The Arts and Social Justice by Mary Moynihan

Social justice is to do with equality and human rights.  The world has experienced a significant rise in wealth inequality in the distribution of income among people.  According to the United Nations report,

“Income-related inequalities, notably in the ownership of capital and other assets, in access to a variety of services and benefits, and in the personal security that money can buy, are growing. There is also greater inequality in the distribution of opportunities for remunerated employment, with worsening unemployment and underemployment in various parts of the world affecting a disproportionate number of people at the lower end of the socio-economic scale.  . . The popular contention that the rich get richer and the poor get poorer appears to be largely based on fact, particularly within the present global context. Moreover, extreme or absolute poverty, experienced by those whose income is barely sufficient for survival, remains widespread. Indigence levels have risen in the most affluent countries, in countries once part of the Soviet bloc and in various parts of Africa, but have remained stable in Latin America and have declined in Asia. Extreme poverty and the suffering it entails affect a large proportion of humankind, and major efforts by Governments and international organizations to reduce or eradicate poverty have thus far failed to produce the desired results.’’[1]


What can be done? Proper taxes on wealth and profit; government controls to ensure a more equal distribution of resources; a fairer taxation system for ordinary people; and support for social justice placed at the heart of all social, political, economic and cultural policies.

In 2015, all member states of the United Nations adopted ‘The 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development’, which included 17 key goals for sustainable development. Included in the 17 are No Poverty; Zero Hunger; Gender Equality; and Affordable and Clean Energy. Each of these goals plays a key role in making the Agenda a form of “blueprint” to enable peace and prosperity for all citizens.[2] These goals must be at the heart of everything our societies do in order to create a world where justice exists for all.

Artists have been promoting ideas of social justice for many years. Augusto Boal (1931-2009) was the founder of the international movement Theatre of the Oppressed and was Vereador (Member of Parliament) for Rio de Janeiro from 1993 to 1996.  He was the author of a range of books including Theatre of the Oppressed, Games for Actors and Non-Actors, Rainbow of Desire and Legislative Theatre – Using performance to make politics.

Boal developed a range of theatre techniques and approaches under the collective heading Theatre of the Oppressed, a common element of which is that they all seek to make the power of theatre available to all people as a force for change particularly for those in oppressed situations.  A key part of the work is to enable spectators to become the performers as they act out solutions to social problems or oppressive situations they are experiencing, creating a ‘rehearsal for reality’. The work can be carried out in the classroom, in a council chamber, at a union meeting or a therapeutic group to homeless people’s hostels. The different elements of Theatre of the Oppressed include Image Theatre, Newspaper Theatre, Invisible Theatre, Forum Theatre and Legislative Theatre.

Adrian Jackson is another such artist. A theatre director, trainer, playwright and translator and Chief Executive and Director of Cardboard Citizens, Adrian has worked as Augusto Boal’s translator on five books including Boal’s autobiography Hamlet and the Baker’s Son and he collaborated with Boal on many occasions. In 1991 he began Cardboard Citizens, which worked alongside people experiencing street homelessness to create Forum Theatre pieces. These plays would then tour to hostels, day centres and other non-theatre spaces.  After four years under the auspices of London Bubble, Cardboard Citizens became an independent company in 1995, and continued its mission of creative theatre projects with and for people experiencing homelessness.

Cardboard Citizens makes theatre for social change, empowering people with lived experience of homelessness and strives to change society’s perceptions of homeless people.  They make theatre for homeless and ex-homeless people and for general audiences and the work is often participatory, informed by the Theatre of the Oppressed methodology.  Cardboard Citizens tell stories that need to be told, stories which can effect change locally, nationally and internationally, on the stage, in the street, through hostels, centres and prisons.  They believe that theatre, whether experienced as audience or participant, can be a space for a better understanding of ourselves and who we could be, and the world we live in and what it could be. The company creates work as a catalyst for debate, to influence opinion and stimulate change.  Finally, Cardboard Citizens create spaces in which theatre illuminates homelessness, supporting participants to develop confidence, skills, qualifications and employment.

Radha Ramaswamy is an artist, who, in 2011, founded The Centre for Community Dialogue and Change (CCDC), an organisation dedicated to the promotion of Theatre of the Oppressed – particularly in the field of education, based in Bengaluru, India. Since founding the CCDC, Radha has worked with diverse communities of people: children, students, teachers, teacher-trainers, women activists, senior citizens, medical students, medical teachers and others.

Encouraged by the widespread positive feedback from her workshops, Radha started Six-day Theatre of the Oppressed facilitator trainings offered annually in Bangalore and Mumbai.  In response to increasing demand from the community of Bangalore Jokers (people who have trained with CCDC), Radha has been offering advanced facilitator trainings since 2017. Radha has been invited to offer Theatre of the Oppressed and Forum Theatre trainings in several communities across India and outside, such as the Theatre in Education centre, the National School of Drama, Agartala, for women community leaders in Karur, Tamil Nadu, for members of the Oxford University Dramatics Society, students at Oxford University, UK, and for social workers and faculty at The Banyan, Chennai.

This year, the UN International Day of Social Justice falls on Saturday 20 February, and its theme calls for Social Justice in the Digital Economy. The digital economy has transformed and is continuing to transform our lives; in particular, the way we work. While cloud computing and more widespread access to broadband have enabled many people to work online more easily, the shift to the digital, especially with the outbreak of Covic-19, has also forced artists to use a medium that many artforms are not suited to, or cannot create sustainable income from.

Theatreforum, Ireland’s “collective voice” for the performing arts, hosted a Digital Forum in February 2020, in partnership with The Space, a digital agency who aim to help artists reach and develop audiences online. With over 500 individuals registered to attend the event, interest in adapting to this new digital medium was clear, however, some concerns regarding the shift were echoed by many of those in attendance. How can the atmosphere of a hushed theatre be created for audiences sitting alone in their own homes? How can artists combat Zoom fatigue and encourage others to explore their work on screen? Without the skills to combat these issues, independent artists will fall further behind larger organisations with the resources and training available to present engaging work online.

In order for the digital sphere to provide the same opportunities to everyone, the government must ensure adequate access to broadband for those in rural communities. We need to call on the government to provide adequate funding for artists and arts organisations to adapt to digital transformations, especially for small and medium enterprises and to ensure the regulation of working conditions on digital platforms, as well as fair taxation of work on digital platforms.

With support from the Arts Council, Smashing Times International Centre for the Arts and Equality are beginning the process of creating an Arts and Human Rights digital platform, which will also incorporate its Creative Arts for Health and Well-Being Hub. This platform will provide a digital space for the presenting of artistic work which addresses equality, human rights and diversity issues, as well as a virtual networking space where artists, activists, organisations and individuals can come together online to discuss, share and brainstorm projects to promote human rights and social justice through the arts. Smashing Times are open to sharing digital resources with the wider community, and believe artists and arts organisations need to come together to explore ways to share these resources and promote to access to digital technologies for the arts community as a whole.

If you are interested in continuing this conversation, please get in touch. Contact Ciara at

[1] Social Justice in an Open World: The Role of the United Nations,

[2] The 17 Goals,

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