Theater of the Oppressed as Method and Content

Augusto Boal applied Freire's concepts of pedagogical oppression in the educational system to illuminate the oppressive nature of theater. He compared the classroom experience to the theater experience as methods of indoctrination and drew parallels between the function of the teacher to the function of the actor on stage and the role of the students to the role of the audience (i.e., both as passive recipients). It warrants comment, relative to social work education, the irony of teaching content that values interaction, empowerment, and social justice when it is delivered in a traditional “banking” format.

Boal conceptualized traditional theater as a weapon wielded as a mechanism of tyranny to influence the poor through dramatizations of plays selected, funded, and produced by the aristocracy (Boal, 1979). He rebelled by producing alternative formats that disarmed traditional theater by eliminating the barriers between the audience and the actors, thus inviting an interactional experience; descriptions of these interactive theater formats can be found in his book titled Theatre of the Oppressed (1979)—an homage to Freire's (1974) Pedagogy of the Oppressed. Whereas Boal translated Freire's critical perspective of education as it applied to theater, we reciprocate by presenting applications of Theatre of the Oppressed (TO) in social work education.

Boal is an important historical figure to be included in the social work curriculum because he was an example of a social change agent who utilized theater as a participatory method for community organizing and empowerment. He was critical of the social injustices perpetuated by traditional theater and yet was able to transform theater for the people and harness its power to provide a voice for people who are poor and an arena for dialogue. It would be valuable for social work students to understand the political nature of theater (and, more broadly, media), to recognize its potential to be used for social control by those in authority, as well as how to reclaim its power for social change by those who are marginalized and oppressed. We offer Boal's critique of theater as a metaphor ofwhat is currently happening in social work education. To provide a more egalitarian model of learning, we suggest that instructors holistically engage their students by simultaneously teaching about and learning from Boal's methods, delivering both content and context for critical social work pedagogy.

His work was visionary in that many of his ideas are echoed in contemporary fields of research, such as communications and neuroscience. For example, Boal (1979) made the assertion that audience members of ancient Greek tragedies were manipulated to identify and empathize with the protagonist so profoundly that they were brought to a state of catharsis that served as a compelling lesson or warning to behave and conform to the social norms or else suffer the consequences experienced by the tragic hero on stage. This emotional response from audiences can be explained by the recent discovery of “mirror neurons” in the science of brain mapping that demonstrates empathy is an innate neurological reaction within the brain of the observer that resonates with the neurons firing in the brain of the observed (Watson & Greenburg, 2009).

Empathy is a foundational skill required for social workers to engage clients and build rapport for enhancing the therapeutic alliance and clinical outcomes (Watson & Greenburg, 2009). Teaching this skill set poses challenges that traditional hierarchical pedagogy fails to address fully. Among them is the skill to identify and express empathy effectively to the client while avoiding the danger of unbridled empathy and undefined boundaries in the therapeutic relationship, rendering it ineffectual and unsustainable. The inability to manage their own emotional responses can result in vicarious traumatization, empathic distress, and professional exhaustion for social workers (Grant, 2014), as well as poor outcomes for the client. By engaging students to interact using a theatrical format in the classroom, students are given the opportunity to master empathic emotional responses with the support of their peers and feedback from the instructor.

In Boal's analysis, the original goal of theater to create an empathic response and promote an experience of catharsis has recently evolved to also include an effort by playwrights such as Bertolt Brecht to raise the audience's critical consciousness (Boal, 1979). This is done by dramatizing subject matter that is not only emotionally engrossing but also arouses cognitive processes through provocative ideas that may conflict with the audience members' preexisting beliefs. Although an effort to stimulate thoughtful interaction from audience members shows progress toward a more egalitarian appreciation for them, Boal viewed it as a passive experience and therefore still oppressive. The relatively recent focus on critical thinking in social work pedagogy (Gambrill & Gibbs, 2009), although progressive, still conspicuously lacks the action required for liberation, as per Boal.

Boal's review of the purpose of theater culminates in a detailed account of his involvement with the People's Theatre and the Arena Theatre of Peru that were both designed to engage audiences to participate beyond passive experiences of empathy and critical observation and to inspire them into action. The intention was to liberate the hearts, minds, and bodies of the audience and engage them in a transformational experience. The theatrical events, as outlined by Boal (1979), provide a forum to explore (1) feelings about the situation that increase awareness of internalized oppression; (2) new ideas and thoughts about the topic to illuminate latent themes or conflicts; and (3) an opportunity to practice alternative active approaches to a problem through audience involvement, thus increasing self-efficacy (Sood, 2002).

Boal's theatrical practices are a good fit for a holistic approach to social work education because empathy, catharsis, critical consciousness, and social action are all concepts central to social work. For example, intentional use of TO strategies in social work education can instruct social work students how to increase empathy skills while also creating an environment for critical reflection, self-regulation of emotions, and social action—in other words, an applied method of consientization, a la Freire.

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