Rehearsing the revolution: theatre as a reflective social practice

Tom Scholte (Department of Theatre and Film, University of British Columbia, Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada)


ISSN: 0368-492X

Publication date: 2 October 2017



The purpose of this paper is to explicate the ways in which the practice of the dramatic arts has evolved to facilitate second-order observation of social systems and can be used to “pragmatize” systems thinking for a wider audience.


Survey of selected dramatic theory and practice from the nineteenth century to the present framed within the cyber-systemic theories of Niklas Luhmann, Werner Ulrich and Oswaldo Garcia de la Cerda and Maria Saavedra Ulloa.


Beginning with Naturalism in the late nineteenth century, theatrical practitioners have increasingly revealed the structure of social systems through their work, largely without any explicit adoption or deployment of systems theory. Current methods of theatrical presentation are highly compatible with cyber-systemic heuristics and could be used to make this body of theory known to a wider public.

Research limitations/implications

Work involving the direct application of systems theory to theatrical practice is still in its very early stages.

Practical implications

Despite the lack of direct influence by systems theory, Western theatrical practice has evolved in such a way as to facilitate increased opportunities for second-order observation of, and subsequent intervention in, the structure of social systems. The deliberate cultivation and integration of systems theory could allow theatre to become a significant tool for the explication of systems theory to the general public in a highly practical manner.

Social implications

As a communal and, in certain forms, interactive endeavour, a systems-oriented theatrical practice can provide an inclusive public space for the critique of social systems as they are currently structured and for the modelling of alternative structures.


Theorizing selected moments of theatre history as the development of platforms for second-order observation is a unique analytical approach. The applications suggested in this paper may lead to novel approaches to the development of systems literacy across society.



This paper is dedicated to the memory of Eric Vatikiotis-Bateson without whose influence the author would not have embarked on the journey that has led to its composition.


Scholte, T. (2017), "Rehearsing the revolution: theatre as a reflective social practice", Kybernetes, Vol. 46 No. 9, pp. 1499-1507.

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