Theatre of the Oppressed – A methodological force in the struggle for a New Common Sense*

“We need to refresh, renew and update our modes of struggle”
(Fernando Buen Abad Dominguez)


“We are all actors: being a citizen is not living in society, it is transforming society!”
(Augusto Boal)

First created during the era of military dictatorships in South America and later further developed in exile in Europe, the Theatre of the Oppressed (T.O.), as invented by the Brazilian Augusto Boal (1931-2009), aspires to be a popular, liberating and de-elitized theatre for, by and with the oppressed, inspired by the emancipatory theories and practices of the great Brazilian educator Paulo Freire, the visionary Communist dramaturg Bertolt Brecht and the eternally immortal Karl Marx. Composed of six highly participatory, interactive and dialogue-promoting techniques, including the renowned Forum Theatre, and based on a humanist ethics of unconditional solidarity with the “wretched of the Earth” (Frantz Fanon), the Theatre of the Oppressed, today practiced in more than 70 countries on all continents, returns to the people the theatrical means of production and at the same time offers them a tool for transformative action and an authentic way of life.

In Latin America, the Theatre of the Oppressed is present in virtually every country and the various techniques are applied to an almost infinite number of social, political, economic, cultural and environmental problems in urgent need of betterment and transformation. In addition, one can affirm an increasing amount of critical reflection on the method in the form of books, Masters and PhD theses. Unfortunately, however, in spite of its great merits and contributions, T.O. has not yet been fully recognized within the various social movements and/or progressive governments on the continent; on the contrary, it appears that it is considered no more than a niche instrument. Therefore, from the perspective of those of us who work with the method, it is necessary to discuss its possible contributions to the strengthening and deepening of the great political struggles that are
happening at this crucial moment in our America.

The following six theses aim to contribute to the discussion about the transformative possibilities of the Theatre of the Oppressed amongst all of us activists who seek to bring about an even more democratic, independent, just and prosperous Abya Yala**.

Thesis 1: The Theatre of the Oppressed radicalizes democracy. T.O. promotes a permanent and growing participation of society via the enlargement of democratic spaces and mechanisms that foment a direct democracy; a democracy that is nourished by an ecology of knowledges, allowing for much-needed dialogue among those victimized by the injustices of capitalism, colonialism and patriarchy. It is a theatre of the streets, plebeian, constantly searching for the production of possible alternatives to the dominant system and drawing on the inherent wisdom (capacidades amauticas) of every single one of us.

Thesis 2: The Theatre of the Oppressed democratizes power. Through diverse interactive theatre activities, new spheres of autonomy are cultivated, decision-making is democratized and political self-representation is strengthened with the goal of promoting genuine popular power. In T.O., society itself makes decisions and contributes to the creation of a new everyday reality: the people finally assume their role as protagonists of their own lives.

Thesis 3: The Theatre of the Oppressed fosters social participation in the creation of public policy. Through its Legislative Theatre technique, T.O. promotes participation of the people in the generation of their own political and legislative proposals, thereby encouraging a growing self management by those at the lowest levels of society. In fact, the people are transformed into legislators, as legislators are transformed into people, hence deepening the relationship between social movements and the state.

Thesis 4: The Theatre of the Oppressed contributes to a new form of emancipatory
communication based on an organic fusion of thinking and feeling (pensa-siento). T.O. aims to break with aesthetic illiteracy and the coloniality of creation (Ana Lucero López Troncoso). It demonumentalizes traditional means of communication. It proposes listening as an investigation, helps to politicize emotions and finally invites us to reveal ourselves as the philosophers that we already are.

Thesis 5: The Theatre of the Oppressed resurrects the political imagination of the people. T.O. recovers our capacity for imagination – which has been systematically discouraged and ridiculed by triumphant neoliberalism – as a psycho-physical process that amalgamtes ideas, emotions and sensations (Augusto Boal) that are capable of conceiving of a world beyond a capitalist system that presents itself as without alternatives. T.O. decolonizes pessimism and allows us to understand that power does not exist outside ourselves but rather inhabits our minds and bodies, thereby revitalizing our political audacity.

Thesis 6: The Theatre of the Oppressed affirms a culture of life. Thanks to its ludic and creative spirit, T.O. inspires the display of individual and collective capacities and creates spaces of freedom where people learn that it is possible to live differently to the mode that capitalism wants to impose on us. T.O. is one of the most caring ways of being with people. It is the theatre of the first person plural: a collective “I” based on reciprocity, solidarity, complementarity and love.

In summary, in a world that continues to be “scandalously unequal” (Boaventura de Sousa Santos), the Theatre of the Oppressed is a genuine weapon for the deepening of our continental revolutions in times of renewed attacks of the international Right. It invites We the people to rehearse, experiment and prepare ourselves for the concrete struggles of today and tomorrow. Simultaneously, it creates tangible spaces in which it is possible to transform into a better version of oneself, and to enjoy the presence of the Other in all of his/her fully developed and respected emotional and intellectual faculties. The Theatre of the Oppressed inspires a new human being, capable of creating a new world in which all of us fit, where everyone is recognized as worthy of a dignified life; a new world in which Suma Qamaña/Sumak Kawsay*** is no longer a utopia, but has finally become reality for every single one of us.

Submitted by,

Hjalmar Jorge Joffre-Eichhorn
La Paz, Bolivia
November 2015
(Original Spanish, Edited in July 2016)

*Published in La Migraña, Publication of the Vicepresidency of Bolivia, December 2015. Editing by Patrick Anderson. Technical Support: Matthias Hoffmann. Wordlimit: 1000.

**Abya Yala, which in the Kuna language means “land in its full maturity” or “land of vital blood”, is the name used by the Panamanian Kuna people to refer to the American continent since before the Columbus arrival.

***Buen Vivir (“good living”) emerged as a response to the traditional strategies for development and their negative environmental, social, or economic effects. Buen Vivir is an alternative concept of development that focuses on the attainment of the “good life” in a broad sense, only attainable within a community; a community that includes Nature. Part of this concept also emphasizes living in harmony with other people and nature. Buen Vivir has gained new popularity, spreading throughout parts of South America.

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