The Art of Observation: Unveiling the Power of Theatre

In the hustle and bustle of our daily lives, we often find ourselves entangled in moments that beg for intervention. Either through words, actions or silence, depending on context. These moments can be as trivial as a wobbling pile of bags on a bus or as significant as societal issues that demand collective action, like climate change, child labour, and the fight for minority rights. This intricate dance of intervention, or lack thereof, resembles a carefully orchestrated theatrical performance where each individual assumes a unique role. This concept takes a tangible form in the fascinating technique of Invisible Theatre, where participants unconsciously engage in a theatrical act, shedding light on the dynamics of human behaviour and social response without really realizing that they are taking part in a play.[1]

Case in question, I was on a bus going home after an accumulated total of over eleven hours of flight. This, coupled with delayed trains, I was finally on a second but last bus going home. Tired from the flight with back pains, thirst, and all the willingness to sleep, I was struggling to keep my bags and those of my colleagues from constantly tumbling over in the bus. Despite my best efforts, the bags persisted in their rebellious descent. I tried rearranging them multiple times but to no avail, to the amusement and laughter of my fellow travelers. This seemingly mundane scenario becomes a stage for an experiment in human interaction, a microcosm of society’s varied responses to situations that require intervention.

Theatre on a Bus: Metaphor and Call for Action

Invisible Theatre, a concept often attributed to Brazilian theatre practitioner Augusto Boal, involves staging situations in public spaces to provoke reactions from passersby unaware that a theatrical performance is underway.[2] In my case, my predicament with the bags transformed the bus into a stage, and my calculated actions set the scene for an act of intervention.

As I deliberately placed my bags in an awkward position, I unknowingly invited the invisible audience – my fellow passengers – to engage in the unfolding drama. One brave individual took the cue, stepping into the spotlight to assist me. He sorted the bags with a touch of my method but added his touch of security, illustrating the spectrum of responses people have when faced with the opportunity to intervene.

In the wings, another gentleman appeared poised to step onto the stage. However, he hesitated, embodying the internal conflict many experience when deciding whether or not to intervene. The lady nearby, on the other hand, nearly became a prompter for my helpful stranger, suggesting alternative ways to arrange the bags. Her inclination to participate, even from the periphery, underscores the innate human tendency to offer solutions and contribute to positive outcomes.

In this scenario, Shakespeare’s immortal words, “All the world’s a stage, and all the men and women merely players,”[3] ring true. We inhabit a society where life often mirrors the structure of theatre, presenting opportunities for active engagement, silent contemplation, laughter, and constructive contribution. Every person becomes an actor in their own right, taking on various roles depending on the situation. What a lovely situation at this stage in life, on this particular day, that I find myself on this bus.

Theatre as an Inspirational Research Tool

So, which character are you embodying in this grand theatrical production we call life? Are you the protagonist, taking center stage to effect change? Or perhaps you’re the observer, itching to intervene but held back by self-doubt or societal norms. Maybe you’re the jester, finding humour in the lighter moments. And let’s not forget the enabler, the one who creates the space for others to intervene by offering guidance or support. These are but reflections of how theatre can be used as a model for both research and intervention. In my case, this situation accorded me an opportunity to reflect on the use of some elements of Invisible Theatre as a research tool in the fight against child labour. Lest I don’t do my part, I will be the active prompter, who not only accords a chance for a cue but an active part of the whole. In one way or the other, I shall feel that I did my part and lived the moment. It can be that you want to join in and offer solutions to the problem of human trafficking or voice out your concerns on minority rights, but you are that passenger on the bus who is pretending to be busy on their phone attending important meetings; or that passenger who is sleeping but subconsciously listening in as the drama unfolds; or my fellow traveler who took the cue to help me with the bags, but surely you are playing a part. In a world where real-life dramas unfold around us daily, embracing the spirit of Invisible Theatre can encourage us to be more attuned to the power of intervention. By recognizing the roles we play and the impact of our choices, we can transform the stage of life into a platform for positive change. Surely, the choices we make either to intervene or stay on the fence provoke the thought that, in one way or the other, ‘we must take sides. Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented’.[4] After all, the beauty of theatre lies in its ability to reflect reality while inspiring us to rewrite the script for a better future.[5] So, in this very moment in life, I have taken my part as a prompter of thought in any direction, and you have taken the cue in whatever direction, in any case, these are just but my observations.

[1] Odhiambo, Christopher, Theatre for development in Kenya: In search of an effective procedure and methodology (Bayreuth African Studies 2008(86) 22.

[2]Boal, A. & Epstein, S., ‘Invisible Theatre: Liege, Belgium, 1978’ (1990) 34 (3) TDR (1988-) 24-34.

[3] Shakespeare, W. and Verity, A.W., As you like it  (University Press 1906), Act 2, Scene 7.

[4] Elie Wiesel in Serres, D, ‘Here’s How Desmond Tutu, Elie Wiesel, Paulo Freire, and MLK Approach Neutrality’ (Organising Change, Strategic Organising for Changemaker, 15 May, 2013) < >accessed 05 September 2023.

[5] Prentki, T., ‘Must the show go on? The Case for Theatre for Development’ (1998) 8(4) Development in Practice,  419.


By Gift Gawanani Mauluka

Gift Gawanani Mauluka is a PhD candidate at the Chair for African Legal Studies at the University of Bayreuth.

One reply on “The Art of Observation: Unveiling the Power of Theatre”

Thought provoking, “neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim” leaves questioning my stand as an enabler, what steps have I taken so far and to what extent have my actions led to change, is the change sustainable?

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