Alessandra Vannucci | Augusto Boal: Theatre as a tool for creating community (English Version)

By Alessandra Vannucci, Federal University of Rio de Janeiro

Boal’s fame was internationally established in the 1970s, with the book Teatro do Oprimido e outras estéticas políticas (Theater of the Oppressed and Other Political Aesthetics). This was translated into various languages and was written when he followed experimental paths in theatrical practice which tried to overcome modalities characteristic of his engaged production in the 1960s. Instead of ‘political theater’ Boal began to understand his work as a multiplication of the tools available to the political struggle. The writing of books and plays with a strong autobiographical aspect (such as Torquemada, 1971) showed the option for non-violent tactics which initially emerged at this moment in Boal’s life, as alternatives to taking up arms against totalitarian regimes, initially against the military dictatorship which had imprisoned, tortured, and exiled him in 1971. Instead of a repertoire of works, Boal began to accumulate a collection of techniques; more specifically an arsenal of theatrical weapons which could be used by oppressed classes and groups. New techniques and variants were added to the arsenal of the Theater of the Oppressed during Boal’s exile in Latin America and Europe, in contact with various modes of oppression and in dialogue with various contemporary proposals and pedagogical practices. Fundamental among these was Boal’s dialogue with the Pedagogy of the Oppressed of his compatriot and fellow exile, Paulo Freire, published in 1970 and translated into various languages. Similar to Freirean education for liberty, Boal’s methodology was based on the understanding that human socialization processes (such as instruction, information, institutionalization) incorporated behavior imposed on or induced by hegemonic mechanisms (such as school, the media, the state) which tended to subjectivity inhibit and mechanize bodies. With society itself being oppressive, it is essential that oppressed people recover their autonomy and humanity to free themselves.  Art emerges as a possible remedy, or better, an antidote capable of awakening the desire for subjectivation and the participation of citizenship in practices of coexistence which valorized the search for new forms of learning and the transmission of knowledge. The struggle for liberty, through the emancipation of the aesthetic potential of each person, had to be subjective (and no longer subjected to); had as an aim the changing of reality (not art in itself). Boal declared that the citizen is not the one who lives in the city, but the one who transforms it; an artist is all and any citizen who, sharing its means of production, makes art an instrument of citizenship. The arsenal of techniques, which Boal in his successive books had been giving a theoretical framework indissoluble from the liberating practice which fed it, is a platform for the concrete exploration of utopias.

The method is actually applied by millions of people on five continents as a tool of political struggle and transformation in social scenarios. In the panorama of arts, it stands out due to its inclusive methodology, accessible to any person without any prerequisite, appropriated by activist communities, and studied in universities. However, what is important is related to its pedagogical prerogatives, much more than its differential aesthetic. In this field, Boal’s consecration coincided with a certain crystallization as an object of study ‘dated’ to his achievement in the political theater in the 1960s. Over successive decades and coinciding with his long exile, the method evolved in connection with the aesthetic reflection contemporary to it, marked by an insurgency (or resurgence) of thought that did not accept the order that was in power. We can think, on the one hand, of the experience of artists such as Helio Oiticica and Richard Schecner in the ambience of the New York counter-culture (where Boal met the former in 1971 and frequently met the latter over the following decades) which valorized, rather than the product-work, the processes of human interaction provoked by its performance to such an extent that the perceptive and cognitive relationship between creators and spectators became more essential than the work in itself. This understanding expanded the field of fine and scenic arts in an aesthetic regime which we can describe (following Nicholas Bourriaud) as ‘relational,’ in other words, capable of generating new forms of subjectivation, of social and community relations. We can also think of the return to synesthetic experiences which had been drastically reduced by the affirmation of textocentric culture in modernity, whether in the theater or in other arts; a reduction which from the current point view can be labelled an ‘epistemological deviation’ (following Jacques Rancière). These two points, the displacement of interest in the work into the relationship provoked by it (1) and the expansion of theatrical action to the synesthetic field, invoking a sensitive regime accessible to any person, even illiterate (2), are characteristics which highlight Boal’s artistic trajectory in exile and after his return to Brazil in 1986. Moreover, Boal, during and after the time he spent in France in the 1980s, possibly attuned to structuralist thought, deepened his theoretical and practical reflection on the functions of art and artists in society of spectacle. In the book Estética do Oprimido (published in Brazil in 2009 and almost contemporaneously in English – as The Aesthetics of the Oppressed –, French, and Italian) Boal deals with the ‘regimes of control’ (financial media, and economic systems) which he describes as interconnected and at the service of empire. Turning art into an industry, the empire no longer invades territories, but brains; it monopolizes desires and inhibits the creativity of individuals, with the aim of degrading them to consumers. Notwithstanding the Frankfurt School’s alert (especially Horkeimer/Adorno) about the use that totalitarian regimes (fascism, like the cultural industry) made of mimetic arts, Boal did not align himself with Adornian negativity. He did not, it is worth noting, theorize the end of art, one reduced to merchandise. To the contrary, he affirms the need to reclaim art as a language capable of generating community and subverting states of oppression. The proposal is urgently autobiographic, since it explains the artist’s option for art as a form of political activism and their renunciation of artistic professionalism and the prerogatives of authorship, which turns out to be exclusive when depending on the market. However, the proposal has a theoretical impact, since it redefines the function of artists and reinvigorates the relations between art and utopia. How does Boal dialogue indirectly with philosophers who think about these relations (such as Foucault, Guy Débord, Hakim Bay, Rancière), with his difference being an artist? How does Boal put himself in relation with artists whose work focuses on these relations (such as Artaud, Brecht) with his difference being Latin American? Furthermore, what is the differential in Boal’s participation in Latin American popular education (with Paulo Freire and Darcy Ribeiro)? Trying to respond, I will re-propose  some of Boal’s ideas which are at the same time creation techniques and concepts which revolutionized consolidated aesthetic conventions.

From his first experiences in theater ‘outside theater,’ in other words outside the buildings meant for the consumption of spectacles, Boal breaks with the idea that someone can be excluded from creative authorship and reduced in their aesthetic experience. This does not only involve establishing, as an artist, new functions for the spectator, but eliminating the concept of ‘spectator’ as someone who is coerced into passivity and reduced into a mere contemplative function by the conventional separation between stage and audience which, in theatrical buildings, separates the public from the creative function. It involves a new aesthetic division: there will not be ‘artists’ and ‘non-artists,’ in other words actors and spectators, but rather a collective of spect-actors. Incorporating Artaud’s dream for a theater ‘without spectators’ (which obviously did not mean an audience of empty chairs), the ritual/game which transforms the actor into a character, reality into fiction, includes all participants and strips artists of exclusive possession of authorship. In the game, as Boal defines it, as in the ritual (described by anthropologists who study spectacular behavior, such as Turner and Schecner), participants’ form of acting (performance) is not defined by given data (even if there is a liturgy or the ‘rules’ of the game) but by players act of ‘playing.’ This experience of entering-into-play transforms not only the game, but the player. The closed and implacable machinery of drama (where someone oppressed tries in vain to modify the situation which oppresses them) opens; the play experiments with and absorbs the transformation which provokes; its writing occurs on stage, through several variants in which the creativity of each participant is expressed sharing the authorship of that encounter. This is what happened in the Theater-Forum technique (proposed in Peru in 1973, when Boal was involved in a popular literacy campaign inspired by Freirean pedagogy). In practice, after the first part in which the actors stage a premeditated drama, there is a second part in which spectators come on stage in the costume of one or other character, with the power of modifying their actions to try to resist or even overcome the oppressions which the participants perceive in that context. By coming on stage every spectator rehearses their own transformative potential, in other words, they perceive that they are capable of changing reality and not only analyzing it, judging it, and imaging changes or, to the contrary, accepting it as it is and living in it passively. The transformative strength of the solutions proposed in the theatrical game is probatory and can be transferred to reality; however, the work does not intend to directly change nor give advice or teach others to do this. Especially in this sense, the resulting game is structured by a Freirean pedagogical intention. Since it is the actual audience of participants who interrogate themselves and decodify that reality in action, analyzing the real conditions in which it occurs and in which oppression is not always visible; and it can contain contradictions even when evident. Since (as Freire shows, in the wake of the decolonial reflection of Franz Fanon) the oppressed interiorize their oppressor and live a dynamic in which they can exercise in turn oppression; recognizing this duplicity is an indispensable part of any emancipation process. In Theater-Forum, collective reflection is led by Socratic questions on the part of the ‘joker,’ whose function in the assembly reverberates the horizontal relationship proposed by Freire for teacher and students: this involves stimulating learning as a common and interactive route, in which each one learns from and with others. This interactivity, transferred to the theatrical assembly, motivates the transitivity between stage and audience, cancelling the distance between ‘artists’ and ‘non-artists’ – since each participant acts alternatively as actor/spectator. A spect-actor comes onto stage and dislocates the plan of action: if they recognize oppression, what will they do to overcome it? They will not necessarily succeed, but possibly they will approximate it, adding their intervention to that of other spect-actors in a process of creation/transformation through successive corrections. As a result, the technique is proposed as a method of collective learning: a cognitive movement not reducible to mere didactics. In the book Teatro Legislativo, Boal makes clear that his objective (citing Freire) is a “transitive political modality which proposes dialogue, interaction, exchange.” However, evident here is the provenance of the dialectic concept proposed by Bertolt Brecht in learning plays (leherstrucke), written as scripts for interventions in trade unions and schools, aiming to stimulate political participation without using demagogical and pamphletary means. The Brechtian proposal (under the auspices of agit-prop in 1920s Germany) aimed to organize the masses through the multiplication/appropriation of the means of artistic production. In Brechtian practice workers are activated as authors/producers of ‘representations of the real’ to learn how to analyze a context of oppression from various points for view and to become aware of the possible changes; Boal (taking another step forwards) proposes that spectators come on stage and put the possible changes to the test. This can be done in schools, theaters, trade unions, etc. Resulting in a gigantesque expansion of the technique.

As we have said, Boal’s decision to share authorship intended to valorize the relational process more than the work-objective; in other words, the desire to provoke relations which trigger subjectivation processes is evident, opposing procedures cause separation and subjection, whether in organized institutions or in any other assembly context. Unlike other ‘relational’ experiences in contemporary arts, the legitimation of art depends on the authorial system and exhibition in canonical places, such as museums and galleries, in the practices cited above, citizens become artists through the act of acting/creating, independent of the hierarchies possible suggested by subscriptions or the fame derived from this. In itself, artistic practice inaugurates radically common spaces, in other words, it summons a community to meet that is capable of providing emancipation experiences in forms of control exercised by the state and ultimately by society itself. In the Legislative Theater technique, initially developed by Boal in 1992 in the Municipal Council of Rio de Janeiro (after his return to Brazil in 1986, at the invitation of Darcy Ribeiro, then state secretary of culture of Rio de Janeiro), during a session of the Theater-Forum a table of real legal advisors was set up which drafted bills after performative interventions by spectators. This reproduced the legal framework, with the difference of giving speaking power back to the citizen-artists who actually legislated, without delegating this power to anyone, nor submitting themselves to the bureaucratic barriers which hinder representative democracy. The sequence of successive political actions, interacting with real democratic institutions, aimed to guarantee continuity to the struggle for those objectives, and even managing to reach them, if a law proposed by the community during the theater session was passed by the appropriate parts of the legislative power. In this the collective of spect-actors form a TAZ, a ‘temporary autonomous zone’ (citing the situationists and their liberating tactics, such as Débord and Hakim Bey) in which the community produces its analysis of the disciplines in vigor and proposes changes in the form of effective actions which instigate the deconstruction and reinvention of norms which legitimate other forms of seeing and living in the world. Through the relationship which pedagogically structures and provokes, art reinvents the world – since it is proposed as a perceptive dimension marked by the idea characteristics of experiencing this, such as isonomy, free expression, non-violence; a fully participatory dimension of which the theatrical assembly is the concrete manifestation. The utopian strength of this idea (which was maintained in Boal Political Theater when he was a city councilor, producing a large number of laws, and which has continued until the present, albeit in changed conditions) can be understood in Boal’s insertion in the vast popular education policy movement established in Brazil by the 1988 Constitution. Here resided Boal’s Latin American differential (his capacity to be ‘new,’ in the sense of being daring and ludic at the same time) in the updating of the proposals of the liberational movement of 1968, thirty years later and in a nation which saw 1968 much more as a struggle of resistance against the tyrannical regime installed over bodies, than the liberation of the imagination. Using a concept coined by Foucault in 1968, in the definition of the environment in which imagination could take power, the revolutionary assembly would be ‘utopian’ not in the sense of something not existing, but something “concrete going beyond all real place, although effectively locatable.” The assembly reinvents the real space in a perceptive dimension where reality occurs as it is and, contemporarily, as it could be: it is an antidote, a ‘counter localization’ or heterotopia (as Foucault baptized it in dialogue with the situationists and with Lefevbre) or an “effectively realized utopia in which the real norms are at the same time represented, contested, and subverted.” It appears to me that the legislative theatrical assembly proposed by Boal is a possible practical manifestation of this proposal for democracy which seeking (even if in an ephemeral and experiential manner) the utopia of universal participation, refuses the representative regime (in arts, as in politics). We should not forget the insistent passion with which Boal described the emergence of the polis, with the characteristics of a universally participatory assembly (in the Greek agora) as some parallel and linked to the emergence of the theater (whose Greek etymology suggests theatron a place for the community to ‘see itself’). We can thus say (following Rancière in Dissensus) that in its origin democracy itself is a heterotopia since it foresees and permits the irruption of the multitude (oi polloi) in the public assembly (agora), giving visibility to what was invisible, voice to what was not heard. The displacement of bodies in the urban space equipped (even architectonically) by the hegemonic hierarchies subverts the ordered flows of power brokering the handing over of the power to speak to those who have no part in the common order: those who are subordinated, oppressed, enslaved, condemned to silence and passivity; this displacement of bodies with the power to speak is a foundational act for democracy. And how not to recognize its ludic and utopian application in the displacement of the spect-actors who come on stage in the Theater-Forum?

Rather than asking how the oppressed can speak (reformulating, to conclude, Gayatri Spivak’s 1992 question 1992), the Theater-Forum questions how they can be heard, without resorting to a violence whose result can be to provoke new tyrannical hierarchies. The ‘true fiction’ which theater offers is a response, not only from Boal. Rancière underlines the cognitive power exercised by the displacement of those without a part in the agora, which unveils to everyone the disagreement, the discord at the base of the regimes of oppression and the denunciation of their total absence of fundamentals. Irrespective of the political results they achieve, the displacement thus represents something unrepresentable, in other words, the mere contingency of any social order. It is the scene of truth (in the sense of ‘telling the truth’ given by Foucault in The Government of Self and Others) in which the victims are actors when they put at risk their own existence to exercise the right to parresia or ‘speak freely’ (dire vrai) before the tyrant, who cannot impede this manifestation, even if it is their last act, as in the case of Antigone. Speaking freely is a ‘dramatic rhetoric of discourse’ which inexorably transforms those who pronounce it, as well as those who hear it: since it erupts in the public scenario, subverts established discourses, and visualizes the relations of force in bodies, putting all those present at risk and on alert. It is something different from the act of the word practices by power in its liturgical representations (a speech act of the type:“the session is open,” “I baptize you”) whose effects are predictable; instead of this, speaking freely has unpredictable effects, such as Cordélia’s discourse which establishes an unprecedented pact between the last daughter and the all-powerful King/father (‘thy truth, then, be thy dower,’ he responds, showing that he had no alternative other than to accept and listen to the one who has least words). The act expands the body of those who do it: it amplifies the voice: makes it impossible to be not heard; in this sense, the body acquires performative behavior(dances, sings, wears masks, or adopts eloquent postures): becoming (even if for just an instant) a spectacular body. Foucault exemplifies the ephemeral and spectacular mode of this actions in the behavior of the cynical philosopher who on making their protest in public ‘makes their body a theater of the truth’ even if this immediately costs them their life. This theatricalization of the body has another objective: potentializing and transfiguring the meaning of that protest in the political space – for this reason Foucault convokes the magnificent image of a corp utopique. Even using theatrical procedures, it is evidentially more than an artistic attitude, rather an attitude which draws on what is perhaps the essence of theater (a mirror for all participants to observe themselves: theatron), demanding the refounding of a community. Boal’s methodology and his long philosophical debate about the functions of art and artists (what is it for, for whom is theater) seems to experiment in practice this reconquest of pedagogical essence (in the Freirean sense) of the mimetic arts as a cognitive antidote to the manipulative use of hegemonic regimes make of them. Theater as a cultural action for liberty. Theater as a tool for the emancipation of the community. The capillarity of the global network of the TO, its expansive presence incomparable with any other theatrical methodology which may have brought together one or other expressive artistic group, at some moment in recent history appears to achieve what Rancière (in The Emancipated Spectator) saw as a utopian stage of participation where “the different types of spectacle are translated one into the other, demanding spectators who are active interpreters, appropriate stories, and write their own.