The Joker System

What is written about the joker system can be find in the last pages of Boal's book, Theater of the Oppressed [Boal 1979]. The joker system is a theatrical form developed by Boal and his collaborators at the Arena Stage in Sao Paulo between 1968 and 1971. The genre is characterized by the mixing of fact and fiction, the shifting of roles during the play so that all actors play all characters, separation of actor and character through Brechtian techniques, and the introduction of the "joker" figure, both a narrator who addresses the audience directly and a "wild card" actor able to jump in and out of any role in the play.

As Boal's work has been jokered by practitioners in more and more countries addressing complex intersections/issues of ethnicity, race, class, and gender with increasingly more diverse and non-discrete communities (homogeneous is harder and harder to define), the joker system is on the cusp of rediscovery. Methodologically, the joker system embraces interchangeability and multiplicity. At the same time, the artistic predispositions of the joker system foreground techniques that analytically deconstruct habits of thought, action, and time; they foster positive disorientation, the kind that demands new and/or deeper insight. This is done in several ways including:

1) stylistic eclecticism through the juxtaposition of very different performance genres (such as melodrama, realism, pastoral, tragicomedy) and forms (lectures, debates, interviews) within one piece;

2) sudden unexplained interruptions, re-directions, and twists {new window};

3) music, serving as an independent language that could enhance or contradict the meaning of the spoken text or action;

4) distorting linear time (e.g. staging the result of an action before staging the action —an actor falls to the ground followed by another actor throwing a punch) and distorting space (e.g. two boxers fight at a distance)

In the joker system, the joker has a polyvalent role as director, master of ceremonies, or exegete, representing the author who knows story, plot development, and outcome as no individual character can. Empathic feelings are problematized by fostering a "magical reality"—one beyond the space and time of the characters. In this function the joker is a theorist. S/he is also a trickster who employs an aesthetic of ambiguity to obscure easy answers, to discourage heroism, and to deem submissiveness untenable. [Schutzman 1994: 147].

While the fundamental notions of the joker system remain alive theoretically, the actual techniques have not been practiced by Boal or Boal practitioners (to my knowledge) for decades. The reason for this may be that the techniques had been used primarily as rehearsal and performance techniques, not workshop techniques, and it is the workshop techniques that are being disseminated primarily. I see promise in adapting the joker system pedagogically, particularly toward maximizing the non-dualistic aspects of the TO repertoire.

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