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.” Theatre at its most elemental was the “dithyrambic song”—free, “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.
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 the classroom where assumptions can be questioned safely. And 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, what and who are rendered “collateral.” Words are like trucks, Boal insisted to Goodman and Gonzalez: “You can put inside what you want.” Indeed, the stage is the space within which language, the euphemisms that so galled Orwell, can be thoughtfully unpacked.
Boal was a friend of Paulo Freire—and, by his own admission, Freire inspired by him. 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. Freire insists that the classroom and the world are “coextensive”; that education presents us all with a stark choice since it can either serve to indoctrinate students, to teach them to conform, or to introduce “the practice of freedom,” the practice of thinking critically and creatively about the world. Boal’s actors present the play, addressing a specific theme. At the end of the play, when no solution seems available, the spectators are invited to become actors and provide alternatives, to think outside the theatrical (and social) box. Social conditions so often misrepresented as inevitable or insurmountable shift. Boal’s technique unmasks the tension between existing social conditions and the representation of those conditions, demonstrating palpably the power of acquiescence, of rendering ourselves inert, spectral before any authority—playwright or professor.
“What do you want me to write?” students often ask me. And I wonder whether perhaps human beings desire being dictated to, whether we find it oddly comforting. “Write what you think,” I respond, thinking of Boal. Some of them look back at me distrustfully. I can’t blame them. We don’t invite students to shift from spectators to actors often enough; and if their education does not help them rehearse safely “the practice of freedom,” of critical thinking, then how can they transform the world? Do we ask students to be passive in class, but to engage in community service? Do we ask them to ingest information passively, but gnash our teeth when they don’t show up at the voting booth? For Boal the idea of using “the theater as a rehearsal for [the] transformation of reality” did not become “his practice until the dictatorship was every time more severe on us and they started forbidding our plays, not allowing us to do our plays [,] to do nothing.” It was only “when we lost our theater, we lost everything,” that they found the transformative practice.