“The truth of the matter is that the spectator-actor practices a real act even though [they] [do] it in a fictional manner. While [they] rehears[e] throwing a bomb on stage, [they] [are] concretely rehearsing the way a bomb is thrown” (Boal 119, my italics).
In our “Rehearsals for Change” workshop last Saturday, September 25, Aya and Carina (if I remember correctly) rehearsed “the way a bomb is thrown.” In Aya’s case, the rehearsal included the transformation of a water bottle into a grenade. As people pointed out in the discussion that followed, we look at objects like a water bottle and they seem unchangeable. A water bottle is what it is.
In Brecht’s poem “In Praise of Dialectics,” this is precisely the mantra of the “oppressors” and “rulers,” who “sound” with “certainty” that a world of “injustice” not only is what it is, but “will stay the way it is” (1-4, my italics). Against the oppressors’ “certainty,” Brecht (and, for Brecht, dialectics) encourages us to hold on to our activist certainty that “It will not stay the way it is” (11). Freire (another Marxist dialectician) similarly pushes back on the fatalism of neoliberal discourses that would like to convince us that “‘It is sad, but what can be done? This is what reality is.’” (58). The same way a water bottle isn’t simply “what it is,” “[r]eality . . . is not inexorably that. It is being that, just as it could be something else, and so that it can become something else, we progressives need to fight” (58, my italics).
My main takeaway from our workshop is that Boal’s exercises (and his “poetics of the oppressed” more broadly) insist on the need to rehearse possibilities of change—like the possibility of changing a water bottle into a grenade or into a newborn child, or the possibility of changing paper receipts into flowers—against those who would have us believe that things are the way they are, and, what’s worse, that they will inevitably stay the way they are.
But “rehearsal” implies something else, something that follows it—a “later public performance,” a “later event or situation” for which the rehearsal is a “preparation” (OED). Boal resists turning this into an opposition, arguing that when we rehearse an act (and perhaps especially when we do so non-verbally?) we practice an act that is both “dramatic” and “real” (119)—an act that is “visible, palpable, concrete” (144). He also resists conflating the “dramatic act” and the “real act,” for such a conflation can lead to a cathartic feeling of, “Why make a revolution in reality if we have already made it in the theatre?” (120).
The (dramatic and real) act of rehearsing change is powerful because it reminds us that change is possible, and thus that a radically different, radically better world is possible, if not (yet) actual. For such a world to remain a possibility, we need to fight. This is the activist, even revolutionary utopianism that infuses “rehearsals for change.”
As Boal insists, the point of the rehearsal is that it “stimulates the practice of the act in reality,” that it “evokes in [us] a desire to practice in reality the act [we] ha[ve] rehearsed in the theatre” (120, my italics). Boal’s main issue with “the cathartic effect” is that it “purges” our “ímpeto revolucionário,” (Teatro 152, my italics). This phrase “ímpeto revolucionário” is lost in the translation of Boal’s Teatro do oprimido (1975). Boal talks of a theatrical practice that “evokes” a “desire” for engagement in forms of political struggle that cannot be (entirely) fulfilled “in the theater,” a theatrical practice that “stimulates” our “ímpeto revolucionario.”
Boal’s description feels deeply, and perhaps surprisingly, sensual. What do we make of this “ímpeto revolucionário,” this “moving force” (OED) that is connected to the body and the senses but that also feels somewhat immaterial—a “moving force” that can bridge the “dramatic act” and the “real act,” the possibility of change and the struggle to turn possibility into actuality.
If forms of “luta” are what can change reality into the “something else” that it can be, then Boal and his “rehearsals for change” suggest that stimulus, desire, and “ímpeto” are powerful moving forces in our fights for change.
Boal, Augusto. Teatro do oprimido e outras poéticas políticas. Civilização brasileira, 1991.
—. Theatre of the Oppressed. Pluto, 2008.
Freire, Paulo. Pedagogy of Indignation. Routledge, 2004.