The Theater of the Oppressed, established in the early 1970s by Brazilian director and Workers' Party (PT) activist Augusto Boal, is a participatory theater that fosters democratic and cooperative forms of interaction among participants. Theater is emphasized not as a spectacle but rather as a language accessible to all. More specifically, it is a rehearsal theater designed for people who want to learn ways of fighting back against oppression in their daily lives.
In what Boal calls “Forum Theater,” for example, the actors begin with a dramatic situation from everyday life and try to find solutions—parents trying to help a child on drugs, a neighbor who is being evicted from his home, and individual confronting racial or gender discrimination, or simply a student in a new community who is shy and has difficulty making friends. Audience members are urged to intervene by stopping the action, coming on stage to replace actors, and enacting their own ideas. Bridging the separation between actor (the one who acts) and spectator (the one who observes but is not permitted to intervene in the theatrical situation), the Theater of the Oppressed is practiced by "spect-actors" who have the opportunity to both act and observe, and who engage in self-empowering processes of dialogue that help foster critical thinking. The theatrical act is thus experienced as conscious intervention, as a rehearsal for social action rooted in a collective analysis of shared problems.
This particular type of interactive theater is rooted in the pedagogical and political principles specific to the popular education method developed by Brazilian educator Paulo Freire: 1) to see the situation lived by the participants; 2) to analyze the root causes of the situation, including both internal and external sources of oppression; 3) explore group solutions to these problems, and 4) to act to change the situation following the precepts of social justice.
The Origins of Theater of the Oppressed Augusto Boal began his experimentations in participatory theater in the 1950s and 60s while he was artistic director for the Arena Theater in Rio de Janeiro. He went beyond the stage and organized performances with the Arena troupe in the streets, factories, unions, churches where they could reach the people of the favelas or slums of Rio. In 1971, Boal’s work drew the attention of the military dictatorship and he was arrested and tortured. After four months he was released and sent into exile, spending five years in Argentina, two in Portugal and eight in France before returning to his home in Rio.
He continued his work in Argentina, developing “Invisible Theater,” aimed at getting around the repressive political climate. Invisible Theater transforms public space into a public stage creating "theatrical" situations in public places, but in a way in which the public is unaware that a spectacle is being acted out. By-standers are drawn into a discourse about social oppression, and urged to take immediate action that might affect the scenario being played out. Boal's explorations were all efforts to transform the “monologue” of the traditional performance into a “dialogue” between the audience and the stage. He believed that dialogue is the most common and healthy dynamic between humans, and that all humans desire and are capable of participating in dialogue, and conversely, that monologue can feed into oppression. He developed a process whereby audience members could stop a performance and suggest different actions for the actor, who would then carry out the audience suggestions. In a now legendary development, a woman in the audience was so frustrated by an actor who could not understand her suggestions that she came on stage and began to play the role herself. For Boal, this was the birth of the “spect-actor” and his theater was transformed. “While some people make theater,” says Boal, “we are all theater.”