"I believe that all the truly revolutionary theatrical groups should transfer to the people the means of production in the theater so that the people themselves may utilize them. The theater is a weapon, and it is the people who should wield it."
--Augusto Boal, The Theater of the Oppressed

Brazilian born theatre practitioner (1931- ) who pioneered the concepts of Theatre of the Oppressed, Forum Theatre, Invisible Theatre, and the Rainbow of Desire.

A brief history

Boal was born in Rio de Janeiro in 1931 and left to study chemical engineering at Columbia University in the late 1940's. He graduated with a doctorate and returned to Brazil at the request of the Arena Theatre company in São Paulo. The 1950's were a time of change in theatre, with Beckett's Godot, among other plays, heralding a new, brutal form of existentialist theatre, and Boal's work proved to be no different.

Following his experimental theatre work in the 1960's (discussed later), Boal published The Theatre of the Oppressed in 1971. In this book he detailed his theatre techniques, all of which focused on empowering those who had previously been left without a voice. During this time, Brazil was under a brutal military dictatorship and Boal was swiftly imprisoned, tortured, and exhiled to Argentina - this period marked an exodus of artists from Brazil who represented any sort of opposition to the government.

Boal moved to Paris where he founded several Centers for the Theatre of the Oppressed, holding workshops and performing plays. In 1981, he hosted the first International Festival of the Theatre of the Oppressed, also in Paris. In 1986, Brazil became a democracy and Boal returned to Rio, where he still resides today, touring North America and Europe frequently.

Boal's Theatre of the Oppressed

Boal's goal in developing Theatre of the Oppressed (TO) was to somehow counteract the immense social gap, the injustice that he noted in his surroundings. Boal defines oppression as "a relation of domination and command that prohibits the oppressed from being who they are and from exercising their basic human rights." Merely engaging in agit-prop tactics was not enough; Boal's theatre involves a post-Brechtian blurring and breaking of lines between actor and audience.

Brecht's notion of breaking the fourth wall was an important step in avoiding overtly sentimental or didactic theatre, but still presented an unnatural separation between what occurs on-stage and what went on in the audience's mind. Boal took small steps in breaking this by holding post-play conversations with the audience, to discuss what they had witnessed and how they perceived it. This was still, however, insufficient. A step further was taken with the creation of the concept of spect-actor. A description of a typical Forum Theatre (a theatre style devised by Boal) play will help illustrate this concept:

A quick description of Forum Theatre to illustrate the concept of spect-actor

Note that this example is drawn from recollections of work done in the style of Boal, it might not adhere strictly to his outline
A theatre group acts out a short scene or couple of scenes which illustrate a social injustice - a woman working below minimum wage, for example, or workers under the thumb of an oppressive landlord from whom they cannot escape. The play draws to its conclusion as the situation is at the moment - this is what happens if nothing is changed. The play is then re-enacted, but this time any audience member can interrupt the play at any moment and take the place of one of the actors, and the play continues, with the new 'actor' now attempting to change the situation from his character's stance. The other members of the case (i.e. those who have not been replaced) will continue to act in character and aid/thwart the new actor as their character dictates. If no one steps in at all, the play will draw to the exact same conclusion as the first time and nothing will have been changed.

Hopefully this will provide an idea of how the notion of spect-actor applies to theatre. There are variations on this concept and derivatives which I have not detailed here. Boal also developed concepts such as Invisible Theatre - acting out pre-scripted plays in public places where nobody knows a play is taking place - but these are best detailed in another node, as well as a better, more in-depth description of Forum Theatre.


  • My own experiences and theatre classes
  • "Augusto Boal." http://www.unomaha.edu/~pto/augusto.htm
  • "What is the Theatre of the Oppressed?" http://www.toplab.org/whatis.htm
  • Excerpts from Augusto Boal's "The Theatre of the Oppressed."

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