Harvard Educational Review
  1. Fall 2008 Issue »

    Editor's Review of The Aesthetics of the Oppressed by Augusto Boal, translated by Adrian Jackson and

    The Theatre of Urban: Youth and Schooling in Dangerous Times by Kathleen Gallagher

    Review by Radhika Rao
    Although Dewey’s emphasis on the civic purposes of education was influential in the first half of the twentieth century, these ideas were overshadowed in the last half century by concerns for economic competitiveness, efficiency, and academic achievement (Levinson, 2007). However, following the events of September 11, 2001, the interest in citizenship education is once again growing in U.S. schools. Now against the backdrop of the controversial war in Iraq, increasing transmigration, and the upcoming presidential election, the language of citizenship is finding its way back into academic and lay discourse in education, albeit in a form quite different from that used in the twentieth century.

    Previously, U.S. citizenship education was informed by the traditional conceptualization of U.S. citizenship as “assimilationist, liberal, and universal,” in which immigrants were expected to give up their first languages and cultures to become full citizens of the nation-state (Banks, 2008, p. 129). These ideas are now being seriously questioned and challenged. The discourse around citizenship has expanded to include the idea of cultural citizenship, which supports the cultural rights for citizens from diverse cultural, ethnic, racial, and language groups so that citizens’ different home cultures, languages, and identities may coexist and dialogue with their American identity rather than be subordinate to it (Banks, 2008; Rosaldo, 1994). In addition to being informed by ideas of cultural citizenship (Rosaldo, 1994), citizenship education is also being increasingly influenced by ideas of transnational citizenship (Maira, 2004), which identifies the practice of citizens maintaining contact with, and traveling back and forth between, their home countries and their legal countries of residence. The breadth of citizenship education has thus expanded from merely educating students about the legal and constitutional rights of citizens to creating dialogue around the multiple identities and sense of belonging that inform our civic attitudes and actions. Citizenship theorists (e.g., Banks, 2008; Westheimer & Kahne, 2004) are now advocating for a reimagination (see Banks, 2008; Nussbaum, 2002; Westheimer & Kahne, 2004) of citizenship education that involves not only educating students about rights and obligations to the nation-state, but also promoting students’ capacity to critique existing conventions and structures that may be unjust and to take action to promote social justice.

    There is still a long way to go to bridge the gap between the theory and practice of citizenship education. The question before us is: How do we actualize these newly developing and significant ideas of citizenship in education? I argue here that the art form of theater presents itself as a potentially powerful medium of citizenship education, and that two books published in the recent past—Augusto Boal’s The Aesthetics of the Oppressed and Kathleen’s Gallagher’s The Theatre of Urban1—may help provide the theoretical foundations and practical guidance for the use of theater in citizenship education.

    I draw on the work of Boal and Gallagher, two long-standing theorists and practitioners of theater education, to argue for theater/drama2 as a viable framework through which curriculum and pedagogy can be designed to produce citizens who are engaged, critical, and empowered. Both Boal and Gallagher are invested in student empowerment and share an enthusiasm for using theater to offer individuals—especially those who have been traditionally oppressed—a voice in the societies they inhabit. They are both concerned with creating spaces for diverse, equitable, and democratic participation, which is essential for the fostering of a critical, engaged citizenry. In analyzing their books, I show how theater can foster dialogic citizenship through a focus on narrative, embodiment, and the imagination. By considering Boal’s and Gallagher’s work with these three tenets in mind, I highlight the potential contribution of these two authors to the field of citizenship education.3


    Augusto Boal’s influence on theater education is widespread and far reaching. He is probably best known for his theater methodology, known as Theatre of the Oppressed (TO), which was influenced by fellow Brazilian Paulo Freire’s ideas in Pedagogy of the Oppressed (see Freire, 1970). TO techniques function to break down the “fourth wall” in theater—that is, the invisible barrier between the actor and the audience that prevents the audience from having influence over the happenings on stage (Stevenson, 1995). Boal argues that there are no spectators in the Theatre of the Oppressed; there are only “spectactors,” who are encouraged to interrupt and intervene in the play to influence the outcome (Boal, 1992). Whereas spectators are only passive observers of the actions on stage, spectactors can influence the actions on stage. In TO, actors typically perform a play with a scripted core in which “an oppression” (Boal, p. 6) relevant to the audience is played out. After reaching the scripted conclusion, where the oppression has failed to be overturned, the play is reenacted, but this time the audience, or spectactors, may stop the play at any time, take the place of the actor who is playing the oppressed individual, and attempt to present a different resolution. In this way, multiple means of overturning oppressions and working through social dilemmas are explored. The process is meant to be dialectic rather than didactic, where opposing arguments are considered rather than ignored. TO techniques have been used worldwide to generate civic dialogue, influence legislature, and provoke public debate over issues that relate to social justice. In theory, TO is a powerful metaphor that makes everyone an actor: a citizen who has influence over the events that take place around her or him. In practice, it has been known to influence public opinion and legislature and public policy (see Boal, 1998).

    In his much-anticipated book The Aesthetics of the Oppressed, Boal writes in a post-9/11 world, arguing with greater force than ever for the use of theater as a form of citizenry that is not just rational but also aesthetic. For Boal, an aesthetic sensibility refers to the awareness that “we cannot divorce reason and feeling, idea and form” (p. 15). He persuades us to view citizenship education as something that involves not just the intellect but also feeling; it must reflect on not just the content but also on the form in which it is delivered. This aesthetic sensibility is reflected in theater education that involves the use of the body, intellect, and emotion (Grumet, 1988). Rather than using the form of lecture, or one-way communication from teacher to learner, theater involves a hands-on, experiential form of learning where the learner is intellectually, emotionally, and physically steeped in narratives involving different individuals set in diverse scenarios. Boal uses a host of narratives from mythology, ancient and modern history, personal experience, and current events to make the case that democracy and citizenry must involve theater, and he moves us to consider theater as a medium of deeper and more meaningful citizenship education.

    Where Augusto Boal uses anecdotes to describe his philosophy of theater, citizenship, and education, Kathleen Gallagher uses critical ethnography, feminist, and poststructuralist approaches to produce empirical research on the role of theater in urban education.4 Gallagher’s ethnography focuses on drama classrooms in four public, urban schools: a single-sex Catholic school in Toronto; a large technological high school in Toronto; a large coeducational, “standards-driven” school in Queens; and a small, alternative “last-resort” school in Manhattan (see pp. 12–25). Each school, while being public and urban, presents a diverse space for Gallagher to carry out her research on drama classrooms. Juxtaposing the open space of the drama classroom against the disciplined and surveilled spaces of school corridors and other classrooms, Gallagher makes the point that drama class presents one of the few avenues for young citizens to openly talk about and express their dissatisfaction with the school policies and procedures that have such a strong bearing on their teenage lives.

    Considered together, the theater contexts of both Boal and Gallagher are inextricably linked to the issues of social justice and difference that are at the core of contemporary discourses on citizenship (see Banks, 2008; Rosaldo, 1994). Westheimer and Kahne (2004) point to the need for “justice-oriented citizens” who can challenge unjust practices and devise collective strategies for change. Boal’s and Gallagher’s books both point to the potential of theater to promote such justice-oriented citizenship through the use of narrative, imagination, and embodiment.

    Boal and Gallagher alternately demonstrate, through theory and research, that these citizenship goals are inherent in theater, when theater is practiced critically and toward the end of social justice. Boal emphasizes, “Every citizen is an artist . . . all are capable of developing an aesthetic process which enriches themselves” (p. 39). The task of citizenship education thus must include aesthetic education. Through theater, Boal claims, citizens can engage in their world actively and in turn discover themselves in a more authentic fashion, rather than being mere passive recipients of information and messages about them being conveyed through media such as TV, the Internet, etc. Boal and Gallagher alert us that it is not enough to emphasize the qualities of a good citizen and to expect that these qualities will be automatically transmitted through traditional educational practices. Spaces that value and invite critical voices and action need to be created for the intentional development of an active citizenry. Drawing on elements of narrative, imagination, and embodiment, Boal’s and Gallagher’s descriptions of theater education offer a glimpse of the open, critical, and creative spaces young citizens in the United States need most.


    Citizenship is narrative. It involves stories we listen to that tell about the land we live in, people we are surrounded by, and communities we are a part of (see Nussbaum, 1997; Dillabough & Arnot, 2000). Citizenship education, therefore, must involve an engagement not just with facts, but also with the narratives that inform our meaning-making in the world.

    Boal and Gallagher each point to theater’s potential to build citizenship through the power of narrative and to thereby foster rich dialogue about social and political issues. Boal claims that “theatre is the most natural form of learning” (p. 37); children grow up learning through role-play, making up stories, imitating others, singing, and movement. Through becoming characters and engaging in narrative, children learn about structures of society and the rules of their community. A number of these narratives are often sources of oppression that lie hidden and unexposed. And yet, these hidden narratives can exercise tremendous power over individuals since they are often regarded as commonsensical and factual rather than as worthy of being contested, questioned, or examined (for instance, narratives about women’s reduced capacities for math or science, or narratives about the achievement gap between white and black students). Boal argues that TO can be used to expose the hidden or underlying narratives that lie at the center of our meaning-making process and are often sources of oppression for those who stand in the margins of society. However, TO goes beyond merely revealing these narratives. It forces the actors and spectactors to engage with these narratives aesthetically, as Boal would argue, in that it engages not only reason but also emotion; it involves rational judgments and values, the body and the mind. Furthermore, TO treats these narratives as metaphoric in that they are open to multiple interpretations and subject to competing counternarratives.

    Boal echoes the sentiments of feminists and postcolonialists who argue that in an increasingly multicultural, multinational, and transmigrating world, citizenship needs to be viewed not only as discursive but also as multidiscursive, where discourses of citizenship may be contradictory and complex. Furthermore, he highlights their concerns with difference and inequity (see Abu El-Haj, 2006; Dillabough & Arnot, 2000; Fine, Hancock, Gregorio, Hancock Productions, & Teachers College Press, 2004; Kymlicka, 1995) rather than merely the universal aspects of citizenship that emphasize the universal rights and responsibilities of all citizens. Furthermore, he offers a way to engage in dialogue toward understanding the marginalizing and exclusionary aspects of citizenship that have been highlighted by many citizenship theorists (e.g., Brooks, 2000; Hall, Williamson, & Coffey, 1998; Rosaldo, cited in Ladson-Billings, 2005; Werbner & Yuval-Davis, 1999). In Western societies such as Australia, Canada, the United Kingdom, and the United States, women, nonwhites, nonheterosexuals, and people with disabilities often experience exclusion and discrimination that prevent them from participating in their “societal communities” as full citizens (Abu-El Haj, 2006; Banks, 2002). TO techniques as discussed by Boal in The Aesthetics of the Oppressed aim to reverse this exclusion. In visualizing and embodying narratives of oppression through theater, Boal’s techniques aim to generate multiple discourses around that oppression through the process of enactment and reenactment of stories that represent conflicts, dilemmas, and oppressions, which then empowers the actors—or as Boal would say, spectactors—to find ways to transcend those oppressions.

    Like Boal, Gallagher, in her Theatre of Urban, analyzes drama’s capacity to break down “limited and limiting discursive and aesthetic practices and prescriptions” (p. 109), but she bases her analysis entirely on the context of the urban public school. She draws our attention to how theater draws out students’ narratives and voices, thus giving students the space to express feelings of oppression. Moreover, her research demonstrates that the act of sharing one’s narrative and listening to multiple and diverse narratives also prepares students to speak up as young citizens for the sake of social justice. She shares detailed excerpts of her data collected in drama classrooms to demonstrate this, moving between diverse theatrical contexts that range from students reading, discussing, and acting out Shakespearean texts, to students’ autoethnographic playwriting, to attending social dramas about issues such as HIV/AIDS. A most striking moment appears halfway through the book when Niela, an Ethiopian girl at Middleview Tech, submits a full-length “realistic play” about violence in her neighborhood. Her teacher, Ms. S., decides to incorporate the play into her unit about dramatic writing. What follows is Gallagher’s analysis of the reactions of students who ultimately participated in the shared reading of the play. Students felt that it was a “different” experience reading a play written by a student rather than a famous playwright. Niela’s play inspired them to write a “real” play—something that was closer to their daily experiences rather than something that was divorced from their lives. One of the students, Alessandra, said, “In Drama we get to do more plays about . . . ourselves” (p. 104). Niela’s classmates then went on to write their own plays and dramatic scenes. Writing their own narratives through playwriting, Gallagher reports, gave students a sense of accomplishment at having created something on their own while at the same time speaking to issues that were important to them.

    Gallagher’s research highlights the equal treatment that youth can receive in the drama classroom, treatment as individuals who are able to play roles and engage in narratives that may be, in strict developmental terms, beyond their years. This is also the central preoccupation of youth citizenship advocates who argue for the consideration of youth as ready citizens rather than future citizens or citizens in the making (see Hall, Williamson, & Coffey, 1998; Osler & Starkey, 2003; Rubin, 2007; Thomson, Holland, McGrellis, Bell, Henderson, & Sharpe, 2004). The reconceptualization of adolescents as youth citizens enables them to participate in decision­making in the spaces they occupy, such as their schools, neighborhoods, and communities (Abu El-Haj, 2007; Gibson, 2001; Hall & Coffey, 2007). Gallagher’s ethnography of the drama classroom demonstrates how drama can open up spaces for students to address an array of cultural, social, political, and religious issues by sharing and engaging in multiple narratives. They develop an understanding and awareness of public and community issues and gain the ability to obtain information, think critically, and enter into dialogue with others who may share different perspectives. Moreover, it enables them to gain confidence in their ability to voice concerns and influence their environment through public speaking.


    Citizenship involves an imagining of a community rooted in a particular place (Anderson, 1983; Billig, 1995). This imagining is not just linked to a state of mind; it is linked to the body and is influenced by the control over the use of the body (Stone, 2000). The cultivation of the imagination is vital to the cultivation of citizenship (Nussbaum, 1997). Nussbaum (1997) calls for a focus on the “narrative imagination,” or the ability to be able to think what it must be like to be in the shoes of a person different from oneself, to be able to listen to other people’s stories, and to sympathize with others’ emotions, wishes, and desires. The arts, according to Nussbaum (1997), can play a vital role in fostering narrative imagination as they “cultivate capacities of judgment and sensitivity that can and should be expressed in the choices a citizen makes” (p. 86). Art forms that involve storytelling and listening help the citizen develop empathy or “compassionate imagination” (Nussbaum, 1997, p. 92), but they also enable an individual to stand back and evaluate her own judgment. Furthermore, Nussbaum asserts that the arts involve themselves with challenging conventional wisdom and values—they enable us to imagine, with a critical eye, the range of possibilities that exist for us as individuals and for our communities.

    Boal and Gallagher both respond to Nussbaum’s call by articulating how theater can be used to build citizenship that is imaginative. Boal does this by equating art with love. Love, he claims, is an aesthetic experience that involves the imagination—in particular, the compassionate imagination. One projects desires, fears, vices, and virtues that the other may not be aware they possess. Similarly, TO requires that the spectactor enter into another character’s experience while bringing his thoughts and emotions to the role. Thus, the self merges with “the Other” (p. 19), each informing, but not extinguishing, the other. Through TO, spectactors have the opportunity to imagine what it is like to be in someone else’s shoes and thus have a dialogue with the Other based on empathy and compassion. At the same time, this dialogue is not uncritical. Boal poetically and dramatically outlines his desire for the spectactor to take on the role of the character: “I, Augusto Boal want the Spectactor to assume her role as Actor and as Artist, to invade the character (and the stage), taking his place and proposing ways and alternatives” (p. 74). He calls this invasion a “symbolic transgression” (p. 74) that allows spectactors to imagine different possibilities and liberate themselves from oppressions. This transgression, made possible by the provocation of the imagination in TO, is nonviolent and necessary for change. Through the transgression, where the actor inhabits a role that may be very different from herself, she learns to see things from another perspective and also to understand the way she herself represents and interprets the world and others around her. And in doing so, she learns about herself.

    Gallagher also emphasizes the centrality of imagination in theater. Speaking from the context of the public high school, she reminds us that drama—rather than single, correct solutions that are privileged in regular school subjects—thrives on the imagination of multiplicities and multiple possibilities. In drama, we get to explore roles—ones that may be very different from those we play in our daily lives—in multiple ways, breaking out of stereotypes and media-generated prototypes. Theater, she argues, has the capacity to liberate through what Herbert Marcuse called the expression of the “uncolonized imagination” (Becker, cited in Gallagher, p. 129). In drama, students are compelled to use their imaginations in a way that refreshes their daily outlooks, challenges their assumptions, and makes the familiar strange. These dramatic imaginations are not just statements; they are actions that draw on the conscious and the subconscious to envision new possibilities. This ability to envision is, according to citizenship theories (e.g., Nussbaum, 1997; Greene, 2000), a crucial requirement of contemporary citizenship.

    Gallagher shows us how the imagination can be invoked both through watching theater and performing in plays. A critical moment in her book occurs when a heated discussion breaks out in Ms. S.’s theater classroom the day after the students saw a performance on the topic of HIV/AIDS. Although the play was about two straight couples that had contracted HIV, the conversation among the students drifted to homosexuality. Gallagher followed Ms. S.’s lead and paid close attention to the discussion among students about the ethical and moral issues connected to homosexuality. The discussion uncovered students’ imaginings, not just of homosexuality, but of “masculinity, femininity, sexuality, gender, race, and religious beliefs” (p. 116). The exposure to the play gave students a concrete starting place from which they could then engage in a conversation about larger controversial topics. However, Gallagher reminds us that exposure to drama may not immediately lead to Nussbaum’s (1997) critical or compassionate imagination. For instance, Gallagher reports that no amount of persuading could lead Dion, a Jamaican-born Seventh-day Adventist, to play a gay role or shift his position on homosexuality. Drama curriculum, like other curricula, is based on the realities of sociocultural structures, and learners receive it according to their social and cultural positions. However, the ability of drama to embrace different perspectives and understandings of social issues cannot be underestimated. By being exposed to different imaginations of social issues, such as homosexuality in this context, students learn to reimagine issues in multiple ways. At the same time, they are also made aware of their own imaginings of these issues and of how their perspective may be just one of many perspectives.

    Gallagher presents moments when drama provided the context for students’ imaginations to be provoked, such as when a drama teacher invited a student to be “hot seated,” or interrogated in the role of a female character that was part of a drama. Jake, a white student, volunteered to act as the pregnant teenager living in a group home. While everyone expected him to take on a comedic interpretation, in response to the gasps of excitement coming from his classmates, Jake took on the role “seriously”: “The young man who took on the role listened carefully to the questions and responded with a profound, and unexplainable, recognition/identification that had clearly been unforeseen by all present” (p. 162).

    Here, the common instructional question “What would you do if . . . ?” is replaced in the drama classroom with “You are . . .” a shift that asks students to respond in character. The critical and compassionate imagination is thus actively explored in drama, rather than merely part of verbal discourse. However, Gallagher pushes us further still in our understanding as she questions why Dion did not feel safe playing a gay role and why Jake agreed to play a pregnant teenager. She suggests that perhaps Jake enjoyed enough cultural capital as a white male to risk his social position during the dramatic exercise, whereas Dion, a black immigrant male, did not enjoy the freedom to do so. Gallagher’s interpretation could be questioned, but its merit lies in its suggestion that the drama classroom is not above or divorced from the structural confines of school or society. Fostering imaginative citizenship through drama necessitates the creation of spaces in which students feel free to take creative risks and experiment with multiple solutions to one problem. They must be able to first and foremost imagine the possibility of change before they are expected to enact it. Through activities such as warm-up exercises, improvisations, group discussions, role-plays, and staged plays, theater creates safe spaces where students can take such risks. Students learn to identify with the thoughts and feelings of another and to imagine multiple perspectives on the same issue (Henry, 2000), which is a key trait of citizenship (Carnegie Corporation of New York & CIRCLE, 2003). This task can be long and arduous and requires continued effort to consider drama curriculum as a way to build imaginative citizenship.


    Feminists and poststructuralists have emphasized that U.S. citizenship has traditionally been drawn from a white, male perspective that tends to emphasize the rational, objective, and universal while ignoring the emotional, embodied, subjective, and thus multicultural aspects of citizenship (Ladson-Billings, 2005; Lister, cited in Hall & Coffey, 2007; Pateman, cited in Arnot & Dillabough, 2000). Both Boal’s and Gallagher’s books urge us to consider the multicultural, emotional, and embodied nature of citizenship. They direct readers to consider theater/drama as a potential tool in building citizenship through embodied inquiry and exploration, where learners get an opportunity to engage physically and emotionally with the community that they inhabit and with members of that community.

    Boal uses the framework of aesthetics: Learning aesthetically, he argues, involves understanding through our minds and through our bodies. Boal’s work is primarily concerned with oppression, which he regards as fundamentally unjust. Oppression, he argues, is embodied; it is experienced not just intellectually but also physically and emotionally. So the struggle to overcome oppression must necessarily involve an engagement with the physical and the embodied. TO involves activities that address the embodiment of oppression through a focus on image and sound. In this effort, other art forms are recruited to enhance the theatrical experience. An example of such a theatrical exercise involves photography, where “each participant must take, or ask someone else to take, three photos of their hands or of the hands of people who work in the same profession, or live in the same community. What are the hands doing? Are they working with a spade, grasping the steering wheel of a car, holding a broom, striking the keyboard of a computer or the keys of a piano?” (pp. 47–48).

    Thus, the consideration of the way our hands embody, or physically represent, our lifestyle and work can become an important starting point for a discussion about public and community issues. Using theater, participants can then try to imagine having different kinds of hands, how they would move those hands, and what they would or would not be able to do with those hands. Thus, when the images are shared in a group of participants, they take on a metaphoric quality that can lead to critical dialogue about inequities, similarities, and differences. Boal’s theory and methodology seem aligned with Pierre Bourdieu’s (1990) habitus, which refers to the embodied systems of dispositions that are reflective of our individual and collective histories and the structures in which we are embedded. We may not normally be aware of habitus, but Bourdieu argues that we can become aware of it through conscious reflection. These unconscious, normalized, and embodied dispositions are at the root of social reproduction of inequalities, such as those based on race, class, and gender. By exposing the habitus of our being and attempting to transgress it when needed, Boal aims to stop the cycle of social reproduction. By treating images and sounds as metaphoric rather than given, TO leaves them open to transformation by the actor-participants who have the opportunity to experience, and then the choice to “transgress” (Boal, p. 74), their limitations.

    Gallagher, too, witnessed a “transgression” of regular school routines in the theater classes she researched. She observed a number of exercises that involved embodied representations of students’ lives, from warm-up exercises, to tableaux building, to physical and emotional enactments of scenes, such as improvising a scene between “the president and a representative of a Black Coalition” (p. 153). She contrasts these activities with the “more prescriptive ways of learning and being in school” that are normally experienced by the students in her study. She laments the fact that the body, desire, and emotion are severely marginalized in education and applauds the theater classroom for presenting an alternative space for these students to express themselves with their bodies rather than merely through words. Most goals of citizenship education focus on beliefs about oneself and others (see Carnegie Corporation of New York & CIRCLE, 2003). However, these beliefs are not only cognitive but are also embodied habits, or dispositions to act in a certain way in a given context (Boler, 1999; see Haraway, 1990). Therefore, drama, with its capacity to enable students to engage in social and political issues with their bodies and minds, presents a powerful way to enter into civic dialogue. But it is also, Gallagher warns us, a potentially risky one that may invite hatred as much as compassion and stereotype as much as imagination. At every point, the drama teacher must encourage her students to engage in critical reflection and to think about the consequences of their speech and action.

    Embodied action always happens in the context of space. The dominant discourse in the United States that youth are not ready citizens affects the spaces they are allowed to occupy and those in which they may participate (Aitken, 2001; Hall & Coffey, 2007). Even when youth are invited into public spaces, they are often policed and under surveillance, their less-than-adult bodies placed, scaled, and fixed (Aitken, 2001, pp. 20–26). This is certainly true of the school contexts that Gallagher describes in The Theatre of Urban. Public, urban high schools are spaces laden with heavy surveillance, both electronic and human, and filled with a discourse of safety, security, and “zero tolerance” (p. 26). Youth are viewed as “at-risk” rather than as contributing members of the school: “Youth have become the all important group onto which class and racial anxieties are projected” (Giroux, in Gallagher, 2007, p. 29). In contrast, the theater space represents an open, creative space that is not under surveillance and where creative conflict is welcomed and critical dialogue is embodied (as opposed to merely verbalized). As Misha, a young Serbian student puts it, “It’s kinda different . . . there’s no chair, there’s no desk . . . there’s a floor . . . You can even lie [down on the floor], you can even . . . stand, you can even be like, wherever you want . . . You can talk, and you can kinda . . . be . . . energetic. Like . . . Having, like, more energy than, like in other classes. That what I kinda feel like in Drama class” (p. 82).

    The theater classroom, as Michelle Fine describes in her foreword to Gallagher’s book, “is a construction site designed for desire, bodies, and voices to speak” (p. x). Differences are not a source of anxiety or threat in the theater classrooms studied by Gallagher; instead, differences are embraced and multiple identities are explored. Gallagher and Boal remind us of the need to open up such spaces for people of all ages to feel connected to the places that they occupy as citizens and to feel motivated to contribute to their communities (see Abu El-Haj, 2007; Gibson, 2001; Hall & Coffey, 2007).

    Theater creates a space where the active engagement of the imagination can be realized and multiple narratives can coexist (Cohen-Cruz & Schutzman, 2006; also see Gallagher). This space is embodied; theater involves the use of the physical body, gestures, movement, emotion, and intonation. Theater participants imagine and enact multiple possibilities in the text that come to life when individuals bring their life experiences to the characters or situations they play (Grumet, 1988; Hoogland, 2003). Thus, theater can be an effective tool for exploring the “embodied meanings” (Gallagher, p. 153) that underlie citizenship identities, spaces of belonging, and relationships.

    Concluding Thoughts

    Unless education is narrative and embodied, it cannot be a site of social change (Boler, 1999). Narratives that are communicated and understood both in the realms of the intellect and the emotion often dominate our meaning-making and our understanding of the status quo. Thus, for social change to happen, these narratives must be exposed and questioned. Citizenship education—if it is meant to empower all—must be reimagined as a narrative and embodied undertaking. These pedagogical characteristics are of particular significance in urban, public schools that have tremendous racial and class diversity, as well as large numbers of first- and second-generation immigrant students who have diverse citizenship experiences that are rarely honored in the classroom. Boal and Gallagher bridge the gap between those who call for such a reimagination and the dominant practice of education in our schools by pointing to educational spaces where theater could be used in curriculum and pedagogy.

    Implicit in these works by Boal and Gallagher is the argument that if one of the goals of education is to foster critical and creative citizens, we must not leave the arts behind as we get swept away with the rising tide of standardized education. Sadly, there are many reports that the instructional time in the arts has been reduced over the past few years due to a preoccupation with student achievement reading and mathematics tests (Americans for the Arts, 2007). Theater as an art form can perform a function that other subjects may not have the time to perform. It has the capacity to build citizenship that is creative, critical, and visionary. The individual learns to go beyond the text, or what is given, to enact different possible worlds that become a ground for transformation and action (Grumet, 1988).

    The Aesthetics of the Oppressed and The Theatre of Urban together present two radical views that are critical of current U.S. educational systems yet are inherently imbued with hope. They are full of ideas for educators and researchers who are interested in the intersection of education, theater, and citizenship. The combination of Boal’s experience of more than four decades using theater in citizenship work and Gallagher’s pioneering ethnographic research will give readers a theoretical grounding as well as a practical vision of both how theater may be used in citizenship education and the challenges in implementing such programs. Boal and Gallagher have set the stage for future research by making powerful contributions to the emerging discourse in both theater and citizenship education.


    1. Theater and drama are implemented in very diverse ways depending on the context and the purpose. Boal and Gallagher deal with only certain forms of theater education. More research needs to be done to study the use of other forms of theater in citizenship education.

    2. The terms “drama” and “theater” will be used interchangeably in this essay. Theater and drama take many forms, have many purposes, and appear under wide-ranging terminologies (Caterall, 2001). Often, practitioners of drama in education claim to emphasize process over product, whereas in theater, the focus of the rehearsal is usually the final performance (i.e., the play) (Anderson, 2004). However, these two words are often used synonymously by educators. This is the case with Boal and Gallagher, who do not adhere to the aforementioned distinctions between drama and theater.

    3. Though Boal and Gallagher engage with issues that are relevant to citizenship in their respective books, the scope of their work also extends far beyond these interests. By arguing that their books can be used as tools to critique and promote citizenship education, I am not replicating their varied, complex, and diverse arguments.

    4. For more information about Gallagher’s research methodology, see chapter 2 of The Theatre of Urban, “In the Field” (pp. 54–83). Because this essay does not concern itself with her research methodology specifically, I will refrain from detailing it here.


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    Fall 2008 Issue


    Putting the “Development” in Professional Development
    Understanding and Overturning Educational Leaders’ Immunities to Change
    Deborah Helsing, Annie Howell, Robert Kegan, Lisa Lahey, Harvard Graduate School of Education
    Achievement as Resistance
    The Development of a Critical Race Achievement Ideology among Black Achievers
    Dorinda J. Carter, Michigan State University
    Unpacking the Placement of American Indian and Alaska Native Students in Special Education Programs and Services in the Early Grades
    School Readiness as a Predictive Variable
    Jacob Hibel, Susan C. Faircloth, The Pennsylvania State University, and George Farkas, University of California, Irvine
    Capturing Authenticity, Transforming Perception
    One Teacher’s Efforts to Improve Her Students’ Performance by Challenging Their Impressions of Self and Community
    William H. Marinell, Harvard Graduate School of Education

    Book Notes

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