Theatre of the Oppressed and its Derivatives

Theatre of the Oppressed, Forum Theatre and Theatre for Living are all types of impromptu performance. The aim of the dramatic technique is to unmask oppression.

The types of impromptu performance often referred to as Theatre of the Oppressed share characteristics that define them as events where participants either script the drama live, during or shortly before the event. The content is directly flowing from, and related to, the lives of oppressed that are in the play and the audience. At some stage there will be an invitation, either implied or real, for audience participation in the form of interventions.

There is an expectation that there may be positive outcomes, which flow from the dramatic experience in the form of personal or collective understandings about working against oppression. It is expected that members of the group may become better able to deal with difficult social issues.

Theatre of the Oppressed

Theatre of the Oppressed was a method elaborated by the Brazilian director Augusto Boal. He was influenced by the work of Paulo Freire. The innovative and experimental genre has been developing since the 1960s. Theatre is deployed as a means of acquiring knowledge about, and transformation of, the interior reality in the social and relational field. The audience becomes active, and in doing so become “spect-actors.” They are invited to explore, communicate about, analyze and transform the reality in which they are living.
Forum Theatre

Developing from the original Theatre of the Oppressed, Forum came about spontaneously from the process called ‘simultaneous dramaturgy.’ Boal was directing a dramatic script when the phenomenon developed by chance. An audience member became frustrated with an actor who did not understand her directions. An intervention took place as she took the actors’ place. The impact of this occurrence was to remove the traditional audience/actor split. From this phenomenon a new form of political theatre was created.

Boal discovered as he worked in this manner, that active participation of the audience-actors, ‘spect-actors’, was empowering for them. The idea of the ‘spect-actor’ became important within a dominant force of Boal’s developing forum theatre work. It is hypothesized that there is potential for healing as audiences were now encouraged to not only imagine change but to actually practise behaviors which bring about this change. Through this reflexive activity participants were now able to reflect collectively on the suggestion or suggestions. This style of political theatre has become a vehicle through which community developers can generate and empower social action.

Theatre for Living

Theatre for Living, described by David Diamond in his 2007 book of the same name, views the world through a philosophical stance known as systems theory. This philosophical stance recognises and acts from an understanding that the binary poles of the oppressed/ oppressor antagonism consists within a larger whole. It is part of the same organism living within internal dysfunction.

This approach to theatre comes from an inquiry that seeks to understand the root causes of social issues and problems. By taking a theatrical approach, the participants in the experimental dynamics give voice to their oppression, whilst at the same time allowing the voice of the oppressor to become a part of the dialogue.

“Oppressors of our would do not come from outer space,” Diamond writes; rather “living communities grow them.” He writes that readers may think there are clear  boundaries between the oppressor and the oppressed, but frequently these divisions do not exist simply, and they are not clear.

By viewing the world through a systems theories lens, participants may also come to the idea with a fresh insight that indicates people are not prisoners of the structures they inhabit. Nature evolves structures as a reaction or response to patterns of behavior that occur over time.

Diamond writes that “working politically to change the structures in which we live without working to change the behavior that creates those structures is futile.” Because Living Theatre recognises this view of the world, plays are scripted to allow for these interrelated positions to become visible.  Plays are scripted by participants in ways that help them to investigate behaviors. Through this process they are enabled to lay bare invisible assumptions. Having gained fresh insight it is now possible to choose to alter behavior and attitudes as a result of recognizing these forces.

Differences Between Theatre of the Oppressed and Theatre for Living

In traditional Theatre of the Oppressed people who come onto the stage are the oppressed and they will do battle with the oppressor in an attempt to overthrow oppression.

By developing this style of theatre into process-oriented drama called Theatre for Living, Diamond seeks to further authenticate the process. He asks that people be aware that there is a little of the oppressor and the oppressed in all human interactions. He claims that by recognising this paradox it is possible to invite or allow the oppressor to enter the stage.

By broadening the scope of possibility, a more comprehensive and real view of social problems can be enacted. Through recognition of the total social system behaviors that create imbalance, inequality and injustice can be combated.


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