Thursday 19 March 2020

‘Kuleta Joto’, Applying Theatre to create positive social change

‘Instead of speaking for Others, we maintain a respectful silence, and work to create the social and political conditions which might enable Others to speak [and to be heard] on their own terms.’
[Wilkinson, Kitzinger, Representing the Other, p 10]

In her [and Tim Prentki’s] book The Applied Theatre Reader, Shelia Preston describes the various ‘typolog[ies] of participation’.  From its inception, the Air Network clearly fell under her category of ‘Interactive Participation’ in that the work that we were going to do would be a ‘joint analysis which leads to action plans and the formation of new local institutions or the strengthening of existing ones.  Groups take over local decisions, and so people have a stake in maintaining structures or practices.’ [Preston, p. 129]

It has been a real privilege to be involved with the AIR network over the 18 months.  I am pleased that I have been able to introduce a seemingly effective method of communication – that of interactive theatre – that fits in very well with the ethos of the Network.  Working with non-theatre practitioners in a development setting has been a new experience for me.  Up until this point had been working with theatre for development organisations to deliver social and political change within the community.  But this experience, of bringing my practice to people who have no background in theatre was a real privilege and joy.  I was pleased that it really felt as though I was imparting new knowledge of a practice that was of practical use not only with the members of the community but also within the northern members of the AIR network.  

The knowledge around air pollution married with the artistic delivery [be that theatre, painting or music] seems to me a very solid way of communicating complex messages.  But it is the theatrical framework that I want to examine in this blog entry.  During the first trip in January, I was able to provide team building as well as energising activities for the entire network who had gathered in Nairobi.  This allowed for a breaking up and variation for the week-long workshop.  It also allowed us to create a thumbnail sketch of what a piece of forum theatre could look like as part of a mini-project.  I consider the theatre contribution a success because it provided for the immediate needs [team building, energizers, etc] of the group but also laid the ground work for a more in-depth workshop around interactive and participatory theatre.  From the mini-project discussions at the end of the week, it was determined that interactive theatre would be working across two projects with two very different aims and objectives.  The first was to devise, facilitate and train members of the community in forum theatre and in the facilitation of forum theatre.  The second was to devise, facilitate and train members of the community in legislative theatre.  The main difference between the two forms is the audience:  in forum theatre, the audience is members of the community who share the oppressions that have been displayed in the piece of theatre. The goal of forum theatre is to make more positive choices in our individual behaviour.  In legislative theatre, the audience is not necessarily members of the community nor might they have experienced similar oppressions to those displayed on stage.  But this audience has been specifically chosen / targeted because they have the power to make more positive systemic changes to alleviate the oppressions displayed on the stage [chiefs, community elders, politicians, council members, industrialists, etc…].  As an example of both taken from the pieces developed in the September workshop, the community devised two pieces of forum theatre.  One was on the topic of cooking with a dirty fuel source [coal, wood, plastic bottles] and the outcomes in regard to air pollution [short & long term illnesses].  The other piece was on the burning of rubbish [plastic bottles, dust, and the like] on the streets and the outcome of such behaviour [again short- & long-term illnesses].  The aim of these two pieces was to get members of the community to positively change their behaviour once they have seen the negative effects of the behaviour in the original piece of theatre as well as the more positive interventions by the audience in the interactive part of the performance.  Solutions posited by the audiences included moving the cooking stove outside the home so that the air pollution is not trapped inside.  Another solution was to change fuel sources to a less polluting gas stove.  By publicly examining both negative and more positive behaviours, the hope is that members of the community, through experiential learning, make the same positive steps in their daily lives.

The two pieces of legislative theatre dealt with poor service provision [lack of proper firefighting equipment within the community] and with the poor working conditions within the local industries.  As opposed to forum theatre, legislative theatre makes it very difficult for the individual in the story to make positive changes.  This is because it should be up to those who have systemic power to make sure that the fire-fighters have enough water and resources to fight fires when they break out rather than the individual community member.  This audience also might have the power to curb the poor practices of the local industries.  A piece  of legislative theatre plays out where there is not much – if anything – that an individual can do within the scene portrayed but it is to be used to advocate for the powerless and place the onus of change on those who do have the power [chiefs, community elders, politicians, council members, industrialists, etc…] to make positive changes within the community. 

The trip in September was focused on creating a piece of forum theatre in the first week and developing a piece of legislative theatre for the second week.  The theatre group worked alongside and often with the story-telling group in that we started each day together and regularly came together for energisers throughout the day.  This allowed for a sharing of the stories that were being created in in group and a strengthening of the work through peer feedback from those outside of either groups [drama & storytelling groups].
One of the first exercises led by colleague Cindy Gray set the framework for the entire week’s work.  She asked the individuals to tell a story about how air pollution has affected her / him in this community.  These rich and detailed stories provided plenty of source material for both groups to develop their separate projects.  From that source material, the drama group chose two stories that were the most universal and further developed them.  I also introduced legislative theatre to them at this time so that they can understand from the beginning the differences and similarities between the two as well as to start to think about potential stories for the legislative theatre work the following week.  The two most universal stories that came out were the cooking stove and the burning of rubbish as fleshed out above.  The group was quickly able to put together the ‘moment of crisis’ scene from both of those stories and from that moment, they created ‘the moment before’ and the ‘moment after’ to devise a short sharp scene on the subject matter.  From those three moments, they then begin to develop characters and dialogue.  The dialogue went through several changes throughout the week as the group boiled down to the most essential what each character wanted.  As the energy came and went, Heather Price, another colleague, Cindy and I made sure to infuse each day with energisers and team building games to keep the workshop focused but fun. 

Each afternoon, as the last aspect of the day, we held a reflection circle which allowed the group to comment on the practicalities of the workshop [start time, lunch and other breaks and the like] as well as the more thematic issues that the community was facing up to.  Several commented at these reflection circles that they were beginning to see that they had, in the words of one community participant, ‘normalized the abnormal’ in their daily lives [although it is not ‘normal’ to live in such a polluted community, they have accepted that and made it ‘normal’].  They were also commenting on the sense of empowerment that story-telling and theatre making can imbue.  We also began the discussion about who the community thinks are the power brokers and, therefore, should be invited to the legislative theatre performance the following week.  Throughout the following four days, we devised and investigated two forum theatre pieces and two legislative theatre pieces.  The groups would work on their own and then share to get feedback on characterisations and scenarios.  On Thursday, the day before the public performance, the drama group and the story telling group came together to programme the entire event – locations, times, programme formatting and decided that the format of story-telling one story, then the two forum theatre pieces followed by another story, and then closed with a summary / reflection would be the best format for the public performances.  The pieces were to be performed outside and within the community – bringing the theatre to the wider community with the hope to ‘kuleta joto’ [‘bring fire’] to the discussion around air pollution in Mukuru. 

Rehearsal for the Forum Theatre pieces

Forum Theatre Performances in the Community
‘Often a person is very revolutionary when in a public forum he envisages and advocates revolutionary and heroic acts; on the other hand, he often realizes that things are not so easy when he himself has to practice what he suggests.’
[Augusto Boal, p 139 Theatre of the Oppressed]

Forum Theatre is an interactive and participatory approach that examines current behaviour and attempts to make positive changes, where it may be necessary, through enabling a safe space for communication between individuals and communities.  One of the key elements of Forum Theatre is getting as close as possible to a real situation but in the safety of ‘play acting’.  But even with ‘play acting’, if done well, forum and legislative theatre pushes back against any proposed changes that ‘spect-actors’ [members of the audience who come up on stage to try out different strategies to make more positive changes in behaviour] to the status quo of the presented scene.    In this way, experiential learning makes it much more difficult [and thus realistic because behaviour change is difficult] to achieve positive change than, as in Boal’s example above someone just saying this is how they would solve the problem. 

In our work in Mukuru, the first location for the performance of the forum theatre pieces was at a market place.  It was not the community’s first choice of venues as discussed on Thursday, but it was suggested as walking though the settlement.  It was a wide-open space with many people selling, buying, walking through and enjoying themselves.  We set up a circle and one member of the group began a call and response song to draw an audience.  With that and the sight of three white Northerners participating quickly drew an audience for the storytelling to begin.  The location was difficult because it was wide open and uncontrollable.  We experienced some heckling from a couple of intoxicated audience members, but the group held its focus and powered through.  There was a lot of side coaching and translating throughout and it was decided that, for security reasons, the workshop would be shortened.  Within the groups, there was a strong sense of protecting those of us not from the community and there were concerns about our safety. 
Once we wrapped up the workshop, we left for more quiet grounds where we had a brief debrief as well as an opportunity to feed forward to tomorrow’s workshops.  The performance was truly a learning the hard way for their first outing.  The group not only had to focus on their performances but also to crowd management and expectations as well as security.  But they had come through it, had learned a lot and have gotten stronger because of it.  They were pleased with the feedback and interventions from the audience and thought that they had been successful in transmitting the learning around air pollution. 
Forum Theatre performance at local school

The second performance was completely different than the first.  This one was in a school hall on a Saturday afternoon as part of a larger information campaign for young people around sexual health.  As a part of that programme, we were slotted in to perform the stories and the forum theatre pieces for the audience.  This was a very controlled and respectful audience whose interventions, again, were strong and pointed.  After, the group felt that the messages of the pieces had been received and that the interventions were strong and showcased learning around air pollution. 

Forum theatre performance at local football pitch

From the school, we walked altogether to a dusty football pitch where our next performance would be slotted in between two football matches.  Again, at the last minute the venue was changed by members of the group.  It was hoped that, because there would already be a crowd at the football match, we could piggyback onto it to showcase our pieces to the largest audience.

I think that to have been a mistake: members of the group didn’t have the confidence that we could generate an audience through song & dance but instead wanted to rely upon an already formed group.  But the problem with an already formed group is that they were there to watch football and not stories on air pollution.  I believe to have been a momentary lack of confidence that took us to the football pitch.  We had proven that we could generate an audience with enough song, dance and pink flesh that it would not have been a problem.  I believe it comes down to experience and trust in the decisions that had already been made.  But it made for an enjoyable afternoon of watching football and then in between matches squeezing in the workshop.  Unfortunately, the ref started the match during the last performance and, as mentioned, the audience quickly switched allegiances back to the football.  Because of that, we didn’t have time for audience reflection and recapping which was a shame.  And, as it was out last performance, it ended with a bit of a whimper.  Which, again, was too bad.  

Three performances in two days – in vastly different settings with vastly difference audiences.  All excellent and confidence building experiences for the group.  We walked from the pitch to the community library where we were able to debrief and reflect not only on the two days of performances but also, as it was the end of the workshop, the entire process or creating and performing our original works.  Once again, the feedback on the devising and performances were generally positive with the only negative of not sticking to the original planned locations. I was disappointed not to hear anyone speak of any sort of continuing of the training and performances but perhaps that is too big of an ask without any secured funding.  After spending the week specifically targeting three members of the community to facilitate forum and legislative theatre, I was hoping that they would take it and carry on, but for now it doesn’t seem as though that might be possible. But who knows how the training will support them in their future endeavours. 

Legislative Theatre performances
 ‘All the truly revolutionary theatrical groups should transfer to the people the means of production in the theatre so that the people themselves may utilize them.  The theatre is a weapon and it is the people who should wield it.’
[Boal, 1979 Theatre of the Oppressed, p 12] 

Legislative Theatre is an extension of Forum Theatre that explores collective and systemic behaviours. Legislative Theatre opens the possibility for change to be catalysed and creates a platform for the advocacy of rights.  Working beyond issue awareness and community building of Forum Theatre, Legislative Theatre allows the participants to address the obstacles or oppressions they face to key policy-makers in the audience [be they legislators, governors, community leaders, etc] who then interact with the play with the hope that these policy-makers can legislate systemic change in the community. Legislative Theatre uses these participatory and interactive theatre techniques to examine communication break down and power imbalance.  As mentioned, the crucial difference is the audience: in Legislative Theatre, the audience is made up of people who hold the power that can help change the system.  Legislative Theatre asks ‘To whom could someone go to for help in this situation?’ and   ‘Who has the power to help change this situation?’ 

Legislative Theatre is used to generate strategic action for the community.  James Thompson, in his chapter in The Applied Theatre Reader, says, ‘Applied theatre projects might instil in participants rich and complex means of coping and subtly resisting the worst of a context, but rarely are they able to equip people to transcend it.’ [Thompson, ATR 122].  It is my belief that Legislative Theatre attempts to transcend just this context through the involvement of those who can make positive systemic changes for the community.

On the Monday following the Friday & Saturday Forum Theatre performances, the drama group came together once again to rehearse the two Legislative Theatre performances.  As they had been sketched out throughout the previous week, this day was focused on solidifying the characters & scenarios for the performance on Tuesday morning.  The focus for the facilitators also shifted as we discussed the subtle but important tactics the facilitator can use when facilitating power brokers rather than community members.  We ran the pieces several times with me facilitating to, hopefully, highlight the differences between both facilitation roles as well as to give the facilitators an opportunity to ‘spect-act’ and try out any interventions they think might positively change the scene.  A founding notion of Legislative Theatre is that no individual can change the outcome of the scene; changes to the systems that currently exist are the only way the scene could end more positively. 
Audience at the Ruben Centre for the Legislative Theatre performance

On that Tuesday morning before the workshop began, there was the typical nervousness around whether we would have an audience and whether we would start close to the correct time.  We eventually were very successful in gathering a large audience, but less successful in starting on time.  The room at the Ruben Centre had art work that had been created by school children with members of the AIR network for the audience to engage with, but I am not sure if any took the opportunity. There was also a new song created by another member of the AIR network that was played on loop as the group gathered.  There was also plenty of coffee and strong tea and a light breakfast which was wholeheartedly devoured.  Once we had achieved critical mass, our facilitators welcomed the group and set out what the aims of the workshop was.  

After the welcome, the audience was invited by the facilitator to watch the piece of theatre and to see if they would make different choices than the main character in the play.  Once the play was performed, the facilitator asked the audience if the play ended well or badly [one of the main jobs of the facilitator is to not take sides but to always ask open ended questions or to follow up with ‘Why?’].   The audience determined unanimously that the play ended badly for the main character. The facilitator then asked if anyone in the audience could think of any other tactics that the main character could use for the play to not end badly.  After some discussion within the audience, individuals began to offer up potential solutions.  But, as Boal says above, it is easy to sit in one’s chair and pontificate on the variety of better choices ‘I would have made’ but it is different when asked to come up on stage and experience the reactions to those proposed changes. 

The first ‘spect-actor’ intervention

We were fortunate that the first ‘spect-actor’ to come up on stage was a village elder.  From what I was told, this then allowed for the others in the audience to participate as well in future interventions.  The elder came onto the stage as the worker and began to argue with the supervisor that his conditions were unhealthy and he demanded better conditions.  The manager quickly fired the worker for insubordination and quickly hired another waiting at the gate for a day’s work.  When the ‘spect-actor’ protested, the manager called security and had him escorted out of the plant.  

With this first intervention by a powerful member of the audience, Legislative Theatre quickly proved its point.  Very little, if anything, could be done to improve the outcomes of these particular scenes.  The same held true for the second piece of Legislative Theatre when audience members replaced the main character whose house had caught fire.  The ‘spect-actor’ saved some items from the house than in the original scene, but the house still burned down.  They may have won a small ‘battle’ but they certainly still lost the ‘war’. 
After several attempts at intervening and not greatly improving the situation, the facilitators asked the audience to begin to think on a more systemic and strategic level on how these such situations can be avoided.  It was quickly determined that none of our individual interventions would be positive [the firefighters ran out of water and the homes burned down no matter what the individual did in that moment; the worker still either got sick working in the factory or was jobless no matter what sort of intervention was made], we  then began to discuss systemic changes that could be done to positively intervene in the stories.  We also began to think about who will be in the audience and how their positions might be able to create this systemic change.  The goal is for each member of the audience to take responsibility and to see who or what could be done within their office or remit to the community.  

From this group discussion, we then broke into smaller groups with the aim of answering three questions:  What can be done differently? Who is responsible?  In your position, what can you do to change this situation?  Based on the themes that were brought up in the two pieces of Legislative Theatre, each group examined four topics and were asked to report back to the larger group.  These topics were Labour Laws, Job Creation, Fire Risk & Infrastructural Planning.  During these discussions, I was disappointed [but hardly surprised] with the audience’s reaction to victim blame [‘Why are they stealing electricity which caused the fire?’] rather than take responsibility [as there is little if any legal electrical infrastructure, how else can members of the community access electricity?].  The facilitators and I worked hard to counter the audience’s attempts to victim-blaming or blaming those above them in the hierarchy.    I repeatedly pushed the facilitators to find out from the audience who has the power to change this situation or to help this situation.   Besides blaming those ‘lower’ than them [the community], the audience also pushed ‘upwards’ as well [‘Someone from the Department of Health should take responsibility’] again rather than examining what they could, in their capacity as a chief, elder, politician, council member, etc…. do about it in their role.  I believe that the facilitators found it difficult to push the members of the audience to examine their roles in these situations because of their rank, position or standing in the community.  I found it frustrating not to be able to intervene to press home the point of individual and collective responsibility but because of the language barrier and the lack of stomaching a white man from the ‘North’ pointing fingers at the Africans from the ‘South’, I stood by and side-coached as best as possible. 

At the end of the workshop, we had compiled three pledges from three members of the audience who have the power to systemically change the situations presented on the stage.  The community members of our Mini Project will need to follow up on these pledges if they want to see any systemic changes.  They now have the names and contact details as well as their pledges to enact change.  Let’s hope that can get the ball rolling.

So, was it worth it?
And, so to the question, what, if any, will be the long-term outcomes of this project? Will there be any sustainable solutions enacted?

At the least, we raised awareness and brought to light some of the terrible effects of air pollution and we also trained members in the community in interactive theatre [as well as some of them in the more specialized skills of facilitators].  As mentioned, it is my hope that they continue to use these skills in circumstances that require community-led intervention and advocacy.  

But, as I set out in my Forum Theatre & Legislative Theatre proposal to the AIR Network all those months ago, has behaviour changed?

The community audiences of the performances in the community were the least affected as their interaction with the project only lasted as long as the various workshops.  This differed from 20 minutes to 45 minutes depending on the location.  But the members of the community who participated with the AIR Network and the various applied theatre methods since January, had a much longer-term interaction so the hope would be that we have enacted some behaviour change around an individual’s interaction with air pollution.  I had heard mentioned within the group that several were thinking of changing from the more polluting stoves to those that use the less polluting gas as a fuel.  But, are these long-term changes?  I can imagine a questionnaire in 6 months and a year’s time to see if any had changed stove types – the gas stoves are more expensive and, if they do have extra money to set aside, there are always other more pressing needs.  Or if they still burn rubbish to clean up the rubbish from off the ground.  I also wonder if legislative theatre ‘works’.  Will any of our audience act on what they saw and experienced on that Tuesday morning in September?  Or was it just a good breakfast and lunch opportunity?  I hope that the community members of the AIR Network continue to engage with those who attended and to press those who made pledges of change.  

But of course, the same could be asked of me – what have I done to reduce my air pollution impact:  Nope, still want to regularly return to Nairobi.  So, my air miles are not reducing. And let me make clear that I believe those miles to be much worse globally to contribute to air pollution than any number of plastic bottles burned.  But I justify this by claiming that I hope that I have reduced the local air pollution through behaviour change [its easy for me to advocate for others to change, less easy for me to give up the flying].  I hope that I have contributed in some small way to getting those, as Robert Chambers calls them, on the ‘top’ in power to examine their relationship with those at the ‘bottom’ who don’t want to give up where they live and have created a community but just want the river that runs through Mukuru to run clear rather than ash grey. 

Boal, A                         Theatre of the Oppressed.
Chambers, R              Whose Reality Counts? Putting the first last
Prentki, T; Preston, S The Applied Theatre Reader [2oo9]