Remembering Boal!

Augusto BoalWhat I remember the most about Boal is his enormous energy, his joy and trust in the work he was doing, his choice of words: “It was a wonderful experience” “People were so happy”, “It was beautiful”,  “It’s very good”, “It’s going well”, “It’s intriguing”, “We learn so much with this”, and so on.  When conducting his workshops he always used words that created a hopeful, positive, joyful atmosphere.

I met him in the Theatre of the Americas Festival, in New York in 1977—I think it was one of the first, if not the first Festival of that kind. Many illustrious American theatre personalities were present; and when I say American, I mean the whole of the Americas: South, Central and North America! I refer to people like Nissim Sharim and Delfina Guzman from Chile, Osvaldo Dragún from Argentina, Arthur Miller from the United States, Victoria Cruz from Perú, and Honor Ford Smith from Jamaica. Honor was the founder of “Sistren”, the theatre company that inspired me to create PUENTE a few years later. Augusto Boal was one of the most distinguished personalities in this exciting conference. I had never heard of him, but friends convinced me that his Image Theatre workshop was a definite must and so I joined. I was impressed with this man, a dynamo who spoke English, Spanish, French and Portuguese, all at the same time, instructing everybody with a big smile and expressive gestures, achieving quickly an atmosphere of trust, expressing so clearly where we were going with the exercises, making his points, which were simple but deep, and including everybody with total acceptance. For me, Image Theatre seemed such a good, simple and effective idea, that I adopted it immediately. When I got back to Canada I started creating Images with my students and in the plays I directed, and learned much in the process.

I looked for Boal’s books, and was surprised to discover that his works, already quite numerous, had not been translated into English.  I managed to get a copy of Theatre of the Oppressed in French, not one of my best languages, and read it with difficulty. I heard that David Diamond, director of Headlines Theatre in Vancouver, was a practitioner of Boal’s methodology and approached him to see if he could give me more information. David was more than generous with his knowledge and introduced me to Boal’s work, lent me articles and videos, and with that, I started practising on my own in Victoria, BC. My first project was with a group of students at Lester B. Pearson College of the Pacific. We did research and interviews amongst the college’s students, found out about the oppressions that concerned them most, and created a Theatre Forum piece following Boal’s instructions: that the play had to provide many opportunities for the audience to correct the oppressions that they saw enacted on stage. It was very interesting for me to discover that what oppressed those students the most, according to the interviews realized, were the “expectations of their parents”! The presentation was very successful, the audience participated enthusiastically, immediately turning themselves into “spect-actors”, the term coined by Boal to refer to an audience no longer passive, but actively looking for solutions to the oppressions they were suffering.

I was converted to Theatre of the Oppressed (T.O.), and continued to look for more opportunities to practise it and to learn more about Boal’s methods and philosophy, as well as about the works of Brazilian educator Paolo Freire, author of Pedagogy of the Oppressed. Paolo Freire inspired and supported Boal’s work.

In 1979, Boal’s books finally started appearing in English, and provided me with a good source of study material. Then, in 1992, Mixed Company in Toronto organized a workshop with Augusto in Manitoulin Island, Ontario. It was a fantastic opportunity and I hastened to find the means to attend. In this extended workshop I confirmed my impression that the Theatre of the Oppressed techniques were extremely useful for a theatre such as PUENTE. Augusto was a most generous and inspired teacher who encouraged us to make use of everything he had discovered, to feel free to add our own deductions, and modify what needed to be adapted to the different realities in which we lived. The most important thing was to use these techniques to help free people from the oppressions that they encountered in their lives. I was impressed by the flexibility and fluidity of his ideas. I could see how he had been constantly evolving his approach according to the needs he encountered: going from Theatre Forum to Cops in the Head, to Rainbow of Desire, to Legislative Theatre, and later on discussing the Aesthetics of the Oppressed; always revising, adapting and incorporating new points of view.

To my surprise, I learned afterwards that during the workshop there had been huge dissensions between Boal and some of the other participants. Boal was accused of having autocratic attitudes, which I never experienced or witnessed.  Maybe there were cultural differences that explained these opinions. In Manitoulin we were three Latin Americans participating: from Argentina, El Salvador and Chile; we were delighted with Boal’s approaches and felt very comfortable with him. We shared a background: the three of us were, like him, refugees from cruel military regimes, we came from a continent where the majority lived in extreme poverty and exploitation, we had similar political ideals and at the time we still looked at socialism as the solution for injustice and oppression. For us Boal embodied an ideal, and at the workshop we were not disappointed at all. On the contrary, we felt supported and understood by him, and he related to us easily, in a friendly, warm way. I was astounded when I heard about the severe criticisms of Boal’s personality and his work. I still do not understand what happened and I know the other two Latin Americans feel the same. I guess the criticisms have more to do with theory than practise. What is important is that his ideas work in reality, on the ground, and help the truly oppressed.

After the Manitoulin Island workshop, I attended the Seventh Theatre of the Oppressed Festival in Rio de Janeiro with three other PUENTE actors, and presented there a theatre forum piece on violence against women. The Festival was a huge event, with T.O. groups attending from all over the world. An exciting human and learning experience for us.  Boal was dynamic as usual, attending to all aspects of the Festival and enjoying himself in the process.

The tragic killing of street children perpetrated by the Brazilian police marred the celebratory atmosphere of this Festival. This happened a couple of days after our arrival. Boal immediately organized a demonstration in the streets to show our repudiation of this crime. The fact that something like this could happen in Brazil probably helped to demonstrate, at that time, that oppression and social struggle had different scope and meaning in different countries.

For me personally this Festival was a huge success. I made friends with people practising socially engaged theatre from all over the world; I still correspond with some of them and they are a valuable source of support and professional guidance.

In 1997 I attended another workshop with Boal in Seattle. Once more he seemed delighted to have several PUENTE members in attendance, enjoyed talking about how we, as Latin Americans, were fitting in the North American culture; and shared his ideas openly. He had no doubt that we were all going to do excellent work. He radiated optimism and vitality!

I appreciate Boal and his work not from the point of view of somebody discussing  academic theory, but from the point of view of a practitioner, somebody who has used his method and techniques for several years with people living situations of oppression. They have been mainly immigrants: refugees, abused women, victims of discrimination and racism, kids bullied at school, people with problems at work, social workers overloaded with complex cases, nannies with too much work and not enough free time, etc. In all these cases, the solutions that “spectactors” brought to the situations depicted in the theatre forums skits worked well, the discussions that followed were enlightening, and everybody seemed invigorated by the performance. We were asked to come back again and again.

I corresponded with Boal from time to time. Told him about some of our successes and struggles and maintained an infrequent but constant connection. He answered with a postcard or an e-mail, and was always encouraging and friendly. I was surprised that such a busy man took time to reply. But this was completely in keeping with the generous attitude he had always had in all my encounters with him.

I was sad when I heard the news of his death. But he is still alive in his work continued by thousands of practitioners all over the world. And his motto, and that of the Brazilian T.O. was “ Have the courage to be happy!” so I must try and follow that life-affirming norm. It creates the atmosphere of optimism and energy so typical of everything that Augusto did.

Lina de Guevara (2012)