An A to Z of Theory | Augusto Boal: The Rainbow of Desire

In the last of his seven-part series on the radical dramatist Augusto Boal, Andrew Robinson looks at the Rainbow of Desire, a set of techniques designed to deal with internalised oppression. Robinson surveys Boal's continuing influence, and the thorny question of whether theatrical challenges to oppression are always emancipatory.

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In this last essay of my series on Boal, I will examine the Rainbow of Desire, a set of techniques designed to deal with internalised oppression. I will also aim to offer an overview of Boal’s continuing influence, and the thorny question of whether theatrical challenges to oppression are always emancipatory.

Rainbow of Desire

From the 1980s onwards, Boal has designed new variations on his theatrical methods to respond to situations other than those of external oppression. In this context, ‘Rainbow of Desire’ is a response to perceived inadequacies with Boal’s earlier work, particularly in its application to the global North. Theatre of the Oppressed has a reputation for being difficult to use in relatively privileged settings. In these settings, disagreements often appear over who counts as ‘oppressor’ or ‘oppressed’. In some cases, Theatre of the Oppressed is even used to reinforce or reify oppression. One American commentator even suggests that it has never been successfully exported to America — that it is rarely considered “real” theatre in the US, and falls foul of a lack of political consciousness. When it is imported, it is often converted into a method for coping with society rather than changing it. 

Boal responds to such difficulties by suggesting intercontextual differences. In his earlier work in Latin America, Boal found that participants could easily arrange their lives along lines of oppressor and oppressed. It was usually clear who was the oppressor — a specifiable person with external power, such as a boss, cop, or landlord. Boal suggests that audiences tended to be small and homogeneous, and focused on immediate problems such as workplace or neighbourhood struggles. Hence the original variety of forum theatre worked very well.

As with other innovations, Boal traces his new approach to a concrete situation. The problem happened when Boal was in exile in Europe. Participants often asked whether his method could handle oppressions where there wasn’t a clear, personal oppressor. Furthermore, audiences were often larger and from more diverse backgrounds. 

Also, Europeans and Americans aren’t used to thinking in terms of oppressor and oppressed. Boal has noticed that his language does not seem to resonate in the global North. People don’t see themselves as oppressed. In one session in France, Boal recounts that a participant – a vocational student – said he had never experienced oppression, only enmerdement (shittiness). He then listed incidents that, for Boal, were huge oppressions. In other words, part of the problem is simply that Northern people don’t think in terms of oppression. Sometimes, this gap can be filled linguistically. If done slowly, people come to enjoy increasing their vocabulary in this way.

But Boal also realised that the absence of a sense of being oppressed has a social underpinning. Boal believes that today’s societies, such as America, Britain and Brazil, are fundamentally authoritarian. They cause oppression of various kinds. And such oppression profoundly damages people who live in these societies. But the sources of this oppression are invisible. In Latin America, oppression would often be enforced by police and soldiers in the streets. But in more profoundly oppressive societies – and here he means the global North – such forces are not necessary. “Cops in the head” perform the same role.

Because of this structure of oppression, Northern participations also had problems new to Boal – loneliness, fear of emptiness, impossibility of communicating. Boal sometimes formulates the problem in terms of people who have free time, experiencing loneliness and emptiness. He suggests that poor people, when asked, also raise such problems, but these problems rarely emerge in theatre sessions because outer oppressions are worse. However, he also suggests that problems of loneliness and emptiness may be worse in the North. People in Europe are dying, not of hunger, but of suicides and overdoses.

Rainbow of Desire is designed to respond to these kinds of problems. This type of theatre tries to access the affective dimension – the different subjective experiences people have of spaces and events. In the affective dimension, people can project their memories and experiences onto the aesthetic space.  The aesthetic space is used to bring past or unconscious events closer to the present. Great works of theatre often dialogue directly with the unconscious. Such theatre seeks to put internal conflicts into the aesthetic space. It also seeks to show their wider context. 

The idea of the “cop in the head” — a slogan borrowed from French Situationism – is a metaphor for an internalised oppressor who performs the same function as an outer oppressor. People have inner parts – called “cops in the head” (and sometimes “ghosts”) – which either oblige or prevent actions against the actor’s will. According to Boal, people undergo “osmosis”, absorbing social oppressions. Osmosis is a kind of social interpenetration through which people pick up ideas, values and tastes. This internal function is effectively an inner extension of external oppressive power. Boal suggests that the cops are in our heads, but their headquarters are outside.

As with Theatre of the Oppressed, the intended function of Rainbow of Desire is to break oppression. It works, however, with the oppressor-oppressed relation inside the participant. Every oppressed person is divided between submission and subversion. People can’t be turned completely into objects. The point of the theatrical process is to bring out the subversive element by making the submissive element disappear. The oppressed are encouraged to transform their reality into images, and then play with these images, so as eventually to transform reality. By creating an autonomous world of images, and imagining liberation in this world, it is possible to figure out how liberation can happen in reality. 

Rainbow of Desire techniques usually involve reproducing one’s own thoughts and emotions, rather than those of a character. Whereas in one’s own life, one tries to ‘concretise’ or make actual one’s desires, in theatre one can make them observable. This means that events can be performed in front of witnesses, or stories changed. The audience can sympathetically experience the events affecting the protagonist. As a result, these events can be seen from other points of view. Such sympathy is not possible in conventional theatre, only in Boalian theatre. This emphasis on sympathy, rather than traditional theatrical empathy, is in continuity with Theatre of the Oppressed. 

As we have seen (in Part 2 of the series), Boal suggests that people perform a kind of psychological reduction in everyday life. We rarely manifest our full potential, or becoming. Instead, people usually reduce themselves in line with either inner beliefs or morals, or outer constraints. This leads to a curtailed self, which Boal terms personality. Theatre often throws light on this process, because theatrical characters are artificially reduced, or even neurotic. This analysis is similar to the discussion of muscular armour in Boal’s earlier work. 

In the context of muscular rigidity and repetitive habit, the role of theatre is emotional loosening. Boal aims to make people ‘healthy’, by which he means the elimination or toning-down of this reduction. It aims to turn the spect-actor into a protagonist within the action, so as to become a protagonist in real life. The idea is to make the pressure-cooker explode and the unconscious come pouring out. This is helped by the fact that theatre removes usual limits on action.

The transformative power of drama lies in its reality as a performance, separate from whatever it might represent or express. Even if the protagonist is lying, the lie contains subjective truth. Part of the power of drama is that images can bypass the censorship exercised by thoughts and habits. In a successful performance, hidden depths of personality, such as repressed urges, should come to the surface. In effect, the unconscious comes out on stage. 

The process is still socially, rather than personally, focused. In order to work, the process needs to focus on scenes or images with which the audience can sympathise, not purely personal ones. The personal elements need to acquire a symbolic character, rather than remaining unique. Cases which can’t be collectivised don’t work as theatre. It may be necessary to use analogy to make individual experiences collective. 

The goal is a kind of catharsis which, instead of removing desires, removes blocks on desire. It is self-transformative, but not for social control purposes. Rather, it tends to encourage self-expression. All forms of catharsis purge or remove an element which is causing a disturbance. In classical catharsis, what is purged is the desire for transformation. In contrast, Boalian theatre performs a catharsis of blocks on transformation. 

This unblocking process is taken to be a way of reclaiming agency and creativity. People, or protagonists, are first of all processes (or “verbs”) rather than fixed things (or “nouns”). Therefore, performances should show an action, rather than the way someone “is”. Boal suggests that there is always a desire, an “I want”, at the root of action. Boal also writes of ascesis, which is a way of inferring structural laws. Theatre should try to model the mechanisms or structures which produce oppression, a process termed analogical induction. Multiple perspectives should then be produced in reference to these structures.

The idea of a ‘rainbow’ is an idea of splitting desire into its colours to recombine them in new, desired ways. Emotions don’t exist in a pure state, but in various proportions, usually with one emotion dominant. Internalised oppression can be complex. For example, people often take pleasure in situations which are also painful and oppressive.

In this type of theatre, particular affirmative emotions are promoted. Happiness is seen as an active rather than reflective state, connected to going all-out. Other positive emotions include surprise and admiration. Surprise is a sudden recognition of oppression which was previously taken as normal. Admiration is taken to be a sense of discovery. 

Another positive emotion is love. Both hate and love are founded in lack, but relate to it in different ways. Love seeks to complete a non-self-sufficient subject by filling a lack. In contrast, hate seeks to destroy whatever is not one’s own. (So-called crimes of love/passion are really attempts to take something the other is deemed to possess). Elsewhere Boal theorises love as a unstable pursuit of one fluid being by another fluid being, and he writes of a “clownish love” which can transform reality. These positive emotions are encouraged, against the negative effects of ritual/habit and fear (see part 2). 

Techniques of the Rainbow of Desire

Boal lays out a wide variety of modes and techniques of Rainbow of Desire. Many of these modes are modifications designed for situations where the usual conditions for Theatre of the Oppressed (a common oppression and a clear course for change) are absent. They are ways of uncovering and challenging unconscious or invisible oppressions.

The activity is mainly improvised. However, facilitators might suggest “modes” to aid focus. For instance, if action becomes conflictual, the focus is sometimes on the violence of the action rather than the dramatic conflict. In this situation, the “softly softly” mode works well. This is a mode where the action is carried out at a reduced pace and volume, in slow motion.

  • In the “normal mode”, a situation is presented in a structurally real way. This does not necessarily mean realism as a technique, but an expression of the lived reality of a situation (as opposed to its transformation, exaggeration, critique, and so on). This is similar to classic Theatre of the Oppressed. Two desires enter into conflict. The conflict culminates in a crisis, which is also a point of opportunity.
  • The “breaking the oppression” mode tries to find ways to transform the situation. (If no change is possible, it isn’t worth staging as theatre). This mode recreates the situation as it could have happened, rather than as it happened.
  • The “stop and think” mode tries to reach unspoken thoughts and feelings. The joker uses the “stop” command to try to focus the actors on something they are avoiding or eliding. This is a way to see the previously imperceptible.
  • The “softly softly” mode uses slowness or quiet to encourage reflection instead of emotional explosion. It is used to encourage people to be spectators as well as actors.
  • The “lightning forum” mode allows for a quick blitz of different possible responses to a problem.
  • The “agora” mode is used to show inner conflicts. Actors engage in dialogue or conflict as representatives of different desires or parts of the protagonist.
  • The “fair” mode involves multiple improvisations around the room. One of its purposes is to reduce the number of spectators so actors are more relaxed.
  • The “three wishes” mode allows the protagonist to change the situation with wishes. Often, this shows that the protagonist doesn’t yet have affirmative desires – s/he just wants to be rid of particular problems.
  • The “disassociation” mode separates the inner monologue, outer dialogue, and desire in action as different stages of the performance. Firstly, actors all vocalise their character’s inner thoughts, simultaneously. Then they talk to each other. Finally, they act without talking.
  • The “playing to the deaf” mode tries to perform the entire scene without words.  This is a way to intensify scenes which depend too much on words.

Most of these modes begin with an improvisation. The protagonist acts a scene with other spect-actors, whom the protagonist usually chooses. Actors in such processes need to be able to relate emotionally to the characters they play – whether by identification with the character, recognition in people they know, or resonance, in which vague emotions are awakened.

Several of the techniques use images, in which actors model a particular situation as if it were a sculpture or painting. Such images can be used to create models of current oppression or desired liberation. People who are oppressed and traumatised often create images in which they are self-oppressed or resigned to oppression, rather than images of defeat in conflict. Boal suggests that this is due to a lack of an ‘ideal image’ – a utopian or practical goal that is desires.

Images can also be combined or linked to create the bridge which is needed between individual and collective levels. This leads to an “image of the images”. Sometimes this shows that the characters are not actually in dialogue, but following separate narratives; or it shows how certain actions are hard to perform within the existing “image”. Often images show subtle differences – for instance, whether someone wants to go somewhere else, or simply get away from where they are. People arranged in an image might have to decide whether they are allies or adversaries.

Actors might also make images of a word, or create two images which mirror each other, where the protagonist replaces one of the other actors and vice-versa. The aim is always to create a subjective image, which feels real to the protagonist. And the point is to work with the image – not the spoken story behind it.

In a technique called the “kaleidoscopic image”, participants form images of their own responses to an initial scene. The protagonist might then view the images others have made in response to her/his own problem. Another technique, the “images of the image”, involves participants forming multiple images from an initial scene, recreating the scene from their own point of view. In the “projected image” technique, participants are encouraged to project their own feelings onto an image or scene. The “Rashomon” technique, named after a Kurosawa film, creates images of a single situation from multiple angles.

Another technique, the “ritual gesture”, enacts an everyday ritual (or common action), stopping at a vital point. Other participants then take up or reinterpret the scene. This can show either the existence of homogeneous social rituals, or similarities between different spheres. Images can also be used to create multiple views of oppression, solutions to oppression, or happiness.

In addition to image techniques, there are also introspective techniques. Many of the introspective techniques focus on fear. The focus is concrete social fears, rather than general metaphysical fears. Participants create images which symbolise their fear, and select from these the images which synthesise the fears of the entire group.

One variant, the analytical image, is used when a protagonist does not understand what is happening or what s/he wants, or is confused. This process displays the oppressive situation and a metamorphosis into liberation. It uses caricature to magnify the situation, making it easier to perceive. Observers might try to discourage the protagonist from backsliding into oppressive relations.

Another technique focuses on cops in the head – internal constraints on action, in cases where visible oppressors are absent. This is particularly useful when someone wants to do something, but fails to. These constraints, or the oppressions they are based on, might be visualised and displayed as “ghosts”. The participant testifies her/his past story to the created images. Later, the images move around and interact. Participants try out strategies of defeating or changing the “ghosts”, creating an ally or “antibody” to use against each adversary. Members of the audience might suggest additional “ghosts” or “cops”. Surprise and admiration are seen as key transformative emotions in this process.

A further variant works with masks and social roles, exaggerating and magnifying masks. Yet another creates images of a participant’s desires, which conflict and dialogue with one another. A technique called the screen-image is available for studying relations between two people. It focuses on the participants’ projections, or psychological images, of each other. There is also a technique which creates contradictory images of the same person or character. The book Rainbow of Desire also contains games, which are not as directly theatrical as the techniques. One game involves improvising the opposite personality to one’s own.

Other games listed elsewhere have similar implications. For example, one activity described in Games for Actors and Non-Actors asks participants to act the role of the person they wanted to be as a child. Spectators should guess, not the childhood idol, but the desire behind it – revealed by how the person acted.

This grouping of techniques are very similar to the therapeutic technique of visualisation, in which the analysand relates to parts of the self, or past situations or relations, as if they were separate people or beings. In effect, Boal’s approach performs visualisations using actors to represent internal psychological parts.

One major difference between the Rainbow of Desire techniques and similar therapies is the basically adversarial relationship to “cops in the head”. Most approaches to visualisation pursue balance by reconciling with, and reintegrating, opposed parts of the self. Boal, in contrast, writes of warding-off or defeating hostile parts – conceived in a similar manner to Stirnerian spooks. Without choosing between the two approaches, it is still possible to observe that Boal arrives at this conception because of his basically social model of oppression and his attachment to a conflict model of society which is basically Marxist in origin.

The global spread, and applications, of Theatre of the Oppressed

Today, Theatre of the Oppressed is widely used across the world. The International Festival of the Theatre of the Oppressed shows the variety of approaches taken in different cultural traditions. For example, the Indian group Jana Sanskriti perform Theatre of the Oppressed using traditional forms of masking and dance. They do not necessarily use linear narrative. A group from Burkina Faso combines naturalistic and ritualised presentations. Responding to a massacre of street children, the Brazilian group used naturalistic dialogue, rap, and capoeira. This said, there are often difficulties in maintaining the creative force of the approach. It has been suggested that Boal’s techniques are too often applied mechanically, and reduced to a type of role-play. Sharon Green suggests that bad facilitators can use Boal’s method in manipulative ways. The method seems to depend on facilitators’ goodwill. In effect, Boal’s method is only as emancipatory as its facilitators allow it to be.

One context in which Boal’s approaches are often used is prison theatre. Work in prisons is possible, but problematic, since Boal refuses solidarity either with the crimes of prisoners or the abuses committed by guards. Inmates are imprisoned in space, not in time. They are free in time, with a lot of free time. But in the present, they are locked in a conflict with guards. Boal seeks to see both prisoners and guards as human beings, beneath the labels and uniforms. The aim is to break their enmity. According to Boal, it is worth working with people who Boal terms “unconscious oppressors”, such as prison guards. Through theatre and dialogue, they may stop being oppressors. The important thing in such cases is that those who “commit crimes”, or oppress others, do not carry on doing so, or profiting from their “crimes”.

In his prison work, Boal seems to assume that prisoners have been jailed for some kind of oppressive act – although he also suggests that crime is caused by society’s lack of ethics. The goal of Theatre of the Oppressed in prison is not to explode or overcome the structure. This seems to be a substantial modification of its initial intent. Prisons are clearly structurally oppressive institutions, even more clearly than workplaces or neighbourhoods. In the North at least, most prisoners are not in jail for oppressive actions, but for acts of survival, lifestyle deviance, political and social dissent, and so on. Why, then, is the function of theatre changed here?  It seems that Boal’s humanism leads him back into social conformity at vital points, or possibly that he disavows the compromises he makes to work in an otherwise inaccessible context.

However, Boal is not simply changing his theory for convenience. His approach is reflected by the type of prisoner he encounters. Most of the people Boal worked with in prison are participants in Comandos, or drug gangs. As a result, Boal theorises crime mainly in terms of drug gangs. This makes more sense of why he assumes they are oppressors. Drug gangs are generally quite hierarchical organisations, similar in structure to oppressive capitalist and state institutions. According to Boal, such gangs are a type of moral order of their own, arising in the moral vacuum created by an unethical society. They are oriented only to immediate goals. They deploy systems of uncritical obedience and summary orders. Such gangs attract young people with no future or alternatives. They are attracted to crime by the legitimate desire to be respected, to “be someone”. Boal argues that gangsters are unfamiliar with respect, because they are not used to being respected themselves.

Boal also argues that such youths are victims of social oppression. They either had no other choices, or could not see them. In other cases, such as working with peasants or workers, Boal works with people who share his values. In prison he works with people whose actions he disapproves of. But he is also in solidarity with them, as people whose right to dialogue is violated. Boal thus pursues both alteration of prisoners’ values, and changes in their conditions. With guards, he also tries to transform their values, making them critical of their function. He encourages them to see their function as a kind of social support, rather than domination.

It is important to criticise the “polymorphous” or ever-changing ethical position of the dominant system. “Society” often commits the same crimes it punishes. In other words, reintegration requires social change, not only individual change. The focus should be on social causes of crime, not judging individuals. The idea is to seek ethical alternatives, and to give people a sense of making a choice. Prisoners need the right to self-development and intellectual growth, otherwise they will re-offend. Theatre also helps promote empathy. For example, a guard experiences the humiliation of a pat-down search for the first time.

However, the coercive prison setting seems to limit the application of the method. For example, prisoners are not allowed to construct scenarios where they kill a judge who has oppressed them. This is in stark contrast to workers, who are allowed at least to try out such scenarios as blowing up the factory (even though Boal disagrees with it). This seems to be quite a big compromise with an oppressive structure.

In a related discussion, Tim Mitchell recounts a session in prison which ran a scenario where a freed convict was rejected by his son. The convicts (but not the facilitators) saw a violent response, beating the son to enforce “respect”, as the best solution. The participatory process seemed to simply reify, or harden, the views already held by the group. Again, the solution came down to the facilitator, seeking to redirect the issue onto their own experiences as children. Mitchell argues that Boal’s approaches used in prison allow prisoners to communicate with their own bodies. This breaks stereotyping and oppression to some degree. However, this effect is undermined when prison officials are present, acting as silent censors.

While use in prisons (and mental asylums) is accepted in spite of these limits, some applications are dismissed by Boal outright – particularly the use of Theatre of the Oppressed by bosses or businesses to improve workers’ performance. It is unclear to me why work in prisons is possible in spite of an overarching oppressive hierarchy, but work with companies is not. Most likely, it reflects Boal’s differing moral positions on the two systems of oppressive power. Similar inconsistencies arise with Boal’s refusal to reshuffle gender, along with other social attributes, in the Joker system. Does he see gender as somehow different to other social roles in the basic fact of its social construction?

There are other settings where Theatre of the Oppressed might be difficult to use. Running theatre of this kind in situations (or with examples) where change seems impossible, or imaginary scripts are exhausted, could lead to despair and fatalism. There are other difficulties connected to articulating traumas, without simply triggering associated emotions. The methods of Theatre of the Oppressed are in some ways ideally suited to the work of rewriting narratives and giving meaning to emotional content which are central to recovery from trauma. But getting survivors to the point where they can articulate the traumatic scene dramatically would be at least half the battle.

In addition, it can be argued that approaches of this kind have been partially recuperated. The rewriting and localising of stories is now a staple of Hollywood remakes and the pastiche style of postmodern cinema. In management, the flexible 1960s ethos has been recuperated as ‘strategic thinking’. Theatre of the Oppressed is designed for use by oppressed groups. But bosses can – and do – also run simulations and games. They might be ahead of the oppressed in this field. The mainstream now emphasises the need for problem-solving and strategic flexibility, but connects these to the pursuit of conventional goals of commodified success. However, there is still a fundamental difference between the openness of Boalian theatre and the recuperated forms which imitate it.

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Andrew Robinson

Andrew Robinson is a political theorist and activist based in the UK. His book Power, Resistance and Conflict in the Contemporary World: Social Movements, Networks and Hierarchies (co-authored with Athina Karatzogianni) was published in Sep 2009 by Routledge. His 'In Theory' column appears every other Friday.

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