Making a Frame: How I Found an Augusto Boal Book in Myself

Looking back on more than three decades creating community and drama around the world using the techniques of the Theatre of the Oppressed.

Ali Campbell with friends and colleagues in Brazil.

My name is Ali Campbell and for my entire career as an artist and activist I’ve made theatre anywhere but theatres. Most of us were taught that theatre is about a bunch of (paying) people sitting in the dark, watching another bunch of (paid) people pretending to be a bunch of other (often dead) people, telling a story. And indeed, that’s the theatre I studied at University in Edinburgh in the 1970s and later made my way to London (as you had to do then, and probably still need to do today) to see whether I could make it on the stage. Alive. Paid!

What awaited me was a very different world: community performance and especially work with children; using the language of theatre — some would say the most powerful language of all — in projects across the educational system that sought to make the most impactful possible messages about equality, anti-racism, substance abuse and all those things educators want to teach young people about. We devised plays and toured them and that’s how I learned my craft. School halls, open-air play-schemes and all manner of spaces where the message was something taken to people, rather than an event they had to find and pay for in a darkened building, became the place where I knew I belonged. This wasn’t just broadcasting a one-way message; this was looking the audience in the eye and often involving them in the action. I learned by trial and error to facilitate this involvement through a range of participatory techniques such as Hot Seating, where key characters can be lifted out of the action and questioned directly about what they’re doing, or even given advice about how to face the problems brought to life by the performance.

In the mid ’80s, I first encountered the life-changing work of my dear friend, teacher and mentor, Augusto Boal. I hadn’t seen his work in that pre-digital age, but I devoured his classic book Theatre of the Oppressed and especially his radical system of participatory theatre called Forum, which Augusto developed throughout the ’70s in Brazil. Forum is rooted firmly in a Marxist ideology: that just as with any other powerful and empowering activity, the means of theatre production should be handed to the people themselves, breaking down the barrier between audience and performers, much as Boal’s own teacher, Bertolt Brecht, did in Germany before World War II.

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Augusto Boal

Boal created short scenes, called Models, which instead of merely standing up a problem to his audiences were deliberately left open-ended, allowing for multiple solutions not just to be talked about but in fact, to intervene, by replacing the actors and trying stuff. Literally, a rehearsal for the Revolution. With audiences on the street and in marginal communities the width and length of Brazil, the Theatre of the Oppressed movement began, taking its name from legendary educator Paulo Freire, whose “Pedagogy of the Oppressed” was instrumental to adult-literacy programmes in Brazil. Freire, an old friend of Boal’s, had in the 1960s repurposed the student-teacher relationship into a two-way, reciprocal dynamic between two learners, each with a wide range of knowledge in the adventure of learning. The impact on literacy in Brazil remains one of the most significant in educational history. Revolutionary indeed!

Boal’s book outlined everything I had been looking for and could immediately put into practice. I started making Forum and training others to make it; from the late ’80s, I began regularly to meet and work with Augusto himself in the UK and Brazil. My life changed: those hands-on techniques of radical participation took me to global places where they were heard of but not yet imparted, notably in my case to sub-Sahara Africa, where in countries like Malawi there are many diverse tribal cultures and dozens of mother-tongues. Here I could train local actor-teachers in the techniques that they would then use to roll out, for example, nationwide AIDS education programmes.

By the time Augusto died more than 10 years ago, the Theatre of the Oppressed had put down roots across the world — and in the expanding academic field that came to be termed Applied Performance.

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Ali Campbell in a village on the Golan Heights, 2005.

During the decade-plus since Augusto’s passing, many of those closest to me in the movement argued that just as Augusto used storytelling himself in his inimitable workshops, there was now a responsibility on the part of those of us who were close to him to draw on our years of experience with his techniques and to share them, in all their variety, into the future. I had many stories. But which ones should I choose to fit a book, say, of 75,000 words? Bloomsbury were eager to publish a user-friendly, hands-on guide to Augusto’s work for students and practitioners, one that took stories such as my own and critiqued the theories underpinning them. But what might it look like?

That’s how my book, The Theatre of the Oppressed In Practice Today: An Introduction to the Work and Principles of Augusto Boal, was conceived and commissioned. In it, I track my own journey from the first time I worked with Augusto through the ’90s, especially, as European and North American practitioners began to adapt and customise the techniques of the Theatre of the Oppressed for a wide range of educational and community settings.

As a friend of Augusto, I also had one key aim in writing the book: to bring the clearest examples of what I’ve learned through the work to the task of evidencing and extrapolating its principles. Augusto himself often asserted that theatre is a form of knowledge. Throughout the manuscript, then, I frame examples of discovery and failure alike, to show how the activity of performance-making with others has moved (and still moves) the Theatre of the Oppressed forward. Moreover, the book aims to recreate, as vividly as possible, moments of particular significance that have yielded deeper layers of meaning pertinent to the unfinished business of researching Forum, Augusto’s unique creation.

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When Forum works, it is clear to any audience, anywhere, what is going on. The system itself, and the way to operate as a “Joker” (the person managing the two-way participatory traffic), only takes a few days’ training, especially if participants see themselves as performers and have good group skills. Here’s how the first few days usually go:

  • We play, sharing warm-ups and exercises such as those described in Games for Actors and Non-Actors, my favorite of Augusto’s books.
  • We work out sequences of games and exercises that take us through “de-mechanisation” — breaking old habits of performance and perception, and opening up to the possibility and to the desirability of change and surprise. We improvise. We laugh. We build up the capacity for instant invention in one another.
  • We begin to identify our shared experience of oppression; we often stumble over new and arresting ways to show one another how power operates in our lives and how abuse of power manifests in lived reality.
  • We offer personal stories. We make short, open-ended, challenging scenes called Models to bring to a working session of Forum Theatre.
  • We perform the Models to the Forum, taking turns to inhabit the system as trainee Jokers and as “Spectactors” who get bolder and stronger as they act out possible strategies — called “Interventions” — to overcome oppression.
  • The Spectactors see themselves in the act of Intervention and know themselves to have the power to transfer their capacity for resistance, transformation and revolution into lived, social reality.
Ali Campbell with some guy who sings some songs.

Through these processes, the work becomes a living reference book, written in our own hands, eyes and memories and walked through by our own performing bodies. It is in a language we all understand — performance — and in our experiments with Forum, we open up terms such as “Joker” in ways that only the experience of working with that discussed, contested role can do. Writing alone and on one’s own can’t make this happen. On the page, we can be trapped in paradox. In Forum, we are free.

So the question for me was how to create a book that honours this process without ossifying it in a text that will be studied rather than used?

I saw I had to model the iterative nature of all practice-based theatre research by narrating a series of recreations, framed to show where emergent knowledges had arisen and in collaboration with whom. How had those learnings been generated by a making, not just by discussion? Who made these discoveries, what was my relationship with them and why could they have been made in no other way?

I have attempted to honour these questions through the structuring, selection and sequencing of my stories, seeking to re-apply fresh questions to each new cycle of work. Over time, I was able to craft a book that demonstrates in form and content how my professional relationships, collaborations and many stories of the Theatre of the Oppressed might serve a forward-looking purpose. A living, moving, year-on-year inventory, if you like.

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Trainees in Forum Theatre in Malawi, 2017.

To do this, I made what I call a Frame. Sometimes I used a real picture frame and passed it across a 30-year wide map of all my work in the Theatre of the Oppressed, storyboarded on a sheet of lining paper that took up the whole of my living space and had to be jumped over to get to the kitchen. On hands and knees, remembering, I passed 30 years of stories through the frame. Only the stories that pointed beyond past illustration to present relevance — and beyond that, to universal principles — made it through the Frame. Each was then allocated a word count.

I dubbed this technique “Frame-Throwing,” after the botany exercise in which you place a four-sided frame on any given patch of an ecosystem and through a meticulous counting and recounting of every species and blade of grass within it, you extrapolate the bigger picture — the macro-ecology.

The first side of my 365-day Frame is the Timespan, halved. Out of a sequestered six months spent at home, I recreated, retold and remembered. In the second half, I narrated six months’ lived experience, international travel and conversation.

The second side of the Frame is thus Geographical: I took myself and the guiding questions of my life in Theatre of the Oppressed thus far across five continents, visiting all the people who influenced me.

The third side of my Frame is Relational: Whether I have known those people and groups for a long time or not, I have a heartfelt connection to them that doesn’t require explanation but, simply, can be followed, lending texture and a depth to our conversations. Depth, not duration, characterised my relationship with Augusto, who was so much more than a teacher to me and who never failed to bring emotion into any room he held for rehearsal or teaching.

The final side of my Frame is Identification. As I have listened to the many people I am connected with across five continents, I have attempted to honour, in both the construction and the editing of our meetings, genuine intersectionality. I transcribe insights that could only have come from a differing voice and unfamiliar place. As a Quaker artist, I try to listen to where words come from. That is where lasting meaning is co-created and where, on the page, you are invited to be an actively listening third.

The Theatre of the Oppressed in Practice Today is available here from Methuen Drama.