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” … it is about that small but vital place where an organizing campaign or movement meets the public sphere.”

Paul Kuttner,

Invisible theater

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Common Uses

To pose a moral dilemma in the midst of everyday life — this can be particularly useful on a topic that people might normally be “too polite” to bring up, such as poverty, racism or homophobia.

You’re dining in a restaurant when suddenly a lesbian couple and their two children, dining nearby, are accosted by a homophobic server. “These children need a father,” she says. “You’re making everyone else here uncomfortable.” Other customers chime-in in agreement, while still others leap to the defense of the family. Some of these people are actors, the rest, including you, are unwittingly participating in an invisible theater performance.[ref]This scenario was played out on the ABC News Show What Would You Do? that uses a version of invisible theater to generate discussion. While the show breaks the usual rules of invisible theater by surreptitiously filming the scene and eventually telling those present that the scene is not real, it is nevertheless a good introduction to the power and possibility of invisible theater. [/ref]

Invisible theater is theater that seeks never to be recognized as theater, performed in a public place. The goal is to make the intervention as realistic as possible so that it provokes spontaneous responses. The scene must be loud enough to be heard and noticed by people, but not so loud or conspicuous that it appears staged. Bystanders can and will engage with the scene as if it were real life, because for them it is real life. Invisible theater can thus achieve things that most other theater cannot, removing barriers between performer and spectator and creating very accessible conflictual situations in which people can rethink their assumptions and engage with sensitive issues they might otherwise avoid.

Invisible theater is one of Augusto Boal’s Theater of the Oppressed techniques, and has been used around the world in many different settings. In New York City in 2003, actors posing as tourists made loud comments about the potential terrorist threat posed by two Muslim women in hijab (also actors) who were taking photos of the Empire State Building. This scene sparked important dialogue about racial profiling and the “War on Terror.” In other instances, actors posing as customers in restaurants and grocery stores have claimed not to be able to afford their bill, sparking a dialogue with the cashier and nearby customers (some of them also actors) about questions of economic justice.

Invisible theater requires a significant amount of preparation and rehearsal. The form requires actors to remain in character even when the action goes in unexpected and challenging directions. In its pure form, invisible theater never lets on that it is theater. Unlike other stealth theater forms like guerrilla theater, Yes Men-style hoaxes or Improv Everywhere pranks, there is never “a reveal.” People who encounter an invisible theater performance should experience it as reality and forever after think it was real.

Key Principle at work

The real action is your target's reaction

While part of the beauty of invisible theater is its spontaneity, it is also important to anticipate and rehearse potential audience responses. It is a good idea to test out your scene with people who did not participate in its creation to see what responses it provokes. Your invisible theater performance is only as strong as the reaction or thought process it provokes in your audience.

Potential Pitfalls

Invisible theater carries with it significant ethical and safety considerations, which should be explored carefully before choosing this tactic. Actors should rehearse a range of observer reactions, including aggression and abuse, and should be prepared to roll with the punches (sometimes literally!). Having an escape plan or distress signal, and discussing ahead of time if or when to break character, is also advisable see PRINCIPLE: Take risks, but take care.

Tracey Mitchell facilitates creative and courageous conversations for community organizations. Based in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, Canada, Tracey uses engaging techniques to help groups establish and accomplish goals, build teams, develop leadership skills and make decisions together. Tracey is also a forum theater practitioner (aka a “joker”) and has developed plays with groups around issues of poverty and social justice. She is also a campaigner, zinester, organizer, reader and board game player. Tracey lives and works from her home in Saskatoon.

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