Who Is Theatrical Artist Augusto Boal?

The Brazilian theater director and playwright Augusto Boal believed that theater is more than a form of entertainment.

May 12, 2024By Agnes Theresa Oberauer, BA Drama & Philosophy

who is augusto boal

 

Augusto Boal is a Brazilian theater practitioner best known for developing various theatrical techniques aimed at empowering disadvantaged communities. Instead of reducing the audience to the role of a normal spectator, he encouraged them to step into the action on stage and find solutions for different societal problems. His Theater Of The Oppressed proves that art can do much more than just entertain. For Boal, theater can be a vessel of social change, a space for empowerment, and a tool for countering oppression.

 

Augusto Boal: From the Favela to New York 

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Augusto Boal, n.d. Source: Brown University Library

 

Given its history of slavery and colonization, systemic oppression is a part of Brazilian reality up to this day. The improvised favela neighborhoods climbing the hills of Brazil’s major cities have become a symbol of the prevailing social inequality in South America. Born in the suburbs of Rio de Janeiro in 1931, Augusto grew up seeing the violence and poverty suffered by the poorest on a daily basis.

 

He developed a passion for theater early on, but once he got the chance to go to university, he opted for the safer choice of getting a degree in Chemical Engineering. As it turned out, this was a good idea. He ended up getting invited to do his Ph.D. at the prestigious Columbia University in New York, where he also got the chance to study the Dramatic Arts and become familiar with the theories of Konstantin Stanislavski and Bertolt Brecht.

 

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New York, Thomas Habr, 2017. Source: Unsplash

 

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Upon his return to Brazil, Augusto Boal started implementing the techniques he had learned in the US. He quickly made a name for himself as a playwright and theater director. Many of the performances he created with the Arena Theater and the Teatro Oficina in Brazil were invited to tour internationally.

 

Exile

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Artists protesting against Censorship in Brazil, Adam Cuerden, 1968. Source: Wikimedia Commons

 

Unfortunately, the government wasn’t exactly happy with his efforts. In 1964, a military coup led to the takeover of power by a dictatorial regime. What followed were 21 years of censorship and the increasingly repressive persecution of political opponents. Throughout the years of dictatorship, speaking out about social and political issues became increasingly dangerous.

 

But Augusto Boal did not let this stop him. Instead, he continued to create socially critical theater. This included the staging of Bertolt Brecht´s play about the rise of a dictator, called The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui. Shortly after, Boal was imprisoned and tortured by the police. Once released, he decided to flee the country. He ended up spending the next years working in Argentina, Peru, Ecuador, Portugal, and France.

 

Return to Brazil

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Favela in Brazil, Photographer Unknown. Source: Cesvi

 

Despite the dangers of creating art in his country, Boal could not stay away from his birthplace for too long. From 1979 onwards, he started getting involved in the artistic scene of Brazil and once the dictatorship ended in 1985, he decided to move back to Rio de Janeiro. During his time in exile, he developed various theatrical methods that were concretely aimed at empowering the oppressed and helping communities solve their problems. Having worked with indigenous populations and people from minority groups in various countries, he was ready to bring what he had learned to his hometown. In 1986, he founded the Centro de Teatro do Oprimido where he deepened and developed the Theater Of The Oppressed.

 

The Theater Of The Oppressed 

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Brazilian Favela, David Araeva, 2018. Source: Unsplash

 

Augusto Boal was highly aware of the fact that much of the cultural and artistic expressions served to maintain the status quo. Having grown up in a society defined by a huge wealth gap, dictatorship, and colonial history, he wanted to create theater that truly empowered people. Instead of sticking to the theaters of the elite, Boal went into the favelas of Brazil and started using theater as a tool for social liberation.

 

He started erasing the boundaries between performers and spectators. He did not want theater to be something that was watched by a passive audience. Instead, he wanted the audience to actively participate in its creation and take responsibility for finding alternative ways of dealing with a problematic situation.

 

As part of these efforts, he developed several theater techniques, such as Forum Theater, Invisible Theater, and Newspaper Theater. All of these methods used the theatrical act of performing as a practical way of finding possible solutions for real-life problems. Together, this vast body of Boal’s work came to be known as Theater Of The Oppressed.

 

Forum Theater 

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Augusto Boal presenting his Theater Of The Oppressed at the Riverside Church in New York, Photographer Unknown, 2008, Source: Wikimedia Commons

 

Instead of performing a play about a social issue in front of a passive audience, Augusto Boal employed a method he came to call the Forum Theater. After finishing a performance concerning a particular issue, the actors would restart the story from the beginning. During this second performance, audience members were allowed to say the word Stop and propose an alternative way of action. They could then step into the action onstage and try their proposed solution out.

 

This playful and practical method enabled audience members to test out different behaviors and solutions in a safe environment. By physically acting out various responses to a problem faced by their community, the participants could find alternative ways of dealing with a given oppressive situation. By practically trying out more empowered behaviors in the context of a theater performance, people were more prepared to deal with the real-life oppression many of them faced once they stepped back into their day-to-day lives.

 

Invisible Theater 

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Invisible Theater, Photographer Unknown, 2023. Source: Centro Teatro Do Oprimido

 

While living in Argentinian exile, Augusto Boal developed a type of street theater performance he called the Invisible Theater. An Invisible Theater performance involved the acting out of a scene in a public space, turning the people who happened to be around into involuntary spectators. The goal of such incognito performances was to raise awareness about a specific social issue.

 

One of Augusto Boal´s Invisible Theater performances took place at a busy restaurant in Argentina. After ordering something from the menu, an actor would tell the waiter that he did not have money to pay the bill, offering to pay with his labor instead. Other incognito actors then helped open up a public discussion about different workers’ pay. After this, the cast ended the performance by collecting money from the customers in the restaurant. By taking performances out of the theater and into the real world, Augusto Boal and his troupe managed to raise social questions in everyday places. What makes this form of theater all the more powerful is that the audience members did not know that they were in fact watching a performance.

 

Other Techniques for Breaking Oppression

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The tree of the theater of the oppressed, Luisa Valz, Source: Wikimedia Commons

 

While Augusto Boal is most famous for developing the Invisible Theater and the Forum Theater, he also created a vast array of exercises and techniques aimed at helping participants see reality in alternative ways and find empowerment. This included Newspaper Theater, a technique wherein participants would read, act out, and critically comment on a given news item. He also developed a method called Breaking Repression, wherein a participant would get the group to act out a particular scene from their life, during which he had felt oppressed. He would then use the theatrical scene to try out, practice, and rehearse more empowered ways of dealing with the situation.

 

From Theater to Participatory Politics 

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Augusto Boal Councilman Campaign, 1992. Source: Acervo Augusto Boal

 

Augusto Boal believed that both theater and politics needed to be democratized. Brazil has produced great professional football players because almost everybody in the country loves and plays football. But how many great artists and politicians could our world create, if politics and art were practiced by more people?

 

In Boal´s view, people were not interested in watching theater or participating in politics because it felt incredibly removed from their lives. By bringing art and politics into the nonprofessional context, Boal was hoping to co-create a society where everybody, not just the elite, felt empowered to participate.

 

In 1992, Boal was voted city councilman in Rio, which allowed him to test out his ideas about using theater as a tool in making political decisions. He invited people from the community he represented to participate in a theatrical process that involved acting out a specific problem, staging different possible solutions, and proposing specific policy changes. Using this technique, Boal not only managed to pass thirteen laws, but he also created a new participatory framework for policymaking which he called the Legislative Theater.

 

Augusto Boal’s Legacy 

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Participants in the Theater of the Oppressed workshop presented by Brazilian theater director and writer Augusto Boal at Riverside Church in New York City, 2008. Source: Wikimedia Commons

 

Although Augusto Boal died in 2009, his legacy lives on. Artists and social workers from all over the world continue to use his techniques as a way of strengthening disempowered communities and finding solutions to problems surrounding oppression. Boal has left behind over 20 books, several playtexts, and a cultural center that continues his work on the Theater Of The Oppressed.

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By Agnes Theresa OberauerBA Drama & PhilosophyAgnes Theresa completed her BA in Drama and Philosophy at the Royal Holloway University of London in 2014 and is currently finishing her MA in Physical Theatre Performance Making at the Estonian Academy of Music and Theatre. She works internationally as a writer, performance artist, theatre director, and performer. Born in Austria, she has lived in six countries (Russia, Ukraine, Austria, Germany, Estonia, and the UK) and traveled many more, always seeking to expand her horizons and challenge her preconceptions. Her interests range from Greek philosophy to capoeira, posthumanism, and Nietzsche.