A Summary of Theatre of the Oppressed and Participatory Research

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This is part of a series of chapter summaries of the Handbook of Participatory Research and Inquiry

This summary will outline the life and practice of Augusto Boal and his Theatre of the Oppressed (TO) and how it relates and contributes to participatory research.  Boal (1931 – 2009) was a Brazilian theatre practitioner, theorist and political activist who developed TO, a collection of tools and techniques used across the world in participatory and transformative theatre work.  Through workshops and performances he continually re-invented his methods of using theatre as a tool to look critically at reality, and then to challenge and transform oppression together with communities.

Boal’s Philosophy and Image Theatre, Forum Theatre and Legislative Theatre

Boal was interested in ‘the possibilities of a workable Marxist theatre aesthetic in the Brechtian tradition’ (Campbell, 2019: 6) alongside the influence of Paulo Freire’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed.  This resulted in an approach to popular theatre in which spectators are reimagined as ‘spect-actors’ who create and contribute to the aesthetic processes in which they take part.  This can be demonstrated through three of TO’s most well-known tools: Image Theatre, Forum Theatre and Legislative Theatre.  Image theatre involves participants using their bodies to create images exploring oppression which are then reflected upon together (Santiago-Jirau and Thompson, 2019: 156).  Forum theatre mobilises the ‘spect-actors’ of a performance to move onto the stage and perform proposed solutions to an oppression portrayed in the play.  This process is curated by a ‘Joker’, who is a conduit between the audience and those onstage, who must facilitate, provoke and manage the proceedings.  Forum Theatre is a place not ‘to show the correct path, but only to offer the means by which all possible paths may be examined’ (Boal, 1979: 141).  Legislative Theatre builds on this by taking the solutions proposed onstage by the spect-actors and bringing them together with law-makers in the same event.  Through these three brief examples we can chart the progress from the passive spectators of traditional theatre into ‘spect-actors’ who can embody and understand their own oppression, propose and trial solutions to it and then translate these solutions into legislation.

Applications to Research

TO as created by Boal is a transformatory artistic practice, not a fully formed research methodology and therefore in most research applications TO methods are used alongside other more traditional research methods.  Catherine Etmanski describes the possibilities TO offers action-oriented research by charting resonances, both are interested not just in understanding reality, but changing or transforming it (2014: 775).  Boal himself saw theatre as a form of knowledge, and alongside this ran his commitment to the use of this knowledge ‘as a means of transforming society (Boal, 1992: xxxi).  Key features of TO which are particularly relevant to research are the dialogic properties of the aesthetic space, the ‘spect-actor’ and theatre as a form of knowledge.  

The aesthetic space is the space which is created when participants show an Image in a workshop, or give a performance.  Boal writes at length about the properties of the aesthetic space which allows us to see ourselves, but also the memory of the past and the imagination of the future (Boal, 1994: 19).  This unique perspective is exciting for research as we are able to both see and analyse but crucially as ‘spect-actors’ we are also able to interact with and change what we see.  Participants in the research process are able to combine analysis with the creation of new knowledge and dialogue with what is presented in the aesthetic space, in a cycle of action and reflection.  

Boal believed everyone was an actor (Jackson, 1992) and should be able to access the means of production of theatre but also everyone is an actor in the world, with the power to change it.  Likewise, in participatory research everyone has access to the means of production of knowledge through participation in the research process as co-researchers.  This breaking down of traditional barriers in the hierarchy between the objective researcher and those being researched are challenged even further by the physical and fun activities of creating theatre – ‘spect-actors’ are creators of knowledge alongside the researcher in an embodied process.

Boal’s notion of theatre as knowledge resonates with some participatory research methodologies which allow for an expansion of our understanding of knowledge.  For example cooperative inquiry uses an ‘extended epistemology’ that allows for ‘tacit and pre-verbal’ learning to emerge from a community of co-inquirers (Heron and Reason, 2014: 2 – 3).  The techniques of TO lend themselves to exploring these other knowledges, as we have seen with Image Theatre which uses our embodied instincts to provoke various interpretations.  The focus is not on the original intention or ‘truth’ of the image, but rather the emergence of a collective set of truths or understandings, which are allowed to co-exist. 

Dilemmas and Implications

Recording and Presenting Knowledgea key consideration is the translation of the particular kinds of knowledges produced by the method into that which is academically acceptable, without reducing them to the verbal and the elite.  This is similar to the dilemmas faced in other participatory methods which also use creative methods and may analyse images, use personal reflections or the discussions surrounding images and stimuli.

Role of the FacilitatorA researcher using TO must consider the additional role as the facilitator of a creative process and how this will impact their positionality and the research.  The facilitator, or  ‘Joker’ can be a powerful figure who is there to ask questions, to provoke and perhaps inspire.  How does this role work alongside the role of the researcher? Ali Campbell reflects on this and employs a deep and unflinching self-reflection alongside an awareness of this tension (2019), through this awareness practitioners can be mindful of their own presence. 

TO in Research? To what ends?TO was developed as a radical act in direct opposition to oppression as a tool for revolution.  Today as the methods have been adopted, reproduced and reimagined in many contexts across the world, critiques have emerged that TO has become far removed from its original political intent (Howe et al, 2019: 1, Boal, J., 2019: 292).  These are important questions to consider.  For Boal, TO was about using people’s knowledge through theatre in order to act, to make a change.  This is the crucial impetus at the heart of TO – the spect-actor who is co-creator of knowledge, and action.  


Augusto Boal’s TO has proved a rich resource for a global community of practitioners who have used and extended his methods for a huge range of purposes.  There are elements of TO which offer us the opportunity to access new or underexplored sources of knowledge, generated in collaboration and dialogue with participants.  This approach faces us with questions as practitioners and researchers.  These include queries about the intentions and impact of our work, and its relationship to Boal’s revolutionary philosophy.

Recommended reading

Boal, A. (1979). Theatre of the Oppressed.  New York: Theatre Communications Group.

Boal, A. (1992). Games for Actors and Non-Actors. Trans. A. Jackson.  London and New York: Routledge.

Boal, A. (1994). The Rainbow of Desire: The Boal Method of Theatre and Therapy, 1st edn. London and New York: Routledge.

Boal, J. (2019). Theatre of the Oppressed in neoliberal times: From Che Guevara to the Uber driver. in K. Howe, J. Boal and J. Soeiro, (Eds.), The Routledge Companion to Theatre of the Oppressed. New York: Routledge. pp.288 – 301.

Campbell, A. (2019).  The Theatre of the Oppressed in Practice Today: An Introduction to the Work and Principles of Augusto Boal. London and New York: Methuen Drama. 

Etmanski, C. (2014). Theatre of the Oppressed. in D. Coghlan, and M. Brydon-Miller (Eds.), The SAGE Encyclopedia of Action Research. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage. pp. 773 – 776.

Heron, J. and Reason, P. (2014). Co-operative inquiry. in D. Coghlan, and M. Brydon-Miller (Eds.), The SAGE Encyclopedia of Action Research. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage. pp. 188 – 192. 

Howe, K., Boal, J. and Soeiro, J. (Eds.), The Routledge Companion to Theatre of the Oppressed. New York: Routledge. 

Jackson, A. (1992). Translator’s Introduction. In A. Boal, Games for Actors and Non-Actors.  London and New York: Routledge.

Santiago-Jirau, A.  and Leigh Thompson, S. (2019) Image theatre: A liberatory practice for ‘making thought visible’. In K. Howe, J. Boal and J. Soeiro, (Eds.), The Routledge Companion to Theatre of the Oppressed. New York: Routledge. pp. 156 – 161.

Soeiro, J. (2019). Legislative Theatre: Can theatre reinvent politics? In K. Howe, J. Boal and J. Soeiro, (Eds.), The Routledge Companion to Theatre of the Oppressed. New York: Routledge.