Augusto Boal and how not to be a spectator in life

boalHe’s the man I waited all my life for. The man who changed my life for ever. The man who taught me not to be a spectator. So where do I begin?  I first met Augusto Boal in 2002. He wasn’t there in person. It was a workshop in Forum Theatre run by Edinburgh’s Theatre Workshop who were running it at the Theatre Royal Dumfries (too many theatres in this for you already?)  I had just been appointed dramatist in residence for Dumfries and Galloway Arts Association. Let me just recap and say that I’d come to this place via Stanislavskian actor training, followed be a late conversion due to the charisma of Brecht and by 2002 I was actually not so much at a crossroads but sinking in the mire. Just as I got recognition for being a dramatist! Oh the irony. The theatre I wanted to write and the theatre I wanted to watch were still at odds. The way was not clear. I’d dabbled with Brenton and Grotowski but nothing was really fitting. I knew I wanted to do something real, something different, something important; but I couldn’t begin to work out how to do it, not for all the theorists in drama.  My plays were black box, absurdist, non mainstream yet I yearned for the plush purple seats and proscenium arches and the Barrie of my youth.  I was in a mess. I needed sorting out. I needed someone to take me in hand and show me the way.

Enter Augusto Boal.  The man who, for me at least, redefined theatre in the twentieth century.  The man who finally made it all make sense for me. And who gave me the way to put my theory and practice together and achieve praxis and so much more.

So what of Boal? Who is he? You really have to get to know him for yourself but here’s a brief resume from the forward of his autobiography Hamlet and the Baker’s Son.

‘He is credited as the inventor of the internationally renowned Forum Theatre system and the ‘Theatre of the Oppressed’… Augusto Boal is a visionary as well as a product of his times – the Brazil of military dictatorship and artistic and social repression.

But this political man of the theatre, and very theatrical man of politics – once imprisoned for his subversive activities – is also a passionately creative force in contemporary cultural life.

… He has devised a unique way of using the stage to empower the disempowered…

His personal/political slogan ‘have the courage to be happy.’

Because of Boal the slogan of my theatre company Bamboo Grove became ‘taking drama out of the theatre’ and its mission became empowerment. And we created much more drama in six years than I ever dreamed possible. Because of Boal I was able to work with groups of disempowered people who had never been to a theatre, much less stood on a stage and with these groups perform even in the Scottish Parliament!  Because of Boal I was able to adapt his ‘games’ into a dramatic method that worked in giving hope, confidence and joy to many people who are culturally dispossessed in our country. And because of Boal I learned what drama really is. He took me away from the cosy dream of plush theatre seats, and in the process he made me happier than I’ve ever been in my life and he totally changed the way I wrote plays.  He made me so much more than a playwright. He turned me into a drama practitioner, an advocate. He showed me it was possible to write, even drama, for a purpose beyond the ego.

I met Augusto Boal in person once. In Manchester in 2003 at a workshop. I even almost spoke to him. But he spoke Portugese and I can’t even pass muster in Spanish – for me Portugese is Spanish plus. We exchanged little more than a few gestures and nods and a handshake.   The workshop was interesting, but not how I’d expected.  People seemed to have gone there to be ‘touched by greatness’ or perhaps to ‘show’ something to the master.  In the process they were really missing what there was to learn.

What I gained from the experience was seeing quite how out of touch our culture is with the ‘problems’ Boal usually worked with. There was a kind of underlying perplexity.  People ‘showed’ the problems and through translators, ‘solutions’ were suggested. But there was a mismatch. It showed me how basically trivial a lot of the ‘problems’ of our society are and how we need to look from a different perspective not just try to ‘apply the theory’ in order to resolve issues. It showed me that our culture was at the core so very trivial, our way of understanding our social problems so naïve (at least for those working in theatre).  I appreciate this is a controversial comment but it’s how I felt then, and largely how I feel now about British theatre. And latterly, about social policy.

I sensed that Boal couldn’t see why people were finding it so hard to ‘get’ solutions to the problems. It seemed to me that it was because the participants had come with other agendas than really working through problems. That on a fundamental level their engagement with Boal’s methods wasn’t honest and wasn’t committed. They wanted it as a fashion, an add on, a way to show off. And it’s none of those things. At the time I felt disappointed, not in Boal, but in us. However, on reflection I realised that it was this experience that gave me the key to ‘adapt’ Boal to my particular circumstances working with adults labelled with learning disabilities.

Boal freed me from the constraints of slavishly following ‘theory’ and allowed me to take the spirit of his work onwards, in the process gaining an understanding of what drama had to offer and what theatre could be, and he gave me permission to run with it.  To believe in myself and my own methods. Which is exactly what I did for eight years with ABC Drama Group.

When I shook his hand, as I did, in 2003 I had no idea what a favour he had done me, or how he was about to change my life. But I’d have to say that he’s been the most significant influence on my whole writing and working life.  And in the process I became a much better person. The person I had wanted to be. Boal was the man who showed me how it all fitted together. And many, many lives were enriched by that understanding. We took the spirit of Boal’s work and we applied it in places ‘normal’ people never go. We stopped being spectators. We became Boalian ‘spectactors’. We lived our lives – dramatically. He proved to us, time and again that the impossible is possible. He said   “It is forbidden to walk on the grass. It is not forbidden to fly over the grass.”   He gave us the courage to fly and believe me, we flew.  Sadly Augusto Boal died four years ago. His legacy lives on. Not just in his written work, but in all the practical work he did and in all the lives he touched.

I don’t feel I can give him a proper tribute. Boal can express his views so much better than I can. Here’s a few examples (of many):

“Theatre is a form of knowledge; it should and can also be a means of transforming society. Theatre can help us build our future, rather than just waiting for it.”

“In its most archaic sense, theatre is the capacity possessed by human beings – and not by animals – to observe themselves in action. Humans are capable of seeing themselves in the act of seeing, of thinking their emotions, of being moved by their thoughts. They can see themselves here and imagine themselves there; they can see themselves today and imagine themselves tomorrow. This is why humans are able to identify (themselves and others) and not merely to recognise.”

“The Theatre of the Oppressed is theatre in this most archaic application of the word. In this usage, all human beings are Actors (they act!) and Spectators (they observe!).”

“The Theatre of the Oppressed is located precisely on the frontier between fiction and reality – and this border must be crossed. If the show starts in fiction, its objective is to become integrated into reality, into life. 

“It is time for a theatre which, at its best, will ask the right questions at the right times. Let us be democratic and ask our audiences to tell us their desires, and let us show them alternatives. Let us hope that one day – please, not too far in the future – we’ll be able to convince or force our governments, our leaders, to do the same; to ask their audiences – us – what they should do, so as to make this world a place to live and be happy in – yes, it is possible – rather than just a vast market in which we sell our goods and our souls. Let’s hope. Let’s work for it!”

If you want to know more about Boal and his practice and theory you have to be prepared to open your eyes to a whole new way of seeing and being. There’s plenty of his writing to help you:

Already mentioned is his autobiography Hamlet and the Bakers Boy

And his practical work in translation:

Games for Actors and non-actors, The Rainbow of Desire, Legislative Theatre

If you want to know more about Boal’s influence on me and the people I’ve worked with get hold of

A Week With No Labels (Cally Phillips) available in ebook (Kindle and  epub)or paperback formats.


About callyphillips

2 Responses to Augusto Boal and how not to be a spectator in life

  1. Claire Michie Devine says:

    Thanks for these inspirational words about one of the most amazing theatre practitioners! His work has also influenced much of mine and without him I would have had a very different experience of theatre and would have given others an experience lacking in his brave creativity.

  2. Bill Kirton says:

    You say you ‘can’t give him a proper tribute’, Cally, but this is a pretty good try. Many years ago, I was excited at what Grotowski was doing and one of the few truly memorable theatre events I saw was at the festival in Edinburgh when Kantor directed his Wielopole, Wielopole. But (at least until I read your A week with no labels), I hadn’t really been aware of Boal. Your posting makes me want to see and hear more of him. Thanks.

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