A Practical Proposal for Critical Education: Theatre of the Oppressed

Küçük Özbek D.

ICCE 2015 5th International Conference on Critical Education, Wroclaw, Poland, 15 - 18 June 2015, pp.65-69

  • Publication Type: Conference Paper / Summary Text
  • City: Wroclaw
  • Country: Poland
  • Page Numbers: pp.65-69
  • Istanbul University Affiliated: No


In this presentation, I will speak about the relation between Augusto Boal’s Theatre of the Oppressed as an art education method and Paulo Freire’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed as an approach to critical education. And at the end, I will speak about my practical proposal for critical art education which takes on a shape from Boal’s Theatre of the Oppressed.

To Augusto Boal who is the father of Theatre of the Oppressed, theatre is a very efficient weapon which he also perceives as a political weapon, since theatre is a political activity, as are all man’s activities. In as much as theatre is a social and collective means that satisfies the human need for communication, it ultimately transcends the realm of political activity.

Boal wrote Theater of the Oppressed in 1974. He says: “This book attempts to show that all theatre is necessarily political, because all of the activities of man are political and theatre is one of them. Those who try to separate theatre from politics try to lead us into error and this is a political attitude.”[1] To paraphrase Boal, it is when theatre is used by the people as a political weapon that theatre realizes its revolutionary potential.

The artistic elite of a society tries to separate the artistic manifestation from the political manifestation of theatre, and that, in Boal’s perception, this is both an error and a political attitude. Boal reasons that this separation has occured because the society’s elites have attempted to deny that theatre is a communication medium that can be readily utilized by the people as a legitimate form of knowledge. In order to maintain their dominance over the society’s masses, these elites have taken possession of theatre. 

In the beginning, theatre was a collective emotional experience where everyone was able to participate. Later, the elites began to use theatre for their own political ends. They defined what was aesthetically pleasing and what was good theatre according to their own tastes and interests, while ignoring the tastes and interests of the masses. Theatre was removed from the hands of the people, walls between spectators and performers were erected, dividing the participants into “people who act and people who watch” (passive people versus active people). The definition of theatrical concepts (what is drama, mimesis, spectacle, theatre..) began to be defined for the elites’ perspective. Somewhat later, theatre was defined by the aristocracy, after the church’s decline. Eventually, the aristocracy was replaced by wealthy merchants and they seized control of theatre. While the elites changed and the concepts within theatre were modified, the use of theatre by these elites did not change. It was consistently used as a means of “coercive indoctrination”. Today, the theatre of Augusto Boal continues this return to the origins of theatre. Thus, when Boal speaks of the right of people to originate their own theatre, he attempts to return theatre to a collective manifestation of community life. 

Boal demonstrated that theatre could be used as a vehicle for social change and that theatre possessed an inherent strength that could be used by the people for their own purposes. Many experiments of this nature occurred throughout the oppressed countries with groups of peasants, workers, small farmers, and landless laborers. Who studied those theatre experiments in Latin America, Asia and Africa, are rediscovering the potential of people’s theatre as a weapon in their struggle for land, better working conditions, and political rights. 

Boal’s Theatre of the Oppressed aims to eliminate all barriers that have placed people outside theatrical performances. “He recognizes theatre as an instrument of social communication and uses it for reverse the indoctrination of the masses. The primary objective of the Theatre of the Oppressed is to cast the people, themselves, as the protagonists; to cast  the spectators as the active subject of the dramatic action; to return theatre to its origins in a collective, communal experience.”[2]

Forum Theatre is a kind of level and a practical form in Boal’s theatre in which it is always possible when a spectator does more than simply propose a solution to a problem. The spectator also sparks discussion that stimulates the audience to explore possible solutions and expand the range of possibilities open to the protagonist. Through discussions and debates, the emergence of various ideas, and finally enactment on the stage, the audience is led to more effectively see how reality can be manipulated, how actions can be taken in real life that are the products of an imaginative exploration of the dynamics of action and reaction in actual social situations.

Here the spectators modified the dramatic action by direct participation in it. First, the participants narrated a story with a specific difficult problem; second, they improvised and/or rehearsed scenes which illustrated the problem; third, they performed a ten to fifteen minute scene with a proposed solution; fourth, they discussed the proposed solution. Fifth, they evaluated the various solutions. Each scene was presented again, with each person having the right to change the action, perhaps even to present his own solution.

For an example of Forum Theatre, the first indication of it appeared in 1962, when Boal presented a new play called A Greve (The Strike) by Jurandir, a worker. Jurandir had written it in Metalworkers Trade Union Playwriting Seminar, which Boal conducted in that year. A Greve was about a strike the union had conducted about twenty years before. A Greve contained Jurandir’s opinion about that strike, presenting his view of what had happened, and portraying scabs that had mounted counter-picketing, which had contributed to the ultimate failure of the strike.

Boal almost from the very beginning of his thinking about theatre challenged accepted notions which Aristotle put forth in his Poetics. The Poetics is one of the foundations of Western theatre practice, but Boal believed that it was written at a time (the fourth century B.C.) when theatre was taken away from the people. Boal’s consideration to Aristotle’s Poetics was an alternative which he calls “dynamisation”. 

“Dynamisation” attempts to overcome audience pacification and acceptance of society as it is and motivate change in society through action, first in a safe fictitious/real environment and secondly by giving them concomitantly the courage to practice change in real life, thereby achieving happiness. The breakdown of dictationed barriers has a kind of purgative effect in itself, giving people their right to originate their own theatre and utilize it as a social communicative mean. 

According to Gökdağ, “overcoming those obstacles means realizing their revolutionary desires and actions and liberating themselves and this removal of obstacles is the kind of catharsis that has place in Boalean poetics. It is a cleansing course of action, a cleansing that is intended to continue as long as the spectator lives.”[3] It can be said that, Boal was proposing a rehersal of revolution.

At that time Boal had not yet developed the theories of his Theatre of the Oppressed; however, Paulo Freire was engaged in implementing a set of theories he labeled “Pedagogy of the Oppressed”. Freire provided the impetus for Boal’s development, as Boal remembered his fascination with Freire’s idea that “a teacher is someone who learns,” a principle of Freire’s which seemed most to have inspired him. Also that inspiration shaped and brought structure to some of the Theatre of the Oppressed methods. Freire’s goal of providing a means to surmount limited views of reality would enable participants to attain a consciousness how the current cultural and political situation imposed oppressive limits on them. It was a kind of transformation through what Freire described as “conscientization.”

Praxis is a Greek word meaning practice or action. In Freire’s usage it means transforming the world through reflection and action, which does not take place spontaneously. Praxis is a key element in dialogue, which in turn is a crucial concept in Boal’s work. Freire was interested in neither of those traditional definitions. Instead, as Peter McLaren states in his foreword, Freire wanted dialogue to mean “an encounter which takes place in praxis-in action and reflection-in political engagement, in the pledge for social transformation. The dialogue that does not lead to transformative action is pure verbalism. Dialogue has a clear political connotation.”[4]

Thus engaged in a Freirean understanding of the world dialogue, the oppressed are practicing the beginnings of social change. Thus the dialogue Freire asserts in his pedagogy has a concrete political character. Freire criticizes the lack of dialogue in Western education and refers to it as a monologue or, as he says, a “banking” model of education.

In the “banking” model, Freire stresses that a monologue takes place between the teacher and the student. He also calls it narrative education. The teacher narrates a subject, which is the assumed knowledge the teacher possesses. This knowledge according to Freire is “detached from reality”, and the students are the “depositories” receiving this narration. A series of deposits becomes education. The teacher through monologue narrates knowledge and the students passively receive it. Since this educational approach castrates creavity, imagination, and critical thinking it is dehumanizing. “Banking” model of education transforms students into controllable, adaptable devices.

Freire comes up with “problem solving” education theory as an alternative to “banking” education to enable students to begin “being themselves.” In “problem solving” education the teacher becomes both teacher and student and the student becomes both teacher and student through dialogue. It is just a focal point in which both teacher and the students reflect, raise questions, analyze problems, relating it to the World, and learn together. The students or the oppressed engaged in this kind of education become individuals who could transform the world.

As if confirming Freire’s principles with his Theatre of the Oppressed methods, Boal assigns the actual application of his techniques to those same oppressed people. By changing spectators into participants and transformers of the dramatic action that create action they believe should be taking place in real life. In this process the participants work with each other and learn together during the enactment of possible solutions. 

As Freire stated, “when the oppressed is engaged in the struggle, they begin to believe in themselves.”[5] In the safe rehersal environment of the Theatre of the Oppressed, the oppressed not only sees him/herself in transition while on stage as being part of the dramatic structure, but also sees how he/she himself is transforming the dramatic structure. That experience enables the participants to discover that transformation is possible in society, in real life when they believe in themselves. This practice provides participants with a desire to practice in the same transformation in everyday life. The practice of these theatrical forms creates a sort of uneasy sense of incompleteness that seeks fulfillment through real action.

For Boal, like Freire, happiness and freedom are never static but moving, always in a never-ending, steady state of change. Both men believe that the monologue that is created in Western society is dehumanizing and suppresses freedom. As Freire destroys the wall between teacher and student, Boal destroys the wall between actor and audience. 

As Boal’s work continues to expand through many diverse cultures, there will in all likelihood be little departure from the conviction he shared with Freire that an artist is a teacher, one “who, besides being capable of producing art, teaches people how to produce it. What must be popularized is not the finished product, but the means of artistic production.”[6]

In light of all this talk, it can be said that, an art education approach which might apply the method of Boal’s theatre integrated with Freire’s education understanding can create changer-conventer individuals located against neo-liberal politics. This method can remove the seperation of actors (active) – audience (passive) and narrators (active) – listeners (passive) by Freire’s ‘conscientization’ and Boal’s ‘dynamisation’ of all the individuals in education process.

In the schools of performing arts, Boal’s Theatre of the Oppressed might be an effective practice to provide to come up individuals intended to change the World. In fact, not only in high education, also in secondary and early childhood education, Boal’s theatre aims at participant dialogue can be applied. In this way, it can be possible to change the neo-liberal education model which is an indoctrination tool of oppressors.



Key Words: Theatre of the Oppressed, Forum Theatre, Pedagogy of the Oppressed, Critical Education, Art Education








[1] Boal, Augusto. Theatre of the Oppressed. New York: Theatre Communications Group. 1985.

[2] Quiles, Edgar. The Theatre of Augusto Boal. A Dissertation Submitted to Michigan State University for the Degree of Doctor of Philosophy. Michigan. 1981.

[3] Gökdağ, Ebru. Theater of the Oppressed and its Application in Turkey. A Dissertation Presented to University of Nebraska for the Degree of Doctor of Philosophy. Lincoln, Nebraska. 2002.

[4] Gadotti, Moacir. Pedagogy of Praxis: A Dialectical Philosophy of Education. New York: State University of New York Press. 1996.

[5] Freire, Paulo. Pedagogy of the Oppressed. New York: Continuum. 1996.

[6] Luzuriaga, Gerardo. “Augusto Boal and His Poetics of the Oppressed.” Discurso. 8.1: 53-66.