Augusto Boal, Stage Director Who Gave a Voice to Audiences, Is Dead at 78
By BRUCE WEBER
Augusto Boal, a Brazilian director and drama theorist who created interactive, politically expressive theater forms under the rubric of the Theater of the Oppressed, died last Saturday in Rio de Janeiro. He was 78.
The cause was respiratory failure, said Elisa Nunes, a spokeswoman for Hospital Samaritano in Rio, The Associated Press reported. Mr. Boal had been suffering from leukemia.
As both a theorist and a director, Mr. Boal (pronounced Bo-AHL) was especially intrigued by the relationship between the spectator and the actor, and his career was a steady march toward a greater partnership between the two. In his philosophy, life and theater are related enterprises; ordinary citizens are actors who are simply unaware of the play, and everyone can make theater, even the untrained. In his work the audience often became an active participant in the performance itself.
Theater of the Oppressed, which Mr. Boal created in the early 1970s and which has become an international theater movement with adherents in more than 40 countries, is politically as well as artistically motivated. Its productions take aim at injustice, especially in communities, often poor or otherwise disenfranchised, that are traditionally voiceless. Over the years Mr. Boal developed it in various forms.
The movement, Brechtian in its social engagement, takes its name from “Pedagogy of the Oppressed,” a 1968 education manifesto by the philosopher Paulo Freire. It grew from Mr. Boal’s work at the Arena Theater in São Paolo between 1955 and 1971. In the 1960s he created what he called Newspaper Theater; he and his colleagues would venture into factories and churches, encourage discussion of issues covered in the newspaper and help the residents dramatize them.
Variations on the theme followed. One was Invisible Theater, in which actors would, with seeming spontaneity, put on a prepared scene in a public place — a restaurant or a crowded square — that would inevitably engage the surrounding citizens. Another was Forum Theater, in which a play about a social problem turned out to be the beginning of a negotiation; audience members were encouraged to suggest different modes of resolution for the play and even to climb onstage to help enact them.
Considered a rabble-rouser by the Brazilian military junta, Mr. Boal was jailed for several months in 1971 and subsequently exiled. He lived in Argentina, Portugal and France as his Theater of the Oppressed evolved, returning to Brazil after democratic rule was restored in 1985.
In the ’90s he served for three years in the government of Rio de Janeiro, on the equivalent of the city council. There he applied his fundamental theatrical and political principle — that monologue is the tool of oppression, and dialogue the tool of democracy — to the work of government.
“This book attempts to show that all theater is necessarily political,” he wrote in “Theatre of the Oppressed,” his influential theoretical work, published in 1974, “because all the activities of man are political, and theater is one of them.”
Mr. Boal was born in Rio to Portuguese parents in 1931. He studied chemical engineering, but he was interested in drama from childhood, and that interest was fanned when he went to New York City in the early ’50s. He attended Columbia University, where he studied both chemistry and playwriting, eventually putting on his first plays. He returned to Brazil in 1955 and, putting a scientific career aside, went to work at the Arena. His first work there as a director was an adaptation of John Steinbeck’s “Of Mice and Men.”
“As I was not a director, I had no fear of directing,” he recalled about his early efforts, according to a biographical study by Frances Babbage.
Mr. Boal was married twice. His survivors include his wife, Cecilia, and two sons, Julian and Fabian.
Mr. Boal was also the author of many books, including “Games for Actors and Non-Actors,” which describes exercises and techniques for integrating performers and spectators, and an autobiography, “Hamlet and the Baker’s Son: My Life in Theatre and Politics.”
An affable intellectual and an effervescent teacher, he was a theatrical Johnny Appleseed who spent his later years spreading his doctrines of the theater as a land of equal opportunity for professionals and nonprofessionals alike. “I think anyone can do theater,” he said. “Even actors. And theater can be done everywhere. Even in a theater.”
Which is not to say he disdained conventional forms or the theater as a professional pursuit. Indeed, Mr. Boal directed the works of Shakespeare and other plays throughout his career. But he wished for more than the conventional, remarking in a 2005 television interview that in “Hamlet,” Shakespeare declared that theater was like a mirror held up to life.
“I think that’s very nice,” Mr. Boal said. “But I would like to have a mirror with some magic properties in which we could, if we don’t like the image that we have in front of us, would allow us to penetrate into the mirror and transform our image and then come back with our image transformed.”