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Theater of the Oppressed

“Maybe the theater in itself is not revolutionary, but these theatrical forms are without a doubt a rehearsal of revolution. The truth of the matter is that the spectator-actor practices a real act even though he does it in a fictional manner. While he rehearses throwing a bomb on stage, he is concretely rehearsing the way a bomb is thrown; acting out his attempt to organize a strike, he is concretely organizing a strike. Within its fictitious limits, the experience is a concrete one,” – Augusto Boal

What is Theater of the Oppressed?

Theater of the Oppressed is a Latin American theatrical form developed by Brazilian theatre practitioner Augusto Boal in the 1970s with great influence from Paulo Freire’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed. The foundational text for this form of theater is Boal’s Theatre of the Oppressed, a literary collection of essays that critique Aristotle’s theory of theatre for its attempts to purge the audience of their sins through catharsis and empathy and bring them back to conforming with ‘just’ dominant values and Machiavellian characters that represent an exceptional bourgeoisie.

Under the premise that we live in an unjust world, Boal calls for a dismantling of the coercive theatrical indoctrination pursued by Aristotle and Machiavelli and a pursuit of the Poetics of the Oppressed. In these poetics, the people must be turned “into subjects, into actors, transformers of the dramatic action” (Boal 2013, p. 122). This way theatre, even if not revolutionary in itself, can become a rehearsal for the revolution. 

“I believe that all the truly revolutionary theatrical groups should transfer to the people the means of production in the theater so that the people themselves may utilize them. The theater is a weapon, and it is the people who should wield it,” (Boal 2013, p. 122).

Since theater of the oppressed assigns functions, not characters, here are some important things to keep in mind (Boal 1970):

  • The protagonic function is one which lives in a structured reality. Protagonic functions carry out human reality and they influence outcomes through concrete action.
  • The Joker function serves as the master of ceremonies. He is magical, omniscient, polymorphous, and ubiquitous. He can interrupt the action, repeat certain actions in order to demonstrate them better, use slides, films, diagrams, statistics.

The Stages of Theater of the Oppressed

“The means of producing theater are made up of man himself,” (Boal 2013, p. 125). As such, anyone can produce theater — it is an accessible form of communication that requires nothing but the movements of your own body. However, in a rigid, hierarchical society we have been taught to move our bodies in certain ways that serve the purpose of the bourgeoisie. Theater of the Oppressed is designed to teach theater through a multi-stage process starting with exercises that focus the movements of the body and continually scaling into theater as discourse. 

First Stage: Undoing muscular structures

The goal of this first stage is to take apart the muscular structure of participants in a way that allows the participants to study and analyze their own movements to the point that they become conscious movements. The desired outcome is that each participant “understands, sees, and feels to what point his body is governed by his work,” (Boal 2013, p. 128). By understanding one’s own muscular structures, one learns how to perform theatre — to use one’s own body to produce characters of professions and social classes that are different than one’s self. 

Second Stage: Making the body expressive

The goal of this stage is to allow one to express oneself with movement as if speaking, to end the underdeveloped state of the body’s expressive capacity. Games for this stage typically involve the assignment of a role to participants and their silent portrayal of said assignment, using only movement to characterize themselves as their assigned role. These assignments can range from animals to professions, which can add an ideological element to the participants’ expression. Oftentimes, participants will be asked to guess the roles of others or will be tasked with finding the participant that is fulfilling some other role.

Third Stage: The theater as language

This stage is divided into three degrees or ‘phases’ as I will call them. The goal here is to make the people, who have gained autonomy over their bodily expression, the subjects of the theater; it represents “the transition from passivity to action,” (Boal 2013, p. 132). 

Phase One: Simultaneous dramaturgy

In this phase, the actors perform a scene until they reach a critical point; they then ask the audience to offer solutions that are then performed by the actors. From this point forward the audience can intervene whenever to correct any actions performed by the actors; the actors must comply with these edits. In other words, the audience plays the role of a playwright of sorts, writing the script of the performed piece in real-time. 

Phase Two: Image theater

In image theater the spectator is asked to become a sculptor of sorts. They are asked to express their views on a certain theme using only the bodies of other participants to sculpt their opinion. First, the sculptor is encouraged to sculpt their views on the current situation of said theme (the actual image), then they are asked to sculpt their view on how they would like the theme to be (the ideal image). Finally, the sculptor is asked to depict how to transform the theme from the actual image to the ideal image (the transitional image) — this is the depiction of revolution. 

Phase Three: Forum theater

Out of this phase of theater have emerged perhaps the most famous theater of the oppressed exercises. Forum theater has become particularly popular among audiences in the global north, with theater of the oppressed groups in cities like New York oftentimes holding forum theater workshops. 

In this phase, the actors are given a story to tell that presents a political or social problem of difficult solution. Then, at the end of the performance, spectators are asked if they agree with the solution. Any actor that does not agree is invited to become what Boal calls a spectator-actor, to take the place of the protagonic character redo the performance in a way that will bring about a new and better solution. The displaced actor should step aside but remain ready to resume their role if the spectator-actor considers their intervention complete or terminated. This process can be done over and over again as a rehearsal for revolution until the dismantling of systems of oppression is successfully achieved.

Fourth Stage: The theater as discourse

“George Ikishawa used to say that the bourgeois theater is the finished theater. The bourgeoisie already knows what the world is like, their world, and is able to present images of this complete, finished world. On the other hand, the proletariat and the oppressed classes do not know yet what their world will be like; consequently their theater will be the rehearsal, not the finished spectacle,” – Augusto Boal

This is the final form of theater of the oppressed — it is a theater that seeks to bring about discourse. Combining elements of the three previous stages, this stage of theater asks one to analyze the media we consume — such as myths and romances stories — and our personal narratives of repression through communal theatrical discourse. Perhaps the most famous exercise that has emerged out of this stage is invisible theater which consists of the presentation of a scene that presents an uncomfortable situation emblematic of societal oppression; the scene is a completed skit but must be rehearsed by the actors extensively enough to the point that spectators are not aware that it is a “spectacle” — they should believe it is a real occurrence, making them active participants in the situation. This form of theater is typically performed in public spaces of congregation like restaurants, plazas, or public transport.

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