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Augusto Boal

The Aesthetics of the Oppressed: Political Memory and the Pedagogy of a Poetical Laboratory


by Cristina Ribas

Leia este artigo em português aqui.

The school that creates space for improvisation is also a school of subjectivity, of ways of life, of what one feels, of how one expresses what is being lived, and what needs to be transformed so that a life without oppressions can be lived.

Workshop-Theater of the Oppressed in Paris (1975). Courtesy: Acervo Cedoc/Funarte.

We are not born actors, but we are born with the potential of theater. On the grounds of the Theater of the Oppressed (TO), we can all become actors in a theater as a sensitive and political laboratory, as an acquisition of expressive and communicative abilities, as an exchange of energy and life. With this way of making theater, Augusto Boal conceptualized an "aesthetic space" where expressive forces can rebel, whether through gestures, sounds, utterances, textures, light, or objects: the theater as an aesthetic and political laboratory. The composition of these animisms, discourses and scenes is also a folding of the social, economic, and political reality that they seek to influence and transform.

The TO built a critique of the class society imposed in the development of capitalism (producing classes of exploited and exploiters), as well as a critique of the State and its institutions. For Boal, "common people [are] inspiration and destiny" for the theater, for the actors (1988, p. 197). At the entrance of a theater where a presentation of the Theater of the Oppressed takes place, one reads: "By crossing this limit you will become a protagonist." The poster for a theater play of the Forum Theater1 indicated that upon entering you could be invited to join the performance, literally climbing on stage and presenting another outcome of what was happening to the protagonist. But the participation proposed by the Theater of the Oppressed goes beyond the casual integration. In the history of inventions of the TO, we find the sparks of a theater conceived as an ever-open formative process, as a radical pedagogy in which the condition of a passive audience is transformed: in it, the spectators become spect-actors. Literally, the spectators become actors. It is, therefore, a theater that is its own school. A theater that aestheticizes space, that tensions reality and representation, and that presents itself as an urgent tool at a time that demands transformative movements.

The Theater of the Oppressed is a method or theatrical practice developed by Augusto Boal (1931-2009), a Brazilian playwright who lived in several countries. The TO method is still being developed by many practitioners who learned from Boal and who worked with him at the Center of Theater of the Oppressed (CTO)2 in the neighborhood of Lapa, Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. It was in this space where Boal worked since the late 1980s, as well as Bárbara Santos, also from Rio de Janeiro, now living in Berlin, Germany.3 In the last decade, the creation of the Laboratório Internacional Madalenas brought forth the protagonism of women in theater. It was conceived as a much-needed space for elaborating on issues specific to women. The TO has spread in many places around the world and is practiced by diverse social groups, communities and movements. As a method of artistic-political action and a tool for social transformation, TO aims to enable groups to investigate their living conditions in the capitalist society, but also in the richness of their own culture. The method seeks to analyze the different forms of exploitation, extractivism, and colonialism, inaugurating the investigation of oppression as a form of resistance. To investigate oppressions, it invests in the agitation of the bodily, political, psychic, and expressive energies of those gathered, so that a script or a scene are built. This investment of collective energy inaugurates a reinvention of theater.


The development of the Theater of the Oppressed was possible thanks to the persistence of Boal and his colleagues in creating a theater that observed its social and political present, so that it could invent and intervene and not just reproduce classic scripts from international theater. The history of the method begins with the search for a Brazilian dramaturgy at the Arena Theater, in the city of São Paulo during the 1950s. When Boal returned from the United States, the Arena Theater became the place for experimentation (and urgency) to move away from a passive experience of theater. Departing from traditional theater, Boal created a theater that could respond to the urgencies of the moment, both to deal with pressing problems, such as racism, xenophobia, and ethnophobia and with the power of the State. At the time, Brazil (like other Latin American countries) was experiencing the crystallization of conservative movements, which culminated in military coups with severe control of social self-organization, which was gradually abolished and punished. According to the testimony of Flavian Boal — son of Augusto Boal — in the emergence of the dictatorial context, which exiled Boal and thousands of others, the student movement and the armed struggle surfaced inspired by activist and critical forms of stage theater.4

Workshop-Theater of the Oppressed in Paris (1975). Courtesy: Acervo Cedoc/Funarte.

Boal was still young back then and encouraged a constant questioning of theater as an institution. He noted that it was necessary to dismantle epic narratives and find other ways of producing protagonists. Not to create an ideal hero, whose identity was already in the history of theater, bound to the State, but an actual popular protagonist who could emerge in a relational and situational theatrical diagram, one who could literally talk to the audience. Still in the 1950s, the Laboratories of Interpretation and the Seminars of Dramaturgy were created as a method and as a school of theatrical research and development, which became a reference in the invention of a Brazilian theater.

Boal sought a theater without masks and hidden magic tricks, producing a theater that was a laboratory on its own. Hence transforming theater as well.

“Reality was and is in transition; stylistic tools, on the other hand, are perfect and finished. We want to examine a reality in the process of modification, and we only had available for our use styles that were unmodifiable or unmodified. These structures clamoured for their own destruction, in order that, in theatre, the process could be captured. And we wanted to capture it almost daily – newspaper theatre.” (2008, p. 145)

In the context of the Arena Theater, in São Paulo, Boal recognized the "aesthetic limitations of creative freedom" and, working on a constant mapping of these limitations, in search of expressive and ethical freedom, he was not afraid to destroy the theater "from its unmodifiable and unmodified forms" (p. 199). For him, only in this way would it be possible to reflect on a metamorphosing reality. Upon the worsening of the dictatorship in Brazil, it was imperative not to abandon such known and powerful expressive forms, as contagious poetics were required. Theater sought its multiplying, ethical, aesthetic, and political potential. The history of these inventions constitutes today an "arsenal" — to use Boal's expression — as an energy reserve for the present, our present perpetrated in several forms of world’s ending.

This potential for invention and intervention is in the 1964 script of Arena Conta Zumbi [Arena Tells the Story of Zumbi]:

«The amount of dead in the campaign of Palmares — which lasted nearly a century — is trivial before the number of deaths that accumulate, year after year, in the ceaseless campaign of those who fight for freedom. By telling the story of Zumbi, we honor all those who, throughout the ages, dignify the human being, committed to conquering a land of friendship where man helps man.»

Augusto Boal (Arena Conta Zumbi, 1964)

At that moment, a new way of thinking about the construction of the protagonist unfolds, from which the coringa (or “joker”) is born: an actor/actress who narrates what is happening in the play and shares their perception with the audience. The joker reappears later with the games as a mediator or guide of the workshops. In theater plays, the protagonist also becomes a group. In plays such as Arena Conta Tiradentes [Arena Tells the Story of Tiradentes] or Arena Conta Zumbi5, the group uses the joker system, alternating roles and characters among the cast. It is an initial way of collectivizing the narrative. Boal and his colleagues perceived the importance of the singular expressiveness adopted by non-actors and worked towards finding an expressive form for each one (whether a professional actor or not). By abolishing the single narrator, a group narrative is created, in which all actors are narrators and, therefore, become protagonists. This circulation of protagonists evidences a collective political experience and encourages ending the separation between audience and actor-protagonist, which subsequently occurs in the collective practices of TO.

«4 – The actors have a thousand faces / do everything in this story / from the black to the white / properly point by point»

Augusto Boal (Arena Conta Zumbi, 1964).


TO has always invented forms of collectivization, socialization, and education. Hence the importance of laboratories in which to exchange and reflect among TO groups and practitioners. The I International Festival of Theater of the Oppressed was organized in 1981, and in 2009, the I International Conference of Theater of the Oppressed. Boal returns to Brazil definitively in 1986, after living abroad for more than 15 years (in exile), settling in Rio de Janeiro. There, he initiated the pilot plan for the Fábrica de Teatro Popular [Popular Theatre Factory], whose main objective was to make the theatrical language accessible to any citizen, and he created the Centro do Teatro do Oprimido - CTO [Center of Theater of the Oppressed]. Throughout these years, several methods were developed, building the TO Tree, which comprises various practices and constitutes the Aesthetics of the Oppressed: Image Theater, Forum Theater, Rainbow of Desire, Newspaper Theater, Invisible Theater, Legislative Theater.

Unlike thinking of theater as a professional practice, centered on the actor's dramaturgy or on the preconceived script, TO invented a method that can be practiced by everyone. It does not invest directly in the idea of training actors but in the scenic assemblage as a right to aesthetic expressiveness (Santos, 2018), to identify the oppressions that segregate, exclude, invisibilize, enslave — but also, and above all, the forms of revolt, resistance, and persistence of life. The method creates devices for understanding situated forms of oppression, whether individual or collective, while also questioning how the specific form of oppression is generated by a macro-power diagram, which acts on a large scale and reproduces standard and majoritarian social forms. Therefore, it makes sense for the research on oppressions to be conducted by the social actors themselves, "actors of their own lives," and not by others. In this way, it acts directly against the hierarchy that marks traditional positions, even in more progressive spaces — the separation between those who think and those who are thought about, those who do and those who do not have agency over their own lives. However, it does not seek to mimic or copy life but to elaborate on life and culture through theater.

"Arena conta Zumbi." Script and direction by Augusto Boal (circa 1965). Photography: Derly Marques. Courtesy: Acervo Cedoc/Funarte.

In the construction and functioning of TO Games, the joker becomes very important. The joker is the one who coordinates and assigns powers and functions, making sure that everyone has space to speak so that the learning process can take place. A set of guidelines will guarantee the respectful and safe functioning of a workshop, establishing an ethical framework.6 The group should function in such a way that it is possible to have fun, be safe to talk about oneself and be respected, feel emotions and express them.

The aesthetic expressiveness of TO is developed through activities that enable the participants to get to know each other, in games and exercises that work on cognition, concentration, and improvisation. The games are meant to prepare the bodies and awaken the senses and desires, so that compositions can emerge. The games draw on the theatrical practices and methods of Konstantin Stanislavski (Russian scriptwriter, 1863-1938) and Bertold Brecht (German playwright, 1898-1956), but also from the popular theater. They grant a corporal, collective, artistic research — privileging improvisation in the actor's development — and prepare the ground for the development of more complex scenes that aim to sustain several creative procedures in which social, economic, political, cultural, as well as racial, sexual, and generational conflicts emerge. As an aesthetic procedure, it does not seek to represent what happens in life. The method aims to make the narratives of a given situation differ and vary. Thus, there is no search for a certain analyzed, pre-produced reality that must be reproduced as such. The method is also that of deviation, a multiplier for producing uncontrollable effects.


Although the Theater of the Oppressed is based on a critique of class society, the objective image of oppression is not the immediate pursuit within a theater workshop. No, it does not mean to abolish classes simply by saying that they do not exist — how it is made to think that erasing concepts or categories it would resolve social issues such as racism and ethnophobia. It means affirming the ends of capitalism and allowing other forms of sociability to persist. In the TO, there is a constant play between objectivity and improvisation, in the sense of openness to what is new in a collective process. The TO functions as a space to investigate the events of life; as Boal himself said: "theater is a form of knowledge." But the aesthetic space is a space of fiction:

«The dead are alive, the past becomes present, the future is today, everything is possible here and now, fiction is sheer reality and reality is fiction.»

«People or objects can merge or dissolve, divide or multiply.»

«The aesthetic space is handled with the same plasticity as dreams (...), in the theater we can have concrete dreams.» (Boal, 1988)

Augusto Boal, 1988.

Imagination and memory are also part of this composition, not only the factual objectivity of life. In this sense, the school that creates space for improvisation is also a school of subjectivity, of forms of living, of what one feels, of how one expresses what is being lived, and what needs to be transformed so that a life without oppressions can be lived.

The scenic space of the theater, the stage, can be an arena, a court, a square — any place where an "aesthetic space" can be activated. Boal argues that theater was born from the moment humans began to see themselves in action. Consequently, the theater is the "act of realizing oneself in action." It is a process of analytical-creative research, where the intensity of a gesture, the temporality of a gesture, are worked out. It is “research in action”.7 By avoiding direct discursivity (overthinking, overtalking), one can escape the risk of generating a literal reading of an action or a scene, as if “revealing its meaning.” The "stimulus to concrete action" — as described by Bárbara Santos (2018) — turns away from this problem and invites a bodily and inventive immersion, in which we can deflect from a meaningful closure, sustaining contradiction.

"Arena conta Zumbi." Script and direction by Augusto Boal (circa 1965). Photography: Derly Marques. Courtesy: Acervo Cedoc/Funarte.

In a TO workshop, the actors and participants can produce an image from real experiences, from a fact, an event, a conflict. There can be multiple triggers. It is possible, for example, to start from a specific image (image theater) through reading the forms created by the bodies of the participants in the workshop, animated by a word. In the aesthetic mode of the TO, another example, a scene can emerge from an object, a song, a newspaper article. By collecting variabilities, a scene can begin to take shape, characters can be created, or a conflict or problem can be mapped out and then improvised. A workshop is never a linear process, one must make choices, cut ups, provoke interventions - so that scenic space is produced.

«All improvisation is a search, a process of discovery. For this search to be effective, the structure of the scene from which it is established must be as dynamic as possible.»

The paths of aesthetic (and discursive) experimentation must build scenes in which problems can suddenly jump in, explicitly; after all, this is how they occur in everyday life. In the TO, a play must not end in repose, it must show through which paths "society gets thrown off balance" — an energy perceived (and animated) by Brecht. According to Boal, it is necessary to arouse unrest for something to be possible: "The theatrical spectacle must be the beginning of action." This is also because theater, as a school of invention, must interfere against totalitarian regimes, with unitary forms of communication, with signifying regimes (which are also present in art and culture, as we saw before). Boal associates this pragmatics of invention with access to language, which is not equal obviously. That is why it is necessary to "invent language" and to keep at bay the predominant languages, as well as the dominant forms of economy, politics, and society.

The TO, as theater in a laboratory process and a laboratory of events, affirms the power of also being its own school, of producing pedagogical forms; a formative school for ways of making theater. Thus, the theater arises as a school in the making, marked by encounters that call for joy, commitment, and empowerment, valuing the exchange of energies so that art can reaffirm itself as "a strangely political phenomenon."


ACT ESOL Language Resistance Theatre. London: (link: