Based on Frierian principles, Boal’s Forum Theatre is an interactive theatre form that seeks to show a person, the protagonist, trying to deal with oppression but failing because of the resistance of one or more obstacles, the antagonists.
It was originally developed to give a voice to the poor and dispossessed in Brazil, where Boal was a theatre-maker in the early 1970s. The oppressions these people were facing were frequently located in material or coercive forces such as poverty, the threat of police or military violence, or the unscrupulous behaviour of feudal landowners. Because of his advocacy work for human rights through Forum Theatre, Boal was kidnapped from the street, tortured, and eventually exiled by the Brazilian military regime. Boal’s model is extremely effective as a method of giving oppressed people a voice, and has been used successfully in a wide variety of contexts.
A Forum Theatre performance model consists of two distinct halves mediated by the figure of a ‘Joker’. During the first half of the performance, the audience watches a short play in which a protagonist encounters an obstacle which he is unable to overcome. The subject-matter will usually be something of immediate importance to the audience, often based on a shared life experience. After this performance, there is a brief discussion amongst the audience, and then the intervention part of the performance begins. The play is restarted from the beginning and runs as before. This time, however, whenever a Spect-Actor feels a protagonist might usefully have tried a different strategy, he can stop the action, take the protagonist‘s place, and try out his idea. In this way, the Spect-Actors play a vital role; they are the ones who suggest and test the answers and solutions to the real-life problems that are being re-enacted on the stage. The other characters in the piece react to the interventions realistically, as they feel their characters would react on a bad day; they do not make it easy for new tactics to succeed. (Even failed strategies succeed in the sense that they reveal the mechanics of an oppressive situation, and through this process oppressed communities are often able to reach a collective consciousness which in turn can lead to organisation and action against the oppressor.)
However, if an idea works, the actors will not prevent the intervening Spect-Actor from achieving a resolution. During a session, many different audience members will try out ideas for solutions, entering into a form of theatrical debate in which possibilities can be freely rehearsed in a safe communal space. As Low states that in the fight against HIV, ‘it is vital to consider the wellbeing of the individual, providing a space in which they can speak, share and discuss their dilemmas and where they can be heard’ (Low 2010: 113) By taking ownership of the performance in this way, the Spect-Actors often experience a sense of individual empowerment, as well as a deep solidarity with one another.