What is Theatre of the Oppressed?

The Theatre of the Oppressed (TO) was developed by Brazilian theatre director Augusto Boal during the 1950’ps and 1960’s.  His explorations were based on the assumption that dialogue is the common, healthy dynamic between all humans, that all human beings desire and are capable of dialogue, and that when a dialogue becomes a monologue, oppression ensues. Theatre then becomes an extraordinary tool for transforming monologue into dialogue. “While some people make theatre,” says Boal, “we all are theatre.”

From his work Boal evolved various forms of theatre workshops and performances which aimed to meet the needs of all people for interaction, dialogue, critical thinking, action, and fun. While the performance modes of Forum Theatre, Image Theatre, Cop-In-The-Head, and the vast array of the Rainbow of Desire are designed to bring the audience into active relationship with the performed event, the workshops are virtually a training ground for action not only in these performance forms, but for action in life.

  • Image Theatre uses the human body as a tool of representing feelings, ideas, and relationships. Through sculpting others or using our own body to demonstrate a body position, participants create anything from one-person to large-group image sculptures that reflect the sculptor’s impression of a situation or oppression.
  • Forum Theatre works from rehearsal improvisation to create a scene of a specific oppression. Using the Greek terms “protagonist” and “antagonist,” Forum Theatre seeks to show a person (the protagonist) who is trying to deal with an oppression and failing because of the resistance of one or more obstacles (the antagonists).

Forum scenes can be virtual one-act plays or more often short scenes. In either case, a full presentation is offered to the audience. The joker (difficultator) then says to the audience we will do this again, and if you would do something different than what the protagonist (not the antagonists) is doing, stand up and yell stop. The protagonist will then sit down and the audience member is invited forward to show their solution of the moment. Once the intervention is performed, the audience invariably applauds, and the joker invites the audience to discuss the proposed solution, and to offer even more solutions.

  • The Rainbow of Desire is Boal’s extraordinary effort to apply TO approaches, especially Image Theatre, as a way of offering a systematic psychotherapeutic technique. Although too extensive both in theory and practice to summarize adequately here, suffice it to say that the Rainbow work seeks to exteriorize interior feelings and relationships, but to use a collaborative process.
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