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Backbone sketches from Leonardo's notebooks

the BACKBONE pages

 

 

Let me be the map, let my own journey reveal the pattern of work that emerged through collaboration with a range of partners in Africa, Asia and the Pacific; the approach that was named PPP in Zambia and AAP in Nepal.

The names are different in that they reflect and indicate ownership by those groups who evolved their particular version of the method, specific to their own cultural and economic circumstances. By naming it they 'name their world'. By laying claim to that name and pointing to it, it becomes identified as a transferable skill and those trained trainers can the more easily be commissioned to transfer it.

cdcArts runs Theatre for Development (TFD) and related training workshops all over the world. Usually the workshops are extended across a significant period of time, generating an ongoing partnership in the exploration of approaches to participatory TFD. They frequently open with a life-map, a 'river of life', or 'song of life' that expresses the story and circumstances of individuals within our groups. Starting from the person. So let this work be underpinned by mine.life-map from TIDG (Pacific)

It is by its nature a subjective account. The life map is used as a research tool and there is always the accusation of unscientific data. We work in a qualitative field, surrounded by and funded according to quantitative parameters. I do not know whether this approach is unacademic, but our 'materials' are people and people will not be pinned down.

I have been working in TFD for the past fourteen years, the discourses of TFD have been evolving for a good deal longer. This is my own commentary on the general state of play, and PPP is my shared response to the issues that I outline.

As I have said - the text is a proposition, a thesis - it will only be realised when there have been counter-responses, reported also on these internet pages, and a putative synthesis has been worked out. Perhaps even tried out, for the workshops continue and the practice of TFD will have no end.

Here's the life map.

EARLY DAYS

I grew up in apartheid South Africa where I studied drama. I never entered the theatre mainstream, but focused my then youthful efforts into community theatre in the townships; into political sketches performed in the streets calling for people to take their stance for the revolution - probably nave, and which drew a rebuttal from the newly formed Black Consciousness movement; at the same time I was becoming immersed in that Artaudian theatre of physical images, immediacy and rejection of intellectual bourgeois values. My 'long hair was my black skin' and if that was to be the platform for my revolution - there were plentiful mentors to be followed. The status and purpose of Art in society was already emerging as a preoccupation in those early works at the Space Theatre in Cape Town, and will emerge again later in this story.

Monologue with Hanging Rocks,  royal Court Garage, 1980

I left South Africa in the early seventies and for fifteen years pursued my own path in alternative theatre and 'installation performances'. Even before leaving I had been inspired by the life-theatre revolution of the Living Theatre and Squat Theatre, of Wavy Gravy's Hog Farm Commune and even Friends Roadshow whose life-theatre was not overtly political at all.

In Europe and the UK, I worked in multi-media performance groups, subscribed to the rigours of Grotowski in workshop and performance, found a solid footing with performance art and artists, and ended up building sculptures and exhibiting my own 'installation performances' both in Europe and across the ocean. As I wandered through the waste-land of much of contemporary 'fine-art' I rediscovered the Social Sculpture of Joseph Beuys. "Every person is an artist," he said, emphasising our collective and individual creative contribution to the social edifice (sculpture), that we are all busy constructing all the time. But the 'art' world that I was immersed in paid less than lip-service to the man hailed in other quarters as the greatest visionary artist of our time.

 

 

FROM FINE ART BACK INTO COMMUNITY CONCERNS

I thought I better think it out again. I was touring with the Pip Simmons theatre group, in a devised performance that set one of my own animated sculptures - the Ballista - into the context of Kafka's Penal Colony. The production was built in Amsterdam and performed in Holland, England and then in France, winding up in Marseilles. I left the company and crossed over the sea into the desert and the silence. On the road and later on the river in West Africa, contemplating the great beautiful encroaching wastes of the Sahara and wondering what that means to the people who live there and whose soils are gradually turning to sand.

My childhood in Africa came flooding back. I wanted to stay there. I wondered how I could do that - sharing and contributing to the 'social sculpture', and following - with any purpose - the words of Henry Miller:

"every day that we fail to live out the maximum of our potentialities we kill the Shakespeare, Dante, Homer, Christ which is in us. ...... The age we live in is the age which suits us: it is we who make it, not God, not Capitalism, not this or that, call it by any name you like. ...."

It's the social sculpture again.

I saw performers and performances, dances and dancers, I heard music and saw puppets and was witness to liminal depictions of secret worlds I shouldn't have seen. Theatre here was more alive and well than in the world I had frequented. So odd when, after some years, I bumped into one of the performers I had worked with in Europe, Britain and beyond: "but don't you miss the theatre?" I was asked. I had no answer. I know now that I can enter any village anywhere in Africa - in the world - and encounter performing talent superior to, and less inhibited than, much of what I had been working with for all those years in the so-called cultural metropolis.

At that time I had no grasp of Development and the discourses that I was to encounter. But I watched these events, and I remembered that I too had performance skills to share. Peter Brook had been a tourist. And I continued moving on the road with my backpack, though now I was relating to local Development project activity and talking about communications and the potential of theatre in that context. There was interest, but not much action at that time.

It was only back in England that I began to read about Laedza Batanani and discovered Ross Kidd's prolific output describing the work and the Freirian principles behind it.

With my own background in collectively devised performances it was not difficult to pick up on Kidd's concern for working directly with the community as tellers of their own story. This was further emphasised by conversations with Michael Etherton who had by then left ABU University in Nigeria where he had been instrumental in establishing the movement of university based, travelling community theatre workers organised into the Nigerian Popular Theatre Alliance. During that time he was himself working at King Alfred's College, before re-entering the 'Development sector' in Asia where he has recently been so influential in raising the profile of TFD and introducing its practice among Save the Children Fund officers and field-workers.

 

DISCOVERING DEVELOPMENT DISCOURSES

 

I had begun reading about Development issues. All the rhetoric, and what I had seen, pointed to the persistence of top down development practices. Part of the legacy of colonial administration perhaps, or simply inherited from our own schoolteachers: we still assume that our perceptions and advice are vital to the well-being and future good of the community 'targets' (sic).

Dagron compares such 'vertical' communication with a more desirable 'horizontal' communication, seeing people as

"dynamic actors, actively participating in the process of social change and in control of the communication tools and contents; rather than people perceived as passive receivers of information and behavioural instructions, while others make decisions on their lives."

Robert Chambers' emphasis on participation, and 'putting the last first', in his analysis of top down Development Tourism left a strong impression. A second visit to Mali now gave me focus for exploring the nature of TFD, while looking for a partner who would share a more people-centred approach to Culture and Development.

That was in the late eighties but to this day, in spite of calls for more cultural engagement in Development work from UNESCO and beyond, Culture is not high on the agenda of most Development organisations. Under the name of communications it gains some ground, but the power of the arts and the germane role of Culture as it governs all our social responses is largely ignored.

Dagron again:

"... cultural barriers as well as attitudes of arrogance about knowledge and vertical practices, have not allowed donors, planners and governments to establish a dialogue with beneficiaries. Indigenous knowledge is best perceived as an acceptable claim from communities, but rarely considered as one of the main components of Development."

and

"[that] Development projects are mostly in the hands of economists and technicians impedes the understanding of social and cultural issues that are key to a communications strategy"

 

THE 'DATA COLLECTION MODEL'

 

By the time I left for my first major project work in Mali in 1988, I had not come into contact with any community of TFD workers. I had also not picked up on the reigning TFD paradigm that came out of Laedza Batanani and the series of conferences on TFD and Popular Theatre, notably that at Chalimbana in Zambia in 1979.

David Kerr describes Chalimbana :

"The workshop linked the mobilisation and social analysis skills of the adult educators to the drama and choreography skills of the theatre workers."

Personally I don't believe that that synthesis was ever equitably consolidated. Hopefully I'll show this along the pages. On another level, I hope that PPP will pave the way to redress the imbalance that so far favoured the educational at the expense of the cultural implications of TFD. And the imbalance has eroded its potential impact.

Post-Chalimbana, field-workers and some theatre workers would engage in 'data collection' activities through a variety of means from conventional questionnaires and anthropological research tools through to informal chatting among the community. The data would then be collated and the results woven into a scenario to be replayed to the community as a reflection and contextualisation of local reality. After the plays there would be discussions with the audience to clarify, explore and strategise new departures.

In practice, however, the plays would often pre-empt an open debate by offering advice and solutions - within the play - to the problems identified by the 'data collection'. This is Dagron quoting Jo Dorras, writer and co-director of Wan Smolbag:

" Louisa's Choice, a play about domestic violence. the play ends with the actors saying that it is 'Always wrong to beat your wife'; they then put down three cards reading 'agree, disagree, don't know'; so the audience will choose the card they agree with."

Admittedly Dorras point out that

"the discussion usually goes on for hours"

but it is not an open debate, it was not an open question: the answer was stated clearly within the play.

Paolo Freire pointed out this common type of error and we have all suffered the same treatment by our schoolteachers. But the habit is endemic and it persists.

In Nepal, as in Zambia, I was invited to develop participatory methods to complement or replace the regular diet of message laden street theatre plays that were the TFD norm with groups like Sarwanam and Aarohan. The participatory agenda was accepted and even welcomed by the performers, as the workshop developed. However as workshop participants they protested - and they turned out to be right - that their commissioning masters (the NGOs) had no interest in participatory approaches and would reject their aspirations to take on the role of researchers and facilitators.

THERE'S A CONTRADICTION LURKING

It seems to me now there is a contradiction behind the insistence on participation and the preparation of plays and scenarios away from those who contributed the data. This leaves the playmaking in the hands of those who patently do not have true knowledge of the community and perhaps even the local culture. Without that deeper engagement, how can their expression contain the subtleties and nuances appropriate to the ears of the audience they are 'targeting'.

Rather let's offer the issue itself, the community will declare its position and opinion and seek advice when they are ready for it, within the discussions and workshops. Or we can seek an integrated approach to research and performance that removes the distinction and elevates the creative contribution of the community artists as partners to any TFD initiative. PPP is built on this foundation.

Happily I entered into TFD work without having to grapple with these contradictions. In my ignorance it didn't present itself as a problem. The open agenda I negotiated with World Neighbours, Oxfam and SOS Sahel under Nigel Cross did not require me to make plays on themes identified by the NGO workers. My approach grew out of my roots in collectively devised performance, which fell very nicely into place within the rhetoric of Development studies. In keeping with their participatory focus, the programs were allowed to generate their own detailed agendas within the general aims of the different projects.

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