The theatre of change

Augusto Boal (1931-2009) was a Brazilian author, playwright and director who served one term as city councillor in Rio de Janeiro from 1993 to 1997. He is most well known as the founder of Theatre of the Oppressed, a dramatic form of popular education now used by social movements in more than 70 countries. —Wikipedia

“In its most archaic sense, theatre is the capacity possessed by human beings—and not by animals—to observe themselves in action,” wrote drama theorist Augusto Boal. “Humans are capable of seeing themselves in the act of seeing, of thinking their emotions, of being moved by their thoughts. They can see themselves here and imagine themselves there; they can see themselves today and imagine themselves tomorrow. This is why humans are able to identify (themselves and others) and not merely to recognise.”

Facilitation is a bit of theatre. As human beings, we have to orchestrate our own openness, and choreograph a chance to think differently about challenges we thought we already knew inside and out. Outside help is essential—someone unattached who can take all the raw elements of our voices, our differences, and our shared interests—as done when we stage a play—and combine them together into an experience that moves people. And that’s what we do, taking a cue from touchstones like Augusto Boal.

More of us than ever can see it, plainly and without much study—the status quo isn’t working anymore. In all the ways we live and commune together, more of us can see the systems around us (and their shortfalls) with clarity: systems that govern how we work, solve problems, transport ourselves around, divvy up resources, draw out new ideas, educate our kids, mitigate poverty, encourage social mobility, and amplify inventiveness on all fronts. As we evolve and grow more diverse, the ‘way things have always been done’ serves a smaller and smaller fraction of us. We could be making things better.

As a drama theorist, Boal knew this—and his work went way beyond theatre. He helped people find more new ways to switch on openness, both as individuals and as a collective. His work was surprising, shocking, and delightful for participants—and all the above in how profoundly effective it’s proven to be as a pathway to optimism and action.

Augusto Boal was my first teacher. He signalled the way to meaningful, significant change through participation and engagement—and in a way that’s incredible to experience. Engage, Unmask and Transform—an introduction to Image Theatre—was the first public training I ever offered in my early twenties. From there, the interactive theatre and music work I was doing in the Netherlands with Engage! InterACT led me to the people of the Art of Hosting global network, Pioneers of Change, and the Berkana Exchange, many of whom I still work with all over the world today.

It all started with Boal’s entirely surprising, mindset-shifting ideas. He has been my constant source of inspiration over the last 20 years, and a solid base of theory and practice. He remains one of my great unmet mentors, along with Billy Bragg and Alex Ferguson! In our work, we can only hope to do justice as we take so many cues from one of the most giant change leaders of our times.


“When so many certainties have become so many doubts, when so many dreams have withered on exposure to sunlight, and so many hopes have become as many deceptions—now that we are living through times and situations of great perplexity, full of doubts and uncertainties, now more than ever I believe it is time for a theatre which, at its best, will ask the right questions at the right times. Let us be democratic and ask our audiences to tell us their desires, and let us show them alternatives. Let us hope that one day—please, not too far in the future—we’ll be able to convince or force our governments, our leaders, to do the same; to ask their audiences—us—what they should do, so as to make this world a place to live and be happy in—yes, it is possible—rather than just a vast market in which we sell our goods and our souls. Let’s hope. Let’s work for it!”
— Augusto Boal

We’re on board. Are you?