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Theatre of the Oppressed: Definition, History & Characteristics

Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

Can theatre have a purpose? Can it be educational? Some people think so. In this lesson, we're going to explore the Theatre of the Oppressed and see how it came to be. Updated: 12/20/2021

Augusto Boal

One reason that so many people like theatre is that it provides an opportunity to escape. You watch someone else's problems, let them deal with it, and celebrate in their triumphs. Who wouldn't love that?

Augusto Boal, that's who. Boal (1931-2009), was a Brazilian theatre director who took a strong interest in the relationship between performance and audience. He observed that a passive audience member would project his or her desires to create change onto a character in the performance. When the character was successful, the audience member felt better.

Augusto Boal

The problem was that nothing was actually happening. The audience member achieved some sense of catharsis by proxy, but didn't actually act on their desire to fight oppression and create change. The passive audience remained…passive. This is what Augusto Boal wanted to fix. So, how do you impact a passive audience? Take away their ability to be passive.

Theatre of the Oppressed

Throughout the 1950s and 1960s, Augusto Boal worked on creating a less passive form of theatre, one in which the audience would not just identify with characters but would actively invest in the outcome. He wanted to create something educational, something which taught people to actively deal with oppression in their real lives and start a conversation. To paraphrase his own words, he wanted to take the traditional ''monologue'' of theatre, and turn it into a ''dialogue''.

The result was the Theatre of the Oppressed, a theatrical workshop which is equal parts performance, activism practice, and educational forum. Within the performance, audience members are not passive but active, engaging with each other to tackle issues of oppression, economic inequality, sexism, racism, and other challenges. The workshop uses theatre, and specifically acting, to give people tools to actively deal with these issues, not just see them resolved by characters on stage.

Theatre of the Oppressed, therefore, can best be understood as a collection of games and performative exercises that let people experiment with activism, resistance, and enacting real change in their daily lives. The theatre becomes a space for them to practice and act out the process of actively fighting oppression and imagining different possibilities for the world. To put it in Augusto Boal's own words: ''the theatre itself is not revolutionary; it is a rehearsal for the revolution''.

This brings us to one of the distinctive characteristics of Theatre of the Oppressed:' it has no conclusion. If you went to a play, and the play never wrapped up the conflict, you'd leave feeling pretty unsatisfied. That's because the story is supposed to be over. In Theatre of the Oppressed, you may resolve conflicts within the workshop, but the story isn't supposed to end. Since you, the audience, are now the actors and protagonists of the story, there is no catharsis to be had within the theatre itself. You are no longer a passive audience but an active part of the drama, and you take the story with you when you leave. The only resolution comes from taking action.

Structure and Roles

Boal's Theatre of the Oppressed spread quickly from Brazil in the 1970s, and can now be found employed in dozens of countries around the world. So, how's it actually work? First, we need to define a few roles.

At the center of Theatre of the Oppressed is a moderator called the Facilitator. This person is also sometimes called the Joker, not because they are responsible for providing comedy but because like the joker in a deck of cards, they are outside the rest of the deck (or the other actors, in this case). The Facilitator's job is to oversee the games and skits, to provide structure, but not to interfere. How events unfold is up to the audience and performers.

That bring us to the other role in Theatre of the Oppressed: the Spect-actor (get it; it's like spectator, but also an actor). The Spect-actors are the people engaged in the scene as audience and performers (remember that you can be both in this medium). These are the people who actually express some sense of agency in the performance and determine the outcome of the scenes.

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