By Liliana Torpey
Editor in Chief
This article was written after I attended a study abroad trip to Rio de Janeiro through UCLA’s Summer Travel Study Program. The World Arts and Culture/Dance: Theater of the Oppressed program in particular was created and taught by Marina Magalhães and Bobby Gordon. Some of the information below draws from my own experiences working with local Theater of the Oppressed groups and attending intensive training at the Center for Theater of the Oppressed.
In 1971, Brazilian theater director Augusto Boal was arrested and tortured by the Brazilian dictatorship for experimenting with subversive, activist theater. Years later, in exile in Argentina, Boal consolidated his experimental developments into a synthesized, liberatory methodology published under the name “Theater of the Oppressed.” While the book was first published in 1973, Boal continued to practice and develop his work throughout Europe, Latin America, and eventually back in Brazil. He believed that theater could lend itself to social transformation and be a precursor to direct social action. He called it “rehearsal for the revolution.”
Theater of the Oppressed (TO) includes several different types of theater, including (but not limited to) invisible theater, where actors stage scenes disguised as real life in public spaces; newspaper theater, where mainstream news sources are critiqued and overlaid with alternative perspectives; and forum theater, which is most widely utilized. Forum theater was born in Boal’s mind when he discovered, suddenly, that a creative force in theater productions remained untapped: that of the spectator. The story goes that Boal staged a play based off of a woman’s anecdote about her cheating husband. Using a method called “simultaneous dramaturgy,” Boal’s actors acted out the scene and then changed their actions depending on spectators’ suggestions. After one woman became increasingly frustrated that her suggestion was not being implemented correctly, Boal, equally frustrated, invited her on stage to act the scene out herself. Thus, the spectator became the “spect-actor.”
TO has grown since then, but its basic principles have remained and gone on to inform TO groups all over the world. The following explains these principles.
Firstly, theater is for the people, and everybody is an actor. TO is participatory; it invites the spectator into the action, turning them into a spect-actor. There are various techniques used to facilitate this. Games are used in workshops to de-mechanize the body from the effects of oppressive routines, so that the participants may listen, feel and look more intentionally. Exercises are used in workshops to address oppression by using sound and movement rather than just words. In this way, people learn how oppression is held in their bodies and how their bodies may be used for liberation. In forum theater, a play is staged that portrays an oppression of some kind. In the first round of the play, the oppressed person must fight against the oppression and fail. In the subsequent rounds, members of the audience can propose an “intervention,” meaning they are invited on stage to do something differently, either as the oppressed person or an ally of the oppressed. The different techniques of TO wake up the spectator and urge them to take action, both on the stage and out in the world.
Secondly, TO is not neutral. When using TO, one always takes the side of the oppressed. Necessarily, TO is a methodology that can’t function in a vacuum. It’s utility comes from the fact that it addresses real-life oppressions as expressed by people who have actually experienced them. It isn’t meant to be adapted to any purpose besides healing and inspiring direct action in a given community. TO groups arise from the community and see it as an effective tool for social transformation. I had the honor of meeting and spect-acting with some of these groups in Rio de Janeiro in the summer of 2017.
The Center for Theater of the Oppressed in Rio partners with different organizations to train others in their methodology so that it may be “multiplied” across different communities and situations. They also assist local TO groups with their projects, and many of the Jokers (facilitators/difficultators of TO methodology) were themselves introduced to TO through these groups.
Some of these groups include Cor do Brasil , based in Rio de Janeiro, which focuses on tackling anti-Black racism in Brazil and worldwide. While in Brazil, I saw them perform a forum theater piece called “Suspect” which addresses the way Afro-Brazilians are racially profiled in various situations. Another group, Marémoto, is made up of youth from Maré, a favela in Rio. They explore themes of gender, race, young adulthood, and the stigma associated with living in a favela. Madalenas Rio is an all-women group focusing on feminism and women’s issues. I got to participate in their “Madalenas Laboratorio,” a workshop of TO games and exercises geared towards feminist topics. The group Coletivo Madalena-Anastácia addresses issues that specifically affect Black women in Brazil. Ma(g)dalenas has become an international organization with groups all over the world, including groups from Guatemala, Mosambique, and Berlin, Germany, where the most recent Festival of Ma(g)dalena International Network was held.
Here in Southern California, Hector Aristizabal directs ImaginAction, a non-profit that uses Theater of the Oppressed alongside other theater methods “for community building and reconciliation, strategizing, and individual healing and liberation.” Aristizabal himself grew up in Medellin, Colombia during a time of violence and discord brought on by armed conflict and the Drug War. Aristizabal fled Colombia in 1989 after being tortured by the U.S. funded Colombian military under false allegations of being affiliated with communist guerrilla groups. Since then, he has worked with groups in Los Angeles, Northern Ireland, Palestine and Colombia, among other places, to use theater as a tool for reconciliation and liberation.
In the past year, Aristizabal has brought theater to Colombians affected by the 52 year long armed conflict between the FARC (Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia), the Colombian government, and paramilitary groups. While the conflict has officially ended as a result of the peace deal passed through Colombia’s congress by President Juan Manuel Santos last year, implementation is still underway. Reintegration of guerrilla soldiers as well as reconciliation between different factions of Colombian society will be difficult to achieve. To these ends, Aristizabal has travelled to areas most affected by the conflict, bringing theater as a means to heal profound wounds. One project included “five civilians, five ex-paramilitaries, five guerrillas, and five military people,” groups whose disdain for each other runs deep and who in the past have committed extreme violence against one another. “We asked them, ‘What will it take to reconcile?’ It’s going to become a play,” Aristizabal says. He goes on to explain, “This is the kind of healing we need we need to engage in. The peace process cannot really be signed on a piece of paper in Havana between the guerrilla and the government. It has to be signed in the hearts of people.”
We may not typically imagine a war zone when we think of where theater happens, and we may not think of ex-combatants when we think of the actors who star in them. But Theater of the Oppressed seeks to democratize theater and convert it into a liberatory tool for exactly those whom the term “theater” usually excludes. When art is used in complicated real-life situations, it is delicate but not frivolous, idealistic but not etherial. Art is the dirty, painful work of growing real change by requiring us to look at ourselves and our relationship sincerely, with the intent to heal.
One of the post-trip reflection questions we had to respond to about working with activist groups in Brazil draws from the wise words of Indigenous artivist Lilla Watson. It asks, “How is their liberation tied up in our own?” The question is a difficult one for those of us who benefit from different kinds of oppression. As a citizen of a country that has benefited from the poverty and repression of Brazil and the rest of Latin America, it would be easy for me to believe my liberation is not bound with theirs, that it functions independently. But that would not be true. I could argue that my material wealth or sense of security are marks of my liberation. But that would not be true. As long as I am manipulated into accepting that it is necessary to oppress others so that I can be free, I am not free. As long as I am caught up in a system of power based on false concepts of entitlement, I am not free. As long as I am made to believe I am disconnected from the rest of humanity and nature, I am not free. And how do we become free? Perhaps arriving at the question is a step.