by Marcela Muricy, December 13, 2021
Theatre is universally considered an art form, a way to embody the trials and tribulations of human emotion and virtue, and a way to speak the truths of those far too silent. Konstantin Stanislavski, for instance, was known for being a visionary of emotional discovery. He taught his actors to become the character, almost to the brink of no return (Cohen-Cruz, 2010). Bertolt Brecht then had a completely different approach: isolate the audience from emotion, and ask them to judge the conflict from the viewpoint of logic and objectiveness (Cohen-Cruz, 2010). Both became the introductory means to using theatre as a form of social change, while one man became the true pioneer: Augusto Boal. Boal — a Brazilian theatre actor, director, and playwright — created a beautiful mesh of Stanislavski and Brecht he called “Theatre for the Oppressed.” His plays were interactive and discussion-based, emotional yet objective. He is known today for opening these forms of theatre all across Europe, North and South America, and even Africa, all of which have the unique ability of creating a sense of change through critique and unity (Cohen-Cruz, 2010). For those who know him well, it is easy to admire his groundbreaking take— but for those who know Brazil, it is far easier to view him (and his methods) as revolutionary.
Boal’s popularity unfortunately (not coincidentally) rose right alongside Brazil’s difficult transition to a dictatorship in the 1960s— so that at the height of his career in Brazil, he was assaulted and exiled for his controversial practice (1971). It’s important to acknowledge, however, that his popularity rose for a reason: his styles and methods were skillfully designed to combat the political and social turmoil within Brazil, and continue to target those issues today.
The dictatorship, supported financially and politically by the United States, seemed ideal for many wealthy citizens who agreed with the coup. They were relieved to feel as though they could walk the streets without the fear of crime, protected by guards on every corner. For the poor or the dissidents, this was a different story entirely. People could not speak against the dictatorship, promote unity amongst the people, or offer critiques about the state of affairs. Anyone who chose to do so would be exiled, killed, or tortured for more information. (The dictatorship’s style of choice was the “macaw’s perch”, which involved tying and hanging the person upside down to wear out their limbs and rush the blood right to their head.) (Rejali, 2009). The dictatorship was not fair, not strategical, and chose personal profit over people at every given opportunity. Pablo Uchoa, whose father was a detainee, recalled these stories in a 2014 BBC article: “Many prisoners were also subjected to electrical shocks to their fingertips, genitals, and wherever else the sadistic imagination of their torturers would choose” (Uchoa, 2014). This was the setting from which Boal’s methods developed, which made them evolve from “How can we make theatre more entertaining?” to “How can we use theatre as a conduit to make a difference?” The concern of the people at the time was not entertainment— it was the pain and suffering they wished to fight against.
Boal’s theory is very involved, both mentally and physically. He wanted his audience to imagine themselves as the main character, just as many great directors do—to feel the pain, happiness, or desire that drives that person forward. Stanislavski reserved the right of “becoming the character” solely to the actors, whereas Boal wished to make everyone sense this feeling, so that the emotion became collective. His most famous method is known as “forum theatre,” during which the audience will watch the play once, consider how it could have occurred differently, watch it again, and—at their own discretion—interrupt it to suggest (or become) that change. That is, they may tell the actors how they wish for the play to be modified, or they may replace and become one of the actors themselves. The true embodiment he encouraged, it seems, is the perfect promoter of anti-military upheaval. The body’s connection to theory is what makes it powerful, as a symbol for dedicated change and action. It gives the audience a recognition of their body as power, each motion and act a new subjective lens to a complex situation. He not only wanted his people to become the characters, but to also become their own proposed solutions. In this sense, he wished for his audience to gain autonomy and independence in the context of the story and within their own lives. The Brazilian people subjected to the rule of the dictatorship—fearful of the outcome of disagreement—would have used Boal’s practice as not only a way to feel more comfortable, but also as a way to confront issues long gone unspoken. It was a way to unite the people in their mistrust, maltreatment, and dissatisfaction— all the while motivating action through reaction.
Today, Brazil’s social and political situation has not improved by much. After its shift to democracy in 1988, the nation has faced many issues with corruption, poverty, sexism, and racism. Each is as divisive and dangerous as the last, most particularly in the case of politics and corruption. In 2003, Lula da Silva ran for president, known for having had a very limited educational background and a very unfortunate life of pain and family death. This grew into a resentment of capitalism and worker treatment, and passion for politics. As a presidential candidate, he attracted people for his kindness, charisma, his humble background, and most importantly, for being someone they could trust. After years of allegations and suspicions, he was arrested for corruption in 2018 for accepting bribes worth a total of 3.7 million reais, equivalent to 1.2 million USD (Britannica, 2021). This led to riots and protests all across Brazil arguing about the validity of those allegations. They would spray paint it, scream it, put posters up, have custom door knockers, make it their wifi password, their phone case— everything: Lula Livre, they’d say. Free Lula. Or, if they disagreed, Lula Ladrão. Lula the Criminal. Jair Bolsonaro, the current president, is passionate about strong militarism and obsessed with returning to the Brazilian dictatorship (Reeves 2018). He has done countless things to incite anger from the public and believes criminals that live in favelas should “die on the street like cockroaches” (Phillips 2019). Many citizens, including Uchoa (whose father experienced it first hand) are terrified of this new reality—that Brazilians must fear the return of a dictatorship—but it is the reality of a politically, economically, and racially divided people.
Methods such as Forum Theatre, then, never cease to become useful in their capability to not only change the flaws of society in the crux (government), but also the people. Boal would find random sample sizes of individuals at the park, restaurants, etc., and motivate them to theorize and discuss together, regardless of their opinions, beliefs, race, sex, sexuality, etc. They would become immersed in the theatre and feel a newfound sense of unity with one another, particularly after Boal’s “Games for Actors/Non-Actors” (Paterson 2013). During the dictatorship, the Brazilian people could discuss these issues with the cloak of just games or petty acting, coerced into developing a new sense of community identity and revolution against a dysfunctional government. These same people now, who struggle with polarization of class systems and racial exclusion, tend to remain silent and act as though they live in a racial democracy, incapable of racial tension or injustice. These same people more than ever do not understand each other’s lives and debate constantly on how to create a better future. The Augusto Boal Institute, made in his honor, continues to encourage constant reproductions or inspirations based on his work, holds panels of Boal’s relatives and colleagues, and shares important stories of his life and his time during exile. It keeps his message alive, his impact longlasting, and most importantly, it creates a space where theatre is synonymous with critique and release, with love and change, with power and unity— the very theatre Boal knew would never rest.
Cohen-Cruz, Jan. Engaging Performance: Theatre as Call and Response. Routledge, 2010.
“Luiz Inácio Lula Da Silva.” Edited by The Editors of Encyclopedia Britannica, Encyclopædia Britannica, Encyclopædia Britannica, Inc., https://www.britannica.com/biography/Luiz-Inacio-Lula-da-Silva.
“O Instituto Augusto Boal – Augusto Boal.” Instituto Augusto Boal, 2018, http://augustoboal.com.br/o-instituto-augusto-boal/.
Paterson, Doug. “A Brief Biography of Augusto Boal.” Pedagogy and Theatre of the Oppressed, Inc., 13 Nov. 2013, https://ptoweb.org/aboutpto/a-brief-biography-of-augusto-boal/.
Phillips, Tom. “Jair Bolsonaro Says Criminals Will ‘Die like Cockroaches’ under Proposed New Laws.” The Guardian, Guardian News and Media, 5 Aug. 2019, https://www.theguardian.com/world/2019/aug/06/jair-bolosonaro-says-criminals-will-die-like-cockroaches-under-proposed-new-laws.
Reeves, Philip. “With Memories of Dictatorship, Some Brazilians Fear a Hard-Right Turn.” NPR, 26 Oct. 2018,https://www.npr.org/2018/10/26/660984573/with-memories-of-dictatorship-some-brazilians-fear-a-hard-right-turn.
Rejali, Darius M. Torture and Democracy. Princeton Univ. Press, 2009.
Uchoa, Pablo. “Remembering Brazil’s Decades of Military Repression.” BBC News, BBC, 31 Mar. 2014, https://www.bbc.com/news/world-latin-america-26713772.