Augusto Boal has left the stage

Issue section: 

Mike Gonzalez and Marianella Yanes pay homage to the founder of the Theatre of the Oppressed, Augusto Boal, who died last month

It would be wrong to describe Augusto Boal as a theatre director, a dramatist, a producer or an actor, though he was all of those things. Returning to his native Brazil in 1955 from the US with a degree in theatre arts, he was hired to work for the famous Arena Theatre, which challenged the social realism of the theatre of the time with the ideas of Bertolt Brecht.

Theatre, for Boal, was neither a spectacle nor a vehicle for information. Like his contemporary and friend, the great educator Paulo Freire, he wanted to go beyond propaganda to create a "theatre of the oppressed". Like Freire, his vision was of an activity that developed consciousness, an understanding that opened possibilities for action in and on the world to change both the individual and his or her material circumstances.

For both of them the starting point was the experience of the poor themselves. That was to be the material of both education and art, because both were opportunities for people to become active subjects. Those ideas were reflected in the popular education movements developed in Cuba and Nicaragua and in the new theatre that emerged in Latin America and elsewhere from the early 1960s; both were in the deepest sense revolutionary. That is why Boal was arrested by the Brazilian military in 1971, and jailed and tortured before his release four months later. He then went into exile.

When the dictatorship ended, Boal returned to Brazil, bringing with him the Forum-Theatre movement he had initiated in Peru and extending his work into Brazil's ferocious prison system. In 1993 he was elected to parliament in Rio for the Workers Party. His first act was to set up what he called his Legislative Theatre, with the aim of turning voters into legislators. More importantly, he put his ideas into practice with the Landless Workers Movement (the MST), the creative and combative movement that has transformed Brazil's poorest people into conscious and highly organised activists in the struggle for land.

It is a fitting legacy to the man who said, "We need to pursue a new ethos...solidarity, dialogue, democracy - a real democracy and not the kind we have now...That is my dream."

Mike Gonzalez

It was the late 1970s, and the socio-political reality of Latin America was the military dictatorships like that in Chile of Augusto Pinochet, who had overthrown the government of Salvador Allende. The extreme right was embedded across the continent, wreaking havoc.

The persecution of artists, intellectuals, film directors and dramatists brought many of them to Venezuela which at that time was living through an oil boom and presenting itself to the world as a representative democracy, the expression of a "freedom" bought with petro-dollars. It was to end in the great popular rising of 27 February 1989, known as the Caracazo.

Theatre workers from all over Latin America were drawn to the theatre festivals in Caracas, where the debates centred on "urgent theatre", the need for a popular theatre, a theatre of the oppressed, a theatre of the streets that could promote a consciousness of our reality.

The proposals of Augusto Boal, with their Brechtian influences, locked directly into the practices of a committed theatre and produced discussions and debates in theatres and university groups, on the streets and in the poor districts. Those ideas merged with improvisation techniques to build political and theatrical spaces that would strengthen popular resistance. This was theatre as an instrument of liberation for a class fighting for its survival.

Boal's legacy has been to turn the spirit of struggle of the people into living art. The stage could be any square, any street, any station platform. The work would arise from the simple need to express the contradictions that affect us - racism, hunger, poverty. The actors were the men and women who lived that social inequality. The techniques would be determined by the people of the barrios. The director had left the theatre and gone into the streets. The worker was the actor in the factory, the student in the school, the nurse in the hospital. Spaces were taken over without warning and the magic arose out of our meeting together united by the drive to expose and confront inequality. Liberation meant becoming conscious participants in our own history.

In those difficult times, when Boal was facing persecution like so many other Latin American exiles, we remember him as dynamic, political, resolute, militant and modest. His influence drew us into a theatre committed to the pursuit of justice and liberty, a commitment that remains strong for those of us who were fortunate enough to know him.

Marianella Yanes is a Venezuelan actor who was active in theatre during this period.