Types of Theatre of the Oppressed: Similarities & Differences

Instructor: Haddy Kreie

Haddy is ABD in Theatre Studies and has taught college theatre for 7 years.

How can theatre empower people to take control of their own lives? In this lesson we explore the six forms of Theatre of the Oppressed and how each can be used by participants as a rehearsal of the social change that want to make.

A Theatre for Social Change

Have you ever wondered why the arts are an important part of society? Many artists, including theatre makers, believe that the arts have the power to change how people think and behave in the world. Theatre of the Oppressed offers several different ways that theatre can be used to think critically about the world we live in.

Created by Brazilian theatre maker Augusto Boal in the 1950s, Theatre of the Oppressed is a form of community-based theatre that strives to inspire social change. It was developed to help the farmworkers and lower class people in Latin America ''rehearse for revolution,'' or practice the strategies that could help them resist the oppression of unjust systems of power.

To reach a variety of different people, Boal created six different methods of Theatre of the Oppressed that are now used all over the world in community development, conflict resolution, and to advocate for legal change in institutional and grassroots contexts. Typically, participants, or spect-actors are members of the community rather than trained performers; they are spectators and actors. Let's go over all six forms.

Augusto Boal, founder of Theatre of the Oppressed

Six Different Forms

1. In image theatre, one spect-actor molds the other participants to create tableaus, or still images shaped by their bodies, that reflect and explore different kinds of imbalances in power. The sculptor should not speak while they shape the other participants.

The images can depict feelings and experiences of having faced oppression, potential ways to resist those experiences, or dreams for the future. Image theatre draws on the idea that actions (or in this case images) speak louder than words.

Students use Theatre of the Oppressed forms in the classroom
image theatre

2. Forum theatre takes place in a public forum setting. A Theatre of the Oppressed leader, or 'joker' invites participants to begin a scene that depicts a particular oppression. Then, they replay the scene a second time.

As the scene progresses, audience participants can interrupt the scene, make a suggestion for how the character they feel is lacking in power might resist of resolve the conflict, and step onto the stage to play out that suggestion. While image theatre allows the spect-actors to 'imagine' change, forum theatre allows them to 'practice' change.

3. Invisible theatre are scenes performed as if they are naturally occurring events and are used to raise important social or political issues that may normally be suppressed by authorities. Invisible theatre is typically rehearsed more fully than the other forms of Theatre of the Oppressed. It is performed in public spaces, such as at a bus stop or in a town center, without any announcement that a performance is happening.

4. Newspaper theatre offers spect-actors a means of transforming the news of the day into theatrical scenes in public, helping keep the community informed — especially in contexts where many community members may not be able to read.

Rather than simply reading a news story, however, newspaper theatre delivers news stories in ways that provoke dialogue, such as:

  • reading a story out of context
  • reading two contrasting news stories in an alternating fashion
  • miming the action of the story as it is being read, or
  • reading a story with additional context, historical input, or other aids that help illustrate the story's import

5. The rainbow of desire typically explores personal relationships such as parent/child, employer/employee, romantic partners, etc., and the tensions within those relationships. It draws heavily on image theatre to explore the driving forces that create those tensions, such as fears and desires. Rainbow of desire is often used in a 'drama therapy' context, helping spect-actors deal with internalized, or subconscious, oppression.

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