Theatrical Co-production

| Azad Sharma

Over the last few months we’ve been enjoying taking part in work around co-production; thinking about the ‘art of co-production’ and looking for examples of co-production in action. We’ve been thinking about how innovative projects bring people together and reshape how we think about wellbeing in community settings.

Since the times of the ancient Greeks, theatre was a common way for people to gather, to learn about social issues, and even inspire people to tell their own stories and perform them on the stage. Given that there is a slowly developing ‘art of co-production’ it comes as no surprise that arts projects have become a way to co-produce ideas and projects. Theatre companies like Cardboard Citizens, Mind the Gap, and Collective Encounters are leading the way in the UK by opening up the stage to stories from diverse communities and providing workshops and training for the elderly, young, neurodiverse, and marginalised alike. All of these projects use theatre in a collaborative way to produce social change.

When we started looking into these interesting, innovative, and important theatre projects in the UK, the origins for this political and social use of theatre took us to the sunny shores of Brazil and the curious case of revolutionary politician and playwright Augusto Boal.

Augusto Boal and the Theatre of the Oppressed

Brazil in the late 50s was in the middle of a power struggle between nationalists and communists. Theatre became an important means of expression for the working class who explored a variety of topics from exploitation and oppression to common issues like love and friendship through their dramas. Augusto Boal, working then in Sau Paulo and in the wake of Paolo Freire’s Popular Culture Movement, began thinking seriously about how popular theatre shouldn’t just be performed for the people – but should be made and produced by the people.

A military coup in 1964 forced political theatre underground and Boal’s commitment to it led to his arrest in 1971, his torture by the military, and eventually a period of exile in Argentina with his family. Boal remained committed to theatre and continued to explore and develop in writing his ideas about popular theatre which were eventually published in the now legendary book Theatre of the Oppressed (1974) which proposed a transfer of the production of theatre to the people. Boal’s philosophy used a Marxist critique of the inequalities in Brazilian society (and by extension much of South America in that era) to forward a radical and creative means of co-production.

After his return to Brazil, Boal was elected as a member of the Rio Parliament in 1993-97. During his tenure, he hired ‘Jokers’ to pioneer a legislative theatre initiative with community groups, formulating proposals which influenced how laws were made and even prompted change in laws. He was a politician who used theatre to help bring the public into the conversation about how laws affect their lives and how they could change the ways in which they engaged with the law and participate in their democracy. Boal made these theatrical displays involving both current or proposed laws and the audience became a part of the play to reflect on legal process as well as influence how new laws could work or old ones could change. The people not only produced the theatre, but also participated in it as ‘spect-actors’ rather than ‘spectators’ which is the essence of the collaborative theatre practice Boal theorised, championed, and established.

These theatre groups directly influenced change in as many as 13 laws! These mostly dealt with rights for people with disabilities, older people, mental health patients, and gay couples – for example, prohibiting discriminatory room-pricing for gay couples at motels, banning electro-shock therapy, and putting telephone boxes on raised platforms so blind people can find or avoid them. It also allowed Boal to create a wider and more engaging discussion about social problems in Brazil, from violence and poverty to political corruption and organised crime. Theatre became the common place, as it was in ancient Greece, for the exchange of ideas.

Boal’s Influence Today

Augusto Boal’s legendary and original ideas inspired many to take up his set of theatre-making tools to inspire liberation and empowerment in people from all backgrounds, stages of life, and regions of the world. An example that really inspired us was Combatants for Peace in Israel and Palestine who are using theatre to bring two sides of a civil war together and campaign for peace.

In the UK we found 3 great examples too:

  1. Cardboard Citizens (est. 1991) who focus on bringing theatre to and making theatre with people marginalised through the prison system, who are experiencing homelessness, or who for a variety of reasons are judged to have been ‘excluded’ from society. They perform their theatre shows in the streets, in hostels, and in prisons. They also provide training through workshops and courses to encourage and develop skills, self-confidence, and grow the community. Check out their video for more information.
  2. Mind the Gap (est. 1988) work across the UK and Europe to provide an equal platform for artists, actors, performers, and playwrights with learning disabilities. Based in Bradford, this exciting theatre company are working to raise awareness and encourage audiences to think differently through exciting theatre.
  3. Collective Encounters (est. 2005) work with marginalised communities in the UK to bring the elderly and young together to discuss local, national and international issues. Through a variety of participatory projects, theatrical productions, research and training, they’re working to tell untold stories and raise concerns about our times. You can read their manifesto here.

We loved reading about this creative way to bring people together, open channels of communication and take action on important issues such as homelessness, mental health, and elderly care. The legacy of Augusto Boal’s radical political theatre is one of positivity and strength that continues to inspire and bring communities together. If you’re interested in reading more here are some great articles about Augusto Boal we came across:

  • Sophie Coudray, ‘The Theatre of the Oppressed’, in culturematters
  • Andrew Robinson, ‘Augusto Boal: Legislative Theatre and Politics’, in ceasefire.

If you know of any other organisations using this collaborative practice to co-produce please do let us know!

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