Tuesday 16 October 2012

Research-led teaching with Theatre for Development

The Theatre for Development research at Drama St. Mary’s focuses on Forum Theatre & Verbatim Theatre and the charity with whom it works for the most part with is Theatre for a Change, an organization which uses interactive theatre to explore gender issues & HIV in sub-Sahara Africa.  We have also worked with the London-based HIV charity, Positive East, to develop a play based on interviews with positive men and women in London.  This play was performed in Malawi as part of a knowledge exchange programme implemented in 2011.  

Our research in Theatre for Development informs our teaching in multiple ways:    from the very simple adoption of Theatre for a Change’s method of conducting a seminar or meeting through the use of a Focus Ball to allow everyone to have as much say as they want, to the adoption of Theatre for a Change’s forum theatre work on radio for our students, to the much more provocative ways that we approach teaching Forum Theatre to my students as a life and death tool for behavior change when dealing with the theme of HIV or condom use.  As an example of the latter two, for the past two years, the Theatre for Development module has created forum theatre pieces and radio forum pieces based on HIV and gender equality issues students face within University College.  

As another example of research having impact on our teaching, the Applied Theatre students have been exposed to aspects of the world that they have never experienced.  The biggest example of this is the students’ trip to Africa as part of their studies.  In 2011, they went to Malawi to study under Theatre for a Change.  In 2012, a new group went to South Africa to deliver & participate in workshops and performances at a university, a college, a school and community centre.  Both of these work placements are firmly grounded in our research in Theatre for Development.

Through our research, St. Mary’s students have begun to development an understanding of the seriousness of this work and an understanding of how performance can affect an audience.  At a Catholic university-college, students don’t expect to have a class to discuss the pros and cons of installing condom machines in the toilets.  They also don’t expect to have visiting lecturers from the charity Health Poverty Action speaking to them about Female Genital Mutilation in the Sudan. But not only have we discussed these issues, the students have acted upon these discussions.  One example is that they performed a piece of Forum / Legislative Theatre about the lack of condoms on the campus as a part of their assessed piece.  

The Applied Theatre programme at Drama St. Mary's is cutting edge with up to date knowledge exchange opportunties to explore:  
In 2009, a new writing programme to develop political writers, based on my previous research with subVERSE, an new writing company at Theatre503 which developed new writers from 2005 to 2007, was developed to explore local, national & international issues that students feel important.  This programme, A-Political Cabaret, is now in its third year and brings in students and staff to the performances.   
The Theatre for Development programme is unique in its criteria & outcomes.  No other university offers undergraduates an opportunity for an Applied Theatre work placement in an African country.  This year, the students will be returning to Durban, South Africa and next year two groups will be going – one to Malawi and one to South Africa.   
The students have also created a more local opportunity to explore behaviour change and advocacy:  This is being accomplished through the Radio Forum programme that is heading into its second year.  Again, more examples of how our research informs our teaching in multiple ways.

The lecturers here are practitioners who work in southern Africa in a variety of settings – from schools, to colleges, to community centres to HIV clinics and street children centres.  We have live working relationships with relevant organizations and up to date knowledge and on the ground experience of the work.  This practice directly invigorates our teaching in the Theatre for Development module. 

We teach transferable skills that are relevant to a variety of opportunities, emphasising the fostering of a trained mind suitable for a wide range of careers.  We believe in student-centred learning.  We encourage independent thinking, initiative, innovation, entrepreneurial skills & collaboration in students. 

Within the Applied Theatre programme, we are very keen to contribute to a widening of the debate of what theatre is and what it can be.  We want to push students beyond their comfort zone and explore other modes of performance through links with other departments & groups such as the college radio station.  We encourage them to explore the idea of theatre as a tool for social change.  We believe that an emphasis on practical work and new approaches to drama and performance are key to a successful student.

Wednesday 20 June 2012

Interactive Theatre Workshop at the People's Health Movement UK

‘Prior to the People's Health Assembly in June 2012 I was fascinated to find out how 
theatre could be used as a means of exploring personal and collective interpretations 
of health. Having now taken part in a couple of fun and energetic workshops I can see 
how theatre is a great medium to analyse issues from unique angles, perhaps because 
it encourages us to use a different part of the mind from usual. But beyond pure analysis
, what I most appreciated was the way in which the workshops allowed people from
 various backgrounds to come together and collectively learn how we may act differently
 in the future. I look forward to developing these skills further.’

- Dr Damita Abayaratne, Representative of People's Health Movement UK

Wednesday 23 May 2012

The Theatre for Development Programme - Reflection on 2011 / 2012

Looking back on the year of this module, these students have created a massive amount of very innovative theatre. They broke new ground in the radio programme and in their two interactive theatre pieces. I am very proud of this work that each contributed to. The learning curve was huge in each project that they worked on in this module – something that I take great pride in with this group.   The radio programme was put together very quickly and with great success even though it was the first time for all of us to produce such a piece of interactive theatre. The plays were tightly written and suitable for forum theatre. The liaising that went with the Multi-Media team was good & successful. The interaction with the audiences seemed successful. As a listener, I was pleased with the actors’ ‘antagonism’ although the interventions on the part of the listeners were a bit ‘theatrical’ [I think there is something about the familiarity of the actors as well as being ‘live’ on the radio]. I thought the Jokering was very very strong as well as the producing & actioning of the programme.

Monday 21 May 2012

 St. Mary's student Toyin Oluwa leading a workshop at the Amawushe J.S. School in Umzimkulu, Kwa-Zulu Natal.

 The entire group at at the Amawushe J.S. School in Umzimkulu, Kwa-Zulu Natal.

Workshop lead by Theatre for Development Lecturer, Matthew Hahn, at the Esayidi FET College in KZN on 'Bridging the Cultural Gap,'

Sunday 20 May 2012

Workplacements in South Africa

The two plays that were created for Africa were incredibly tight. The students worked them until they were a well oiled machine.  One of my regrets was that I could not find an appropriate place for the second play whilst we were in South Africa. The two performances of the Forum Play were successes. The second performance being more difficult that the first to get people up, but it was handled as well as can be expected. Upon talking with the ‘spect-actors’ after both performances, a good impression was made about the choice of topics as the subject matter. They said that they were surprised by the serious subject matter which you choice to explore in the piece. We hit our stride once we were leaving Durban. I, for one, greatly enjoyed facilitating the St. Mary's & the other UKZN students in a verbatim workshop.
Then it was on to the schools: we didn’t know much about what it was we were about to get into, but the students were more than prepared for any situation. As a facilitator, I was pleased at the time each group spent developing their workshops, amending their workshops after the first day and then delivering a wonderful ‘Theatre Festival’ for the community on Saturday. Their hard work was evident in each of the young people’s performances. Above this, they also handled the living situation [which was far from ideal] with great professionalism.

Then it was on to the college: again, we didn’t know much information about the group, but the workshop that they participated in was a success in the eyes of the South African counterparts. They were very interested in our stories & ideas and were pleased to do a ‘cultural exchange’ with students their age from the UK. Their work in this workshop was very good.

Then back to Durban: I was looking forward to observing the students' final facilitation with the community group 'Committed Artists'. They really made great theatre in such limited time. We were only there three hours and by then they had created three pieces of forumable theatre. I was glad to see individuals stepping up and leading the forum pieces at both the college & community centre.

The feedback at each of the locations in which workshops were delivered [university, college, school & community centre] gave us all high marks and, as I always say, you know that you have done good work if they invite you back next year. And each place has done just that.

 Forum Theatre Workshop led by St. Mary's Students at the Committed Artists Community Centre in Durban.....

Performance of 'Gender Equality in the UK' Forum Theatre performance by St. Mary's University College students at Committed Artists, Durban......

Pictures from Theatre for Development Workplacement in South Africa

 The Group in Durban

 Interview with a jobbing South African Actor...

 Workshop at the University of Kwazulu Natal with their Applied Theatre Head of Department, Miranda Young...

St. Mary's Welcome Celebration to Amawhshe J.S. School

Saturday 19 May 2012

Workshops in South Africa

 Workshop at the Esayidi FET College.....

  Workshop at the Esayidi FET College.....

  Workshop at the Esayidi FET College.....

  Workshop at the Esayidi FET College.....

  Workshop led by St. Mary's Students at the Committed Artists Community Centre in Durban.....

 Workshop led by St. Mary's Students at the Committed Artists Community Centre in Durban.....

 Workshop led by St. Mary's Students at the Committed Artists Community Centre in Durban.....

Workshop led by St. Mary's Students at the Committed Artists Community Centre in Durban.....

Friday 20 April 2012

Undergraduate Drama students at St Mary’s University College, Twickenham, will be visiting South Africa next week to understand ways in which drama techniques can be used for social and political change by working with schools and local communities. The Drama and Applied Theatre students will take part in the two week trip, which will offer them the opportunity to work in local schools, run workshops and tour Durban with a forum theatre performance on gender equality and stereotype in the UK. Drama and Applied Theatre lecturer Matthew Hahn commented, “This trip to South Africa is a great opportunity for students who will have the exciting opportunity to reflect on how their learning in a British university can be further influenced and challenged by the active practice of teachers working in Africa. “I am sure that this year’s trip will prove to be just as successful as last year’s where students developed a verbatim play based on interviews with HIV positive people in London. The play was performed in Lilonge, Malawi and London last year and was later filmed at the Nickelodeon Studios as part of MTV’s ‘Staying Alive’ Foundation.”

‘Theatre for Development’ Exchange Programme at St. Mary’s University College

The Applied Theatre course at St. Mary’s University College is a new programme set up to explore ways in which theatre based research and practice might actively contribute to social & political change.  Currently, we work in partnership with Theatre for a Change (TfaC) in Malawi [though this year we have decided to go to South Africa due to the political instability, see next posts].  TfaC uses innovative strategies to stimulate dialogue, interaction and behaviour change through interactive theatre.  We are currently looking for new partners to expand our work throughout southern Africa to offer a variety of experiences to the St. Mary's students as well as to provide a sustainable basis for knowledge transfer amongst the various participants. The trip to Africa is the culmination of their training in the Applied Theatre course.   The trip will introduce the students to the key challenges in using drama to support national and international development programmes.  Students will work in local communities to understand ways in which Drama techniques can be used for social & political change.  As well as exposing them to a specific cultural context in their course, they will have the chance to reflect on how their learning within a British University can be further influenced and, if necessary, challenged, by the active practice of working in Africa.As part of the exchange, students will bring a performance from the UK to their placement. This performance would provide a stimulus for further explorations and workshops shared by St Mary’s students and others in the community.  Currently, they are creating a piece of Forum Theatre on the topic of 'Gender Balance & Safer Sex' to be performed in South Africa in April 2012.  Last year, the students developed a verbatim play based on interviews with HIV positive people in London.  It was performed in Lilongwe & London in May 2011 and filmed at Nickelodeon Studios in central London in July.  Each year, the topic can change depending on the circumstances of the placement and in consultation with the community. As component parts of their Theatre for Development training, students would also research the socio-political situation in the particular country, research and pursue funding opportunities, administer fundraising events & galvanise support.    Within the exchange, the students would lead drama workshops as well as participate in workshops, exercises & performances led by the community.  The content of the workshops & performances would be decided upon within the community with the drama students bring the form & structure of Forum Theatre, but not the content.  The students’ stay would be programmed in advance with opportunities to be fully engaged & emerged within the community with visits to local schools, hospitals, community centres, etc… all with the possibility of using drama within that particular community.  The programme would also look for opportunities for young people within the community to work closely with the St. Mary’s students. Costs to the communities would be kept to a minimum as the students fundraise in London for this opportunity.  No money comes from the University to support this exchange so a budget would have to be tightly followed and would be worked out in advance.  Funding would also be pursued to support the programme within South Africa and Britain.   It is a vital part of the exchange programme that the St. Mary’s students give as much as they receive.  It needs to be more than a ‘voluntourism’ opportunity, but an opportunity to leave a sustainable legacy with other St. Mary’s students returning for future opportunities.  It would be expected that the community be involved an intrinsic part of the exchange as well.  Debate, discussion & reflection within the community are critical.For more information about the programme, please visit http://theatrefordevelopmentatdramastmarys.blogspot.co.uk or www.smuc.ac.uk.

South African Bound!!!

Due to the recent political instability within Malawi [though things have seemed to have settled since the death of the President], Drama St Mary's decided to pull the trip to Lilongwe for this year. It was not done lightly and after much reflection. Patrick Young, the director of Theatre for a Change, strongly recommended that we pull the trip due to the recent violence in the capital as well as the fuel and food shortages. We both agreed that as it stands, Malawi is not a place for 11 people who have never been to sub-Saharan Africa before to go. I have always said that Malawi is an excellent introduction to Southern Africa as it truly is the 'warm heart' of Africa; I truly hope that it regains that position soon. The late President had told Western NGO's to 'go to hell.' One of the vehicles that TfaC uses was stoned by protestors protesting the NGO's presence. There has been gun-shots near the TfaC compound. Clearly gunshots are a sign that the situation is changing in Malawi.  It is clear that the situation in Malawi is unstable, and can change very quickly. In this context, with the president telling donors and the international community to 'Go to Hell' as he did three weeks ago, and then encouraging his supporters to mobilise against what he regards as hostile interference from civil society in league with outsiders, it is not a situation that I would recommend taking the students from the UK into. Since making that decision, much has changed in Malawi and as I said at the beginning, I hope [and think] that it is for the better. I would have loved to have gone back to Malawi for a second year in a row. Our plans have now changed to going to Durban. We chose South Africa as I have strong links within that country. Very quickly, my contacts have been able to put together an excellent programme for my students. We are still away from the 26th of April to the 11th of May. We will be working with other young artists in Durban [We were asked to facilitate a workshop for 100+ participants which I immediately said, 'Yes, of course, no problem!!' We will also be performing out plays that we have been developing this term [one on Gender Equality & the other on Stereotype] to be performed at an arts festival in Durban. We will also be working in schools & FE colleges just outside of Durban. It is a wonderful package of opportunities and I am so excited for our students. This blog will really come into its own as we venture to Durban and I report back to it as regularly as possible. Durban is my favourite 'big city' in South Africa [compared to Jo'burg Cape Town], so I must say that it is no secret that I am happy to be heading there. In fact, my students thought that I might have engineered the political instability in Malawi just so we can go to South Africa. I do love the country, but I don't have that sort of pull. I hope that things are looking up for Malawi in the near future. Everything that I have read seems to be pointing in that direction. Certainly, one of my dreams for the Theatre for Development course at Drama St Mary's is to offer my students a choice of workplacements, so us diversifying into South Africa this year can only be of great benefit to the programme. I just wish that it had been under better circumstances. ---- From the BBC: 5 March 2012 Last updated at 11:44 Malawi's President Bingu wa Mutharika has told foreign donors to "go to hell", accusing them of plotting with local groups to topple his government. Mr Mutharika said he was "tired of being insulted" and urged his followers to prevent any protests against him. Civil society said there are no planned protests - and condemned the president for inciting his supporters. The UK and other donors cut aid to Malawi in 2010, criticising its economic policies. Last July, at least 19 people were shot dead by police during anti-government protests over the worsening economy. 'No more nonsense' Mr Mutharika said he has intelligence reports that some Western donor nations were working with local non-governmental groups (NGOs) to hold street demonstrations and vigils against his rule. "I will not accept this nonsense any more," Mr Mutharika said as he opened a road in his home tea-growing district of Thyolo in southern Malawi. The president should be tired of the problems on the ground, not his critics” End Quote Voice Mhone CONGOMA chairperson "If donors say this is not democracy, to hell with you... yes, I'm using that word, tell them to go to hell," he said on Sunday. He urged youth cadets of his ruling Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) to "do everything possible to rise up and make sure the demonstrations are thwarted". Malawi's NGO umbrella group, the Council for Non-Governmental Organisations (CONGOMA), says the president has the "wrong intelligence", and no demonstrations are being planned. "The president should be tired of the problems on the ground, not his critics," CONGOMA chairperson Voice Mhone said in a statement. "Unless he exerts all his energy and resources in finding solutions the criticism will not stop," he said. The BBC's Raphael Tenthani in Blantyre says Mr Mutharika has had several run-ins with foreign donors - with the most high-profile row ending in the expulsion last year of the UK's high commissioner after a leaked diplomatic cable quoted him as describing the president as autocratic and intolerant. He won a resounding second term in office in presidential elections in May 2009 - but has since faced criticism over his handling of the economy and his apparently growing intolerance of anyone who criticises him. Malawi is one of the poorest countries in the world, with an estimated 75% of the population living on less than $1 (60p) a day. The country has suffered shortages of fuel and foreign exchange since aid flows stopped two years ago.    

Thursday 1 March 2012

Touch Tag Theatre on the Radio

Well, the Applied Theatre students broke new ground earlier this week with two performances of touch tag theatre on the St. Mary's radio station. The biggest gratification was that the technology worked and the interactions were a success. I was so pleased [and not just a little proud] of the students' hard work, focus & dedication to, once again, inventing the wheel in that this is a programme that had never before been attempted at this Uni.

I must say, however, that I was disappointed with the interventions from the audience. One thing that I had not figured on was the fact that the audiences might not take the subject matter as seriously as we had taken it as a class [we presented two pieces on gender equality]. There is something to be said about the familarity of the audiences with the cast & crew [most who had turned out were drama students], so there was already established relationships. Add to that the 'thrill' of being live on air and you get a situation where a lack of seriousness can take over.

Having said that, upon a debrief by the Applied Theatre students, they spoke of very frank and interesting discussions that the pieces of theatre brought up in each of the classrooms [those discussions, unfortunately, did not tranfer onto the interventions on the radio]. And, once the pieces had finished, the cast & crew met up with the audiences in the SU bar and held a two hour forum on the pieces all the while casting an eye around the bar to see similarities between the performance they just heard & the goings on of young men & women in a bar.

I have asked each of the students to write up their thoughts on the evening and how it might be improved upon for next year. It was certainly successful to warrent another attempt.

I hope that this might spark more interest in the Applied Theatre students work on the radio station. I think that a community station could be an ideal platform for these students. I look forward to other such programmes in the future.

SMUC Applied Theatre on air

Thursday 2 February 2012

The mechanics of the radio programme

We will be broadcasting from the radio station on campus to anyone listening on their internet radio. We will ask the spect-actors to call in when they have an idea of how to change the outcome of our touch tag play. Those who call will be placed in a cue and we will return their call via Skype [the technology does not exist in our radio station to have people call directly in or out of the radio station].

As with the subject matter that is being discussed in the play, I have also greatly enjoyed watching my students wrestle with the mechanics of how such a play could be produced given our limited resources and the fact that this has never been attempted before at St. Mary's.

The students' faces twist in thought and concentration as they work out the mathematics of how we can get the audience to participate [believe me, it is no easy task as I too have wrestled with these same difficulties along side them]. But they have persevered and prospered.

This first broadcast will certainly be a test run, though we do plan to thoroughly dress rehearse it with the students listening online and spect-acting to test the technology & our reaction to it. I hope that this initial run might spawn more of the same with the students taking full ownership of the programme as it is a student run radio station. And, although part of their Theatre for Development module, wouldn't it be a wonderful thing if they took off & ran with it?!!

One the night of the performance, we hope that the spect-actors will call in from the comfort of their own dorm or flats. We will also have classrooms open to the public with internet radio & Skype access alongside room facilitators who will work with the audience listening and help them 'jump in and take over' one of the roles.

St. Mary's University College Interactive Touch Tag Radio Programme

As I firmly believe that some of the best ideas are stolen, I am not ashamed to admit that I have lifted the latest project that the Third Year Applied Theatre students have embarked upon directly from Theatre for a Change. I hope that this imitation is a complement to the pioneers at TfaC who devised this programme from scratch.

We will endeavour to produce a piece of interactive touch tag theatre for the radio which is to be broadcast on the 27th of February on SMUC internet radio. One key aspect of this sort of theatre is that the subject matter must of of great importance to the audience. As in all forms of interactive theatre, a needs assessment must be conducted to make sure that the subject matter will resonate with the audiences.

This can be a simple as devising the piece with members of the chosen audience [as we have done with this piece, we are using university college students which we hope will reflect the wider concerns of the audiences who are listening].

Touch tag theatre - as I have blogged about in the past - differs from the better know forum theatre in that there are multiple protagonists and the goal is to achieve a balance on the stage rather than have the protagonist 'win' over her adversaries.

To that end, we have begun to carefully construct a script where all actors can be replaced in order to achieve a balance in the relationship. We are looking at the theme of 'Gender Equality' which is a hot topic in university once you do a bit of digging past the niceties.

I greatly enjoy watching my students wrestle with this subject matter represented on the stage. Once we get past the nervous laughs, the giggling and the mock disbelief that such unequal relationships exist, we begin to pinch the muscle of a problem that exists in our culture - that of miscommunication, media and hormones - that is often not recognized or valued.

There is a certain amount of belief that men & women have a pretty equal relationship between each other in the UK. But after having viewed several touch tag theatre pieces on 'gender equality' I see that young people in universities are just as confused and purposefully obfuscated with each other. Here in the UK, we have a rising pregnancy rate and a rising HIV rate. After watching these pieces, I begin to see why this might be happening.

The Forum Radio Programme on SMUC Radio