The legislative theater of Augusto Boal

Hans Hofmann, Sic Itur ad Astra (That's the Way to the Stars), 1962.


Testimony included in the recently released book, organized by Fabiana Comparato and Julián Boal.

Boal's idea was to become a councilor without abandoning the theater. Or rather, he wanted to take his troupe into the City Council. And so Teatro Legislativo was born, already campaigning with the group from the Center for Theater of the Oppressed (CTO), us. We had no resources and our campaign relied heavily on the CTO's pre-existing connections and practices. I joined the CTO in 1990. The center, however, had existed in Rio de Janeiro since 1986, and until 1992, the year of the campaign, it went through several moments of instability, including the fact that it did not have a fixed headquarters.

But the group never abandoned its own grassroots work and partnerships, such as, for example, with the union of bank workers, teachers, and progressive city halls at the time. In addition, there was also Boal's notoriety as a recognized figure in Brazilian theater. That is, even without funding, the campaign already had a wide network of people from the most diverse areas, from trade unionists to students, teachers, cultural workers, artists, etc. But an important factor, and perhaps even decisive for the reach of our campaign, which lacked resources, were the demonstrations for the impeachment of President Fernando Collor in 1992, which preceded the campaign period for the municipal elections.

Today, the aestheticization of demonstrations is a commonplace phenomenon, but at the time it was unheard of. There was no organization of groups to aestheticize the street. In general, people went to the streets, together with a group, with flags and banners, but without a worked image. We at the CTO were one of the first groups to dramatize the demonstrations, in addition to the student groups that became known as the cara-pintadas. We created scenes and songs about the political issues at hand that made a lot of noise, drew attention, even gaining space in the media. Which also made us add new people, as it combined the pleasure of doing theater with going out to the streets and demonstrating.

Furthermore, redemocratization was recent and expressions of weariness with the political system and the electoral process were still very small. In the wake of the long-awaited political opening, post-dictatorship, voting still generated enthusiasm, there was hope in the electoral process. Boal was not a party man, but the Workers' Party (PT) at the time represented the strength of the left and the campaign of the then mayoral candidate, Benedita da Silva, grew a lot, even despite the great racism she suffered. We had all of that in our favor.

We also carried out many activities at universities, student mobilization was strong. We often created scenes and music for Benedita's campaign activities, and, when invited, we made occasional visits to certain communities. In addition to this transit through different territories, which we were looking for in every possible way, our campaign did not have a thematic axis (something that was an advantage, but from another point of view, perhaps a disadvantage). Since culture has a transversal content and considering the very essence of the Theater of the Oppressed – of debating all forms of oppression –, the themes were multiple.

Contrary to what other campaigns did, invariably focusing on specific areas of action, as we heard a lot about the “education candidate” or the “health candidate”, the issues addressed by our campaign and which would continue into the mandate were those that revealed themselves to be in the meetings, and covered health, education, human rights, housing, racism, homophobia, prejudice, etc. Even, in retrospect, I think we could have fought more on the front of public policies for culture. Deepening the sector's debate, such as, for example, the creation of a municipal culture fund. What we didn't lack was authority and mobilization capacity to organize a debate in this sense. But the fact is that a single mandate, especially when this one is guided by direct participation, would not be able to cover all the debates.

An interesting observation, which perhaps reflects this multiple character of the campaign not only in terms of themes, but ways of winning the city, was the distribution of votes for Boal. His militancy and above all the grassroots work carried out in the campaign, led by his theatrical theory of the Theater of the Oppressed, was directly reflected in the capillarity of his votes, which were distributed a little in every corner of the city, and not concentrated in the South Zone, as many could imagine.

We won the elections with the central proposal of a mandate that would make politics through theater. Our motto was: the democratization of politics through theater. Here the political-theatrical mandate of Augusto Boal was born. And it is important to highlight that, when we talked about politics, it was also politics in the formal sense of the word. That is, of politics as a function of the mandate, in the performance of the councilor.

Our challenge was how to democratize this golden cage, which are the formal spaces of politics and their actors. At that time, it was difficult to find an ordinary citizen who had not even entered one of these spaces, such as the ALERJ (Legislative Assembly of the State of Rio de Janeiro) or the City Council. In other words, democratize even access to structures, opening up to the population what was happening inside, even if our focus went beyond these spaces.

The mandate's strategy was based on the creation of thematic or regional centers, in locations where we already had or were invited to build contact. We arrived with the CTO cast already performing a scene. A single kombi took us everywhere, along with the sets, costumes and everything else needed to put on a theatrical presentation even where there was no stage. Everything was simple and light. Stage partitions and “dressing rooms” made of a rudimentary tubular structure with cloth and canvas. Enough to create an aesthetic space. The assembly of the scenic space started the approximation process, drawing people's attention to what was going to happen there. A magical space created in places where many times people had not even gone to the theater or seen a play.

Our first intention was to demonstrate how we could take local issues to other spheres through the theatrical tool itself, potentially even creating laws. But, despite the fact that theater is liberating, it does nothing on its own. It is not part of the concept of Theater of the Oppressed to parachute into a social space, hence the primary need for dialogue with some group, association or social or community movement. Entering a community with theater is like entering someone else's home, and it must be done with respect. The idea was never to create a group out of a vacuum; that is, the Legislative Theater, through the practices of the Theater of the Oppressed, came to add strength to existing local movements, with the aim of expansion.

And we still cannot lose sight of the fact that this is a process crossed by formal politics, that is, having the incidence of a political party, even if we do not participate in a conventional mandate. On the one hand, this political presence offered us structure, but also resistance in grassroots work, even if at the time the view of the PT was different, less critical than it is today. We sought to overcome resistance by making it absolutely clear that no one from the core would need to join any political party. And we've always been very well received.

The image normally associated with councilors was that of a figure who distributed t-shirts, dentures, but not ours. The theater did not arrive as a threat. Including, not always the participants of the nuclei were necessarily progressive. We often dealt with conservative and reactionary individuals. But this was also part of the process inherent to the Theater of the Oppressed, raising awareness through the construction of scenes to the issues reported by the community. In other words, the work of creating the nuclei involved approximation, mobilization and, above all, articulation and awareness.

We were always looking for possible connections for each group. In the case of mental health, for example, in addition to creating scenes and debates with the core, we promoted presentations at universities, but also at schools to destigmatize the theme. At the time, in partnership with the Franco Basaglia Institute and Casa das Palmeiras,[1] we researched the Organic Law of the Municipality in the area of ​​mental health and found that it was a Frankenstein, ranging from lobotomy to more progressive issues. So we connected with the anti-asylum struggle and psychiatric reform movements to understand how to change legislation.

The idea, above all, was to create not only thematic connections, but to expand the territories. For example: suppose we create a play about domestic violence together with a certain community. The scene could have been developed through a specific experience in that favela, but it permeated the gender issue of women throughout the city. There were connection possibilities there that are fundamental for a greater transformation to take place and that would not happen only through a small nucleus. It was necessary to move forward and expand the issues in this regard. Many times even breaking down the walls of the movements themselves, which often closed themselves off and did not seek dialogue.

This work, in essence, was what we called a “solidarity network” – joint presentations that created a meeting channel between different struggles. Like, for example, a group of black people performing together with an LGBT group. What is common in racial and homophobic oppression? Who is the oppressor in these cases? Often it is a similar oppressor. As Boal humorously put it, often this oppressor “came out of the same headquarters”. And, by providing this kind of approach, it is possible to expand the vision about the many oppressions being experienced by groups that are not close, but that had experiences of oppression in common. Demonstrating that there is no hierarchy of oppressions, they are multifaceted and act in different fields, often even transversal.

The “Câmara na Praça” was also another instrument that helped us to take complex issues outside the legislative house and to connect it with the population. To raise awareness of the issues, we often took other councilors out of the Chamber. “Câmara na Praça” often took place right there in front of the legislative house, in Cinelândia square, where councilors and the population would gather to discuss projects together. And we even had a captive audience of homeless people who charged us when there was no theatrical performance.

We started the work of Teatro Legislativo with a relatively large group of twenty, thirty people, which narrowed down to a group of six people (Bárbara Santos, Claudete Félix, Helen Sarapeck, Maura de Souza, Olivar Bendelak and me), who stayed together in this four-year crossing of the mandate. The nuclei were made up of citizens, militants, not hired professional actors. With that, the meetings took place at different times, when it was possible for people, at night, on weekends. Militant work.

There were also so-called “fires” which, as the name implies, were unforeseen situations that required our immediate action. Like a quick response to a complaint of racism, for example. And that involved quickly creating a play on the subject and presenting it at the place where the incident occurred, as a form of protest. Much in line with what happened at the CPC (Centro Popular de Cultura) in the 1960s. Today these strategies may not seem so new, but at the time this type of practice was rare, if not non-existent. As well as the relationship of the mandate with the communities, the favelas. Unlike today, at the time there were few organizations, including non-governmental ones, that operated directly in the territories and/or mainly used art and culture as an instrument of action.

The focus on connections made us participate in a councilor mandate, perhaps the only one, with action even outside our own municipality. At that time, the MST in Rio de Janeiro was still a little incipient as an organization, so we created a nucleus in the nearest settlement, Sol da Manhã, in Seropédica, a very exciting group. In a pragmatic view of electoral politics, it made no sense to create a nucleus and engender efforts that went beyond the borders of the municipality that the mandate represented. But not for us, because, in addition to everything, the group came to perform in the South Zone of the city.

Imagine, at that time, the Landless Movement doing a theatrical presentation on Ipanema beach. It was about the promotion of political debate, beyond the pragmatism of immediate results. This is an important aspect of the Legislative Theater, it is not extinguished in its legal framework, that is, it is not limited to being just a facilitator of laws. As Luiz Eduardo Greenhalgh said, “the fight makes the law”. That is, the bill presented, the law enacted, does not come from an individual head, but from a broad political debate of social struggle.

Going further, the Legislative Theater does not end with making the law, the experience involves monitoring the execution of the law and denouncing other laws that do not correspond to the needs of the population. Making Legislative Theater is not just making laws, but building a political process of debate and questioning injustices through theater. It could be, for example, a political-theatrical action denouncing oppression, and mobilizing partners and social movements to fight on this front.

And for that, communication with the population was a commitment, which also happened through our direct mail. We distributed our bulletin, Boca no Trombone, with certain periodicity, to everyone interested in receiving it, whose addresses were collected during events, in the nuclei, in presentations, mobilizations, etc. It was not a pamphleteer communiqué, reporting only the deeds of the mandate, as there was in the communication something of storytelling with a certain humor, in the best Boal style, a “telling” of the processes and debates of the mandate at that given moment. We were a novelty even within the party, within the left. And sometimes we faced resistance both inside and outside the party, we weren't always taken seriously because of our form and aesthetics.

Much of what we did would still be, in a way, an innovation. Not completely new, given that it has already been done. Mainly with regard to our proposal of aesthetic insertion in politics. But, from the point of view of the connection with formal, party politics, these techniques are still underused. Even today it is a stimulating process that has not been exhausted. We were not career politicians, our primary objective was not to collect votes. Hearing, for example, Boal pronounce the words “vote for me” in the first campaign was difficult. But this also meant that this single mandate did not see its own possibility of continuity in its process.

It turned out to be a pilot mandate, during which the tools were both developed and put into practice. That is, the instruments remain new, because the Theater of the Oppressed offers this tool that is essentially participatory, this call to participation. Augusto Boal's mandate was a unique experience, but it is not the only possible experience, many others can be created. There is definitely a lot to be explored and created following the path of the Legislative Theater, even more so nowadays, when the class struggle is wide open and there is a radical dispute for hearts, minds and bodies. I believe that cultural and theatrical action can be very valuable at this time when we are losing heavily.

*Geo Britto He holds a master's degree in Contemporary Arts Studies from the Fluminense Federal University (UFF) and has been a member of the Center for Theater of the Oppressed (CTO) since 1990. He is currently the artistic director of the Escola de Teatro Popular (ETP).

Testimony based on an interview conducted in May 2020 by Fabiana Comparato.


Augusto Boal. Legislative Theater. Organization: Fabiana Comparato and Julián Boal. São Paulo, Editora 34, 2020, 256 pages.


[1] The Franco Basaglia Institute (IFB), which is no longer in operation, was a non-profit civil institution operating in the field of mental health and playing an important role in psychiatric reform in Brazil. Casa das Palmeiras, another non-profit institution, created by Nise da Silveira from her practices in 1956, still maintains its activities in patient care, in addition to being a space for study and training. The two institutions were very important for the paradigm shift in mental health care in the country.

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