Astrid von Kotze (PhD), IPSS, University Of the Western Cape & Popular Education Programme, South Africa
Writing from South Africa, diversity always reminds me of the ‘rainbow nation’ idea that so conveniently skips over the extreme injustices of inequality. It seems to me that ‘difference’ might be a more apt and useful paradigm because it includes the notion of ‘not equal’. Similarly, inclusion is not just about opening one’s arms and saying: come, let me embrace you. That enveloping may turn out to be quite suffocating. While you hurt from being rejected and omitted, you do not necessarily agree with the conditions and relations which you are roped into. Instead, you wish to be able to participate, and, in the process, transform the status quo into something that you have both / all co-created.
The ‘Zambian theatre case’ illustrates both: the invitation to potential strangulation of own ideas and solutions through a top-down model of what is aptly described as ‘delivery’ of messages. You can see the finger-wagging of the performers without being there as this is a form of what Freire denounced as ‘banking education’. The sponsors decide on the theme and message – and the groups are hired to deliver a service, ‘dance on request’, dispense hand-outs. Importantly, there is no mechanism to check whether the message was, indeed, delivered. Only occasionally is the audience invited to participate in post-performance discussions and so there is no way of gauging their critical or accepting response.
The article draws attention to the dangers of external agendas that ignore basic principles of Theatre for Development, such as audience participation and local conditions. The authors argue that what is needed is theatre by the people, not theatre for the people. As in Freirean popular education, the starting point should be people’s own narrated experience.
There is sufficient evidence to suggest that dialogue – the collective production of knowledge – promotes active learning. Theatre is built on dialogue – both in words and in actions. Theatre can portray relationships and the motivations for particular decisions and actions. It can make visible the interests and agendas that propel individuals and groups to act as they do. Theatre can offer many different perspectives and angles on an issue. As different characters/ roles speak, or as scenes shift perspective, new information comes to light and tensions and contradictions open new vistas. Performances organise and make visible what is messy, conflictual and complicated. Hence, theatre is potentially particularly good at highlighting the power dynamics that promote or hinder change. A play can demonstrate and show ways of relating differently, and when actors engage with audience members the process for ‘empowerment’ has been set in motion. Invited and enabled to speak, to articulate feelings, questions, ideas, audiences begin to assume agency.
In my experience, theatre for development / transformation works even better when the plays are made and performed by local community or social movement members. It is in the process of co-creating that participants deepen the insights necessary for performing a role. A thorough understanding grounded in critical analysis then allows the dialogue with audience members. Improvisations and experimentation with suggestions made by audience members show that their ideas are taken seriously. The process of either actors or as Boal called them: spec-actors (audience spectators turned actors) trying out alternatives is a powerful demonstration of how things, as they are, could be different. I would suggest that the inclusion of such approaches and tools would strengthen TfD in the interest of communities themselves.
If sponsors seriously wanting to assist in addressing the issues that affect different communities would support initiatives that ‘grow’ from the communities. This is particularly important when it comes to helping groups to sustain themselves with integrity, without having to bow to external agendas that wish to push external aims and in the process strangle local creativity, agency and change.
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