Boal and Agency

Ran across Caleb Winebrenner’s article on HowlRound on what he views as a libertarian approach to being a teaching artist (and Boal) at the same time I came to Boal in my critical theory reader. Thought that synchronicity was worth blogging about.

In his article he questions why the politics of theater seem to be unilaterally liberal, and argues perhaps for a more “conservative” voice in theater. That voice to him is libertarianism, which he equates with a more activated and independent theater artist and spectator. Now I am not sure if I agree with his (implied) distinction of liberal/conservative as being one of passive/active. Though perhaps in some contexts this distinction might occur, I am not sure it is the fundamental/defining difference between left and right (perhaps another post on this issue on another day). But what was interesting to me about his article, and exciting in his discussion (and my own reading) of Boal was this emphasis on empowerment, agency, and the ability to actualize change. As theater artists we often hope that the stories we tell can inspire others to empathize, to question, to act and we hope that we are directly or indirectly to elicit “change.” But often this can feel like wishful thinking—what we are really doing, especially in commercial theater in the United States, is entertaining. Boal’s theater, however, is meant to be the embodiment (or rehearsal) of the act of instigating the change. That is its direct and expressed purpose, not its happy side effect. It’s not always entertaining.

It got me thinking about a performance I saw earlier this year facilitated by a group in New York called Theatre of the Oppressed. They are doing really exciting work and you should definitely check them out (here). The performance I attended was their legislative theater event. They had worked with LGBT homeless youth to create pieces surrounding issues of significance to them (how to deal with parents who had evicted them from their homes, navigating the shelter system, unfair treatment by police in response to their presentation of sexual/gender identity). First they performed the pieces they created, then they used Boal’s technique of having an audience volunteer (the spect-actor) replace the protagonist and attempt to enact an alternative scenario. Then after the pieces, they facilitated a dialogue with the audience in which ideas for tangible legislative change were discussed, written down, and passed to a legal advisory team, which then funneled these ideas to a member of city council who was in attendance. At the end of the event, he spoke and expressed which of these legislative ideas he would pursue as policy in city council.

Now, to me it seemed as if the city councilmen might have been trotting out ideas he already had in the works that seemed to touch upon the issues we were bringing up. So I’m not sure that the event affected meaningful change in that way (though I could be wrong). But in the sense of fostering active engagement the event seemed extremely successful. Perhaps not as much so for the spect-actors (some of that engagement felt a little awkward) but certainly for the LGBT youth who had devised the pieces and were facilitating the event. Here they had thought about and defined their problems as well as devised solutions in collaboration with each other. Here they were communicating that to a group of people, including policy makers. Here they were, active participants in a world in which they could easily (and rightfully) feel victimized. It was inspiring. In this context, the theater event was not a “text” to be “read,” it was not a commentary on the world or society, nor was it attempting to do much aesthetically. The meaning of the event was in its creation, its doing, not in its interpretation.

Having spent the last few weeks working through some of the core critical texts in theater the thing that really amazes me is the variety of ways theater can function. In the U.S. it is so often as entertainment that may or may not have deeper, more challenging meaning. It was satisfying to read all of these incredible thinkers exploring what theater meant and could do and to feel my eyes opened a bit wider to its possibilities and capabilities, both aesthetically and beyond.

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