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Theatre and Social Justice (January 2020): Augusto Boal and Theatre of the Oppressed

by Martha Schmoyer LoMonaco

Augusto Boal and Theatre of the Oppressed

Theatre is a “weapon for liberation” Augusto Boal declares in the foreword to his revolutionary manifesto, Theater of the Oppressed. “This book,” he writes, “attempts to show that all theater is necessarily political, because all the activities of men are political and theater is one of them.” The profound influence of Boal’s work on social justice theatre cannot be overstated. Boal’s Theatre of the Oppressed—TO, as the practice is known—has been a powerful force internationally since the 1970s in teaching people to understand and resolve their personal and communal oppressions through theatrical play and performance. Boal credits Paulo Freire’s theory of education, expressed in Pedagogy of the Oppressed, as his principal inspiration for the development of TO, which he named in homage to Freire. Published first in Portuguese in 1968, Pedagogy of the Oppressed was translated into English in 1970 and has been reissued many times since (mostly recently in a fiftieth anniversary edition). Freire designed his radical new pedagogy for illiterate workers in the developing world, based on the premise of what he called conscientização, i.e., critical consciousness, the belief that all persons, no matter how ignorant, are capable of looking critically at the world in a dialogic encounter with others.

Boal wrote four other books based on his work throughout the world with oppressed communities, in them expanding on his ideas and sharing an arsenal of theatre games and techniques. Games for Actors and Non-Actors explores Forum and Invisible Theatre; The Rainbow of Desire: The Boal Method of Theatre and Therapy presents Boal’s therapeutic work for resolving psychological oppression or “cops-in-the-head”; Legislative Theatre: Using Performance to Make Politics arose from Boal’s experience as a legislator in Brazil; and Aesthetics of the Oppressed addresses the full spectrum of cultural and artistic activities that a community develops to resist, challenge, and transform oppression. Boal also published an autobiography, Hamlet and the Baker’s Son: My Life in Theatre and Politics.  Mady Schutzman and Jan Cohen-Cruz edited two books describing TO’s worldwide influence: Playing Boal: Theatre, Therapy, Activism was the first collection of essays to examine the application of Boal’s techniques; A Boal Companion: Dialogues on Theatre and Cultural Politics puts TO in dialogue with like-minded bodies of work from social psychology, race theory, and feminist performance, among others.

Works Cited