Crossing over into reality


by Alex Mavrocordatos.

Kolo village needed a new well. The older wells were running dry, their walls collapsing with the degeneration of the soil into sand as the Sahara crept slowly southwards every year. The chief and his advisors did not seem to care – perhaps because the chief, at least, had a perfectly good well in his own yard. Not like the rest of the villagers, whose women would get up at four or five o’clock in the morning to queue for their bucketful of scarce water.

So the village actors put on a play. It showed a poor family talking to the chief, telling him about the desperate need for a new water source. It urged him to request a new well from the NGO which was working with the village.

Most of the village community turned out for these weekly plays, including the chief and elders, the women who struggled with the water every day, and the children – who would pass on everything to those who hadn’t been able to attend. Workers from the NGO would also be present.

When the chief (in the play) agreed to meet with the NGO partners and request their support in this matter, everyone in the audience was aware of the irony.

And when the actor portraying the chief then trudged across the performance square and addressed the NGO officer in the audience, everyone was aware that the youth was now actually holding the meeting with the NGO that he and his peers had wanted the elders to hold all along. And there was no going back…

Alex comments: ‘The Bambara culture in Mali does not allow young men to express their views in public meetings. However, theatre allowed them a voice. The performance had a very significant moment when the actors stepped beyond the boundaries of theatre into the reality of the audience. They directly addressed the NGO workers who were watching the ‘play’. The workers responded to this public meeting just as if it had been a meeting with the ‘real’ chief. And so the meeting was held and the NGO agreed to participate, while explaining the self-help terms on which a partnership could be founded.’

Alex Mavrocordatos of the Centre for the Arts in Development Communications has considerable experience of using theatre in development in many countries. He is senior lecturer on the MA in Theatre and Media for Development at King Alfred’s College, Winchester, UK. Further information on Participatory Performance Practices is available on the website: