Julian Boal


Melanie Crean: You do a range of political theater work. You direct plays, and you also continue develop techniques from Theater of the Oppressed that your father used in the 70’s. Why do you work with Image Theater, and other methods that use body-based narrative without language?

Julian Boal: What I think is interesting, is, there are people who say, “The body is more revealing of the truth.” This is partially true, but only partially, and can easily become an overstatement. When listening to speech, I think it’s important to also look at the speech of the body and see if there’s contradiction. I think that when you are talking, you are expressing your opinion, but your subjectivity about a certain issue is what your body is really doing. By that I mean that your body can have a certain conscience of its own that is more revealing and more true than what you mind consciously thinks about a certain issue. This is something that is often expressed in political theater, at least in Brecht. After seeing Brecht for the first time, Walter Benjamin wrote “Epic Theater, first of all, is a physical theater, a gestural theater.” And why is this so? Again, because he thinks the gestures inform more about the reality than the speech that is more ideological.

When you read a Brecht play like Mother Courage, it starts with the following scene. Mother Courage enters on stage with her three kids pushing a wagon. Mother Courage is a very contradictory character who is a mother on one side who cares for and loves her children, and on the other side, she is the courage, the courage of selling goods during war times, and so she’s a contradictory character. When she enters on stage, there are two sergeants who are desperate to find someone to recruit because if they come back without anybody, they are going to be beaten up by their commander and put in jail. They see the kids, and try to sweet talk them and try to bring them in and Mother Courage notices and puts them back into the wagon saying, “No, we should go.” As she puts one foot on the steps of the wagon, one sergeant says to the other, “Buy something from her, anything!” He shows a coin to Mother Courage and says, “I want to buy a buckle.” Mother Courage has her body facing the kids, and looks back over her shoulder to the Sergeant. She steps one foot down, and starts bargaining over her shoulder while the other sergeant is leaving with the kids. It’s a very physical thing, and you see the contradiction of this character. She bites the coin to make sure it’s real silver. The contradictory image is her taking one step in to look for her kids, but also turning around to look for the money.

Brecht Theater is filled with those images. You have to work to make those images, to create those contradictions. Many times the body reveals more than the mind would address.

Now I’ll tell you a real story. Once I was in Nepal, and I met with a man from a very high caste, who is also an activist against the caste system, which in Nepal is very strong. I was told that this man, to prove that he doesn’t support the caste system, goes to the Dalit and eats their food, but then he throws up. It’s not willingly, it’s unwillingly. His conscious will is to eat the food, but he cannot stand it. The truth of this guy was that he was against the caste system, I believe he was sincere, but at the same time, society was reading onto his body. In many ways, the body is more revealing of the society than the mind, than what the person says.

I remember another real story doing invisible theater here in the US, that was about the health system before Obama. We were doing it in a restaurant, and there was a real person who was not part of the theater, who started saying very bad things about the socialized health system. But he was speaking with his hand cupping the side of his face, out of the side of his mouth, which was very swollen, because he had a toothache. So this character exists for real, and is more real than just making a speech. For me, the body doesn’t reveal to you the entire truth, but it’s going to reveal more of the truth than just the opinion. The truth of this man was not what he was saying. The higher truth was the physical evidence, or the contradiction between the speech and the physical. The body contradicting the language and the speech; the rational contradicting the factual; those things are interesting.

There has to be layers. How do you reveal the contradiction of a character who is working in the health system or the educational system, that precisely because of their role, needed to go against their larger mission? Such as a teacher who needs to teach to standardized tests although it’s against what they believe because if they don’t do it, then the school is not funded and it’s going to be even worse. How to make an image that shows this contradiction?

MC: What do you think are the unique capabilities of this work? How do you think these methods can affect a person on an individual level?

JB: If I make a speech about something, I feel it’s really me who is speaking, whereas when I’m making a physical movement, it has a certain level of protection. Under the mask, you can say true things. Passing through the body might allow the people to express more freely because of this level of abstraction, because of this feeling that it is not as if “I” said something.

If a story is so specific to a particular individual, when there are so many of certain kinds of details, it might not be as relevant to as many people. But then again, if the story is too general, it can reinforce stereotypes. With the limitations some people feel when expressing only with the body, they might address things that are more at the core of the situation. They might not be able to address details like “Jim was fifteen when I first met him.” But they can address that when they were strip searched by the police it was a humiliation because they had to spread the cheeks of their bottoms in such and such a way. And then, I in the audience can identify with humiliation, maybe more than I can identify with the story.

Marcuse says there are two ways of telling the same story. One is, “I work in a factory, and my wife is with me but things are very expensive and so I’m not able to fulfill all the needs of my kids and this and that.” You can give a lot of details, but another way of telling this story is [adjusts posture], “I’m a factory worker, and my wage is not enough.” So the body language leads you more to the, 'I don’t get enough money as a factory worker.' The core.

MC: Do you think there are limitations in terms of re-traumatizing someone?

JB: I don’t push people to expose themselves too much. If people want to come up to act, I give them a situation and I give them the structure, and I ask them to enact the point of the scene. But which stories do they offer by themselves? For instance I might say “Look in this scene of Mother Courage, you have an image of a physical contradiction. Two things that are in the same character that will collide. So please make an image about this, about two things in some character that you know of, colliding. If the person comes up with a personal story, it’s their choice. It has to come from them. It’s not in our interest to say, “I want you to give me the most bloody dramatic thing. Tell me something you’ve never told anyone.”

MC: Why you think these methods are useful as an organizing tool for social justice movements?

JB: I think it’s going to differ from culture to culture and from time to time also. I think for instance that the Theater of the Oppressed was born in a conjuncture of the collapse of the left in Latin America and coming up with another hypothesis for rebuilding this left that didn’t entirely work out.

I was fighting against the extreme left that my father belonged to, saying, “Look, we cannot just absorb every Marxist book and then go into the street. We need to work on the level that each person is at and reveal the contradictions that they’re facing, and foster those contradictions. We are not going to implant the sense of rage. The sense of rage is already there, and we need to develop it to make it more critical. We need to work where people are at, blow on the fire, and help organize. That’s not how it works, and it will never work that way.”

Instead of having this knowledge-based hierarchy, it was the idea of validating the personal experience and the personal stories and storytelling. And it was also something against the idea of high culture. People don’t need to read well or read Brecht, because they belong already to the culture.

MC: Relating to how stories are framed, do hero myths or mythic archetypes figure in to your work?

So this idea of the hero comes in, and for me it’s one of the problems of Forum Theater. It’s the idea that we need examples, we need exemplary people. At that time, there were people saying we don’t need individual examples, we need organizations, strong organizations. And the more you have heroes, the less you have organizations. It’s both an aesthetic and political debate that my father had with many other people and to reapply it for today, I think that Forum Theater was done in order to enforce the idea of Che Guevara, that you can become a hero yourself if you want.

But today in our times, it’s that you can become an entrepreneur. If you want to fight racism by yourself, you can. You want to fight capitalism by yourself, you can. It’s like ideology; just do it. But I don’t think you can do it like this. You cannot dodge systems of oppression and you cannot fight them alone; the exemplary person by themselves is not enough.

MC: So much of this is based on the stories we tell ourselves as a culture, that frame context and shape belief systems. For Mirror/Echo/Tilt we’ve been thinking a lot about the power of narrative and myth in culture, especially how it relates to our particular culture, American Culture, and how it portrays idea of the criminal.

JB: There’s a play by Friedrich Dürrenmatt called The Visit of the Old Lady. A rich woman visits her former town. She was kicked out of the town when she was a teenager because she got pregnant with an unmarried man. Now, the city has economically collapsed and she returns extremely rich, and says “I will give 1 billion dollars to the city if the city kills the man who dishonored me.” At first, everyone said, “No, it’s absurd! We cannot kill the man because that would be unfair.” The whole play is about how they move from this position to “What would be unfair is if the man who dishonored this woman is to live.” But obviously the economic reason is the determining factor. It’s a very good play. There is comedy, but it’s a very cruel play about how crime is not an excess, but it’s a need. It’s not an accident, but a need for the city. They need the man to be a criminal. I think right now it would be a good play to perform for the US, because your society needs prisons as much as your society needs war. It’s not an accident.