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Famed Brazilian Artist Augusto Boal on the “Theater of the Oppressed”

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We are joined in our studio by one of Latin America’s most famed dissident artists, Brazilian Augusto Boal. He reflects back on his life in exile and his use of theater as a tool of resistance. [includes rush transcript]

Brazilian artist and activist Augusto Boal sees theater as a dialogue and an opportunity to act out social change. Drawing on Paulo Friere’s pedagogy of the oppressed, Boal developed Theater of the Oppressed out of his experimental work at the Arena Theater in Sao Paulo during the 1950s and 60s. Boal took the theater to factories and farms throughout Brazil and developed plays around the experiences of people silenced by poverty and oppression.

Boal’s plays were increasingly censored by the government and in 1971, the military dictatorship imprisoned him for four months. When he was released he was forced into exile and spent fifteen years in Argentina, Portugal and France before returning to Rio.

Theater of the Oppressed techniques—from QUOTE “Invisible Theater” on the streets to solution-oriented “Forum Theater”—spread around the world. Boal is in New York this week running a theater workshop at the Brecht Forum and he joins us now in our firehouse studio. Welcome to Democracy Now.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

JUAN GONZALEZ: We are joined in our studio, in our firehouse studio here, by one of the extraordinary people’s artists of Latin America. We go to Brazilian artist and activist, Augusto Boal, who sees theater as a dialogue and an opportunity to act out social change. Drawing on Paulo Freire’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed, Boal developed Theater of the Oppressed out of his experimental work at the Arena Theater in Sao Paulo during the 1950s and 1960s. Boal took the theater to factories and farms throughout Brazil and developed plays around the experiences of people silenced by poverty and oppression. Boal’s plays were increasingly censored by the government and in 1971 the military dictatorship imprisoned him for four months. When he was released he was forced into exile and spent 15 years in Argentina, Portugal and France, before returning Rio. Theater of the Oppressed techniques, from (quote) “Invisible Theater” on the streets to solution-oriented “Forum Theater” spread around the world. Boal is in New York this week, running a theater workshop at the Brecht Forum, and he joins us now in our studio. Welcome to Democracy Now!

AUGUSTO BOAL: Thank you very much.

JUAN GONZALEZ: It’s a pleasure to have you. Talk to us about how you got started in the 1950s in using theater and art to open up and explain and help folks in Brazil be able to deal with their social conditions.

AUGUSTO BOAL: Yeah. In the 1950s I did not do Theater of the Oppressed. I did theater like everybody else in that you call the spectator to come, you charge a price for the ticket and then you do plays, the best that you can. But soon I understood that I was doing good plays, wonderful plays for people that were good writers for an audience that came just to look at it and say, “Okay, it’s nice.” And then they went away and nothing else happens. And always for me theater should be more than that. Shakespeare used to say — not used to say, but he said in Hamlet that the theater should be and is like a mirror in which we look at the mirror and then we see our vices and our virtues. I think that’s very nice, but I would like to have a mirror with some magic properties in which we could — if we don’t like the image that we have in front of us to allow us to penetrate into that mirror and then transform our image and then come back with our image transformed. The act of transforming, I always say, transforms she or he who acts. So to use the theater as a rehearsal for transformation of reality. This was my idea, but not my practice until the dictatorship was every time more severe on us and they started forbidding our plays, not allowing us to do our plays to do nothing. So when we lost our theater, we lost everything. We found theater.

JUAN GONZALEZ: This would have been the military dictatorship of the late 1960s?

AUGUSTO BOAL: Yes. It started from 1964 and then it lasted until 1980 and something, and some structures are still there. We talk about now we have democracy. What kind of democracy? Democracy is a word that you can fill in with whatever you want. I believe that words, they are like trucks. They are like means of transportation. You can put inside what you want. And democracy we call democracy. Many countries in which you have to choose between two people that are very rich and buy time on the television. Why you call democracy in Greece in which the women did not vote. We call democracy anything. We say that now in Brazil we have democracy, but that’s not true. Half of the population cannot read or write. Half of the population live under the poverty limit of life. So that’s not democracy.

JUAN GONZALEZ: Paulo Freire. Many people have said you began to implement in theater some of his ideas and perspectives. Could you talk about how you began to develop the Forum Theater and your Theater of the Oppressed?

AUGUSTO BOAL: Yes. Paulo Freire was a very good friend of mine, and he started more or less in the 1960s. Once we were talking to try to remember when we have met for the first time. We do not remember well. We had the impression that we have met for all our lives. And his work inspired me, of course, and did develop parallel one to another. But of course he wrote the Pedagogy of the Oppressed first, and by title Theater of the Oppressed is a homage to him. No? Well, how it started when I was in the 1970s I was already persecuted by the police, by the army, by all of them, and then I could not do theater anymore.

So I said, I cannot give the population the artistic product [inaudible], so what I am going to do is to try to give them the means of production. Then me and a group of my colleagues of the Arena Theater, we started developing what we called the Newspaper Theater, in which we would translate news from the newspaper into scenes of theatrical scenes. But we would teach them how to do it. But we would not do for them. So we wanted to democratize the means of production. Then we developed lots of groups that did the Newspaper Theater about their own problems. We worked in factories. We work in churches. Because in Brazil there is a church, which is very reactionary. But there’s also a church which is very progressive, the theology of liberation and all that. Well, then we start doing that.

I was arrested in 1971. And then I had to leave the country, and then I went to Argentina. In Argentina I had to do something else, and I like to do theater in the street. But my friend said don’t do theater in the street because if you got arrested again here in Argentina they’re going to send you back to Brazil. And in Brazil they do not arrest the same person twice. The second time they kill directly. So Simona had a good idea, he said, why don’t we do the play, but we don’t tell anybody that it’s a play. So you can be there and no one’s responsible for anything because you explode the scene in front of everyone. Everyone can participate. So we did that. We did what they call Invisible Theater.

We went to a restaurant. It was a law that said that no Argentine could die from hunger. And Argentine had the right to go into any restaurant, eat whatever they wanted, but not drink wine, not take dessert. The rest he could ask for two, three beefsteaks, and it will be okay. And then sign the bill and show the identity card in which they prove they were Argentine. So I said, “Okay, let’s go to a real restaurant instead of spending money to make the settings and spending money to make propaganda. Let’s go to a real restaurant and play the play there. And then me, Augusto, I was sitting far away at another table eating my beef. So when we exploded the scene, everyone participated. And then it was very nice because the actor became the spectator of the spectator who had become an actor, so the fiction and reality were overlapping, no? That was in Argentina. In Peru —

JUAN GONZALEZ: What was the reaction?

AUGUSTO BOAL: The reaction is always very good because we never create violence. We want to reveal the violence that exists in society. We don’t want to duplicate it, don’t want to bring our violence, but just to show society’s violent. If there is people who is dying from hunger and food is plenty, why should they die? So we try to show the absurdity of the system in which we live, you know?

JUAN GONZALEZ: And was the Invisible Theater actors, or the core — did you train more people to do it or was it basically a small core that went all around the country?

AUGUSTO BOAL: This beginning of the Theater of the Oppressed were both. There were people, citizens, normal citizens who wanted to make a theatrical experience, and some professional actors also. Today I work with both, but separately. I have worked with the Royal Shakespeare Company, working in place by Shakespeare to try to show them some of the techniques of the Theater of the Oppressed, interiorized techniques, no? But that’s something, and something else is to work with everybody because we believe that everybody can do theater. Everybody can do what one person can do. Everyone can do. But not the same way, not with the same skills, but everyone can do it with the same sincerity and same means of expression.

JUAN GONZALEZ: We’re talking with Augusto Boal, the founder of Brazil’s Theater of the Oppressed.


JUAN GONZALEZ: We’re joined by Augusto Boal who is the founder of the Theatre of the Oppressed movement in Brazil and globally. Boal is the author of several books, including his 2001 autobiography Hamlet and the Baker’s Son: My Life in Theatre and Politics. Welcome back so we can continue the conversation. Could you talk to us about the Forum Theater? What is the Forum Theater, and how did that develop?

AUGUSTO BOAL: The Forum Theater is exact the image of the mirror. We present the problem because sometimes we know what the problem is. All of us agree we have this problem. So, for instance, the workers that go to claim for better conditions of work or better salaries, or whatever. Everyone agrees. But how to do it, we don’t know. So what we do? We present the play, whatever the theme is, whatever the problem is. We present the play, and then we look at like normal spectators. But at the end we say, okay, this ended in failure. So how could we change the events? Everything is going to change in society and our biological life. Everything’s always changing. Nothing’s going to stay the way it is. All is going to — so how can we change this for better? And then we start again the same play and we invite the audience to anytime they want to say stop, go to replace the protagonist and show alternatives. So we learn from one another. You have in the scene the wrong solution, the wrong way. And then we try to see what is the right way. We don’t know. We don’t do the political theatre of the 50s in which we had the propaganda. You had an idea, you have a message. We don’t have the message, we have the questions. We bring — what can you do? And democratically, everyone can say stop and jump on the scene and try a solution or an alternative and then we discuss that alternative and then a second or third, as many as people are there. So what we want is to develop the capacity of people to create, to use their intelligence, to use their sensibility, because we live in a society which is very imperative, who says all of the time: Do this, Go that way, dress this way, eat that. And we don’t want the orders, we don’t want the imperative mood. We want the subjunctive theater, in which we say, how would it be if it were like that? Then we ask, we bring questions. We don’t bring certitudes, but the questions. The doubts are the seeds of certitudes. Then some certitude comes out. But it is from everyone. Everyone has the right to speak their word and to act their thoughts, not only to talk about, but to act their thoughts.

JUAN GONZALEZ: What has been the impact of Theater of the Oppressed on the established theater or artistic movements within Brazil and in Latin America?

AUGUSTO BOAL: Yeah, I started doing that in Peru, in reality when I was already in exile. I was doing directing the part of theater because the government at that time was a military government but strangely enough it was center left. And they wanted to make programs of literacy programs and I was in charge of the theater. So I started doing there. Now it’s all over the world. We have in the web page, which is TheatreoftheOppressed.org. Not “theater,” but like the English write, “theatre,” not “theater.” No? Of the Oppressed. We have 48 countries but more than 70 countries in which they do Theatre of the Oppressed, but all of them in their own themes — we don’t tell them that you have to do about this or that. In India, they have an enormous movement. And what they do is about hunger. It’s about unemployment. It’s about the living conditions of their lives. But at the same time you have also in Paris. So in Paris they have street problems. In New York here, we have the Brecht Forum has a Theatre of the Oppressed Laboratorium. And what do they discuss? The problems of New York, the problems of the United States, the problems of the relation of the United States government, of the United States with the rest of the World, no? We have in Nebraska a permanent center. Also you have in Los Angeles. That’s where I met Amy Goodman. She came to my lecture, and I went to her lecture. So we met there. So it’s all over. It’s very nice because it’s a way of using theater in a dynamic way, not in a receptive way only, but in a dynamic way. To give you an example, which is a very beautiful example. We have many groups in Rio. We have groups of slums, of poor places, poor communities.


AUGUSTO BOAL: Favelas, yes.

AUGUSTO BOAL: We have groups of teachers. We have lots of groups. And one of them is a group of housemaids. They are all called Maria. Maria this, Maria that, Maria something. They are called Marias of Brazil. And they are housemaids, real housemaids. They work like a housemaid and the only day free they have is Sunday, so they come to the theater and they practice the theater, they present their plays. And once they wanted to do theater inside the theater. They said, what you tell us is that we do theater. But we play in churches, we play in the streets, but not a theater. We want to go in the theater. And I said, “Yes, but if we go there we are not going to have the rituals of the theater in which you pay tickets. We will have to offer the tickets.” And they said, “No, but we want to see the curtain going up. We want to be in a real building.” And then we did that. They were very happy. It was a great success.

And at the end they came to tell me that one of them was weeping after the show. And I said, “But why? It was such a big success, they applauded so much.” I asked her, “Why did you weep?” And she said, “Look, it’s very moving for us because we who work in house for the other people, we are supposed to be invisible. We should not appear. We should do everything, but not be present. And then today I was rehearsing and there was a man throwing lights on me and said, 'Come here so that we can see your body.' We are taught to be mute and there was a man putting a microphone here so that I could be heard.” And I said, “That’s why you wept?” And she said, “No, no, it was in the show. I was playing there, I was showing my emotions, showing my thoughts and all that. And the family I work for in ten years, they were all there in the theater sitting silent, looking at me and in the dark. And I was there.” I said, “That’s why you wept?” And she said, “No.” “So why did you weep?” She said, “Because when I went back to the dressing room I looked at the mirror, and there I was afraid.” I said, “What did you see in the mirror?” And she said, “I saw a woman.” I said, “But that’s normal. If you look at the mirror you see woman. When I look in the mirror to shave, I see a man.” And she said, “No, but that was the first time I saw a woman in the mirror.” And I said, “But what did you see before?” And she said, “Before, I saw a housemaids, and now I saw a woman.”

So the theater, by the fact that you go there and you show your ideas, you show your emotions, you show what your desires are, give you the right to have your own identity and not to keep that identity they put on you. We all wear masks in society. In the theater you take off the mask and you are yourself. That’s the great advantage of the theater, especially the Theater of the Oppressed, in which you can do that.

JUAN GONZALEZ: In your autobiography you call it Hamlet and the Baker’s Son: My Life in Theatre and Politics. The title?

AUGUSTO BOAL: Yeah, the title is because my father was a baker. I worked with him very much when I was a child. And because I am Hamlet. To be or not to be. I am a man of the theater and I work with people who are not in the theater. I work with the peasants without land. In Brazil it’s a very big movement. Well, they don’t, they are not artists. And I say, “Yes, you are.” Then I convince them that they are artists, and they are artists, and then they show their art. So I am always doing theater professionally because I want to show — I think that everyone can do theater. Even actors. And theater can be done everywhere, even inside theater. So I want to be a director, because I am not an actor, and I want to use the theater in a conventional way also, but I am the other side what interests me more as citizen. Because I think that sometimes people say, oh, you are politically minded or not. It’s not you as an artist. It’s you as a citizen. If I were not the man of the theater, if I were a dentist, a veterinarian, if I were a doctor, if I were a worker, I had as a citizen to take a part, to say, well, I believe in this, let’s change things in that way. So to be politically minded is a necessity of the citizen, not of the artist solely.

JUAN GONZALEZ: Your life in politics, as well, you were a member of the Brazilian Worker’s Party. That party is now in power in Brazil in the person of President Lula. Your sense of how Brazil, the most important country in Latin America in size and wealth and population, how, what have been the changes over the last few years under the Worker’s Party?

AUGUSTO BOAL: Yeah, I don’t agree that we are in power. We are in the government. And the government has not the power that it wanted. I believe that there are many things that Lula and the government is doing, which are extremely important. For instance, the treatment of the Hunger Zero, the program called Hunger Zero, in which they distribute, yes, it’s existentialism in some way, but they distribute money for people who are starving. And that’s important. It’s important even economically because the money that you give to a person who is starving is going to buy for — he’s going to buy food. It’s not the same that if you distribute dividends, because it’s going to be speculative money. So it’s very important that program. And it’s very important for the families that have not salary, not at all, that live with less than $1 a day. Suddenly they can eat beans and rice, which is the national food. That’s good.

I think that the external politics of Brazil is also extremely important what they are doing. Lula, a few weeks ago, organized a meeting between the Arab countries and the South American countries. We are having ties with Argentina, with Venezuela, with Uruguay, which are more progressive governments, too. So we are having contact with India. I think it’s very important not to have only bilateral relations with the United States but to have with other countries to expand our relations. This is extremely important.

What I don’t find so important, what I find is not sufficient is, for instance, the external debt. We have paid the debt several times already as interest. And the debt has to be verified if it really exists. When Getulio Vargas, decades ago, made an examination of the money that we were paying to the external banks, it was found out that we did not owe really not even half of what we were paying. And now the situation is the same. We don’t owe what we are paying. We did not borrow that money. It was a dictatorship that borrowed. And not all, there are not evidence; there are not documents to prove that we owe so much money. So there, Lula has not touched this. He goes on paying.

And we know that the economy, there are absurdities that are taken for granted. For instance, what they call the risk country. It is the banks that lend the money. The banks decide if the country has a risk or not in a unilateral way. They decide that you are running the risk of not being capable of paying your debts. So they raise the interest. Instead of lowering, they raise. And then you pay. If you paid it was because you could pay. But they decide that you were a risk. Then you pay and even so, they don’t give you back the money. So they decide you borrow some money, you don’t know how much you are going to pay. [inaudible] And what I believe is that the debt cannot be paid because they are extremely big and they cannot be paid. They become a link of slavery. So we became a slave country. We are paying the banks. We are giving money to the bank. If we don’t cut this bond of slavery we are going on all of the time protesting because the salaries are low, because education not enough, health is worse. And that is the part of the government that is not working.

JUAN GONZALEZ: Let me ask you. We discussed earlier in the show and you heard the discussion on Bolivia, the enormous changes that are occurring throughout Latin America politically, compared to even ten years ago or five years ago, which Brazil is a part. These elections that are bringing to power much more progressive or at least rebellious governments, vis-a-vis the United States. What do you think is happening to the everyday Latin American in terms of the enormous changes over the last few years?

AUGUSTO BOAL: I heard in the interview that you made a while ago a phrase that is very dear to my heart. He said, everything is possible. All is possible. That’s what we don’t believe. We don’t believe. We believe that the things the way they are is the only thing that realistically we can — the only way realistically we can think it can be, but it’s not true. The truth is what we heard in this program: Everything is possible. And then if we have in our minds that everything can be transformed, another world is possible, like the forum, Social Forum, Porto Alegre said. We start preparing the change. If we believe, oh, that’s the way it is fatalistically, then nothing is going to happen. I believe in transformation. I believe that — we say in the Theater of the Oppressed that in the present we have to analyze the past. But we invent the future. It’s not to analyze the past to contemplate the past and to say, Oh, in the past it was like that. It is to think about the future. And not believe that, well, that’s the law or that’s the legality or that’s moral because slavery was moral a century ago or more. Slavery was moral. It was legal. You could have the property of a person, of a human being. Then you have to transform it. One thing is moral. The other thing is ethics. They are not the same. Moral is the way things are. It’s legality. But the legitimacy is an ethical drive. You have to think about another world in which there will be more fraternity, there will be more solidarity, and not so much competition, not so much “I want to be the first.” We have to be all the first, not only to run a race and be the first, and then look back and, oh, the other ones are far away. Good for me. No.

JUAN GONZALEZ: Well, I want to thank you for being with us. Augusto Boal, the founder of the Theater of the Oppressed, which is now an international movement. He’s here visiting in New York for a while. He’s the author of several books, including his 2001 autobiography Hamlet and the Baker’s Son.

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