Excerpt from Theatre of Change:
Theatre of the Oppressed as an aesthetic tool for social and political change
by S. Leigh Thompson
Forum Theatre is probably the most common performative expression of Theatre of the Oppressed, and therefore the most familiar and popular of all of its forms. Forum is a type of theatrical performance game that was borne out of another form of participatory theatre called simultaneous dramaturgy, in which audience members are asked to inform the actors on what to do next. In such a performance, an audience member, frustrated that an actor was unable to perform her suggestion satisfactorily, was invited by Boal to take the stage to play the part herself. With this display, Boal realized that actors could only ever translate another’s ideas and would always pass ideas through their own subjective filter: “On stage the actor is an interpreter who, in the act of translating, plays false” (A. Boal, The Rainbow of Desire 7).
This was the beginning of Forum Theatre. In it, actors present a short play or scene called the anti-model—a scene in which the protagonist does not achieve their goal. A request is then made to the audience to change the outcome so that the protagonist wins. An audience member simply says “STOP!” when they wish to change the action, then joins the actors on stage to assume the role of the protagonist. The play then continues with the audience member attempting to change the outcome by making new choices.
Boal termed the participating audience member spect-actor, for they are not merely spectators or actors but practicing elements of both roles simultaneously. Boal embraced the spect-actor as part of his natural progression of theatrical exploration and his continued challenge of traditional theatre, catharsis and the oppressive dynamic of the stage and theatre space. In traditional theatre, if the spectator participates it is usually only in pre-scripted methods, and still the spectators are not expected to contribute anything unique to the performance. The spect-actor challenges this monologic approach and functions to “democratize the stage space—not to destroy it!—rendering the relationship between actor and spectator transitive, creating dialogue, activating the spectator and allowing him or her to be transformed into the ‘spect-actor’” (A. Boal, Legislatve Theatre 67). In reflective observation and action, the spect-actor is a role of praxis.
Forum provides a vehicle for another role unique to Theatre of the Oppressed: the Coringa or Joker. The Joker is “…a wild-card figure who could mediate between characters and audiences, comment critically on the narrative and, at certain points, intervene directly in the action” (Babbage 14). The Joker is a sort of Master of Ceremonies, facilitator, spectator and actor. As with the spect-actor, the Joker breaks the divide between the traditions of spectator and actor, speaking directly with both actors and spect-actors.
Boal has commented that the role is not of a facilitator, but a difficultator. Shutzman explains, “The objectives of [the Joker] aesthetic of ambiguity were to obscure easy answers, to question what passes as reality, to discourage a kind of heroism that mythifies essential facts, and, finally, to deem submissiveness and tranquility untenable” (147). The Joker assists in prohibiting catharsis because they work to disrupt, preventing complacency. In the often magical environment of Forum, the Joker works to push against magical solutions that cannot be sustained in reality. It is their responsibility to keep interventions within the realm of reality in order to support attainable tactics that can be achieved in real life.
And the Joker serves to support the spect-actors. The spect-actors observe the Joker observing, which confuses the position of who is watching and who is watched. This blurring of roles leaves space for others to step into the functions of the blurred roles, thus encouraging participation of the spect-actors. In this altered space, Forum functions to foster dialogue and to generate ideas and possibilities for future action. The scenes explore issues of oppression, and most commonly the subjects and story lines originate from real experiences of the community members, developed during a series of workshops and rehearsals. The performance serves as rehearsal for real life, where participants can develop tactics to fight the oppression they face. From Forum branches direct actions.
Read more about the different forms of Theatre of the Oppressed:
Babbage, Frances. Augusto Boal. New York: Routledge, 2004.
Boal, Augusto. Legislatve Theatre. New York: Routledge, 1998.
The Rainbow of Desire. New York: Routledge, 2005.
Schutzman, Mady. “Brechtian Shamanism.” Schutzman, Mady and Jan Cohen-Cruz. Playing Boal. New York: Routledge, 1994. 137-155.