Caution: Drama Xing “Invisible Theatre” strikes Milwaukee crosswalks

Story and photo by Jason Hart


You stop at a red light. At opposite curbs stand a man and a woman, with their noses buried in books. They begin to cross. They don’t look up. They collide with each other, right in front of your car, dropping their books onto the pavement. They are nervous, apologetic; they pick the books up. They look into each other’s faces and their eyes lock. The chemistry is instantaneous and undeniable. They burst into a passionate kiss. Then they quietly exchange books and complete their crossing, ending on opposite sides of the street; again strangers. The light turns green. You drive on.

You’ve just seen theatre – Crosswalk Theatre. The theatre troupe, headed by Riverwest residents Liz Ahlstrom, Brian Moore and Josh Perkins, performs exclusively in the stage between the streets, in the time between the lights: in the crosswalk. Their anonymous shows are staged exclusively for a small and random audience, one stuffed into the front seats of cars pressed against the white lines of sidewalk crossings. Each performance is 30 seconds long and non-verbal, and designed to catch the eye of someone who may otherwise be deeply ignoring life.

“We want people to actually pay attention to the world. People have these wonderful glowing boxes in their homes that give them anything they want at any second, and they walk down the streets with these things in their ears that create any sound they want, and it takes them out of the reality they are walking past, and we want people to notice everyone else. We want people to look at and acknowledge the people they walk by,” said Perkins about the purpose of the group.

Crosswalk was founded in April of 2004 when Perkins had an epiphany about space and captive audiences. “Crosswalk theatre was invented from me acting like an idiot,” Perkins said, “I was going through the crosswalk and I noticed the ‘Don’t Walk’ sign blinking and I began starting and stopping. I made the realization that the person in the car was looking at me (acting like an idiot) and I realized the potential for a stage.”

Crosswalk is not just the three founders – they assemble a cadre of likeminded performers for their guerilla operations. Their last big project was a series of events this winter focused around Christmas, and had a cast of twenty people. The winter scenes included a businessman throwing a fit in front of an office supply store because his companion wouldn’t buy him a photocopier, a spontaneous public reading of A Christmas Carol in a bus shelter, and a group of people working together in a choreographed line to pick up a pile of packages dropped by a stranger.

Crosswalk Theatre is invisible theatre based on the work of the Brazilian director Augusto Boal. Boal developed invisible theatre during a time in Brazil’s history when staged theatrical performances were forbidden by the state. Performing in the street, without announcement or credit, allowed Boal to subvert the restrictions of the government. In 1971, Boal was arrested and tortured by the Brazilian military junta. Exiled to Argentina, he was not able to return until the government changed power. He now lives in Rio de Janeiro and has received several awards for his work.

Crosswalk Theatre is not a political group. Ahlstrom, Moore, and Perkins consider it to be a method for expression. “Crosswalk Theatre is a tool, not an answer. We don’t give answers, we pose questions,” says Moore. “It’s theatre for the people – it’s a voice for people who don’t have a voice.”

They’ve taken this tool into the world, and taught others to do the same. In May of 2005, the group traveled to Los Angeles for the Pedagogy and Theatre of the Oppressed conference, where they taught a ninety-minute workshop. The group’s techniques were explained, and then they dove into having the participants write new scenes. “We took them into the streets 20 minutes later to perform them on Hollywood Boulevard,” says Perkins, “We tried to train them so they could do it in their own communities.”

They teach in Milwaukee as well. As part of Milwaukee’s recent art and social justice program, they ran a workshop at Marquette University. Many graduates of this workshop joined their cast and participated in the winter show. Crosswalk Theatre hopes to continue its education programs, and to bring their performances to larger venues. They have an eye toward Summerfest and other public gatherings. Keep an eye out, but don’t be surprised if you don’t see them – they are “invisible,” after all.

Liz Ahlstrom has produced a special Theatre of he Oppressed piece which will be performed at the Riverwest Follies (March 4, 7 pm at Colonial Hall, 3063 N. Fratney St.)

Riverwest Currents online edition – March, 2006