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  • “Joking” with the Classics: Using Boal’s Joker System in the Performance Classroom
  • Ruth Laurion Bowman (bio)

Augusto Boal’s Theatre of the Oppressed (TO) techniques are known and practiced in a variety of contexts around the world, both academic and nonacademic. At present, Boal probably is best known for his Image Theatre, Forum Theatre, and Rainbow of Desire techniques. Less familiar to many who have participated in TO workshops or read Boal’s more recent texts is his “Joker System,” which he developed with the Arena Theatre of São Paolo in the 1960s. Although “jokers” figure prominently in many of Boal’s games and techniques, the Joker System is a separate class of techniques, with different aims and aesthetics from Boal’s more recent TO work. As Mady Schutzman notes, while much of the theoretical foundation for Boal’s TO was laid in his early experiments with the Joker System, the system itself has been largely superseded by TO, and the joker’s function is very different in Forum Theatre or Image Theatre than it is in the Joker System. 1

As it is described by Boal, the Joker System is a flexible formula for adapting and staging extant texts, as well as for developing new ones (“Joker System”; Theatre of the Oppressed 159–97). Boal and the Arena Theatre company used the Joker System to “nationalize” certain European “classics” (Theatre of the Oppressed 163–65)—i.e., to rewrite and stage them in a manner that would be more meaningful, relevant, and entertaining to a Brazilian audience. I have used Boal’s Joker System in undergraduate performance courses for nearly a decade to explore a variety of “classic” texts by such authors as Euripides, Shakespeare, Marlowe, and Chekhov. In each case, our exploration of the text culminates in a Joker-style production of the play—adapted, directed, and performed by the students in the class as part of their course work. In what follows, I describe one such experience in order both to illustrate a general process of using the Joker System in the classroom and to call attention to some of the pedagogical benefits of such work. In so doing, I hope not only to provoke interest in a relatively neglected aspect of Boal’s work, but also to encourage others to incorporate the Joker System into their own classes.

The principal goal of the Joker System is to upset or destabilize the singular reality of the world as it is represented in the dramatic text (and as it is [End Page 139] conventionally reproduced in performance) in order to explore alternate ways of representing and interpreting that world. The objective, Boal notes, is to present simultaneously in the performance both the play and its analysis (Theatre of the Oppressed 174–75). Avowedly Brechtian in its aesthetics, the Joker System relies on a handful of basic techniques: (1) an “alienated” acting style, designed to “reduce” dramatic characters to a relatively simple “social mask” and to distance the actors from characters; (2) continuous role reversal or switching, such that characters are played by several actors, and actors play several characters; (3) stylistic and genre eclecticism from scene to scene (or even within a single scene), with little or no regard for a unified production style or tone; and (4) the use of music as an independent “discourse” to complement, supplement, subvert, or contradict the meanings expressed in the text and performance.

Boal proposes additional guidelines for the two main characters in a Joker System performance, the Protagonist and the Joker. In contrast to the first two techniques mentioned above, Boal recommends that the Protagonist (who may or may not be the central character in the play) be played by a single actor in the classic realist style. The Protagonist is to be the “slice of real life” we all apparently want to see in a performance and is the character with whom the audience is to identify or empathize. The polyvalent Joker figure, on the other hand, may be a single actor-character or a group of actor-characters. The Joker may be a character found in the text, or she may be an invention. She may...