The Theatre of the Oppressed (TO) was developed by Brazilian theatre director Augusto Boal during the 1950'ps and 1960's. In an effort to transform theatre from the "monologue" of traditional performance into a "dialogue" between audience and stage, Boal experimented with many kinds of interactive theatre. His explorations were based on the assumption that dialogue is the common, healthy dynamic between all humans, that all human beings desire and are capable of dialogue, and that when a dialogue becomes a monologue, oppression ensues. Theatre then becomes an extraordinary tool for transforming monologue into dialogue. "While some people make theatre," says Boal, "we all are theatre."
From his work Boal evolved various forms of theatre workshops and performances which aimed to meet the needs of all people for interaction, dialogue, critical thinking, action, and fun. While the performance modes of Forum Theatre, Image Theatre, Cop-In-The-Head, and the vast array of the Rainbow of Desire are designed to bring the audience into active relationship with the performed event, the workshops are virtually a training ground for action not only in these performance forms, but for action in life.
The "typical" Theatre of the Oppressed workshop comprises three kinds of activity. The first is background information on TO and the various exercises provided by the workshop facilitator (or "difficultator," as Boal prefers to describe it). Such information begins the workshop, but is also interspersed throughout the games and exercises. Moreover, the group is brought together periodically to discuss responses to games and to ask questions of the various processes.
The second kind of activity is the games. These are invariably highly physical interactions designed to challenge us to truly listen to what we are hearing, feel what we are touching, and see what we are looking at. The "arsenal" of the Theatre of the Oppressed is extensive with over two-hundred games and exercises listed in Boal's Games for Actors and Non-Actors alone. Several years ago Boal's Center for the Theatre of the Oppressed in Paris (CTO - Paris) proceeded methodically through all the TO activities; the inventory took two years to cover. Ultimately, these games serve to heighten our senses and de-mechanize the body, to get us out of habitual behavior, as a prelude to moving beyond habitual thinking and interacting. We also become actively engaged with other participants, developing relationships and trust, and having a very good time.
Finally, the third area of activity involves the structured exercises. Although there is a kind of gray area at times when one might call an activity a game or an exercise, the exercises are formulated so as to infuse a given structure with genuine content.
These activities are designed to highlight a particular area of TO practice such as Image Theatre, Forum Theatre, Rainbow of Desire, etc.
Forum scenes can be virtual one-act plays or more often short scenes. In either case, a full presentation is offered to the audience. The joker (difficultator) then says to the audience we will do this again, and if you would do something different than what the protagonist (not the antagonists) is doing, stand up and yell stop. The protagonist will then sit down and the audience member is invited forward to show their solution of the moment. Once the intervention is performed, the audience invariably applauds, and the joker invites the audience to discuss the proposed solution, and to offer even more solutions.
So, for example, I might demonstrate a difficulty/oppression I am encountering in dealing with a work colleague. I choose a person from the group to play the colleague, tell them what they must do and say in the demonstration, and then enact a key moment when my internal oppression might be at play. Those in the workshop (or even performance) watching my demonstration then come forward to demonstrate physical images of slices of my behavior -- my weaknesses and strengths. Those images are kept which the audience/other participants agree are fair representations of activity going on underneath my demonstration. Images are then added which externalize what the audience sees in the colleague.
Through an extended series of substitutions and parallel actions, the various images weave in and out of numerous re-enactments of the initial scene. At the conclusion of this one exercise -- which could take as long as 2-3 hours -- the original scene is replayed with the intention that the protagonist will have learned more about some (perceived) strengths and weaknesses, as well as the (perceived) strengths and weaknesses of the antagonist.
Clearly the various kinds of exercises use aspects of all TO work. That is, for example, in one game a participant is asked to show without words a kind of daily activity, and the rest of the group is asked to watch that mime-like action and then to add to the environment a soundless representation of any other person or object that might be in the "neighborhood" of the original action. An objective here is to reveal the recognized social basis for much ritual behavior, and demonstrate the associations between a movement/ gesture and given a particular social context.
However, in a further version of imaging, a person tells another person a story from their life that had strong emotional significance to them, especially a situation involving a perceived and felt oppression. The teller tells with their eyes closed so they don't tell the story with any visual "feedback" from the listener. At the end of the story telling, the teller and the listener (now the "co-pilot") make independent image representations of the story using people from the rest of the workshop. Here, Image Theatre is used to compare critically two related contents -- that told by the one and heard by the other. This exercise thus takes the group into the phase of using the language of Image Theatre as a way of externalizing internal states for the purpose of discussing perceived differences and similarities.
In the last stage of this exercise, the "sculptors" are told they have three wishes, and that each wish is an ability to restructure the image of oppression so as to relieve it. Forum Theatre -- changing the outcome -- is now operating. By the third wish, whole new possibilities often are apparent. Thus we are invited not only to imagine new possibilities and solutions, but to actively participate in them, Forum style. Group problem solving, highly-interactive imagining, physical involvement, trust, and fun combine to create vigorous interpersonal dynamics. As a result, we learn that we are, if not the source of our difficulties, at least the reason for their maintenance. More importantly, we are clearly the source of our mutual liberations.
Doug Paterson is a professor of theater at the University of Nebraska at Omaha. He is founding director of the Center for the Theatre of the Oppressed -- Omaha and initiated the conference described below. You can send e-mail to him at
To learn more about Doug's applied theater work, check out his Webster's World review of UpROOTED!, a community play-making project on the red-hot topic of the redwood forests and the timber industry on California's North Coast.
The third Pedagogy of the Oppressed conference was held in April 1997 at the University of Nebraska at Omaha. Organized by UNO's College of Continuing Studies, this year's conference again featured Augusto Boal (who wrote Theatre of the Oppressed), who appeared along with Paulo Freire (author of Pedagogy of the Oppressed) at the 1996 conference. Both have been highly influential in the development of the politics of liberation, and this conference has become a major rallying point for professionals involved in critical pedagogy and community cultural work.
Evaluative comments on the 1996 conference were compiled here in Webster's World, as a service to conference participants. Participants in the 1997 conference have organized a listserv conference: to enroll, just copy this text --
subscribe criticaled [YOUR NAME]
-- into an e-mail message and send it to
firstname.lastname@example.org. (Leave the subject line of your e-mail message blank.) A return message will ask you to confirm, and then you'll receive messages from the list. But hurry! The list was already getting started on April 28th.
For information about future conferences, check out the Pedagogy of the Oppressed conference Web site.