Augusto Boal’s Marxism and the Origins of Theater of the Oppressed
a talk by Geo Britto
co-sponsored by the Theater of the Oppressed Laboratory (TOPLAB)
“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 (1931-2009), the Brazilian Marxist who founded the methodology and set of techniques called Theater of the Oppressed (TO), was fond of telling the story of Theater of the Oppressed’s creation. In the late 1960s, he was involved in socially-conscious theater which took a definite, and very radical, political position. But the type of theater Boal practiced at that time remained fairly conventional in its form, with little or no breaching of the fourth wall. Actors were actors presenting staged action, and the audience watched, more or less passively, with little real interaction. One day, his company presented a play before a peasant audience in rural Brazil; the actors exhorted the local villagers to Revolution. When the play concluded, one of the village leaders approached Boal and said, “We like what you say! We have weapons…we can start the attack any time!” Boal, quite flustered, replied, “But you don’t understand. We are actors, not soldiers. We present plays about people’s horrible situations.” The village elder looked him in the eye and said, “So you are willing to shed other people’s blood, but not your own.”
Quite abashed and embarrassed, Boal and his company returned to the city, and a long process of introspection and re-evaluation began; Boal realized that the people to whom he was preaching had a profound grasp on the reality of their lives, in ways that he and the privileged actors from his company could never fully understand. From this incident, Boal began to re-assess his role as a theater person and, most importantly, what the function of theater is, and how it should be presented. Out of his discussions and reflections came Theater of the Oppressed.
This talk by Geo Britto, a long-time collaborator with Augusto Boal and practitioner of Theater of the Oppressed, will look at how Boal formulated and created that methodology called Theater of the Oppressed. Britto will look at Boal’s early exposure, as a student in New York, to the ideas of people like Irwin Piscator, Langston Hughes, Lee Strasberg and the Actors Studio, Harold Clurman and others, and how his future path in theater was influenced by them. He will give an account of Boal’s involvement with the Experimental Black Theatre (Teatro Experimental do Negro T.E.N.) upon his return to Brazil, his later activities with the Arena Theater beginning in 1956, his embrace of the new and innovative popular education movement, and his engagement with the political debates, dialogues and currents that were integral to the Brazilian left at that time.
Through an examination of the cultural role of the Brazilian Communist Party, and Boal’s differences with it and other left currents over questions of naturalism, realism, political theater, Epic Theater and other popular theatrical forms, Britto will show what led Boal to eventually formulate a dramatic method which he called Newspaper Theater. Newspaper Theater was the impetus, and the basis, for the creation, some years later, of Theater of the Oppressed. Britto will examine the Marxist theoretical and aesthetic roots on which Boal based Theater of the Oppressed, and the thinkers who were involved in mid-twentieth century discussions around Marxist culture, aesthetics and artistic practice, including Piscator, Bertolt Brecht, György Lukács, and Walter Benjamin, and especially Latin American thinkers like Abdias Nascimento, Antonio Candido, Joaquim Maria Machado de Assis, Anatol Rosenfeld, and Nestor Garcia Canclini, among others.
Geo Britto is a member of the Board of the Center of the Theatre of the Oppressed in Rio de Janeiro ( CTO-Rio), where he has worked since 1990. In his work with the CTO Britto has coordinated a number of projects involving mental health issues, at-risk youth, and prisons and incarceration. He has presented many workshops in the favelas of Rio and has also presented sessions throughout the world, including Argentina, Bolivia, Canada, Colombia, Croatia, Egypt, England, France, Germany, Guatemala, India, Mexico, Mozambique, Palestine, Poland, Portugal, Scotland, South Africa, Spain, Uruguay and the United States. He worked extensively with Augusto Boal until Boal’s death in 2009.