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Invisible Theatre: Reflections on an Overlooked Form

  • Martin Maria Kohtes


The paratheatrical form here described as ‘Invisible Theatre’ has been little investigated by the English-speaking academic world, beyond a nod in the direction of the work of Augusto Boal. In the following article, Martin Maria Kohtes suggests that the silent interlacing of art and life in ‘Invisible Theatre’ has historical and theoretical implications which extend beyond the specifics of ‘theatre for the oppressed’ or ‘guerrilla theatre’, to call into question our understanding of what constitutes the act of theatre itself. In tracing the history of the concept back to the Weimar Republic, Kohtes develops a hypothesis to explain the visibility of ‘Invisible Theatre’ at specific historic moments – and in so doing he hopes also to illuminate for a wider audience some of the ideas and research methods of German Theaterwissenschaft. Martin Maria Kohtes, who presently lives and works in Berlin and Cologne, studied Theatre Arts at the Freie Universität Berlin, at Rutgers University in New Jersey, and at the Université de la Sorbonne Nouvelle in Paris. His study of Guerilla Theater: Theorie und Praxis des amerikanischen Strassentheaters was published by Gunter Narr Verlag, Tübingen, in 1990.



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Notes and References

1. On Boal's theoretical assumptions in general and for some of his writings on Invisible Theatre, consult Boal, Augusto, Theatre of the Oppressed (1974; reprinted, New York: Theatre Communications Group, 1985), especially p. 119–56. For critical comment see the dissertation by Thorau, Henry, Augusto Boals Theater der Unterdrückten in Theorie und Praxis (Rheinfelden, Germany: Schäuble, 1981).

2. Estrin, Marc, ‘A Note on Guerrilla Theater’, in Guerrilla Street Theater, ed. Lesnick, Henry (New York: Avon-Bard, 1973), p. 310. And see Estrin, , ‘An American Playground Sampler’, in New American Plays, Vol. III, ed. Hoffman, William M. (New York: Hill and Wang, 1970), p. 227: ‘One of our major concerns is in shifting the burden of the performance to the “spectators”, providing them with a chance to examine their own acts instead of the acts of others’.

3. Estrin, in ‘An American Playground Sampler’, p. 236–9.

4. Estrin, Marc, Recreation (New York: Delta, 1971), n. p. For a comprehensive examination of the guerrilla theatre movement, see my Guerilla Theater: Theorie und Praxis des amerikanischen Strassentheaters (Tübingen: Gunter Narr, 1990).

5. Balázs, Béla, ‘Theater auf der Strasse’ in Theater der Welt: ein Almanach, ed. Jhering, Herbert (Berlin: Bruno Henschel, 1949), p. 91 (my translation). For another, though similar example of Invisible Theater in Weimar Germany – only here the setting is a subway station – see Lacis, Asja, Revolutionär im Beruf (1935; reprinted, Munich: Rogner and Bernhard, 1989), p. 116.

6. This historical pattern has only changed since the mid 'seventies, when Augusto Boal began to publish, lecture, and teach Invisible Theatre, which he must be credited as having developed into a coherent method, around the world. Promoting its growth he initiated a ‘snowball’ system that has generated an estimated thirty Invisible Theatre groups in Germany alone. See Eberwein, Markus, Das unsichtbare, anonyme Theater: Programmatik und Spieltechniken einer neuen Theaterform (Frankfurt am Main: Materialis, 1983), p. 65.

7. For a historical examination of the relation between art and life, see Bürger, Peter, Theory of the Avant-Carde (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1984).

8. Bentley, Eric, The Life of the Drama (London: Methuen, 1965), p. 150.

9. The artistic and social conventions that constitute the theatre evening, as well as the publication of the play and the reviews of the performance, also diminish the impact aimed at by conventional plays which utilize Invisible Theatre techniques – for example, Pirandello's, LuigiTonight We Improvise (1929), Gelber's, JackThe Connection (1959), and the audience interjections in Odets's, CliffordWaiting for Lefty (1935), all of which were anticipated by Reinhardt's, Max production of Romain Rolland's Danton in Berlin in 1919.

10. These ideas owe much to the discussion on the essence of theatre art which has been going on within German Theaterwissenschaft for twenty years. Two of the many important contributions to this debate are: Paul, Arno, ‘Theaterwissenschaft als Lehre vom theatralischen Handeln’, Kölner Zeitschrift für Soziologie und Sozialpsychologie, XXIII (1971), p. 5577 (and reprinted in several anthologies), and Klock, Horst-Dieter, Theater als Ereignis: ein Beitrag zur Spezifik des theatralen Vorgangs (Diss. Freie Universität Berlin, 1976).

11. See Wildman, Eugene, ‘Reality Theater In Chicago’, Chicago Review, XX (06 1968), p. 83–9.

12. It should also be noted that the programmatic approach to Invisible Theatre in the 'sixties and 'seventies had an (albeit academic) precursor. In an article of 1956 entitled ‘Sociologie du Théâtre’, Georges Gurvitch proposed ‘theatrical representations camouflaged by real life’ as a method of sociological research, as an instrument to obtain data on human behaviour. Further, however, he pointed to the possibility of utilizing this technique ‘to provoke collective actions [which] extend into real life’, also stressing ‘the experience of community’. See Gurvitch, Georges, ‘Sociologie du Théâtre’, Les Lettres Nouvelles, XXXIVXXXIX (0106 1956), especially p. 207–09 (my translation).

13. Boal, Theatre of the Oppressed, p. 122.


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