Theatre in Favor of the Oppressed:
Making Laws that Benefit the People


Liza Ann Acosta

North Park University, Chicago IL

Copyright © 2001 by Liza Ann Acosta, all rights reserved. This text may be used and shared in accordance with the fair-use provisions of U.S. Copyright law, and it may be archived and redistributed in electronic form, provided that the editors are notified and no fee is charged for access. Archiving, redistribution, or republication of this text on other terms, in any medium, requires the notification of the journal and consent of the author.

Review of:

Augusto Boal. Legislative Theatre:Using Performance to Make Politics. New York: Routledge, 1998.

  1. Augusto Boal's book, Teatro do Oprimido (translated into English as Theatre of the Oppressed) described a new way of understanding and making theatre. In it, he rejected the classical notions of theatre in which the audience's cathartic experiences paralyzed them and subjected them to the status quo. Theatre of the Oppressed, with its Joker system, urged oppressed people to become actors instead of spectators, to create solutions by using theatre as a tool. His latest book, Legislative Theatre: Using Performance to Make Politics, outlines another step in the evolution of the Theatre of the Oppressed project Boal began more than three decades ago. As a concept, "Legislative Theatre" takes solutions rehearsed on stage to political and legal chambers by seeking the creation of laws that will benefit marginalized people who have little to no political representation.

  2. Boal's book is a work in process, or a beta version, as he describes this "interactive" text. He asks the reader in the chapter, "How to Read this Book," to navigate it in nonlinear fashion, to find "your own way according to your particular personal needs, preferences, curiosities or desires"(ix). Boal even asks readers, after the first reading of the book, to send their direct comments and suggestions to his mailing address. His offer is demonstrates the truly experimental and evolving nature of the project he calls legislative theatre. Legislative Theatre is divided into three sections: "The Legislative Theatre Book," "The 'No-one Here is an Ass' Book," and 'Categories of Popular Theatre." For readers unfamiliar with his work, the sections' inter-relationships are not clearly stated; however, the unclear connection stems from his desire to let the reader, "involved with aesthetic politics in an artistic and ethical way, or simply curious about it,"(xiii) see it and use it as a workbook.

  3. "The Legislative Theatre Book," the most exciting and cohesive section, explains in simple and direct fashion the legislative theatre project's development and evolution in Rio de Janeiro. In it he describes his project's genesis as an invitation to return to Brazil and implement what he had done successfully in Paris in the CTO's (Centre of the Theatre of the Oppressed) and other cities throughout the world. Most importantly, he also explains his conception of theatre and what it should do. As he sees it, theatre provides us with the capacity to observe ourselves in action; therefore, it opens up possibilities for social change and political action. Theatre should bring about social transformation, and it should be "a theatre as politics rather than political theatre," which is a statement Boal repeatedly makes throughout this text. For those not familiar with Boal's method, this section carefully explains the Forum theatre's methods: a story is represented and the audience, now called spect-actors, reacts to the scene by offering suggestions, solutions, and alternative courses of action. Legislative theatre, then, takes what has been discussed a step further, by creating laws through the legislator. In Rio's Legislative Theatre experiment, Boal was actually nominated and elected legislator. In this position, he represented the Worker's Party and presented to the Chamber laws proposed during theatre festivals and other shows. Also useful in this section is the "Compact course on playwriting and theatre arts," which focuses on the methods of creating a theatre that aims to change the law. Here, Boal describes a successful theatre project that offers political representation to the marginalized (the poor, street children, women, homosexuals, the physically disabled, Afro-Brazilians, and so on), a voice that calls itself a democratic parliament, but most importantly, a viable means of action with legal repercussions.

  4. "The 'No-one Here is an Ass' Book" is a collection of essays most of which were delivered at the Chamber in Rio de Janeiro while he was a vereador (legislator). The most relevant essays are examples of what he, as a legislator, was able to do and say during his tenure. Although some of the essays do not seem to fit in this section's agenda (some conference papers about theatre, for example), most of them contextualized, in particular detail for the reader, the work, the place, and the politics surrounding the Legislative Theatre experiment. In "Memory and the torture chamber," Boal declares how memory and places form an integral part of our being, even if these places were the sites of torture and murder. Instead of selling the building to a fast food business, the building should stand in memorial of those who, like Boal, were tortured. In "One hideous crime hides the hideousness of another," Boal expresses outrage at the massacre committed against street children sleeping on church steps. Next, in "'Human rights' are human," he makes a speech on behalf of the "Law of Protection of Witnesses of Crimes." Boal presented and the Chamber approved this law in the Chamber, and it is an example of one "victory" for the Legislative Theatre experiment. This section's concluding chapter is a playscript used as a forum session.

  5. The third section in Boal's book is dedicated to an explanation of popular theatre's categories, an analysis he originally wrote in 1971. Boal does not provide much explanation for the inclusion of these essays on the different types of popular theatre. What can be inferred is that they represent how Augusto Boal understands theatre in relationship to the degree in which the people are subjected to the ideology of the dominant classes or to the extent the people can and do make theatre "rather than receiving it as consumers" (234). He presents historically interesting and useful techniques in the chapter entitled "Newspaper Theatre." This section concludes Legislative Theatre without any explanations of the relationship to the previous two sections.

  6. All in all, the book is as Boal himself asserts, a work in progress. It aims to be practical, useful, to show the way to others interested in the experiment that he has begun. It fulfills the curiosity of the reader interested in the political implications of art, and opens up contact with others who can help him continue the development of the legislative theatre in other countries and in Brazil. It is an exciting project in which "doing" for the oppressed in any part of the world becomes possible.

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