The questions below, concerning the political framework and function of the Theater of the Oppressed, are some that Theater of the Oppressed Laboratory (TOPLAB) members have considered during the almost three decades our project has been functioning. TO practice varies from group to group, community to community, and country to country. These questions are posed primarily to TO practitioners in the advanced capitalist countries; we hope people in the developing nations would join us in this dialogue. We invite other practitioners and interested parties to share some of their ideas and conclusions with us.
Augusto Boal has defined Theater of the Oppressed as a rehearsal for revolution. What does this definition imply? On the one hand, it implies that Boal's own historical practice of the theater is revolutionary, to the extent that it is at the service of revolution. On the other, it invites all Theater of the Oppressed practitioners to reflect upon the meaning of revolution in their own societies as well as upon the revolutionary potential of their own work.
What it does not imply, however, is that Theater of the Oppressed, despite its name, is an inherently revolutionary cultural practice.
Theater of the Oppressed practices can cover a wide political spectrum, ranging from the radical to the reactionary.
Despite the revolutionary political vision that gave rise to and nurtured the development of Theater of the Oppressed, it is a fallacy to believe that simply practicing the forms—exercises, games and techniques—creates political vision. From a purely formal standpoint, Theater of the Oppressed is a repertory of aesthetic activities, the political content of which depends on the political vision it serves. In turn, the political vision depends upon the model of cultural
practice in which it is embedded.
In North America and Europe, the dominant model of cultural practice is the capitalist, or corporate model: one that creates the illusion of embodying democratic process while actually reproducing and promoting monologic, exclusionary and competitive social relations antithetical to transformative, participatory democracy and the creation of an egalitarian society; one that can be bought and sold as a commodity in the "free market of ideas"; one that often does not seriously question the identification of democratic process with the global "free market" economy. The political vision inherent in the capitalist model is a packaged appearance of revolution, democracy and respect for human rights—but merely at the service of bourgeois reform, i.e., more flexible forms of capitalism and the strengthening of the military-prison-industrial complex and all the other political, social and economic institutions that sustain it.
A counter-model that allows for revolutionary, anti-capitalist cultural practice is the one that we are exploring in our group: the popular education model. Cultural practices informed by this transformative model are first of all activist in nature: they are committed to on-going, long-term support of communities in need, to community organizing and to solidarity among communities. Next, they both embody and promote popular culture, i.e. cultural action of, by and for the people in the form of grassroots, participatory democratic process at all levels of civic interaction. Correspondingly, the social relations they reproduce are based on dialogue, inclusion, cooperation and consensus. Moreover, they do not take the form of commodities to be bought or sold in the "marketplace of ideas"; they function primarily as processes that respond to human needs. Finally, the political vision inherent in the popular education model is the reality, not just the appearance, of a revolutionized, just and egalitarian society based on participatory democracy, social and economic justice and respect for human rights.
It is this model that, historically, is at the root of the Theater of the Oppressed as a revolutionary approach to theater. It is also a model that challenges current North American and European practitioners of the Theater of the Oppressed to ask themselves the following questions:
- In the spirit of clarity, since it is important to reflect collectively on the potential of Theater of the Oppressed as a revolutionary cultural practice, what might be some solid and viable operating definitions of the following key terms: revolution, democracy, democratic process, oppression, community?
- In North America and Europe, what does it take for the Theater of the Oppressed to function as a revolutionary cultural practice?
- a) When we practice Theater of the Oppressed, what model of democratic process do we bring to the communities we serve?
b) What model of democratic process should a radical practice of Theater of the Oppressed entail?
- What vision of democratic process informs the day-to-day workings of our Theater of the Oppressed groups?
- Under what conditions can Theater of the Oppressed become a force of oppression or reaction?
- In North America and Europe, under what conditions does Theater of the Oppressed become a commodity? And what would it take to de-commoditize it?
- How can the popular education model of cultural practice help radicalize the practice of Theater of the Oppressed in North America and Europe?
- Why should popularly-based grass-roots organizations be interested in the Theater of the Oppressed?
Capitalism is by nature exploitative (no workers receives the full value of the product of their labor); and capitalist relations of production are inherently undemocratic, due to the private ownership of the means of production, and to the class system this private ownership has bred.
If a Theater of the Oppressed group owes its existence to a capitalist institution (educational or financial), can this group ever be a force for revolution? Could it ever bite the hand that feeds it, or has it been recuperated from the beginning?