Inside the sprawling apartment of an old Kolkata mansion, a huge rag doll and some props scattered on one corner bear testimony to the presence of some theatre people around. After a few minutes’ wait Augusto Boal emerges out of his room and walks with a limp. The tender furrowed face of Boal and soft voice belie the fire in his theatre that lends voice to the voiceless. Meeting Augusto Boal is a humbling experience for any interviewer. Excerpts from an interview:
Tell me how Theatre of the Oppressed (TO) originated.
During the 1960s in Brazil we were living under dictatorship. There was censorship under fascist rule. It was 1964, censorship became very violent. We had to send plays to Brasilia, the capital, for censorship. Often more than half of the play used to be cut, rendering it impossible to perform. Even subsidy to theatre was stopped and we wilted under financial crisis. Our people were arrested and tourtured. Around 1968, we felt the heat. We realised that we no longer can go on like this. We thought we need only people and not any particular place for theatre. We formed groups of spectators and started something called Newspaper Theatre. We enacted theatre scenes out of news from newspapers. We would read the newspaper and then translate the input into theatre. We went to factories, trade unions, associations, churches and helped them do theatre for themselves. This was the first part.
The second part of our theatre began when I went to the Argentine capital Buenos Aires. There we started doing what we call Invisible Theatre. The spectator did not know that he is a spectator. We would do a scene in streets or some place and the viewers did not know it was theatre and so they would intervene and participate. I went to Bolivia, Peru, Mexico, Colombia and they had many Indians (our Indians, indigenous people). They spoke several languages and Spanish was their second language. I spoke Spanish as my second language too and so we made mistakes sometimes. So we developed images for the indigenous people, or Image Theatre.
You conceptualised Forum Theatre around that time and also came up with something called Legislative Theatre.
When I was in Peru, Forum Theatre evolved. A play, a scene and an issue or problem is presented. Spectators or spect-actors invade the scene and replace the protagonist and try to give several different solutions to the problems. That is Forum Theatre and the concept of ‘spect-actors’. Then when I went back to Brazil we started what we call Legislative Theatre. Legislative theatre was same as Forum Theatre but we finish by making a session like in the chamber of deputies. The legislative part starts at the end. People there proposed laws and then we saw which ones were approved. When I was a legislator in Brazil I myself took that to the chamber to make laws suggested by people.
I was a legislator from 1993 to 1996. At least 13 proposals were made into laws. Now we talk about Aesthetics of the Oppressed. So under this we have included sculptures, drawings, paintings, poetry and narration into theatre- we are developing all that as part of the theatre. It is a long way since we started doing newspaper theatre decades ago.
From the theatre of the oppressed to politics. Did you compromise with your ideology for power?
I believe in democracy. I don’t belong to any political party. To be elected I had to have a party and so I joined the Workers’ Party. I was part of the government but not central government. I explained to them always that I am a man of theatre and I said I want to implement my experiences into politics. It was not that easy but now the Lula government (Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva is the President of Brazil leading a communist government and belongs to Workers’ Party) is very cooperative. We continue to perform. We work in schools, with peasants without land and we give people the techniques to solve their problems. We work in prisons too. We don’t do propaganda. We go and ask the people what they want to do. Then we tell them to try to use theatre to know how they can do it.
How concerned are you about the aesthetics side of forum theatre vis-a-vis mainstream theatre.
I completed half a century in theatre. I am committed to aesthetics. In our theatre the political and social side has to be static. You have to speak, dance and sing as well as mainstream theatre. If you have to speak you have to speak in a good voice, if you have to sing you have to sing well. Of course our theatre does not have the same quality of buourgeoise theatre. The concept of quality is different too.
Tell us about your experience in Kolkata as part of the Forum Theatre Festival organised by Jana Sanskriti, the group that brought your theatre to India.
I have never felt a
greater emotion than what I felt in Kolkata when I saw about 10,000
people on the streets to participate in the festival and say ‘here
we are.’ They came from villages, small towns and all other places
with immense hardship by boat, train and buses and not by trains or
planes. It was one of the biggest moments of my life. — TWF