In Theatre of the Oppressed, Augusto Boal takes on the task of stripping theatre to its roots, insisting that “all theater is necessarily political, because all the activities of man are political and theater is one of them.” For Boal, theatre at its most elemental was the “dithyrambic song”–a melody “created by and for the people.” The history of Western theatre reveals a careful, purposeful separation of that song from the landscape within which it was rooted. It was the privileged classes “who decided that some persons will go to the stage and only they will be able to act; the rest will remain seated, receptive, passive—these will be the spectators, the masses, the people.”
Boal, the well-educated son of a baker and a home-maker, was born in Brazil, kidnapped and tortured in 1971 by the military regime that had come to power in 1964 with the help of the United States, and eventually exiled from his homeland for 15 years. He was a dissident and a leftist, but I think of him as a teacher–a writing teacher.
In 2005, about four years before his death, Boal was interviewed by Amy Goodman and Juan Gonzalez of Democracy Now!. Asked to explain how he developed the “theatre of the oppressed,” he talked about Shakespeare’s “Hamlet,” and the difference between art that mirrors the world, “our vices and virtues,” and art that transforms:
‘I would like to have a mirror with some magic properties in which we could–if we don’t like the image that we have in front of us to allow us to penetrate into that mirror and then transform our image and then come back with our image transformed.’
The act of transforming transforms the actor, he explained. The stage becomes a space within which the usual way of seeing can be suspended and another possibility essayed, tested–the original meaning of the verb to essay. So the theatrical space is akin to the classroom–or at least a writing surface where I can question assumptions safely.
Since the literary text and the dramatic text both develop from a particularly human context, they are both political—reflective of specific ideas about what and who are valuable, or what and who can be rendered “collateral.” Words, Boal insisted to Goodman and Gonzalez, are like trucks: “You can put inside what you want.”
Boal was a friend of Paulo Freire–and by his own admission inspired by him. In fact, Theatre of the Oppressed consciously echoes Freire’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed. Seeing a clear parallel between the stage and the classroom as a transformative space is easy. Much more difficult is the matter of creating and sustaining a space within which students are invited to think critically and question the common rendition of people and events in the world around them. Because no matter how much we insist on the complexity of audience, students generally write to the teacher. [Read more…]