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Theater 31.3 (2001) 47-61

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Boal and Beyond
Strategies for Creating Community Dialogue

Sharon Green

[Theater of the Recruits]
[Notes from the Inside]

In 1991 I participated in a series of workshops with Augusto Boal in New York City at the Brecht Forum. His understanding and use of theater seemed to me at the time to be the missing piece in my own attempts to meld my activist and artistic spirits. I was immediately entranced by Boal's work and words and knew that this workshop--advertised as "theater for empowerment"--was a singularly important event in my life. Since then, I have remained involved with Boal's work as a student, scholar, educator, activist, and community member, and in the process, I have spoken and worked with many people who use Boal's techniques, or adapted versions of them, in their own work. Their descriptions of their first encounters with Boal echoed my own: many describe his workshops as stunning realizations. There is an extraordinary power in his foundational idea of transforming spectators into "spect-actors" who become active subjects in the theater rather than passive observers, thereby giving power, authority, and responsibility to the audience. Spect-actors are given the opportunity to rehearse active resistance to oppression in the theater, to "try out" different possibilities within the relative safety of the theater and evaluate the success of each. Through this process, spect-actors will be empowered, and better prepared, to deal with reality. The theater, Boal famously says, is a rehearsal for the revolution.

For what revolution, then, are North Americans rehearsing, as theater practitioners, mental health workers, and community activists incorporate his techniques into their work in schools, hospitals, community centers, and more--and especially as his work is taken up in venues of the privileged, such as private universities or less obviously oppressed communities? Boal himself has founded centers for his work in Paris and Rio, and, ever since a 1990 residency at New York University, has been offering workshops regularly in New York City. In addition, several other institutions, such as Doug Paterson's Center for the Theater of the Oppressed-Omaha and TOPLAB (Theater of the Oppressed Laboratory) in New York City, work with various community groups and regularly offer Theater of the Oppressed (T.O.) training workshops. Meanwhile, [End Page 47] theater departments at many colleges and universities teach Boal's techniques. This means that his ideas and their realization in a body of work composed of complex games and exercises are being integrated into work in classrooms, social service agencies, community centers, activist efforts, and more by people who have had varying degrees of training in T.O. techniques. While this proliferation is a thrilling indication of the power of Boal's work and the breadth of its resonance and relevance, it also raises urgent questions. How are practitioners, captivated by Boal's ideas and committed to some form of social change, adapting the techniques of Boal's "arsenal" for use in their own communities and contexts? What are the implications of these adaptations for both the efficacy and function of T.O. as a tool to combat oppression? What has it meant for Boal's practice to be relocated to contexts with very different power structures and divergent understandings of community, oppression, and empowerment?

In a different vein, but equally as important, I wonder why Theater of the Oppressed has become so popular. What is it about Boal's synthesis of theater and politics that appeals to so many? Is this simply a result of the accumulation of a critical mass that knows about or has experienced this work? Critic Baz Kershaw has suggested that the increasing commodification of the "theater estate," which, in line with capitalism, works to turn audiences into consumers, will make radicalism in theater ever more rare. Kershaw suggests that theater has become "the domain of the completely disempowered, where the audience is located at what should be the cutting edge of culture, the perfect place for self-reflexive critique (as Brecht saw it), only to be robbed of...