- Augusto Boal 1931–2009
I came to know of Augusto Boal's theory of theatre long before I came to know Augusto Boal. It was in 1979 and I was teaching my first class in the theatre department of Mexico's National University (UNAM) as I worked on my dissertation. I had been assigned three classes a semester—each with about 80 students. The first day of class, a student asked me how theatre could bring about the revolution. My doctoral work at the University of Washington had not prepared me for this. Still, I ventured a response: theatre does not bring about revolutions. Theatre does other things—it can change the ways in which people envision social conflict; it can help spectators identify issues that had not seemed apparent before; it can energize populations around problems, and so on. But it doesn't bring about revolutions. The next day, I had 20 students in each of my classes. If theatre could not bring about the revolution, of what possible use could it be? What could theatre do?
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My entire life as a theatre and performance scholar has been an attempt to answer that question.
Boal's work was never the "answer" to my question, but he became one of my most important guides and mentors. My earmarked copy of Teatro del oprimido had a pirated Susan Meiselas Nicaragua photograph as its cover. The Sandinista fighters were photographed as pure gestus in the Brechtian understanding of powerful, recognizable, and quotable social gestures that performed the revolutionary hope of the late 1950s, '60s, and '70s throughout Latin America. Youthful Davids throughout the region fought to unseat a continent of authoritarian Goliaths backed by the US military and economic forces.
Augusto Boal's personal story was, in a way, the story of a whole generation of activist/ intellectuals in Latin America. He, like many of the region's great playwrights, started off studying something else (chemical engineering, in his case). He went to the US to study but soon gravitated towards theatre and went back to Brazil to work as an artist. As a progressive and important presence in Brazil, it wasn't long before he ran afoul of the dictatorship—in 1971 he was imprisoned, tortured, and exiled. This trajectory, unfortunately, was a shared one for a great many artists and intellectuals as military dictatorships took over most of the area's governments. Boal's response, however, was brilliantly unique. While he wrote some plays about that experience (Torquemada  being perhaps the best known), his real response came through his activism.
In 1973, inspired by Paulo Freire's Pedagogy of the Oppressed, Boal started working in Peru on a literacy campaign. Boal used theatre and theatre games to encourage people to become active participants in their own learning. During this political moment of renewed revolutionary fervor, Boal knew that his methodology was both liberating and replicable—other people could use it in their own struggle. His internationally acclaimed Theatre of the Oppressed argued that "theatre is a weapon. A very efficient weapon. For this reason one must fight for it" (Theatre of the Oppressed, 1985:ix). As a Marxist artist—like most artists in Latin America during that [End Page 10] period—Boal determined that traditional theatre was oppressive because the means of production lay in the hands of the theatre owners, producers, impresarios, and so on. Theatre of the Oppressed took theatre out of traditional spaces and transformed the "passive" spectators into active spect-actors, the true directors and protagonists of their own dramas. "I believe that all the truly revolutionary theatrical groups should transfer to the people the means of production in the theatre so that the people themselves may utilize them. The theatre is a weapon, and it is the people who should wield it" (12). The theatre, for Boal, was not a representation of what had been but, more importantly, a promise of what could be—a rehearsal for the social acts that would usher in the utopian future...