May 2nd, 2009, saw the passing of a visionary theatre artist, activist and educator. Augusto Boal, Brazilian theatre director and founder of the “Theatre of the Oppressed” (TO), has left a rich legacy of theatrical innovation and social activism in the inspired hearts and minds of theatre practitioners across the world.
Boal created the Theatre of the Oppressed techniques in the early 1960s as a way to establish a dialogue between audience, director and actors that encouraged political activism aimed at transforming oppressive realities. Seen as a threat to the dictatorship that ruled Brazil between 1964 and 1985, Boal was arrested and tortured before being exiled to Argentina. He then went on to further develop his practice in Argentina, Peru, and Europe, before returning to Brazil after the fall of the military regime.
Augusto Boal’s impact on the field of community-based art is incalculable. TO methodology is taught around the world, in universities as in community-based settings, including Theatre of the Oppressed Institutes on every continent. Boal’s ideas on theatre and empowerment changed the tools available to an entire generation of theatre artists, rejuvenating discourse around the impact of theatre in a given community. He himself worked tirelessly and to the end in teaching and enabling artists and communities worldwide, and his legacy will be felt in the thousands that now carry on his work. His passing marks the next phase of the Theatre of the Oppressed, in the physical absence of the Joker himself.
As this past March 27 saw Augusto Boal as the author of the 2009 World Theatre Day message, I share his words here with you again and reflect upon his legacy:
“All human societies are “spectacular*” in their daily life and produce “spectacles” at special moments. They are “spectacular” as a form of social organization and produce “spectacles” like the one you have come to see.
Even if one is unaware of it, human relationships are structured in a theatrical way. The use of space, body language, choice of words and voice modulation, the confrontation of ideas and passions, everything that we demonstrate on the stage, we live in our lives. We are theatre!
Weddings and funerals are “spectacles”, but so, also, are daily rituals so familiar that we are not conscious of this. Occasions of pomp and circumstance, but also the morning coffee, the exchanged good-mornings, timid love and storms of passion, a senate session or a diplomatic meeting – all is theatre.
One of the main functions of our art is to make people sensitive to the “spectacles” of daily life in which the actors are their own spectators, performances in which the stage and the stalls coincide. We are all artists. By doing theatre, we learn to see what is obvious but what we usually can’t see because we are only used to looking at it. What is familiar to us becomes unseen: doing theatre throws light on the stage of daily life.
Last September, we were surprised by a theatrical revelation: we, who thought that we were living in a safe world, despite wars, genocide, slaughter and torture which certainly exist, but far from us in remote and wild places. We, who were living in security with our money invested in some respectable bank or in some honest trader’s hands in the stock exchange were told that this money did not exist, that it was virtual, a fictitious invention by some economists who were not fictitious at all and neither reliable nor respectable. Everything was just bad theatre, a dark plot in which a few people won a lot and many people lost all. Some politicians from rich countries held secret meetings in which they found some magic solutions. And we, the victims of their decisions, have remained spectators in the last row of the balcony.
Twenty years ago, I staged Racine’s Phèdre in Rio de Janeiro. The stage setting was poor: cow skins on the ground, bamboos around. Before each presentation, I used to say to my actors: “The fiction we created day by day is over. When you cross those bamboos, none of you will have the right to lie. Theatre is the Hidden Truth”.
When we look beyond appearances, we see oppressors and oppressed people, in all societies, ethnic groups, genders, social classes and casts; we see an unfair and cruel world. We have to create another world because we know it is possible. But it is up to us to build this other world with our hands and by acting on the stage and in our own life.
Participate in the “spectacle” which is about to begin and once you are back home, with your friends act your own plays and look at what you were never able to see: that which is obvious. Theatre is not just an event; it is a way of life!
We are all actors: being a citizen is not living in society, it is changing it. ”
– Augusto Boal