I’ve been waiting a week for the obituary on Augusto Boal that appeared in Saturday’s New York Times. He passed away last Saturday at the age of 78.
Boal was a giant figure and a defining influence on the practice of art that is simultaneously the practice of politics (and though some Boal disciples might disagree with me, the practice of spirituality), which is the intersection that feels most like home to me too. I was waiting for the obituary because I wanted to see if even the departure from this life of a person of tremendous importance to those of my ilk would be noticed by mainstream media that often seem complacently willing to skip over everything that lacks official imprimatur. (And if you question the challenge in my tone, go the Times site and search for “Augusto Boal.” Despite the fact that there are many theaters and even international organizations devoted to Boal’s ideas, in the archives of the New York Times, there’s barely a reference newer than the 70s.)
Boal’s ideas were aligned to those of Paulo Freire, whose startlingly fresh and wise thought on education (which burst into international awareness with the publication of his book Pedagogy of the Oppressed forty years ago) has been widely influential.
Like Freire’s, Boal’s work also turned on dialogue—a free exchange between equals—which he considered the ideal human experience. Using the language of theater to comment both on dramatic work and on the larger world, he asserts that oppression occurs when dialogue becomes monologue:
[T]he ruling classes took possession of the theater and built their dividing walls. First, they divided the people, separating actors from spectators: people who act and people who watch—the party is over! Secondly, among the actors, they separated the protagonists from the mass. The coercive indoctrination began!
Now the oppressed people are liberated themselves and, once more, are making the theater their own. The walls must be torn down.
Of all Boal’s techniques (and there were many, “invisible theater,” “image theater,” “legislative theater,” etc.), Forum Theatre has had the widest influence on community cultural development work, the field in which I am most involved. Forum Theatre practitioners set up situations in which actors are not divided from spectators; rather, all are “spectactors,” able to cross the invisible “fourth wall” of the theater and enter the action. Together they share stories of unresolved political or social problems. Then a smaller group of spectactors devises a skit or scene (perhaps ten minutes in length) encapsulating the salient elements of one or more stories, including a possible (but ultimately unsatisfactory) resolution. This is performed for the group.
For instance, a group of workers might enact the process of registering
a grievance with management and when satisfaction is not forthcoming,
staging a wildcat strike.) Then the “Joker,” a kind of facilitator, asks members of the larger group to consider whether they are satisfied with the proposed resolution and if not, to imagine other points of intervention, other ways to proceed.
The skit is then performed again, exactly as it was the first time; only now, any spectactor may call a halt to the action and come onstage to replace the protagonist(s), taking the scene in a new direction (always remaining in character, taking part fully in the dramatic action). A group may choose to replay the scene from the beginning more than once, to allow a greater range of scenarios to be tried out. At the end, the process may be discussed by all; or it may be that the enactment itself suffices.
This approach has been used countless times in every type of community, but especially in the developing world or with groups of marginalized people in the developed world. It offers a way to understand conditions and plan social action with groups of people who are not in the habit of attending meetings, or for whom the most meaningful forms of social action must involve body, mind and spirit, acting together.
Boal’s and Freire’s ideas have so much influence because they make
powerful links between individual and social transformation. Most of us
know what it feels like to internalize a too-small identity, disempowering ourselves in some way. It’s not a huge leap to connect processes like Freire’s and Boal’s, helping us to understand and root out internalized obstacles to our own sense of possibility, with the sense of powerlessness that pervades contemporary societies.
In Boal’s book about the way his theatrical principles and experience shaped his own approach as a member of Rio de Janeiro’s municipal legislature in the 90s, he did this explicitly:
We do not accept that the elector should be a mere spectator to the actions of the parliamentarian, even when these actions are right: we want the electors to give their opinion, to discuss the issues, to put counter-arguments, we want them to share the responsibility for what their parliamentarian does.
If you go to the “Books” page of my Web site and scroll down to Community, Cultural and Globalization, you will be able to download chapter 13, “Theater of the Oppressed and Community Cultural Development,” a thorough introduction to this work written by Barbara Santos, who for many years worked closely with Boal at the Center for the Theatre of the Oppressed in Rio.
I met Boal only once, in 1996, where he and Paulo Freire were the honored guests at a Pedagogy & Theatre of the Oppressed conference in Omaha. (Boal’s son Julian will speak at PTO’s conference later this month at Augsburg College in Minneapolis.) His talk was peppered with anecdotes that I can only describe as parables: warm and witty teaching stories told with simultaneous amusement at and compassion for the human condition. The Times obituary by Bruce Weber is actually pretty good (and Weber, of course, bears no responsibility for his paper’s prior neglect). It ends with an anecdote that conveys the flavor of Boal’s commitment to desire in the face of everything that tells us to give up wanting, to resign ourselves to things as they are:
[I]n a 2005 television interview that in “Hamlet,” Shakespeare declared that theater was like a mirror held up to life.
“I think that’s very nice,” Mr. Boal said. “But 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, would allow us to penetrate into the mirror and transform our image and then come back with our image transformed.”