After a rejuvenating conversation with Ieva Česnulaitytė last month around active citizenship and participatory democracy, we at Unrehearsed Futures returned to Brazilian practitioner Augusto Boal and his body of work with the Theatre of the Oppressed, to investigate how we could revisit his powerful ideas today.
A theatre-maker and political activist, Boal elaborated on his method the Theatre of the Oppressed (T.O.) in the 1970s where he used it to promote social and political change. The audience, or spectators, become active and are “spect-actors” who show, analyse, and transform the reality they are living. Through his work, he set a great example of bringing democratic participation back into people’s hands through theatre. A lot has changed in our world since the 1970s. T.O. is more relevant than ever today; with the political zeitgeist we face in the world as we reckon with histories of oppression and structural injustices. In such times, how can we deploy Boal’s work, and other theatre methods that sit at the intersection of performance and participation, at scale? Can it give us the means to re-democratise political practice?
Exploring this and more, two Indian T.O. practitioners, creative arts therapist Akhila Khanna and founder of the Bangalore-based Centre for Community Dialogue and Change, Radha Ramaswamy shared their thoughts at a recent Unrehearsed Futures conversation.
A community led T.O. practice
When Radha started CCDC in 2011, she recalls putting down in her mission statement that CCDC will take T.O. to as many spaces and communities as possible and wished to see the language of T.O. in every school in India. When she speaks about the language of T.O. she is referring to a language of dialogue where people listen to each other. That’s the essence of T.O., she believes. While our theatre ecosystem needs multipliers, like Boal imagined, “we also need people who have internalized the spirit, the politics and the philosophy of T.O., and who are using it simply in their lives, in their interactions with people,” emphasizes Radha. It is entirely possible to achieve this with T.O., which is a brilliant, extremely efficient and democratic pedagogy.
T.O. began as a response to the authoritative military regime in Brazil in the 1970s at a time of artistic and media censorship. Out of a desire for social action and the need to make fun of an authoritative government, peasants and workers had to find a way to speak up against power without being completely shut down. So, T.O. evolved as an aesthetically distant, politically subliminal way of fighting up and speaking against the government for the right to food, housing, land and other collective issues, without getting censored.
Today, instead of thinking about how we can scale T.O., New York-based therapist Akhila believes it is more useful to think about how the skills of T.O. practitioner can be made more global, such as co-existing between two opposite realities at the same time and sitting with the anxiety of somebody else’s otherness while holding their moral truths at the same time. “That’s what T.O. does,” she says.
While it is easy to get caught up in the dichotomy of the oppressor and the oppressed, Boal always maintained that it’s important to be sharply aware of differences, but it’s also important to be aware of the humanity of the other. “So that that dialogue continues, and we continue to engage,” adds Radha. “It’s not about engaging with the oppressor. It’s always about engaging and recognizing the humanity of the oppressor. And I think that’s what we desperately need today. Because what we do not have are decent conversations, reasonable dialogue between people who are willing to listen to each other. There’s so much polarization.”
The world needs more allyship today. Every single game in T.O. is about navigating difference, navigating constant change with a focus on developing the thought muscles of agility and flexibility that are much need for democracy today. In his book Theater of the Oppressed and Its Times, Julian Boal writes about T.O.’s Forum Theatre dramaturgy developing into an allyship model. In the original form of Forum, it was framed as a protagonist versus an antagonist, and various interventions would take place trying to replace the protagonist to have a more systematic solution to their conversation with the antagonist. What Julian Boal instead proposes is that a protagonist isn’t having a conversation with antagonist but instead having a conversation with what he calls a “potential ally”.
A potential ally is a person who has a submissive part of themselves that doesn’t really want to help but the subversive parts of themselves wants to challenge what’s happening. So, they see the humanity in the protagonist, but at the same time, they can’t because of a larger, systematic reason. Such a reframe “encourages spect-actors to think about how we are all potential allies making up systems of oppression. How do we love somebody when we morally disagree with them at the same time? How do we have the capacity to tolerate someone else’s frustration, while also empathizing with our humanity? I find that ally ship model to be an extremely futuristic way of thinking about T.O. with communities,” asserts Akhila.
While allyship is important and we need to engage with the ‘other’, Radha cautions that it is imperative to recognise oppression, because it makes people uncomfortable. “This comes up all the time when we are working with privileged communities,” she shares, “There is a tendency to not want to look at it as oppression, but as someone who is unable to come out of their own struggle. It’s the politics of the work; it’s important to acknowledge that there is oppression but it’s also important to talk about the need to engage and the need to engage with love. Without rage and love there can be no hope, said Freire and I really believe that.”
Spreading the T.O. sensibility
Theatre practitioners are aware of the effectiveness of Boal’s work but how can the internalised spirit of T.O. be propagated? Akhila feels that in India, or all over the world, T.O. is already propagated. What we should be asking instead is, who is asking this question and who is giving the answer? “Who is being visible? For example, in parts of Gujarat, there’s a T.O. movement to actively work against caste oppression. There’s a fantastic theatre company called Whistleblower Theatre Company, run by Maulik Raj Shrimali, that has been doing this work for years. It’s a question of visibility. The fact that Radha and I are on this panel, also speaks to the fact that probably we are people who have been writing about this work and whose work has been visibilised, that too in the English language,” says Akhila.
She believes that what makes a successful T.O. practitioner is the ability to expose oneself to the anxiety of somebody else’s otherness in one’s everyday practice. “How often do we get to sit in someone else’s story? Like Radha said, let our bodies experience the rage and the love and sit with it. How can we just sit with it, slow down the mechanics of T.O. before acting and speaking up and intervening? How can we just sit with that discomfort? That skill of sitting with it, I think, is a great way of propagating the T.O. sensibility.”
As Boal said, and Radha reiterates, ultimately, what is important is keeping the community’s current needs in mind while adapting T.O. and its structures.
Compiled and written by Phalguni Vittal Rao
Access the entire session on our YouTube channel: