Tom Magill interviews Augusto Boal

Tom Here we are in the Europa. It’s about 11.30 am on Sunday 25 October and I’m talking to Augusto Boal about his work. Augusto in your latest book Legislative Theatre you used a term community theatre. Could you define this term and tell us how it’s different from conventional theatre.

Boal The word community, communitage in Portuguese, we use to define sometimes a region of the city, e.g., a slum. In this state there is a communitage within that slum.  Sometimes we can talk about also the communitage of psychiatric hospitals or we can talk about the communitage of a trade union for instance, so the word communitage/ community has not the same meaning as it has in English, and of course they don’t have theatre inside those communities.

In slums there is no theatre only one slum which is an area called  Digegow in Rio has a community and curiously, Cicely Berry, who is the great teacher or a voice of the  Royal Shakespeare Company when she went to Brazil twice she went to that community in the slums to teach the people how to pronounce better, how to free their voices and so community means that.

It means a group of people who can be located geographically or because they have the same interests and they don’t have specialities so there is not a difference between that community theatre and the other forms because they don’t have other forms.  And then we worked with those communities to make them produce theatre.

Tom So basically it’s defined in terms of its lack. There is no theatre there in the community and so….

Boal – No no, this is different. In the United States the community theatre means a theatre that is only for that region or whatever you know. It’s not our case. Our poor communities, or workers communities. They don’t have theatre at all and then what they make is not creative theatre but to help them to make theatre, wherever, in any place, but not in a special place. That is our task.

Tom Community Arts Forum, CAF, has defined four principles of good practice when working in community arts – access, participation, authorship and ownership.  Would you like to comment upon CAF’s efforts towards defining a model of good practice?

Boal Well I think that if they came to that conclusion it’s because that’s what they really need. When I read that I say okay the access is a minimum condition for any kind of popular work to be done, so you have to have access. Everyone democratically should have access to Bachelor of Art and all that.

The second word, the participation, which I agree totally. What I don’t understand well is the two last terms, the ownership and the authorship, because when we do, I don’t say that what is down here is wrong or right. I compare only what we do when we produce a play, the author and the owner of that play is the whole community who produced it. We don’t separate them.  We made the plays, we discuss what the theme of the play is going to be. Everyone participates. Everyone has access and everyone participates. We try to make a play. Everyone has the right to propose the text and scenes of the play and then when we produce with the actors everyone is entitled to get a role in that play.

Of course by consensus they say who should play what, but the authorship of the play for instance belongs to everyone and the ownership the same.  It can happen in a more rare case in which someone taking as a basis of work his plays that have been done they can write the play of their own.

So this is a practice in some countries like the United States and many authors sometimes use the actors to improvise scenes that they do not know how to handle very well, and then taking notes of their improvisations they wrote their play.  So the ownership and the authorship belongs to the author even though the hints and suggestions were given by the actors improvising, but in our case that’s very rare – because we never publish our plays.  So the ownership no one cares very much about and the authorship everyone collaborated in it.

Tom I  think the reason why we put it in was because when authors have come into that community to write a play for that community to script it from the group’s improvisations.  The people that we work with were concerned that the authorship and the ownership should be theirs.  So that’s why they split the terms authorship and ownership, to make sure that they remained with the community.

Boal Because in your case you have an author that comes and is commissioned to do that.

Tom Yes, sometimes.

Boal In our case it rarely happens, mainly because people collaborated. Myself, I write parts of the text also based upon what they improvise. There is not the pre-occupation as to whom it belongs because it’s so ephemeral. It lasts only the time you produce the play and it’s not taken over for other presentations. It’s ephemeral. It’s not a durable thing.

Tom Augusto, the result of much of your work is the collapse of hitherto seemingly secure boundaries like the difference between actor and spectator, image and reality, internal and external, public and private, citizen and legislator. What other boundaries do you want to collapse in the near future and why?

Boal (Laughing)  I think that all the barriers have been collapsing already and now what I think we should reinforce are some barriers instead of collapsing them. Building new walls against racism which is one of the horrible things that exist in the world. A wall against intolerance which is not accepting and is a form of racism, not accepting the existence of the other one.  The wall against sexism which enslaves half of humanity – women. A wall against globalisation which makes all of us become clones of ourselves to become robots, so now is the moment to build barriers, to build walls and to fight against intolerance, against racism, sexism and globalisation, to fight vigorously against that. And to re-unite people.

Tom Was  that a conscious move forward from actor/spectator, citizen/legislator, or did it evolve?  Was it a plan?

Boal It was not a plan in the sense that it happened because of economical conditions.  It was the moment that they could no longer go on with the central Theatre of the Oppressed, then we thought we have to do something so let’s finish the centre. And then whenever we will have the conditions we will do it again. Let’s finish it. Let’s bury it. And then came the idea of participating in the elections and this re-invigorated the centre, and during 4 years we had economical security. We were all paid by the Chamber and then we could do our work for free.  All the work we did of Legislative Theatre was totally free. Even from our salaries we would take money to pay for the productions so that was the moment we decided that we had to make not only forum theatre but to try to transform the city through Legislative Theatre.

Democracy is a very beautiful system but has this inconvenience. You have extreme power in your hands and when you vote you lose that power. It’s a paradoxical reality and then you’re going to get power again, 2, 4, 8 years later to vote again and to lose your power the moment you exert your power. You use your power you lose it, and then we thought during this time how can we make the citizen be aware of what’s going on?  To delegate power to the other ones is so horrible. When you delegate power you lose your power and then you become a spectator of that person. You may have confidence in the person, you may trust them, but it is something that when you speak with your voice and something else when someone speaks in your place. When someone speaks in your place, even if it’s an honest person, intelligent person, creative person, but that person will never translate correctly what you want to say.

So we came to the Legislative Theatre by accident, but by desire because we always wanted this. To make the citizen responsible for everything that happens in the city and then it was by accident and it was not because the accident could have happened and this would not have happened – the Legislative Theatre. It happened because we wanted it to happen but also because an accident intervened.

Tom This theme of representation, of not allowing another person to represent you but to take responsibility for representing yourself, this is a theme in your work. Would you like to say any more about representation?

Boal No I could only reiterate.  In politics it’s even more evident.  In politics we discuss very much in the Chamber for instance that there are some subjects that are voted secretly and I always was against that, violently against that, because if a person votes for another person to represent his or her will, and then that representative of your opinion is going to vote secretly you don’t know for what.  I think it’s immoral to do that.  Something very cowardly, so I always said we have to vote openly and not to hide the vote.

Several times I was censored in the Chamber because before voting I showed my vote to everyone and I put it in the envelope in front of everyone so that they would know for what I was voting, so I think that for instance in Brazil until the 50’s women were not allowed to vote and the argument was that if they are not married, they are not yet responsible. If they are married the husband is responsible for them because he is the chief of the family.  We never said that a woman was the chief of the family. If there is a man in the family, the man is the chief so she is not responsible if not married, but of course never women would have their say, would not have the chance to say what they thought. If it was always like that a man would vote for her.  Like the blacks during many years, they could not vote.  And the argument was yes, but the white people are going to take into consideration their needs.  It’s not true.

You cannot understand the other one…if they are alive they have their own voice, let them say what they want.  And all my desire to create a form of theatre in which there is transitiveness.  It is to allow everyone to say what you want including myself.

I do Theatre of the Oppressed, so I can write my own plays about myself because I am allowing the other ones I am creating conditions for everyone to speak but I am included in this everyone.  So as I am part of the everyone I want to write my plays about myself. I want to direct my plays according to my vision as a director.  If I were an actor I would like to act also, go on stage and play characters, so it’s not against the other forms of theatre. On the contrary it’s in favour.

Sometimes I give the example of football in Brazil.  There are some marvelous players, but Sundays many streets and many squares in Rio and other cities they are close to the traffic so that people can play. The streets are closed for their leisure, so this is not against the professional football.  It’s even a help because if everyone plays football they are going to understand football much better. They are going to be much more interested in going to see it.

Like if everyone did theatre the professional theatre would be full every day because they would like to see what the other ones are doing. So sometimes professional theatre is not so interesting to the population because the population does not practice theatre.  If you do theatre all of the time then you want to see a play done by others. The more you develop theatre inside the population in general, the more you create conditions for having bigger audiences, a more interested audience, more participation from the audience.

Tom And the same with politics?

Boal And the same with politics.  Yes exactly the same.

If you can do assemblies and discussions and if you know that your voice is going to be heard that your vote is going to be taken into account, of course you will participate more, and the experiment that we are doing now in St. Andrere which is close to Sao Paulo where 1,000,000 live and also in the south of Brazil, Port Allergrage.

What the Theatre of the Oppressed is doing in those two  cities, and we want to do more next year is exactly that – to participate in what is called the participatory budget in which the population itself the citizens in general they decide what to do with the money that belongs to the city and then we are doing theatre in their assemblies so before discussing how much money we spend on this or how much money we spend on that, they see concretely in the theatre what are the problems that we have to solve with that money.

So the discussion about money is not a quantitative discussion.  It is a qualitative discussion.  Are you going to use your money on a hospital to have more x-ray machines or to have better pay for the doctors and nurses and in which proportion.  So all of this is concrete because if a nurse gets more money perhaps she is not going to be obliged to work in 2 or 3 different places.  She’s going to open more space for other people to work and give better quality…so all those discussions they precede, the theatrical discussions precede the real money discussions.

Money is not a question of money.  Money is a question of power.  Power is a question of well being of the population, so theatre brings this humanity to the budget discussions.

Tom What you’re doing is, you’re using theatre to make politics transparent?

Boal Yes.

Tom And accountable?

Boal Yes. To make theatre as politics and I am very happy that the year before we started working in St. Andrere the population participated in the participatory budget. They were there, but very few people were there. When we started doing theatre many, many, many more people came – 3, 4 times more people came to the participatory budget to discuss the budget because there was theatre involved. There was theatre, there was music, there was art, and then they were attracted by the fact that theatre was there, and who told me that was the mayor, so he knows what he’s talking about.

Tom Do you see any dangers in methodologies devised for one set of cultural circumstances being used in another?

Boal Yes, I would say it would be dangerous if it was a sort of catechism, a recipe that you have to take the experiment exactly like it was made in Brazil and now you have to transplant it to Northern Ireland. You have to do exactly the same thing here. Yes, that would be dangerous. What has been done in Brazil can inspire people here to find ways of doing theatre.

Maybe some of the mechanisms of Legislative Theatre are applicable. I think that you should apply the Forum Theatre because it is democratic. Everyone participates. I think that the interactive mailing list, the consultation directory to the people that are mostly concerned with the problem is good. I think that the chamber in the street simulating a re-union a meeting of the chamber in churches, in trade union halls, in schools are good because it activates people. But there are other things that are perhaps even better here and I cannot imagine so I think that the bad results can come from an automatic, a mechanical transposition forcing a method that is flexible and not stratified, so if it serves as an inspiration it is good.

Next month I am going to London and we’re going to try to make an experiment in Legislative Theatre in the old GLC Building which was used as a chamber to make the law and was closed in 1986. It  was closed in the period of Margaret Thatcher. She said she did not need those people to make the laws: she could make her own laws.

Tom Yes, she was a great friend of General Pinochet.

Boal (Laughing) Yes. Perhaps she consulted him to know what should be the good laws for London. In her reign the GLC was closed. It was sold to a Japanese enterprise who built a very big hotel at one side and an aquarium for fish under the basement but they cannot touch the place where the deputies met because by law it’s untouchable, so it’s there exactly as it was.

So on the 27 November we are going to do a session of Legislative Theatre inside the GLC Chamber like a re-opening of the GLC. I think it’s fantastic, but how are we going to do it now? The place is not suitable for theatre.  You have to invent a sceneography for that place. It’s extremely powerful symbolically. It has a story and a meaning. You cannot forget that you are inside there. You cannot forget that this has a meaning which is a potent symbol so we have to discover how we can do it here in 5 days what in Rio took 4 years to design, so we have to discover how we can do Legislative Theatre in London this November.

Of course we have to take some suggestions from the Brazilian experience but the experience in London is going to be different. Like it would be here in Belfast different, so I don’t think there is any danger provided that the people who do it are creative people, so then there is no danger.

Tom In the attempt to find personal oppressions might we give rise to paranoia rather than liberation?

Boal I don’t think that we become paranoid by doing Theatre of the Oppressed. I think the opposite and why? Because for instance when you do any form of Theatre of the Oppressed, but especially the Rainbow of Desire series and the cop on the head, all those techniques what we try always is going from the particular case of a person not into the singularities of that person but into the generalities of the group participating.  So we try always to…overlapping.

I can tell you my story and it’s my personal story, my particular story, but when we do a technique of the Theatre of the Oppressed we don’t go into the singularities of my person, but we try to overlap with the participants. So as we analyse one person we are in reality analysing the whole group and not only that person and that makes it social and not concentrating on what could perhaps lead to paranoia but I don’t believe it does. It would be if you singularised too much. In therapeutic work my wife, she’s a psychoanalyst, she has not made no-one paranoid.  On the opposite I don’t know if she has cured anybody but they get better – better health, better mental health after some sort of treatment, so I don’t believe that talking about ourselves, discovering contrary.

I believe that the truth is therapeutic and when we discover the truth we are in a way…to get rid of the problems we have. Truth is therapeutic I believe.

Tom Augusto, who are or have been the most influential thinkers in your life?

Boal (Laughing) I have read that question before. I have to give examples because who have been influential? I would say all intelligent people because when a person says something intelligent that stimulates me so tremendously that I have been so influenced by so many people that it would be not fair to say this one or that one. So I will give some examples of people who have influenced me but I’m not saying that these are the only ones.

If I think about the Ancient Greeks, the one who influenced me very much was Thespis. Why Thespis? Because he was the first person who was in a chorus in the dythrambic chorus singing all disciplined the song that the poet had written and dancing the movements of the choreographer and saying what was the acceptable official story so he jumped out of that and refused to be inside the chorus and said what he really thought. So this act of rebellion, he invented the theatre with this act of rebellion when he went out and said I don’t agree with it, the chorus singing in poetry and he answering, replicating in prose. So this act of rebellion for me is extraordinary. A man invented the theatre.  In this act of rebellion he jumped out of the chorus.

And Socrates, because Socrates was one that did not impose anything. His process of reasoning he was called mieutic. The mieutic was this – instead of saying ‘Look here, I think this is that’, he said ‘What do you think about this?’ And the person would say ‘Well I think this’ and he said, ‘Okay, well if you think this, what are the consequences?’ By asking questions he makes the person discover the knowledge that the person had without being conscious of that knowledge, e.g., when he asks Alcabiades ‘what is heroism?’ The first answer is ‘heroism is to die for your country’ and Socrates answers ‘Okay, but you have to sometimes defend your country, so maybe if you run away from the enemy you can fight better later.’ As Shaw said, ‘To try to make the soldiers of the other country die for their country’. (Laughing.) So little by little be builds the definition of heroism, so this questioning for me is extremely important.

Now if we jump to Shakespeare and Cervantes, because they came in a moment of extraordinary transition from feudalism to modern times, and they re-produced this transformation of the thought of the world. Cervantes using Don Quixote who was a person that two centuries before had all the ideals of chivalry and he would be a perfect hero, but when it comes at the end of the 16th century and beginning of the 17th century, he still has values of the past and so he becomes anachronistic and he shows what is happening by this anachronism. Like Hamlet I think his main dilemma is not to be or not to be. His dilemma is to be and not to be. Because it’s the two things that he has inside. The right version should be to be and not to be – that’s a big problem. That’s what he tries – to be a man with noble ideals of the past but he’s living in an epoch where those noble ideals don’t count anymore.

And the next person is Marx.

Tom What did you learn from Marx?

Boal I learned from Marx history. I learned to understand that things happen because they are moved by social force, they are moved by social interests and it’s not the head of one person that governs the world, it’s the social force.

And from Freud I learned that we are not master of even ourselves, of our own conscious life that is sometimes and somehow governed by our unconscious. Before, men thought that they were the centre of the universe. And then he learned that  it is the earth that is rotating around the sun and not vice versa. And with Freud you learn that there are unconscious laws overning you too.

Now in the theatre of modern times, particularly Stanislavski, and Brecht. And Stanislavski makes this transformation of the art of acting from what was a symbolical interpretation and for example a gesture of love is codified. He changes a symbolic interpretation to a synalectic interpretation, in which if you are in love all of your body is going to show the love that you have and not a gesture that can be reproduced. So the signifer and the signification, my body as a signifier and love as signification they are indissociable, you cannot dissociate them. In the symbolic interpretation, yes you dissociated them. So he invented that.

And Brecht who said OK let’s cut empathy and lets look at the world from another point of view, so he influenced me, not in the sense that I obey what he says, I try to go in another direction. I have to find my own way that’s what I want.

And to finalise there are two persons that have influenced me, two Brazilians. One is Paulo Friere, with his method of education, which is a transitive method of education. And the other one is Lula, who has been three times our candidate to the Presidency of the Republic. A worker and the person who taught more what politics means in Brazil. I learn from him what politics is and not only me but millions of people in Brazil can learn better about Brazil through his speeches.

Tom Who are your sternest critics and what have you learned from them?

Boal I would not say who has criticised me. I have never read let’s say a serious work of someone criticising me. What happens in general is when they want to criticise they try to ignore.

For instance in Brazil, when we did the 7th festival of Theatre of the Oppressed, we had 12 nations represented. all the critics of the theatre they said that’s not theatre – what Boal is organising here is some other thing, it’s not theatre. They did not write a single criticism to say it’s not theatre, they just ignored.

And in many countries this exists still. But I understand them and I forgive them because normally the critic he tries to judge and to value a work of art by what they know already from the past.

If you create something that is not in the books yet, they don’t know how to judge it. So they say it’s not theatre – in my library I never found some things like that. That’s why I write so much – to say yes it’s theatre, there is a book (laughing) But my critics, they are those who ignore me and what have I learned from them is to shout louder. So that they can hear me and know that theatre of the oppressed exists.

Tom These are ‘magic if’ questions now, Stanislavski. So these are fictional questions.

Boal Fictional questions.

Tom Yes. If you were the first minister in the new Northern Ireland Assembly and you had just won the Noble Peace Prize to strengthen your position within your party, how would you begin to deal with conflict resolution within the Assembly and by implication, in the wider community?

Boal First of all the question has two suppositions, one is very agreeable to me, the other no, I would have a fear.

I would be very happy to get a Noble Prize (laughing) for what it means and for how much it means but to be the Prime Minister I would be horrified with this perspective.

It is something you have really to be a specialist to be a good Prime Minister. I would never be a Prime Minister. But if I could give suggestions.

I think that he should develop the popular arts because not only is it good in itself but it also helps the more professional art. I would say that I am sure, though it may seem like a paradox. I am sure that here in Ireland there exists many wonderful sculpturers that have never sculpted anything. Marvellous painters that have never painted. Why do I say that? Because in Brazil why are there so many good players of football – because people play all over. Here suppose you had the same with theatre and the same with plastic arts. That you could go in popular centres of culture and anyone could go there and try to make a sculpture and someone would teach the basics of it. I’m sure that you would see that many people who have never sculpted, if they were given the means they would produce work we admire. Otherwise, lots of genius are lost.

So my suggestion for the minister, and one day if I were minister of culture my own country I would do this. Everyone should have access to painting, to singing, to theatre, to ballet to everything and then you would see how many talents are being ignored, are being not allowed to prosper, to develop.

Tom If  you had to convince the current Arts Council of Northern Ireland to spend more of their budget on community arts and community theatre, what key points would you make to them?

Boal I would say that if he spends $1000,000 in a production of a play, who is going to get the benefit of that money is the person who are going to be involved in that production and in the spectators who are going to see the production. If he invested the same $1000,000 in popular art in creating popular audiences, who is going to receive the benefit of being involved in that particular event, but also those professionals because it is going to create more audiences for those professionals. So it’s not that you should take all the money here and put it there but to create a balance in which the professional like myself, I am a professional, we should have our money from the government because art  in most cases is not cases, self sufficient, you need sponsorship. But, we should have a balance, popular art should be developed for its own benefit and for the benefit of art in general.

Tom Finally, Augusto, what is the role for young people in relation to Theatre of the Oppressed?

Boal I think that the same for old people. I don’t make an age difference. I think that when we are very young as children we use art, especially theatre, as a form of learning how to live in society. They do role-play, children, in their games, there is the role-play all of the time. They play roles to learn how to behave in those roles. It’s fantastic to see children playing doctors and nurses, playing police playing robbers. So its a way of learning how to live, how to manage and how to develop in society. They paint much more freely than us, if you give to a child a pencil and a blank piece of paper it begins to draw without any self-censorship. We lose our artistic drive to produce to create by the age of 10 or 11 most of us, happily some of us don’t.

Mozart never stopped producing music. What I think young people have in their minds is more fresh when they play or they paint so it’s easier to work sometimes with children than with 17 18 years old but I worked with both. And I found it so beautiful when I saw an old person going on stage and playing a character and the joy that comes out of that person when the scene is over is so fantastic – it is happiness, they are happy, to do theatre makes us happy.

And that’s important to do theatre to be happy – you have to do theatre.

Tom I think that’s a good point to end the interview, Augusto Boal, thank you very much indeed and thank you for coming to Belfast, we hope to have you here again.

Boal I hope to come back again, thank you Tom.