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.