the curious case of Augusto Boal: invisible police & visible normality

I noticed that someone made a search for critics of Augusto Boal here, as if, it occurred to me, he doesn’t or wouldn’t have any. Of course he has had critics and written about them. He tells this story in “Invisible Theatre.” [Originally published 1990, trans. Susana Epstein, reprinted, in Re:direction, op.cit., pp. 112-121]

In 1978 Boal was involved in a workshop for Theatre of the Oppressed in Liège. A performance was organised for the last night of the workshop. The theatre was full and included a large number of immigrants and refugees, sans papières.

When backstage, Boal was approached by three men and a barking dog. One of the men produced an ID. Boal took them for police.

They asked to see his papers. Unsatisfied with those he produced, they asked him to leave with them.

An attendant member of Boal’s company came to his aid and pushed him through a door marked ‘Private.’ The logic being that police cannot enter private property without a warrant. The ambulatory or backstage area where the encounter occurred was presumably deemed public.

The three branches of the Belgian police were then telephoned, from the ‘private’ room, and asked what was going on. The ordinary police, the gendarmerie and the ‘antigang brigade’ denied any involvement or knowledge.

The audience was angry. They had been by this time waiting several hours.

One of the company noticed that another of the participants in the Theatre of the Oppressed workshop was looking increasingly uncomfortable. When questioned she finally gave out that the men with the barking dog were in fact from Cirque Divers and that the whole thing had been an experiment in Invisible Theatre. They had wanted to use Boal’s own techniques against him in protest at his not conducting a workshop with them.

Boal breaks from his narration, writing that Invisible Theatre was not invented by him. It pre-existed his formulation of it. It had been, indeed, invisible. Undercover cops have used and still use the same techniques.

He draws attention to the critical paradox of invisibility and visibility: the idea that if the audience is aware of what is happening as having been staged they are no longer participants but a normal audience. The first principle of the Invisible Theatre is to free the oppressed from merely being spectators.

Freed, they participate in the ‘change‘ brought about by the theatrical event. However, as spectators, they are subjected to a spectacle over which they may exercise no control: as in theatre, the wisdom runs, so in the political arena. The challenge to Boal, then, comes in the form of an Invisible Theatre in which the actors take on the roles of police, of the oppressors.

Boal doesn’t here write of that other problem of the Invisible Theatre: that it relies on innocent bystanders becoming participants without their knowledge; that it is a confidence trick, as dependent on the complicity of its actors (in fooling the audience) as is the theatre of the oppressors. The demagogue is always acting. The participation of his subjects precisely consists in their subjection. If they would not submit, the demagogue could not act and be effective.

In the case Boal brings, Invisible Theatre comes in as a criticism of ‘normal’ theatre – at the final production in a Theatre of the Oppressed workshop. The event takes place in a conventional theatre. Boal is aided in escaping the actors-as-oppressors by actors-as-oppressed.

Boal seems to be saying Invisible Theatre as he practices it does good and the experiment of Cirque Divers in doing bad is not therefore an adequate critique – either of him or of the techniques involved. But it’s all Invisible Theatre after all, even as the cops do it.

Is there a case to be made that what is at stake here is complicity? specifically the complicity of the actors with the oppressor(s)? Could you not say that whoever leads an Invisible Theatre experiment – in requiring complicity – is an oppressor?

Invisible Theatre does not even vouchsafe to its unwitting participants – as opposed to its instigating actors – the degree of freedom of being able to spectate!

Boal’s Invisible Theatre does not democratise – acting. In the event, the instigating actors are directors, leading, controlling, blocking behaviours and actions of those involuntarily performing and acting in a theatre of the oppressed in which and as which they are once more excluded and can have no say.

There is rich ground here for critique. It does seem to hinge on the visibility or invisibility of the ‘theatre.’

Theatre becomes a term in this context. Since it has a special meaning and does not problematise that meaning it falls short of being a concept.

It is not questioned that what is going on in Boal’s work is theatre. And, how can an invisible theatre question itself? Only in a ‘normal‘ theatre, in Liège could it do so, with Boal spirited away through a door marked ‘Private.’