Augusto Boal’s Theater of the Oppressed: Performance Actions
(Still from Stand Up)
The Theater of the Oppressed is a form of participatory theater developed by Brazilian theater director Augusto Boal during the 1950s and 1960s. Boal’s approach to theater, influenced by the work of educator and theorist Paulo Freire, denounces performance as spectacle and instead uses performance to transfer knowledge and transform individual interior realities by activating spectators as actors, or “spect-actors.” Boal’s theater is based on the idea that liberated spectators are more likely to engage in positive action and change if the means of production are in their own hands. The Theater of the Oppressed was to be used by workers, farmers, teachers, and students as a way to act out and thus act upon current social problems and political concerns of working class communities. He experimented with various forms of interactive theater, and developed his technique based on a series of theater games that use the body, memory, and story-telling.
(Still from Pile Up)
(Still from Exchange)
Our project took some of the foundational Theater of the Oppressed games and used them as simple exercises to spur conversation around the various themes and questions we were exploring. While our resulting live performance and videos differ from the basic form and structure of Theater of the Oppressed, Boal’s physical exercises encouraged us to speak from our own experiences and allowed us to develop performance acts that spoke about our ideas collectively. Rather than choosing one participant’s particular experience or story to portray, we were interested in creating performances that could address our concerns as a group. We wanted the performances to speak metaphorically about our physical and emotional engagement with notions of success, the value of work, labor, and competition within our Capitalist economy. Thus, the three resulting video performances, Pile Up, Stand Up, and Exchange, employ the body to explore our social relationship to each other around the concepts of power and labor. All three performances raise questions around the ways that labor under Capitalism structure our relationships to each other based on vulnerability and power.
The live performance conducted on the night of the exhibition opening is a self-reflexive look at our own process throughout the project. It is called Art & Labor, titled after “Art and Socialism,” a William Morris essay that we had read. Taking various physical activities that we engaged in throughout the project, such as screen printing, sweeping, hanging umbrellas, and painting, we distilled these actions down to simple, repetitive motions. Performed against the audio backdrop of our own interviews with each other addressing the question of “Why Should We Try?”, we created a kind of poetic montage performance that called attention to the manual labor of art while raising questions around collectivity, equality, and intention.