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The Boston Phoenix Political Theater

When laws spring from acting exercises, all the world's a stage

By Ian MacKinnon

MARCH 15, 1999: 

LEGISLATIVE THEATER: USING PERFORMANCE TO MAKE POLITICS, by Augusto Boal. Translated by Adrian Jackson. Routledge, 224 pages, $22.99.

In 1998, actor-wrestler Jesse Ventura was elected governor of Minnesota, Tom Hanks mused in the New Yorker about running for office, "Grandpa" Al Lewis from The Munsters was the Green Party's candidate for governor of New York, and director Harry Thomason flew in from Hollywood to coach the president in the first days of the Lewinsky scandal. The notion that all politicians are actors has a special ring in the land of Ronald Reagan, but the idea goes back at least to Machiavelli, who wrote plays and coached a prince on how to dazzle citizens with spectacle. Five centuries after Machiavelli wrote the book for actor-politicians, Augusto Boal has written Legislative Theater, which may one day overthrow The Prince as the manual for theater people who go into politics and politicians who work in the theater.

Since the 1950s, Boal has been creating an expansive body of theater methods, games, and books that are used worldwide in theaters, streets, schools, hospitals, and prisons. In 1992, having returned to his native Brazil after years of exile (he had been tortured by the military dictatorship), Boal ran for office and won. As a member of parliament for the massive and chaotic city of Rio de Janeiro, he hired his theater group as his legislative staff and extended their methods of participatory theater into the realm of government. This method of governing came to be called legislative theater, and Brazil now has 13 laws that were created in legislative-theater forums. In those forums, ordinary people usually restricted to the role of voters were encouraged to become legislators. They presented their bills to Boal, who in a way reduced himself to being a voter -- one who voted yes on the people's legislation.

The book begins with Boal living in Paris, where he was invited by the vice governor of Rio to return to Brazil and help set up the Integrated Centres for Popular Education. Once in Rio, Boal and company worked to create five short plays on the issues that concerned them most: unemployment, health, housing, and sexual violence. Performances of those plays were always followed by forum theater, a theatricalized debate carried on between spectators in an improvised search for solutions and alternatives.

Eventually, the vice governor lost the elections and Boal's group lost its connection to the Department of Education. Boal approached the Worker's Party and offered to help theatricalize its upcoming campaign. He was told the idea would work best if someone from the theater ran -- which is how he came to campaign for a seat in parliament. Boal is quite funny in describing his horror at being picked by his comrades to run for office and relating how, once settled into the idea of a symbolic campaign, he suffered another bout of terror as the campaign picked up steam. Deciding he actually wanted to win, he waded full force into the electoral carnival of Rio and achieved his aim against the odds.

The Rio de Janeiro he inherited was hugely in debt, a morass of drug dealers, kidnappers, massacred street children, and rogue cops. But the city was also where his workers fanned out into a network of communities and constituencies, dialogues and workshops. Legislative theater began to flower in a "Chamber in the Square," where Boal's concerns met the concerns of the people. Forum theater was pushed one step further -- instead of rehearsing some act that might be carried out in reality in the future, the people were asked to consider making their desires become laws. If the "Chamber in the Square" sounds like an unlikely source of legislation, Boal's chilling and hilarious report on a brawl in the actual chamber of parliament, complete with drawn guns and thrown chairs, makes us rethink likely sources.

Boal's interventions in Rio are detailed in a map, charts, and an appendix of the actual laws that were passed using legislative theater. His theater group also worked to create more theater groups. (Some survive to this day.) Having withstood a defamatory campaign, re-election defeat, and lawsuits, Boal also takes a little time to point out that he was absolved by the courts and that one hostile newspaper still hasn't printed a retraction. "When I enter the Municipal Chamber building I feel like someone putting on a strait-jacket," he writes; throughout the book he oscillates between the nightmare of governmental dysfunction and the inspiring inroads his company makes around the city.

Also included are speeches Boal gave in the Chamber -- funny, shocking, and somewhat exotic to ears accustomed to the flatulent grandstanding of North American politicians. When the mayor of Rio accused the Worker's Party of having made a pact with the devil, an assistant to one Worker's Party legislator appeared on the floor dressed as a devil. Boal's speech in the wake of the uproar, "The Devil as Muse of Inspiration," takes flight with deep learning (he provides footnotes for those who don't get the local Brazilian references). A playscript about a family's reactions to a daughter's unexpected pregnancy is added at the end -- it was used during his term as a basis for forum-theater sessions. Don't expect Ibsen or Chekhov -- those playwrights never invited their audiences to rewrite the endings as soon as their plays had ended.

Boal insists that his book is only the beta version, an experimental, interactive edition sent out from the eye of the storm he has kicked up. At the end of several chapters there is a plea for readers to respond by mail with their thoughts or experiences. The next edition may even have reports from other legislative-theater projects that are sure to get off the ground given the global, though underappreciated, reach of Boal's work (legislative theater-type work is currently taking place in London, Toronto, Munich, and Paris). Boal lost his bid for re-election but has clearly tied himself to legislative theater as a lifeline to pull us out of our political ruts. On a stage or on the page, Boal is a great storyteller who has transformed his experiences into guideposts for whoever cares to follow the path leading away from the tired masks, baubles, sound bites, and stunts of our current political scene.

Ian MacKinnon ran for Cambridge City Council in 1997 as the candidate of the Art & Performance Party, which he cofounded.

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