A Brief Biography of Augusto Boal

by Doug Paterson

Brazilian Dr. Augusto Boal was raised in Rio de Janeiro. He was formally trained in chemical engineering and attended Columbia University in the late 1940’s and early 1950’s. Although his interest and participation in theatre began at an early age, it was just after he finished his degree at Columbia that he was asked to return to Brazil to work with the Arena Theatre in São Paulo. His work at the Arena Theatre led to his experimentation with new forms of theatre that would have an extraordinary impact on traditional practice.

Birth of the Spect-Actor

Prior to his experimentation, and following tradition, audiences were invited to discuss a play at the end of the performance. In so doing, according to Boal, they remained viewers and “reactors” to the action before them. In the 1960’s Boal developed a process whereby audience members could stop a performance and suggest different actions for the character experiencing oppression, and the actor playing that character would then carry out the audience suggestions. But in a now legendary development, a woman in the audience once was so outraged the actor could not understand her suggestion that she came onto the stage and showed what she meant. For Boal this was the birth of the spect-actor (not spectator) and his theatre was transformed. He began inviting audience members with suggestions for change onto the stage to demonstrate their ideas. In so doing, he discovered that through this participation the audience members became empowered not only to imagine change but to actually practice that change, reflect collectively on the suggestion, and thereby become empowered to generate social action. Theatre became a practical vehicle for grass-roots activism.

Boal as a Threat

Because of Boal’s work, he drew attention as a cultural activist. But the military coups in Brazil during the 1960’s looked upon all such activity as a threat. Walking home from an Arena performance of Brecht’s The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui Boal directed in 1971, Boal was kidnapped off the street, arrested, tortured, and eventually exiled to Argentina, then self-exiled to Europe. In Argentina in 1973 he published his first major theatre text, The Theatre of the Oppressed (Routledge Press).  While in Paris, Boal continued for a dozen years to teach his revolutionary approach to theatre, establishing several Centers for the Theatre of the Oppressed. In 1981 he organized the first International Festival of the Theatre of the Oppressed in Paris.

Return to Rio

Following the removal of the military junta in Brazil, Boal returned to Rio de Janeiro in 1986. He has established a major Center for the Theatre of the Oppressed there (CTO – Rio) and has formed over a dozen companies which develop community-based performances. The vehicles for these presentations are primarily Forum Theatre and Image Theatre. Forum Theatre relies upon presentation of short scenes that represent problems of a given community such as gender for a conference on women or racial stereotyping for a class on racism. Audience members interact by replacing characters in scenes and by improvising new solutions to the problems being presented. Image theatre uses individuals to sculpt events and relationships sometimes to the accompaniment of a narrative.

Boal at ATHE

In 1992, Boal was invited to be the keynote speaker for the National Conference of the Association for Theatre in Higher Education (ATHE) in Atlanta, Georgia. This is the national association for teachers of theatre in higher education in the United States, with international connections to Canada, Europe, South America, Australia, increasingly Asia, and recently Africa. His address, together with three 5-hour long workshops during the conference, infused the participants with both a workable understanding of how to take the approaches to their schools and communities and a desire to actually use the techniques. Few other names now appear as often as Boal’s in the annual conference program.

Second Book Published

In 1992, Boal also published his second major work, Games for Actors and Non-Actors (Routledge Press). This is a splendid basic introduction to the entire range of TO theory and practice, and is useful to people experienced and inexperienced in theatre making.

Boal as Politician; Festival of TO

In the fall of 1992, Boal ran as an at-large candidate for the position of Vereador of Rio, a position similar to a City Council seat in the United States. Over one thousand candidates ran for forty-five seats; Boal was one of those elected. Because of the increased visibility brought about by his winning a seat, he was able to obtain funding to hold an international festival for the first time in Brazil in July, 1993. The Seventh International Festival of the Theatre of the Oppressed attracted one hundred, fifty Theatre of the Oppressed practitioners from around the world in an extraordinary confluence of languages, theatre styles, and social issues. The Eighth such Festival was called the Ripple Effect sponsored by Mixed Company Theatre in Toronto, Canada, and was held from May 29 to June 8, 1997. Three hundred practitioners again from around the world attended. One of the featured performances was by the company Boal directs in his hometown, the CTO – Rio. This performance and the magnanimity of the CTO-Rio group was one of the true highlights of this extraordinary gathering.

Boal in Omaha: Pedagogy & Theatre of the Oppressed Conference

1994 saw Boal’s first arrival in Omaha, Nebraska, as he presented an “introductory” workshop to students, faculty, and regional social service personnel. In 1995 Boal keynoted the Pedagogy of the Oppressed Conference sponsored by the University of Nebraska at Omaha and presented numerous community and educational workshops demonstrating his theatrical approaches. At this same time, Boal’s third major book,The Rainbow of Desire (Routledge Press), was published, which elaborates a psycho-therapeutic application of the Boal techniques, especially Image Theatre.

Boal & Freire

Over many years, Boal continued to strengthen his relationship with liberatory educator, Paulo Freire, author of the acclaimed Pedagogy of the Oppressed. At the Second Annual Pedagogy of the Oppressed Conference in Omaha in March 1996, both men appeared together on a public platform to reflect on liberatory education and to answer questions from an audience of around one thousand people. Because of their several necessary flights for personal and family safety during the 1960’s – 1980’s, this co-appearance was the first time Augusto Boal and Paulo Freire shared a common public stage. Sadly, Paulo Freire passed away in early May, 1997. Said Boal: “I am very sad. I have lost my last father. Now all I have are brothers and sisters.” The Third Annual Conference of Pedagogy & Theatre of the Oppressed was held in mid-May, 1997, where Boal led workshops in Forum Theatre. Several of the pieces developed kicked off the Conference with much interaction, reflection, action, and discussion from the conference attendees. Boal also concluded the Conference with an image exercise which amounted to a fascinating visual “critique” of the Conference itself.

Legislative Theatre

Though he lost his bid for re-election in the fall of 1996, while in office, Vereador Boal developed a Forum type of theatre — which he called Legislative Theatre — to work at the neighborhood level to identify the key problems in the city. Using the Forum concept, he employed the dynamics of theatre to discuss what kinds of legislation needed to be enacted to address community problems. The resulting discussions and demonstrations became the basis for actual legislation put forward by Boal in the Chamber of Vereadors. Not surprisingly, Boal has summarized these discoveries and processes in Legislative Theatre, published by Routledge in 1998.

Boal in England

The summer of 1997 found Boal in England where he worked with the world-renowned Royal Shakespeare Company. The RSC asked Boal to employ his Rainbow of Desire techniques in working with them on a production of Hamlet. Typical of Boal, he is not interested in the central story but in the characters who are usually cut from the play, and thus imagined a text of the marginal characters, the ones without much power. He says it might be similar to the national dish of Brazil which is based on a stew made by slaves of the leavings from the masters table.

ATHE Award

In August, 1997, Boal was awarded the Career Achievement Award by the Association for Theatre in Higher Education during their national conference in Chicago. At the Conference, Boal conducted yet another of his five-hour workshops for conference attendees as well as received the coveted Career Achievement honor.

Boal’s International and US Travels

Traveling extensively between Rio, Europe, Africa, Asia, and Australia, and North America, Boal labors tirelessly to make his processes available to as many people as he can reach. December 1998 found him in England offering his remarkable Legislative Theatre not only as a model of public performance, but as a communication network on the Internet. For this reason, the entire performance day was on-line on the World Wide Web so that people around the world could respond.

Boal went on a first major tour of the US in February and March, 1999, traveling to the following universities and colleges: New College in Sarasota, FL; Vassar; Dartmouth; Colby College; University of Georgia; Florida State; and Kansas State. New College, Dartmouth, and Kansas State, and perhaps others of these, now have student TO companies working regularly on Boal techniques.

Since then he has toured to the US every spring, anchoring his tours on the annual Pedagogy and Theatre of the Oppressed Conference and then giving workshops and presentations in many US and Canadian cities – Los Angeles, Santa Barbara, San Francisco, Seattle, Denver, Omaha, Minneapolis, Chicago, Milwaukee, Toledo, Toronto, New York City, Boston, Peoria IL, Worcester MA, and Bowling Green OH.

The objective is always to leave behind at least a core of people who can offer Boal-style workshops, analysis, and ideas. Hopefully there are hundreds and even thousands of people carrying out this liberatory approach to community animation.

In 2007 Boal scaled back his tours so that he attended the PTO Conference in Minneapolis/St. Paul, MN, on June 28 – 31, and was in residence at TOPLab in New York City from June 2 – 7.  The PTO workshops included a 3-day Forum-Joker workshop and Forum performance.

Final Tour

Augusto Boal’s final visit to North America occurred in May 2008 in Omaha, NE.  He offered a three-day Legislative Theatre workshop (May 19 – 21)  on the campus of UNO in preparation for a Legislative Theatre session.  This remarkable event was held on the night of Thursday, May 22, in the Omaha City Council Chambers through the good offices of Council Member Franklin Thompson.  It was a very large, overflow audience in the 250-seat auditorium with a rich mixture of city, university, and PTO Conference people in attendance.  Elected officials from Omaha comprised the “dais” group that watched the Forum scenes and, in a wonderful image, gathered and sorted the laws that came from the spect-actor/audience.  Julian Boal co-jokered the session with Augusto, and the event sparkled with vigorous discussion and debate.

For the first time in many years, Augusto Boal was invited to spend the next two days at the Conference itself, attending and participating in sessions, talking with participants, and gathering in the hotel bar until late into the night.  On Sunday May 25, the Boals jokered a stimulating 3-day workshop in one of Augusto’s favorite areas of inquiry – Rainbow into Forum.  The use of images to represent ideologies presented a fascinating look into his continued evolution of forms of Theatre of the Oppressed.

One of the many highlights of this last Conference was the Flower Ceremony.  PTO officers organized a tribute to Augusto Boal during which around 25 participants, in a long line Augusto traversed, handed him a carnation and read a statement about one of his many contributions to world theatre, culture, and political struggle.  It was not so much ironic as sentiently  appropriate that this ceremony marked Augusto Boal’s final PTO appearance.

It is serendipitous and fortunate that during this 14th Annual PTO Conference arrangements were made for extensive professional video taping of the Legislative Theatre workshop, the Legislative Session, conference events featuring Boal, and some of the Rainbow into Forum post-conference workshop. This large amount of tape has been collected in a disc, available through PTO and on this website, showing significant elements of each Conference event.

From Omaha, Augusto Boal and his son Julian flew to New York City to give two three-day workshops at TOPLab at the Brecht Forum in New York City.

Final Days

In the fall of 2008, PTO went ahead with plans to invite both Augusto and Julian to the 15th Annual Conference scheduled for May 18 – 21, 2009.  In March Augusto was in France, as he often was, working and writing.  One of his central projects, in addition to completing his book The Aesthetics of the Oppressed, was organizing a Gathering of Jokers in Rio for the summer of 2009.  However, he suddenly became quite tired and it was feared perhaps his leukemia, in control for the past four years, was becoming more virulent.  He returned to Rio de Janeiro in early April and by mid-April Julian confirmed that his father would not be coming to the Conference.  On Saturday, May 2nd, at 1:36 AM/CST, Julian Boal sent an e.mail to PTO Board Emeritus Doug Paterson with the following brief message:  “my father is gone – he went away sleeping.”

The shock was of course staggering.  Still the 2009 Conference was held in Minneapolis/St. Paul on the campus of Augsburg College.  A grieving and honoring ritual was organized by Hector Aristizabal for late in the evening on Wednesday, May 20.  One hundred, fifty people attended what became a deep grieving and truly celebrational honoring of the life of Augusto Boal, and PTO remains grateful to Hector for his leadership during this important event and time.

PTO released the following statement shortly after Augusto Boal’s passing:

Augusto Boal 1931-2009

PTO shares in the grief of people around the world who learned of the passing of Augusto Boal on May 1st, 2009, notably also the International Worker’s Holiday. We send our sympathies to his wife, Cecelia, his son, Julian, with whom so many of us have worked, his son Fabian, the rest of his family, the members of CTO-Rio, and his world of friends and co-workers.

Augusto Boal was a giant in so many ways: theatre director, scholar, teacher; pedagogy colleague of Paulo Freire; political representative and statesman in Rio de Janeiro and Brazil; international speaker and teacher; Nobel Peace Prize nominee; and the visionary who conceived and patiently developed one of the most revolutionary cultural and artistic practices of the last millennia, the Theatre of the Oppressed.

As the featured guest for the first PTO Conference in Omaha in 1995, Augusto attended, led workshops, and spoke at all but three of our conferences through last year’s gathering in 2008, again in Omaha. Through Augusto’s good offices, Paulo Freire came to PTO in 1996, making this the only time in their celebrated careers that these two friends presented together in public.

Julian Boal appreciates the many expressions of sympathy sent to his family, and also has indicated his intention to come to Minneapolis for the annual PTO Workshops and Conference Opening May 18 – 21. At that time, PTO will arrange a time for honoring our founding inspiration, Dr. Augusto Boal.


Books by Augusto Boal

Boal, Augusto. The Theatre of the Oppressed. New York: Urizen Books, 1979. Republished by Routledge Press in New York/London in 1982.

—-. Games for Actors and Non-Actors. New York: Routledge Press, 1992,

—-. The Rainbow of Desire. New York: Routledge Press, 1995.

—-. Legislative Theatre. New York: Routledge Press, Fall 1998.

—-.  Hamlet and the Baker’s Son.  New York:  Routledge Press, 2001.

Selected Articles by Augusto Boal

Boal, Augusto. Categories du theatre populaire. in: Travail theatral (1972)6, 3-26.

—-. The Cop in the Head: Three Hypotheses. in: The Drama Review. Fall 1990, 35-42.

—-. Una experiencia de teatro popular en el Peru. in: El teatro Latino Americano de creacion colectiva. Habana: Casa de las Americas, 1978, 243-280.

—-. Il y a plusieurs manieres de faire du theatre populaire: je les prefere toutes. in: Travail theatral (1975) 18/19, 161-171.

—-. Invisible theatre. in: Adult Education and Development (1979), 12, 29-31.

—-. El teatro popular. in: Teatro popular y cambio social en America Latina: panorama de una experiencia / ed. by S. Gutierrez. San Jose: Editorial universitaria Centroamericana (EDUCA), 1979, 43-65.

—-. Theory and Practice of the ‘Theatre of the Oppressed.’ in: Tot lering en vermaak: 9 manieren voor 10 jaar vormingstheater / red. D. van Berlaer-Helle-mans en M. van Kerkhoven. Antwerpen: Soethoudt. 1980, 83-90.

—-. “Vindicated: A Letter from Augusto Boal.” in: The Drama Review, T-143, Fall, 1994, 35-36.

Selected Articles and Books About Augusto Boal

Albuquerque, Severino-Joao. “Conflicting Signs of Violence in Augusto Boal’s Torquemada.” in: Modern Drama , 29:3, Sept. 1986, 452-459.

Berry, Kevin. “The Other Side of the Tracks.” in: Times Educational Supplement. Oct. 29, 1993, 18(1).

Bisset, Judith I. “Victims and Violators: The Structure of Violence in Torquemada.” in: Latin American Theatre Review. 15:2, Spring 1982, 27-34.

Chamberlain, Franc, eds. “Working Without Boal: Digressions and Developments in the Theatre of the Oppressed.” in: Contemporary Theatre Review: an International Journal. 3:1, 1995. Includes ten articles on the work of Boal. Authors: Frances Babbage, Steve Ball, Alister Campbell, Lyn Ferrand, Andy Hickson, Mary Ann Hushlak, Tom Magill, Nick Otty, and Chrissie Poulter.

Cohen-Cruz. “Boal at NYU: A Workshop and Its Aftermath.” in: The Drama Review. 34, Fall 1990, 43-49.

Cohen-Cruz, Jan, and Mady Schutzman. Playing Boal. New York, Routledge Press: 1994.

Heritage, Paul. “The Courage to Be Happy: Augusto Boal, Legislative Theatre, and the 7th International Festival of the Theatre of the Oppressed.” in:The Drama Review. T-143, Fall, 1994, 25-36.

Lavender, Andy. “Theatrical Utopia.” in: New Statesmen & Society. 8, Jan. 20, 1995, 32.

Luzuriaga, Gerado. “Augusto Boal and His Poetics of the Oppressed.” in: Discurso: Revista de Estudios Iberoamericanos. 8:1, 1990, 53-66.

Norden, Barbara. “The Cop in the Head.” in: New Statesmen & Society. 5, Mar 27, 1992, 33 – 34.

Paterson, Douglas L. “A Role to Play for the Theatre of the Oppressed.” in: The Drama Review. T – 143, Fall, 1994, 37-49.

Paterson, Douglas L. “We Are All Theater: An Interview with Augusto Boal.” in: High Performance. Summer, 1996, 72, 18-23.

Schutzman, Mady. “Activism, Therapy, or Nostalgia? Theatre of the Oppressed in NYC.” in:The Drama Review.. T – 143, Fall, 1994, 77-83.

Schutzman, Mady, and Jan Cohen Cruz. “Theatre of the Oppressed Workshops with Women.” in: The Drama Review. 34, Fall 1990, 66-76.

Taussig, Michael, and Richard Schechner. “Boal in Brazil, France, and the USA: An Interview with Augusto Boal.” in: The Drama Review. 34, Fall 1990, 50-65.