An interesting article appears in the latest issue of the International Journal of Lifelong Education – I have wondered for a long time about the ethical aspects of invisible theatre. Typically the standard response is not dissimilar to the Marxist “The end justifies the means” and to some extent I’m personally satisfied with that – professionally however, there lingers a strong sense of ambivalence about the form. This article raises some interesting challenges and considers some pathways towards a different approach to the practice.

I recall my own undergraduate years and some of the ways we used invisible theatre – for political protest, for social activism – at times very provocative, often very ambiguous, sometimes potentially dangerous. I hear my students these days speaking quite affectionately about invisible theatre… and hear myself sounding like the curmudgeonly old spoilsport when I caution my students to question their practice more carefully.

I’m curious to hear how others address this sort of work in their teaching programs.

Invisible theatre, ethics, and the adult educator
Author: Bonnie Burstow
Affiliation: University of Toronto, Canada

DOI: 10.1080/02601370802047775
Published in: International Journal of Lifelong Education,
Volume 27, Issue 3 May 2008 , pages 273 – 288

This article probes the ethics of one of the more controversial as well as exciting forms of adult education—the mode of theatre of the oppressed called ‘invisible theatre’. Looking at claims made by practitioners—Augusto Boal’s especially—and drawing on concrete theatre pieces, the author asks: What are invisible theatre’s claims to ethicality? How valid are the claims? Are the claims and practices compatible with adult education principles? And how might invisible theatre be conducted more ethically? The article demonstrates that despite invisible theatre’s highly ethical mandate, Boal’s defences of invisible theatre are wanting, the levels of deception and danger are problematic, and the standard practices and claims are incompatible with certain adult education principles and commitments, including the Freirian commitment to non-manipulation. At the same time, it is shown, there is potential for invisible theatre praxis which is both effective and ethical, albeit changes are called for. Suggestions for improved practice include: invisible theatre troupes committing themselves to becoming ethically reflective practitioners, making minimal deception the new norm, reining in the level of conflict, exploring the ‘opaque’, and no longer taking as a given that invisible theatre should never be ‘outed’.

A Drama educator in New Zealand has speculated on the ethics of Invisible Theatre after an incident in her class that left a student crying and others upset and confused.

An interesting situation and one that a Drama lecturer of mine used in 1987 when I was doing my undergraduate studies.

I was also involved in several Invisible Theatre events that were political and protest actions – back when students actually got off our backsides and did something beyond whining.

The events we staged and the one offered by my lecturer have much in common with the one described by the NZ teacher.

I suppose on some level I come back to the belief that people are resilient and can learn useful lessons from such situations.

I’m also becoming increasingly concerned about the professional practice of such forms – as I’m acutely aware of how litigious our culture has become and more people would rather wear the mantle of victim than find effective coping mechanisms. So much for Mantle of the Expert!

I’ve long believed that learning always involves a measure of discomfort as we step into areas beyond our current knowledge/skill base.

However, we seem to be in a era when such outlooks are not popular – it seems that we are expected to teach and learn without ever realising change.

I would say that in a healthy, critically aware classroom environment such a lesson is still a potent mechanism for learning and that acknowledging and reflecting upon student reactions goes a long way towards helping students discover their own capacity for resilient responses.

Rationality doesn’t seem to hold much sway in the face of someone determined to become a victim of their own emotional responses.

Having said that – where is the line between deliberately misleading people who don’t know they are supposed to be functioning as an audience and providing a dramatic stimulus for learning?

I’m reminded of Frank Farrelly in “Provocative Therapy” who suggests that when all reasonable approaches have been exhausted, one either accepts a pathology or attempts “unreasonable” tactics.

In a drama class we expect students to have felt responses – emotional engagement with their learning. But in reality we seldom do much beyond giving that lip service – Invisible Theatre is one form that necessitates a step into the unknown.

As such, perhaps in a school environment we need to enlist support structures in case some students feel more vulnerable than resilient.

Maybe the form itself is not in question but rather how we go about practicing the form? Given that Boal developed the concept of Invisible Theatre as a form of political activism and Drama Education somewhere along the line co-opted it as a pedagogical form, perhaps it is Drama educators who are at fault? We talk about role protection in process drama – yet in the instances described this important safety buffer is waived. Perhaps a better way to engage in classroom based Invisible Theatre is to embed it within Process Drama where the form can be explored in practice but there are other measures in place for the welfare of participants.

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