Theatre of the Oppressed

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IRIS Wiki - Narrative Theories - Theatre of the Oppressed


Augusto Boal

Histo-geographical placement

1960's Brazil and later Europe.

Type of story


Parent Theories

He uses Aristotle, Brecht and Machiavelli as a base of comparison (for what not to be).

Child Theories


Brief Description

Augusto Boal's main premise is that a theatre piece cannot be complete without the intervention of the audience and that theatre belongs to the public. The work of the actors needs to be such that it instigates the audience to action as much as possible. Boal reminds the reader what theatre was (a platform for dialogue), underlines what it has become (staged monologue) and stresses the importance of bringing it back to its original intention; a tool for transformation. Boal presents Theatre of the Oppressed as a means of restoring theatre to its original purpose. Theatrical performance was created, by and for the people where all could participate freely. He regrets that theatre lost its original strength and especially that the audience lost its active role replaced by passively watching but insists that this division between actor and spectator came with Aristocracy and was done intentionally. Boal states that Aristotle's model is based on the spectator empathising with (some of) the characters, through pity and fear, and living vicariously through the latter's experience. The catharsis the character goes through will be reflected onto the spectator. Since the spectator lives vicariously through the character, he no longer needs to experience for himself (in real life) what the character went through and is thus appeased. This, Boal claims, is how Aristotelian drama coerces the masses; by living their revolution for them on the stage.  The goal of participative theatre is to engage the audience and integrate them into the piece being presented to the point where its completion is dependent on the audience’s interaction.

Boal goes through four general steps/stages to take the audience from spectator to spect-actor. These are:

  • knowing the body – through various exercises, participants learn and get comfortable with a wide range of movements enabling a new perspective on the body
  • making the body expressive – using games to discover new ways of expression using the body
  • theatre as language – through three degrees, participants learn to experience theatre as a language that is present and living instead of a finished product. The three degrees are:
    • simultaneous dramaturgy – spectators write at the same time as the actors act
    • image theatre – spectators use the actors’ bodies to communicate
    • forum theatre – spectators act directly
  • theatre as discourse – spectator creates scenes to treat what he wants to communicate

Each stage can be looked at in greater detail, and Boal provides many examples for exercises, games and forms of theatres people can use.

Relation with Interactive Storytelling

A. Boal’s premise is very much in line with what Interactive Drama (ID) aims to be; a work that sets up the necessary conditions for the audience to take part. His work can be particularly pertinent to ID for two main reasons.

Firstly, literature in ID often cites Aristotle as the basis for deciding if a work is dramatically interesting (dramatic arc, tension, etc.) and aims to follow his guideline in the production of an ID piece. Boal deconstructs this notion opening the way to other structures that can also be dramatically interesting. The idea is not to tag as wrong works that do follow the Aristotelian form, but to enlarge the scope of valid for those that don't, if they can implement a form of Theatre of the Oppressed,

Secondly, his work is based on removing the separation between actor and spectator, subject and object. A theatrical piece is completed only through audience interaction. The spectator assumes a protagonist role and is an essential part of the action, as in Interactive Drama. This opens the way to a more active role of the IS user. It becomes the role of someone who deliberately creates the work, not only personalize it or influence it.

Interestingly, the four steps described above illustrate the fact that the entering into the spect-actor role is not straightforward. While intuitive user interfaces are often considered as the grail of IS, as illustrated by the “Hamlet in the Holodeck” metaphor (Murray, 1997), Boal approach would on the contrary favour a specific training for a given system, in order for the user to gain the necessary knowledge to act meaningfully. As Boal attempts to eliminate the difference between audience and actor, this difference remains. A core of actors are trained and prepared to take an audience through a participative theatre experience. In IS, this training corresponds to the training of both the author (who can be multiple) and the system designer (ibid.). Thus, applying the notions of participative theatre to ID can also serve to emphasise that experiencing an ID is a process from all involved participants (end-users, creative authors, technical authors, system engineers) of creation and not a consumption of a complete product.

Systems/Tools using this theory

  • Research from Sandy Louchart on emergent narrative has looked at interactive theatre forms such as Augusto Boal Forum Theatre. It has inspired the design of Fearnot.
  • Only described conceptually, the system proposed by Gonzalo Frasca, “Video Games of the Oppressed”, is an attempt to import ideas from Augusto Boal to video games (Frasca, 2001). Frasca proposes a game inspired from The Sims, in which the player could build his own games rules in order *to be in the position of a creator, conveying his proper message to other players.




  • Boal, A. (1979). Theatre of the Oppressed. London: Pluto Press.
  • Frasca, G. (2001). Video games of the oppressed: videogames as a means for critical thinking and debate. M.A. Thesis, School of Literature, Communication and Culture, Georgia Institute of Technology, Atlanta.
  • Murray, J. H. (1997). Hamlet on the holodeck : the future of narrative in cyberspace. New York, NY: Free Press.