Written by Richard A. Cope

The word theatre usually conjures up one image: actors, lighting, sound, costume, colour, props, scenery – all contained within a theatre, on a stage. But it is much deeper than the tangible animate/inanimate objects or people that are commonly found within the building of a theatre. Augusto Boal describes theatre as “the capacity possessed by human beings . . . to observe themselves in action.” He goes on to say that we are “capable of seeing [ourselves] in the act of seeing, of thinking [our] emotions, of being moved by [our] thoughts.” Unlike an animal, we as human beings are also able to understand the concept of past, present and future. We can think about our pasts and evaluate our successes and failures, we can also see where we want to be tomorrow, next week or next year. We can also, to a high degree, understand the concepts of good and evil.

An ancient Chinese fable, as told in the preface to Boal’s book, Games for Actors and Non-Actors, describes the ‘first’ discovery of theatre by Xua-Xua, who gave birth to a baby called Lig-Lig-Le. Once born, Xua-Xua began asking herself many questions about what had happened once she realised that her child was part of her, and when Lig-Lig-Le went off with his father. She realised that they had choice and that they were individually different people. She questioned who she was, whom they were, what were to happen next, and continued to ask these questions by looking at herself. It was at this point theatre was discovered. It was at this point when Xua-Xua became the actor and spectator, creating the term used by Boal - Spect-Actor.

The Spect-Actor today is the active spectator, the audience member who takes part in the action. Within the Theatre of the Oppressed, they are not supposed to be any inactive/passive spectators. Boal emphasises the ‘potential involvement of even those who do not physically participate” and that they “at least have the choice”. The Spect-Actor plays an important role within Forum Theatre. They can provide answers and solutions to problems been shown to them by either suggesting or even replacing one of the actors on the stage area and acting their own ideas. But what is Forum Theatre? Boal describes it on page 184 of his book, The Rainbow of Desire;

“Forum Theatre consists, in essence, of proposing to a group of spectators, after a first improvisation of a scene, that they replace the protagonist and try to improvise variations on his actions. The real protagonist should, ultimately, improvise the variation that has motivated him the most.”

Before the Spect-Actors can begin to use Forum Theatre effectively, they need to warm-up using several techniques as described in Games for Actors and Non-Actors. A good selection of warm-up games can include the following, which then lead onto Forum Theatre.

Complete the image. Here, everyone splits into pairs and they shake hands. They then freeze this image and one of the pair moves away and ‘complements’ the image by moving into another form/position. After a short pause, the other partner does the same. This exercise should allow the pairs to explore their imaginations and very often a pattern within the images can be created.

Columbian hypnosis. In pairs, one partner holds out the palm of their hand. The second partner has to keep their face in line with the palm, just as though they are hypnotised by it. They must concentrate and follow the palm. The ‘hypnotised’ partner will find that as the exercise progresses, they are using muscles that they don’t often use.

The machine of rhythms. One person goes into the centre of the stage area and begins to move their body as though it is part of a machine and can also add a sound. The movement and sound is repeated continuously, and one by one members of the group join the ‘human machine’, adding more movement and sound. This exercise relies on the groups’ hearing to pickup on the rhythm and to build on it.

Image and counter-image, (or pilot and co-pilot). The group splits into pairs and one will tell a story of when they were oppressed (the pilot) and the other will listen, (the co-pilot). The co-pilot will not open their eyes and will only listen to their partner. Once the stories have been told, the group comes back together and one of the stories is chosen. The co-pilot for that story makes up an image from it by selecting members of the group to represent the oppressor and the oppressed, and any other people that might be present in the story. They act out the scene and once completed, the members of the group watching can offer suggestions as to how the oppressed can over-come the oppressor. They can do this by either getting the actors to try something different or they can replace the actor and try out their suggestion.

The Cop in the Head. An exercise that was designed for Boal’s therapeutic techniques, he explains that some people have ‘cops in their heads’ – a fear or fears that prevent them realising that their oppressor doesn’t/no longer has any ‘real’ control over them. Boal also believes that all the cops in our heads have identities and a headquarters in the external world that can and need be located.

In the early 1960’s, Augusto Boal and his theatre company, the Teatro de Arena de São Paulo, travelled around Brazil, focusing on the most poverty-stricken areas. Their aim was to “exhort the oppressed to struggle against oppression.” They used their theatre to “tell Truths, to bring Solutions” In a small village in the North-East of Brazil, the Teatro de Arena performed in front of the local peasants, singing the text ‘Let us spill our blood’. After the performance they were approached by one of the villagers and agreed that they, the peasants, should indeed give blood for their land. The company were delighted that their message had been given across successfully. But the peasant, Virgilio, misunderstood the company’s intentions. He came up with a plan, that they should take the company’s guns and the village’s, to confront their landowner. Boal and his group tried to explain that the guns were fake, that they were artists and although they believed in the cause, they were not true peasants. Virgilio said: “So, when you true artists talk of the blood that must be spilt, this blood you sing about spilling – it’s our blood you mean, not yours, isn’t that so?”

Boal asks “what was the error?” and goes on to explain that Agitprop theatre “can be an extremely effective instrument in political struggle. The error lay in the use to which we put it.” Since then, Boal never wrote plays that gave advice and has not sent ‘messages’ again. Encounters like these help to shape and grow such theatre. Mistakes are learnt and a new knowledge is understood.

Forum Theatre can provide answers to a lot of problems. Often, these answers do need to be searched for, other times they can appear as easily as the problem did. Of course, Forum Theatre cannot help all situations. A girl who has been raped, for an extreme example, isn’t likely to defend herself on her own when faced with three men. In this instance, no matter how many times the scene is played over and different situations are attempted, in the end the outcome will probably and unfortunately, be the same. With the aid of Forum Theatre, some solutions can also come apparent without anyone looking for the particular answer. With several Spect-Actors all looking at the same situation, anything is possible.

For two months, Boal held a Theatre of the Oppressed workshop twice a week at Fleury-les-Aubrais psychiatric hospital. One situation that was looked at concerned a Yugoslav who had arrived at the hospital after having a violent fit. The only thing he kept on saying was “Pas de piqure! Pas de piqure!” (No injections! No injections!) The doctor prescribed a tranquilliser, but the Yugoslav insisted “Pas de piqure!” A nurse was to give the injection – but had no luck. Finally, after holding him down, the injection was given, although the nurse didn’t want to, but knew that if he didn’t he was likely to loose his job.

The scene was played and a patient at the hospital stopped the action. He stepped in and went the phone, pretended to call the Yugoslav embassy and asked for a translator. He explained, saying that the Yugoslav could have been trying to tell them that he had an allergy and could not have injections. Those present were surprised that a ‘sick person’ had thought of this and not those who were ‘healthy’.

Another patient played the role of the nurse and said: “He doesn’t want the injection . . . I am not giving it.” She received a round of applause. “He doesn’t want it, I won’t do it to him! He is a man. He exists, so he has a right to say no. And we have a duty to respect that.”

Forum Theatre is still being developed and explored by Boal and those who use it. When he brought the Theatre of the Oppressed over here to Europe, he had to ‘re-design’ some of the exercises and techniques, because the oppressors are different to that of Brazil. Forum Theatre has proved to be effective in many ways and has helped small groups and communities to see their oppressor, or some cases, realise that they thought there was an oppressor, when in fact it was their cop in their head. Boal’s work and ideas are valuable and he has proved that when used, Forum Theatre is a very powerful weapon.

“Theatre is a form of knowledge; it should and can also be a means of transforming society. Theatre can help us build a future, rather than just waiting for it.”
Games for Actors and Non-Actors, pxxxi.
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The choir singing the song to Augusto Boal
Pictures from the International Theatre of the 
Oppressed Conference, Rio 2009