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TH467 - Theatre of the Oppressed

What is Theatre of the Oppressed?

Applied Theatre practitioner Jennifer Hartley gives a TED talk about art, perception and how we experience the truth.


Theatre of the Oppressed: A Definition

The Theater of the Oppressed, the creation of Brazilian theater practitioner Augusto Boal (1931- ), is highly influential in experimental theater groups throughout the world. Boal developed his Theater of the Oppressed in 1974, during the heady days of the Brazilian dictatorship. The very title of this new theatrical style was bound to create problems with the censors in Brazil, as were Boal’s leftist political credentials, for which he had already been imprisoned and tortured for three months in 1972. On his release from prison he went into self-imposed exile in Argentina, Peru, Portugal, and Paris until the late 1980s, and therefore the Theater of the Oppressed was devised outside of Brazil but as a result of Brazilian oppression.

Boal is closely associated with the educator Paulo Freire, a fellow Brazilian, particularly with regard to his use of consciousness-raising techniques. Boal’s motivation behind developing new approaches to the theater was to set up a dialogue with the audience and to encourage a sense of empowerment among people on the margins of traditional decision-making processes. So in a performance based on Boal’s techniques, the clear divisions between stage and audience, performers and spectators, are replaced by a free-flowing interaction between the two. Workshops replace plays, and the traditional middle-class audience is replaced by marginalized groups. Boal believed that while some people make theater, others are theater.

Workshops usually begin by explaining the background of the Theater of the Oppressed to those taking part. This is followed by game playing that is normally very physical. There are over two hundred possible games listed in Boal’s seminal work Games for Actors and Non-Actors (2002). The purpose of these games is to heighten participants’ senses, de-mechanize the body, develop relationships and trust, and have a good time. The workshop then proceeds with exercises. The exercise most associated with the Theater of the Oppressed is “forum theater,” whereby actors play out a situation describing some kind of oppression that the audience can relate to, and at the end the audience is asked to intervene and offer alternative solutions or actions for the oppressed character. The workshop usually ends with a lively debate involving all participants.

Such is the impact of Boal’s method that over twenty books have been written on the subject and official Theater of the Oppressed centers can be found in seventy countries. The first center was set up in Paris, where Boal’s work is more popular than anywhere else in the world, including Brazil. Recent Theater of the Oppressed projects in the United States and the United Kingdom have involved working with the homeless, and in Brazil, Boal and his proponents work with groups in prisons, the MST (Landless People’s Movement), maids, the unemployed, and so on. Most recently Boal has turned his attention to reworking more conventional theatrical genres, such as a version in 2002 of Verdi’s La Traviata set to samba music, which Boal called a “sambópera.”

Dennison, Stephanie. "Popular Theater and Performance." Pop Culture Latin America! Media, Arts, and Lifestyle. Santa Barbara: ABC-CLIO, 2005. Credo Reference. 9 Jan. 2009. Web. 15 Jan. 2013.