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.