Theatre of the Oppressed

How might we use theatre and improv as tools for popular community-based education and social change?

Wikimedia Commons: Thehero [CC BY-SA 3.0 (]
Tried and Tested
Book, Activity, Game
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Purpose for Students
Make it Personal
Experience It
Date Added: 
June 2019

Relationship to Ambiguity

Theatre of the Oppressed is a theatrical practice created by Brazilian theatre visionary, Augusto Boal, inspired by Paulo Friere's most famous book on the power of education, Pedagogy of the Oppressed. Boal developed this unique form of theatre over the course of his social activist work with peasant and worker populations in Brazil. His methods are now used worldwide for social and political activism, conflict resolution, community building, therapy, and government legislation.

Boal’s theater is designed around the idea of the “spect-actor,” an audience member who is also an actor: someone who can take to the stage to take part in the drama. Indeed, at Theatre of the Oppressed performances, audience members are free to comment on the action and, more importantly, to step up on stage and play roles of their choice. The aim of this is to empower audiences to discover new ways of resolving the dilemmas that the play presents. In follow-up exercises, community members can then learn how to translate these insights into social action. In this particular text, Boal outlines the theatre games and exercises used in performance and in follow-up meetings to help communities explore alternative outcomes, identities, power-dynamics, and inter-personal relationships.




I have participated in a number of Theatre of the Oppressed workshops in university settings. I have also worked with theatre practitioners with years of experience working in the field of community theatre, a field that is almost entirely predicated on Boal's work.




Theatre of the Oppressed is an embodied prototyping exercise. Not only does it give people the chance to embody and experience alternative points of view / positions of privilege or power (or lack, thereof), it also allows a group to negotiate a number of possible solutions to a conflict. By acting out various alternatives, you are not only encouraged to explore the numerous ambiguities of a situation, but also to recognize your own power to work towards a solution.

Design Abilities Used

In acting with others you learn to see things from their perspective and to take their needs into consideration.

In improvisations you are required to embody the "YES AND" principle of design thinking: you must be prepared to build upon whatever your fellow actors present you with. The keys here are adaptability and play.

Boal's work encourages participants to consider how concrete examples of oppression or community conflict intersect with larger societal problems and vice-versa. In moving from the local/specific to the macro-level, it encourages participants to consider what they can do to free themselves and their families but also what they can do to free and/or improve the broader society.

In rehearsing a scene over and over from different perspectives and with alternative endings, participants learn about escalation, mitigation, and compromise. How one communicates — the language one uses, one's body language, and the attitude one brings into the room — shapes the outcome of an encounter. Participants become hyper aware of their bodies, their tone, their word choices so that they can more effectively use these tools to effect positive change.


Submitted by:

Aine Tyrrell
Aine Tyrrell
Ph.D. Candidate, Theatre and Performance Studies Department, Stanford University

Design Abilities Used

Learn from Others (People and Contexts)
Experiment Rapidly
Move Between Concrete + Abstract
Communicate Deliberately
Learn More about Design Abilities 


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