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From: Theatre for development – Footsteps 58

Using theatre to encourage understanding about different community issues

by Tim Prentki and Claire Lacey.

Theatre can break through language and cultural barriers and is an extremely useful communication tool…

Theatre has been used in community development in various ways:

Educational propaganda Governments and NGOs may use theatre to deliver messages in a ‘top-down’ approach. For example, a development agency or community group may use a play encouraging the use of solar cookers as a means of preventing the removal of trees. Although this can be an effective way of passing on information about an issue, it will not be effective if it ignores the local situation, culture and the knowledge and experience of the audience.

Encouraging participation Theatre for development can encourage active participation from people whose voices are not normally heard in the community. Stories are used to help people express their understanding of what happens to them in their daily lives. These stories can encourage real participation. Theatre for development turns private, individual stories into public, collective dramas.

Advocacy Theatre can provide a way for the audience to participate in the issues raised. It can have a much greater impact than other forms of advocacy. Theatre can challenge people who may be able to respond to and take action about the issues raised.

Therapy Drama can be used as therapy to help people deal with trauma and emotional problems. This usually requires special training and understanding.

Helping people develop their own stories 

Stories can be used to help individuals and communities make sense of their place in the world. Outside facilitators planning to use theatre with a community need to spend time building up relation-ships with individuals. They need to build trust and confidence with people, by showing humility and interest and gaining understanding of local issues.

Finding an interesting way of encouraging people to talk about themselves is often a good start. Participants could be asked to bring to a meeting an object of personal value to them. Then they could be asked, in turn, to share the histories of those objects. People could also be asked to sing favourite songs.

Sharing stories about the past requires trust and openness. Facilitators can offer their own story first, and then encourage other people to do the same. By sharing a variety of stories, the most important aspects of the community will gradually emerge.

Developing stories 

There are many techniques for this process. We might begin simply by getting people in pairs to tell each other stories. Then the listener can retell the story they just heard to another person.

Or participants could pass one story round a circle, with each person making slight changes each time the story is retold.

The following activity could also be used to help a group make up a story…

These stories can then be told to the other groups. Decisions about what is included in the stories will reveal a great deal about the group as a whole – how they feel, what they think and believe, and how they relate to others in the community. 

Turning stories into plays  

The quality of the performance is likely to relate to the degree of ownership that participants feel towards the material. Participants should therefore agree together which story to choose to develop into a play. The facilitator may need to highlight practical issues concerning what is possible to act out! They may also be able to combine parts of discarded stories into the chosen story. 

Exploring issues 

Many sensitive issues, which may be too delicate or dangerous to discuss openly, can be explored through the use of drama. Playing the role of a different character allows people to say things that would not be possible in their own voices. Humour can sometimes help to share difficult or sensitive issues in ways that do not cause offence. 

People do not have to base theatre around their present situation. Other situations or different cultural settings can be imagined. 

Theatre can sometimes provide several alternatives in the story with their resulting consequences, rather than providing any one definite solution. This can encourage people to think through the alternatives and consider how they, personally, would respond. 

Give careful thought about how to involve the audience. Could they be involved:

Sustainability in the use of theatre is very important, once outside facilitators leave. Wherever possible, people within the community should be identified who can be trained in facilitation skills to enable the process to be continued by the community without outside help. 

Tim Prentki is Professor of Theatre for Development at King Alfred’s College, Winchester, UK. He has recently co-authored a book, Popular Theatre in Political Culture (see page 14). E-mail: Tim.Prentki@wkac.ac.uk 

Claire Lacey is a nurse, at present studying theatre for development at King Alfred’s College, with a particular interest in using theatre to help combat HIV/AIDS. E-mail: claire@cslacey.co.uk 

Glossary  

drama the experience of communicating by actors

play a written script on which a drama is based

role play the method through which ordinary people take part in drama

theatre the communication between actors and audience; also a place where plays are performed 

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