Wednesday 16 July 2014

Theatre for Development Workplacement Trip to South Africa, 2 to 12 September 2014

For the third year in a row [and twice this year], St. Mary's University Applied Theatre students will be partaking in a theatre for development workplacement in & around Durban in September.

The trip will include delivering drama workshops in schools in Harding utilizing South African writer Gcina Mhlophe's book,'Stories of Africa', working with the applied theatre students at the University of KwaZulu Natal and facilitating forum theatre performances in communities centres.

This workplacement comes quickly on the heals of the final year students' trip to South Africa in April and will follow much of the same schedule with the addition of working with UKZN students.

This workplacement aims to introduce students to the key challenges in using drama to support international development programmes.  As well as exposing students to a specific cultural context for their work, it will also provide an active dialogue between practitioners in Africa and our students who will have the chance to reflect on how their learning within an British University can be further influenced and, if necessary, challenged, by the active practice of working in Africa. 

Saturday 14 June 2014

Theatre for Development workshop at South Africa House, 13 June 2014

Two St. Mary's University Applied Theatre students facilitated an excellent interactive drama workshop highlighting the work they had done in South Africa in April.  This workshop was a part of the South African High Commission’s celebrations of the 20th anniversary of democracy from 11th-14th June.

The students delivered a series of games and activities based on their work with South African writer, Gcina Mhlophe and her book 'Stories of Africa.'  They also offered a brief introduction to Forum Theatre.  Both activities were met with laughter and respect.  All of the participants enjoyed themselves as they became lions, giraffes and elephants and tried to come up with the best way to work together to solve the problems that were facing the animals from Mhlophe's story. 

Friday 2 May 2014

South Africa April 2014 - Theatre for Development Trip with St. Mary's University Students

After a tiresome but luxurious flight with Emirates, we stepped off the Airbus A380 to be greeted by the abundant natural beauty that is South Africa. As soon as we’d set foot on South African soil it became piercingly apparent we were a long way from home. Shortly after landing we bundled into our coach. Our driver, Christo, slid a CD into the coaches’ stereo, blasting out a song which would later be recognised as the official Applied Theatre SA anthem. The popularity of DJ Lagg in SA became obvious after the first 15 locals we encountered played the song at levels high enough to burst an eardrum.

Later that evening with our stomach’s grumbling so loudly they threatened to contend with the sound of the coaches’ wheels on the gravel road, we arrived at Sea Fever Lodge in Umkomaas. Fortunately after we were given a quick tour of our rooms (all three were kitted out with en-suite bathrooms and on the whole thoroughly surpassed our expectations) we were greeted by the pleasant smell of Sea Fever’s welcoming BBQ. The food was delicious, and the plates were clean within a matter of minutes. Another first was established at the table as we were graced with our first taste of Chakalaka. The spicy sauce would become a prolific and frequently used addition to the week’s meals to come. After a sizeable amount of chicken and a short meeting with the facilitators we would spend the next few days working with, we retired to bed.

The following morning we woke to the blazing sunshine, the glistening sea, and the beautiful rolling hills, little of which we were actually aware existed until that morning as they were cloaked by darkness on the night of our arrival. Christo arrived once more to drop us to the first destination of our trip. We pulled up to the community hall of Magabheni and were met by a sea of smiles. We introduced ourselves to the students and played a few games in the community hall’s car park. As the day pressed on, the numbers of students swelled and the heat rose, so we decided it best to move the games inside to the air conditioned space. Not long after we had retreated inside, we were reintroduced to Gcina Mhlophe one of the aforementioned facilitators present in the meeting held the night before.

Gcina was bursting with enthusiasm telling stories with such intensity we hardly knew where to look. She spoke of the pride we should have for our roots and where we come from. She went on to point out how South African tradition suggested that by speaking aloud the names of your ancestors, you could breathe life into their legacy once more. Ultimately Gcina was not only a story teller, but also a performer, and she made sure as a facilitator, the people she worked with would behave as performers too. If anybody participating in the day was not loud enough in their acting, or in addressing others she would repeat the words “Speak to be heard, speak to be understood” until the person in question would up their efforts. She told us all a story of an old man with a son and daughter. The son was the CEO of a large factory making paper, but heavily polluting the atmosphere (the factory in the story reflected an actual paper making factory situated nearby, the pollution of which caused the community numerous problems). The daughter worked as the curator of a museum. Meanwhile the grandfather was left to look after the grandchildren. Gcina passed the story over to us and allowed us to develop a performance that continued the story in either the future, the past or the present, with the freedom to construct any fantasy around these guidelines that we saw fit. So many great stories were produced, my telling would not do them justice, but fortunately some of those performances were filmed, see below.

To round off the day, we were shown around the township by the school kids, turned friends, from the community centre workshops. The township was modest, with houses and equipment built from whatever resources could be found, often corrugated iron was used to roof houses, instead of the tiling we see typically in England. I remember vividly seeing the chasse of a pick-up truck, re-invented as a plough. The ingenuity of the place astonished me, and highlighted just how wasteful we can be in some instances back home. After numerous interruptions from cow’s abruptly blocking our path, we head back to the coach, to relax in the last of the midday sun and reflect on all that we had seen and experienced that day.

On the second day we were left to decide the course of the entire day. We decided after playing a few games of our own to hand over to the kids and see what games they would usually play. We were introduced to the game ‘Jingles’ something we were told was played extensively with the students who had visited the year before. The game was centred on getting to know the players name’s, this was done through rhythm, song, and dance, and helped us really cement the names of the students we were working with, despite the challenges and difficulties present in a dialect so very different from our own. We spent the rest of the day teaching a couple of Gcina Mhlophe’s stories from her incredible book Our Story Magic. Teaching through workshops we had devised prior to travelling to South Africa, and at the end of the day performed them to one and other. The recurrent theme of the day was dancing, we did a lot of it, teaching dances to one and other, and playing a lot of games through rhythm. One of the boy’s there said something that really shifted my thinking. I commented on how badly I danced, as to which he replied “You dance how you move” a sentiment that in retrospect I couldn’t agree more with. If somebody is having fun dancing, there ability is irrelevant, this lack of judgement in the room held true in our performing, and made me appreciate how much sweeter things can be when seemingly trivial worries like this are put to one side. We finished by performing the stories to one and other through various songs and dances, and the day was a big hit all round.  The day came to a close, we said our final emotional goodbye’s to our now good friends from Magabheni and prepared for one more trip to Sea Fever Lodge, before we would be embarking on a journey further in-land to Harding.

I hope you have enjoyed reading this blog!

Oliver Franklin, Applied Theatre Student St. Mary's University

Thursday 30 January 2014

Drama Students Visit South Africa House for Book Launch

In preparation for a forthcoming trip to South Africa, second year Drama and Applied Theatre students at St Mary’s University, Twickenham visited South Africa House in London on Wednesday 29th January as MP Peter Hain launched his book, Ad and Wal, detailing his parent’s contribution to the liberation struggle in South Africa.
photo 5 - 2
The purpose of the trip was to give students a historical and political background to the country before their visit in September, as part of the Drama and Applied Theatre programme. These students undertake a Theatre for Development placement in South Africa where they have the opportunity to apply the skills learned in the programme as part of a cultural exchange with schools and communities.
Before their work placement, each student must deliver a 20 minute presentation on an aspect of South Africa, development or healthcare in order to expand their knowledge of the country and the issues that it faced and continues to face. The trip to South Africa House gave them a better understanding of the country, which will help them form better relationships with the peers and school children with whom they will be working.
The book launch was followed by a question and answer session with South African journalist John Battersby, the former Editor-in-Chief of the Sunday Independent in Johannesburg, who talked about the last 70 years of history in South Africa.
Senior Drama Lecturer Matthew Hahn, who organises the annual trip, said, “The visit was a success as the students were able to meet people with first-hand knowledge of the hardships that many South Africans faced under Apartheid and the effects that this still has on the country.”

Thursday 16 January 2014

The Ethical Considerations of Forum Theatre

Forum Theatre is created from stories around oppressions, imbalances, or difficulties faced by members of a specific community. The twin goals of Forum Theatre are to promote positive behaviour change and to advocate for human rights.
These stories are based on the reality of this community.  These stories are personal and must have happened to an individual in that group.  Second-hand or hearsay stories are not useful.   
The theme of the piece of Forum Theatre created by the St. Mary’s students in their Theatre for Development module focuses on ‘gender equality and safer sex’ issues because I have found these issues to be pertinent in Malawi, South Africa, the United Kingdom and elsewhere I have facilitated. 
Within my work in the UK, I often see that there can seem to be a certain avoidance or papering over of gender issues.  It is because we are so cotton-wooled in comfort and resources, that we often ignore the subtle and not so subtle gender problems that exist here [and so much within the so called ‘developed world.’].

When I propose ‘gender equality and safer sex’ as the issue of their assessed Forum Theatre piece, the majority of the students, at first, tell me that they don’t see in their own lives that this is an issue.  But after reflection and the creation of still images based on me asking them the question, ‘What happened the last time you put your sexual health at risk?’, the students do begin to see that gender imbalance is affecting their lives as well.  Images of pulling shirts to reveal skin, hands on buttocks, fear, shame, fingers pointing, images of great differences in levels and the like are revealed. 
This realisation based on their practical experience – ‘What happened the last time you put your sexual health at risk? – brings it from the hypothetical or abstract [‘What would you do if your sexual health was at risk?] which usually engenders bravado in the group, to the reality of a person’s situation. 
The follow up question, then, is ‘What affect did that have in your communication with that person?’  Again, images created show a great imbalance between the person who has power and the person who is lacking in power.

It is imperative to consider how to ethically deal with these generated stories of a very personal nature in a teaching session that uses challenging material – sex, violence & prejudice – as a stimulus.  It is also imperative to get the students to consider the ethical dimensions around the gathering of these stories as well as the broadcast of such stories in a theatrical setting.

Within the Drama programme, there are four key principles of ethical teaching that are expected to be addressed, whenever applicable:

·         Integrity and quality should be ensured in all teaching and learning activities
·         The autonomy of individuals should be respected
·         Harm to individuals must be avoided
·         People should be treated fairly and with respect

For each lesson there are clear aims & objectives so the students know in advance what it is they will be discussing and creating that day. It is stressed that no personal details will leave the workshop and will be treated with respect at all times.  Clear ground rules are created by the group to provide a safe space where people can feel free to [or not to] share their very personal stories.  The above four key principles provide the foundation for these guidelines. 

There are three phases to develop a piece of forum theatre and each has its own ethical considerations:

1] Story Gathering
Students are asked to pair up and share a personal story around the topic [or if there is time, resources, and if appropriate to interview their friends on the topic to widen the research].  The people gathering the stories must stress to those interviewed that it is the universality of the stories that are of most interest.  Names, locations, and any other information that might identify the story-teller can be changed if necessary.  By being specific in these stories about the power imbalance, more people will recognize them as opposed to a non-specific general story of an ‘oppression’.
These stories are then shared to the group to find a group understanding of the topic.  This begins to create a group cohesion and focus for the play that is to be created.  This again is done with utmost care and consideration for the story teller.  It is again stressed that no personal details will leave the workshop and will be treated with respect at all times.  

2] Devising the play 
Once a story or stories have been chosen that most adequately represents the views of the group, the devising process begins.  As the play is being devised, the individual performers add their own points of view to the play.  It is of utmost importance that the Forum Theatre piece is genuinely devised by participants using their own stories rather than an externally driven process that brings with it outside agenda [‘Don’t do drugs!’, ‘Unprotected sex kills!’].  Participants [young and old] can sniff this out, tune out within minutes and not achieve the stated goals of behaviour change or advocacy for rights.
As I am the facilitator in the process with no idea what it is like to be 20 something in the early 21st century, it is of great import not to offer my personal points of view in the content of the story.  This serves to empower the group because, as the creator of Forum Theatre, Augusto Boal, says that we are all experts in our own lives and this expertise must be respected.  Boal goes on to call the facilitator a ‘mid-wife’ who assists in the birth of all ideas and actions, but does not provide any of the ideas or actions.  I often follow up with open ended questions when devising the plays such as ‘Is this realistic? Why?’ or ‘Has this happened to you? Can you tell me the details?’  If there is agreement, then the addition stays in.  If not, the further discussion is had to determine the best way to enrich the story.  

As people are adding their own specifics to the story or character, care must be taken to respect the contributions especially when deciding against using them in the play. 

3] Performing the play to a specific audience:
Audiences can either be from the same community who might face similar issues to those presented on stage to examine how that community can change behaviour around a certain topic or, as in Legislative Theatre where the piece of forum theatre becomes advocacy, the audience can be a community that has the power to change the circumstances around the oppression.   

Two examples: the first is looking for positive changes in behaviour within a community.  The second is to advocate for social change.

Last year, St. Mary’s students created a piece of Forum Theatre around condom negotiation examining whose responsibility it is to provide the condom as well as the discussion ‘in the heat of the moment’ on whether or not to use a condom.  This piece of Forum Theatre encouraged calm discussion as well as a commitment to using condoms regardless of the situation.  This empowered the group to demand the right to protect themselves and to not settle for anything less than full respect of this right.

My second example is of Legislative Theatre.  I just facilitated a piece of Forum Theatre with a group of disabled activists at the Houses of Parliament.  In the audience, there were MPs who had the power to decide whether or not to support the recent cuts to government support for the disabled.   By the disabled activists fully devising the piece with me acting as the midwife to give birth to their ideas by providing the structure of Forum Theatre, the piece truthfully reflected the conditions that would be felt if the Personal Independence Payment allowance was eliminated.  From that performance, we received the agreement from the gathered MPs to vote against any more cuts.

Regardless of who is in the audience or where the performance is, it is an ethical imperative that the group, the audience and facilitator must work to not ‘victim blame’ the main character of the story – by focusing on how to change his or her behaviour.  It must not be seen as a tacit implication that by changing the behaviour of this character it is implied that he or she is responsible for change which, in some situations, can lead to victim blaming. 

The key is for the facilitators to extend their questions to collaborative or collective action by the audience by asking ‘Who can the character go to for help?’  This encourages the community to respond and take collective responsibility to make positive changes in behaviour.

Working in Africa, there is another ethical consideration that warrants attention but is not covered within this paper – that is the ‘North / South Divide’.  A large aspect of the Applied Theatre course is to promote the idea that when the students go to Africa, they are not going to ‘teach’ or to ‘show the right path’ but rather to empower both the British students and their South African counterparts through skills development – ‘Learning through Drama’ [for example, gender equality issues that face both British & South African young people] as well as ‘Learning about Drama’ [through the development of facilitation, acting & workshop skills]. 
Too often, I have heard students on this course who want to ‘help’ the people with whom we will be working.  I stress to them that it is a cultural exchange that is occurring – that it is a balance  - an examination of similar difficulties [in this case Gender Equality issues] that are faced by young people from different backgrounds.

But a full discussion of the ethical dimensions around this topic is for another paper.