The Theatre of The Oppressed

Featured Image: the late Augusto Boal leading a workshop in NYC

The theatre itself is not revolutionary: it is a rehearsal for the revolution.

Augusto Boal

The coronavirus pandemic has thrown the inequities of our world into even starker contrast. Black and Latinx folks in the US are dying at higher rates than white people due to a variety of socioeconomic factors, minorities are more likely to be arrested or prosecuted for failing to comply with face covering and social distancing requirements, and the most vulnerable among us like incarcerated and refugee populations are facing the most dire consequences of COVID-19.

The grief, frustration, and collective trauma we are facing makes now a particularly relevant time to explore Theatre of the Oppressed (TO). Folks are already finding creative ways to do theatre remotely and I imagine TO practitioners will be devising dynamic works when we are able to gather again.

Developed by Augusto Boal in 1974 after decades of his own work with the radical Teatro Arena and influenced by Paulo Freire’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed, Theatre of The Oppressed is a set of theories and theatre techniques that uses theatre to bring systemic oppression to light.

Illustration from The Forum Project

Theatre of The Oppressed was created in response to the inequality that Boal saw in his native Brasil. Fighting against a repressive regime that eventually made him flee as a political refugee, Boal’s creativity was forged in dire necessity. Originally developed as part of his activist work with peasant and worker populations in rural Latin America, TO is now used by community organizers, theatre practitioners, educators, and more.

(For more background, here is a great overview of the history and development of Theatre of The Oppressed.)

One of the landmark techniques of TO is Forum Theatre, which transforms the audience into “spect-actors” who participate in the performance. The goal of this shattering of the fourth wall is to engage communities in awareness and problem-solving for oppression, inequality, and other issues.

Theatre of the Oppressed is as much about action and community as it is about play, imagination, and the human imperative to seek joy. I think those tenets are at the core of why we do theatre. We all deserve some levity right now.

One manifestation of Theatre of the Oppressed’s joyous center is called the Joker, whose role is to bridge the gap between the performance and spectating for audience members. They facilitate Forum Theatre workshops, using the techniques to guide participants through the stories and issues they are facing. Theatre of the Oppressed offers a safe space to “rehearse” actions and solutions for problems faced by those who are oppressed, marginalized, or otherwise underrepresented.

We need community more than ever. The theatre community has the opportunity of a lifetime to bring people together. With the digital tools we have at our disposal, creativity has begun to flourish amidst the darkness.

Theatre of the Oppressed Around The World

Since its introduction in the 70s, TO has found homes throughout the world. Here are a few of the theatres practicing Theatre of the Oppressed techniques in their communities.

Theatre of the Oppressed NYC

TONYC is the center I will visit when theatres can reopen. While their shows are paused, they are compensating the artists as originally agreed upon, which is something not many organizations can or are willing to do. Like many theatres, they have moved their discussions online, and recently hosted a discussion of Legislative Theatre (one of the tenets of TO) on Zoom.

Follow them on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter.

Imaginaction, Southern California

Based in Sierra Madre, California, Imaginaction is a multilingual theatre that practices Theatre of The Oppressed and other techniques including Social Presencing Theatre and Drama Therapy. I had a fabulous teacher at a high school summer drama program who was my first introduction to TO and Imaginaction’s work. Read their latest update here.

Follow them on Facebook.

Jana Sanskriti, West Bengal, India

Jana Sanskriti started in a small village in West Bengal, India in 1985 and now has dozens of satellite centers throughout the country and reaches 2 million people every year. It is the oldest continuously running center for TO in the world.

Follow them on Facebook.

Centro de Teatro De Oprimido, Rio De Janeiro, Brasil

Based in Boal’s home country, CTO has been running since 1986.

Their mission:
“Through aesthetic means, create objective conditions to promote ethical and solidarity dialogue between groups of oppressed people and organized society. Expand access to the means of artistic production to democratize political action and generate concrete and continuous social actions aimed at overcoming oppression.”

Follow them on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter. They are also raising money to survive the pandemic.

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