Theatre of the Oppressed: A Creative Path Towards Deeper Reflection

May 2017

Tobias Roberts

Once community development workers have committed to participatory processes of problem analysis and have made a commitment to involving communities in the entire scheme of project management from defining the problem, to conceptualizing the grant proposal, to project implementation, monitoring and evaluation, it important to have an arsenal of tools to facilitate these participative processes.

We sustain that the “how” is much more important than the “what.” How communities go about determining their needs and developing proposed solutions to those needs is the most essential aspect, and popular education methodologies are often the best pathway towards helping communities fully participate and contribute to this process.

The theatre of the oppressed is one popular education methodology that has been used by communities, organizations and NGO´s around the world. This module will briefly explain the history and theory behind theatre of the oppressed and offer a quick "how-to" guide for facilitators. It will explain why theatre of oppressed is a unique methodology to facilitate autonomous forms of participation and explain how to facilitate these types of processes.

What is Theatre of the Oppressed?

The Theatre of the Oppressed was developed by Augusto Boal, a Brazilian playwright and social activist that sought to find ways to allow theatre to be utilized for a greater social good. Boal recounts that during his youth, him and group of young actors travelled to a rural community that was facing the systemic violence of the Brazilian dictatorship of the time. They put on a play to show how a theoretical community could respond to the violence they faced through joining the armed Revolution. At the end of the play, a community member thanked them for the presentation but urged them to take up arms with them to fight for their freedom and liberation.

Boal realized at that moment that giving solutions to communities without participating personally in those solutions was a fraud. From that point on he sought to develop a theatre-based strategy to help communities find and come up with their own solutions to the problems they identified.

Theatre of the Oppressed presents, through a theatrical presentation, the problems and specific oppressions identified by a community or a group of people. However, unlike most Hollywood movies, the play purposefully doesn´t have a “happy ending” but rather simply depicts the oppression that the group faces and the sometimes-tragic consequences and outcomes of that oppression.

Once the play is finished, however, the theatre of the oppressed seeks to turn the spectators into “spect-actors”; involving the audience in finding and imagining solutions to the problems and oppressions presented in the play. Instead of simply discussing these solutions, however, the community members insert themselves into the play, and imagine ways to transform the tragic outcome.

This “transformation of reality” is repeated several times and then debated until the community has identified several viable solutions to confront a problem of oppression, poverty, violence, or other obstacle to the community´s wellbeing. The tool of theatre is unique in that instead of simply defining proposed solutions theoretically, conceptually, and verbally, people use their bodies to enact creative solutions to the oppressions they face.

A Step by Step Guide to Theatre of the Oppressed

The most important part of the theatre of the oppressed is in the identification of a problem or oppression that a specific community or group of people face. If a group of actors who are outsiders to the community come and theatrically represent an oppression that they suppose the community faces, this results in “imposing” oppressions on a community.

It is necessary, then, to involve communities in a prior process of defining the oppressions they face. This can be done through a community consultation or simply participating in the life of a community as an active listener.

Once the specific oppression is determined, a group of actors then comes up with a play that represents that oppression. These actors can be outsiders (a professional theatre group, for example) or members of the community. Whoever acts out the oppression, it is essential to end the play in a somewhat tragic conclusion that represents the possible or actual effects of that oppression on the community or group. The idea is for the audience to relate to the tragedy of oppression on a personal and intimate level.

Upon completion of the theatrical representation, a facilitator (an NGO representative or a community leaders trained in theatre of the oppressed) then opens a public forum to analyze the oppression depicted in the play. After an initial discussion with the audience of what they observed, the facilitator invites individuals from the audience to come up with different scenarios wherein the oppression could be changed. For example, if the play represented scenes of gender based violence, the facilitator would ask the audience for ideas on how a specific actor or actress in the play could have done something different to change the outcome. The only rule related to these ideas for transformation of reality is that the audience cannot simply change the behavior of the oppressor, but rather has to come up with thoughts on how the oppressed person can challenge the reality they face. For example, instead of an audience member suggesting that an abusive husband could simply become more loving and understanding (not very feasible), they could suggest different ways in which the woman could stand up for her rights.

When members of the audience come up with specific ideas or proposals to transform reality, the facilitator invites them on stage to enact the scenarios they propose. The play is re-started from a certain point wherein the audience member assumes the role of the oppressed character and attempts to change the depicted reality. The other actors need to have the ability improvise and adlib according to the solutions presented by audience members. The actors who represent the oppressors need to find a balance between staunchly defending the oppression and yielding to the challenges presented by the audience member.

After each proposal presented by an audience member, the facilitator opens up a debate with the rest of the audience to see if the community thinks that the solution presented is viable and practical as well as looking at the pros and cons of each proposed solution. This open forum methodology continues until the audience agrees on one (or several) proposed solutions to confront the oppressions they face.

Theatre of the Oppressed as an Innovative Tool for Problem Analysis

Instead of pushing communities to “recognize” problems that us NGO´s want them to find; and instead of offering ready-made solutions to these problems that stem from a paternalistic and sometimes colonialist relationship between “impoverished” communities and “benefactor” NGO, theatre of the oppressed can fundamentally change the problem/solution analysis.

Through allowing communities to identify their own problem and respond, through theatre, with possible solutions, NGO´s can step away from simple, undemanding solutions and become an ally with communities seeking to conscientiously respond to the problems that stem from their specific realities.

Questions for Reflection

Why do you think that theatre of the oppressed could be a beneficial methodology to help communities confront the problems they face?

Do you think it is best to have community members act as actors or outside actors? Why?

What would you do if, after presenting a difficult oppression through theatre, a community couldn´t come up with or imagine any creative ways to respond to that specific oppression?

About the Author

Tobias has worked with a variety of community development organizations throughout Central America during the past 11 years. He currently works as a freelance consultant and writer while also managing his family´s agroecology farm in El Salvador and participating in a community eco-tourism cooperative.

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