manifests in its own operational context possibilities (endogenous or heterodox) that can be made its own by its practice as appropriate experimental equipment, returning to, by virtue of reason, the creative stimulus of radical inductions.

Thus, the transgression of the traditional pact of passivity that in bourgeois society safeguards the exclusive activity of the artists by separating them from the sitting and silent audience, leads Boal not to exclusion but to the organic reintegration of the spectator-function as an alternate role among the participants in the scenic event (the audience gets up, speaks loudly and replaces the actor on stage). The spectator (from the Latin spectare) is the one who watches the show (what needs to be watched). The artifice of “seeing oneself in a situation”, at the centre of the theatrical fact both in the actor who pretends to be the character and in the spectator who identifies himself, is thus put into use as a dialectical tool and maieutic stimulus to knowledge, through mimesis and reminiscence.

It is in the repetition of the scene, in which an accidental variable interference of the spectator-actor always affects, that the theatrical expression - not understood in the sense of a cathartic ritual, but as an induced manifestation of epiphanies significant for life - realizes for Boal its hermeneutic potential of unveiling. It is therefore precisely the observer who installs the metaphorical spiral, giving life to the communicative event in which he intervenes as a competent subject (as part of an interpretative community) to the decoding of the masks and the assembly of the signs, and articulating the polysemy of the images in resonance with the most varied forms and modes of conduct in which, in life, he is presented with social interaction. The prospective convention of the plurality of “points of view” is thus assumed as an interpretative paradigm of the relativity of the 'true', allowing the observer to compare the multiple forms of reality, to imagine alternatives to the datum and possibly to put them to the test by entering the scene. This mode of fruition, anti-Antarctic and historicized, allows participants to conceive of power relations as modifiable. Each then, by reorganizing its empirical hierarchies, is potentially enabled to transfer the “evidentiary” effects of scenic interaction to the social level.