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The Key Building Blocks

 
these are now just notes. I am going to be a way for a while, but these examples are necessary illustrations of how to approach the practice of Participatory theatre for Development or cultural action of any sort.
If you have got this far, it is the least I can offer.
Bear with me and I will develop this chapter during September. Meanwhile - here it is for your comments .....

 

1. Still pictures - the basic building block.

This exercise is now ubiquitous and goes under many names - depictions, images, freezes, tableaux,
pause the movie, sculptures etc. When we first began using these in South Africa in 1970 we used to call it 'prodding' because of the way the 'sculptor' used to prod the 'clay' into shape. Since Augusto Boal embedded 'image theatre' into his arsenal of Forum Theatre techniques, it has become a mainstay of most community theatre workers and is described in numerous books on Community Drama.

One person assumes the role of sculptor, moulding or prodding others from the group as if they were clay. [S]he creates an 'image' of an issue according to how [s]he sees it.

The workshop facilitator - or group member - usually calls for the creation of a spontaneous image of a topic or issue. Instructions may vary from just a word like 'family' (this one is often a good starting point being clear, easy to respond to, and lies at the heart of many social issues) or 'school' or 'home' to 'oppression', 'poverty', development, health', 'AIDS' etc. Clearly there are infinite possibilities ranging from concrete and specific to abstract and open.

The key lies in the hints of attitude revealed by the visual expression in body language and relative positioning. The facilitator can prompt the rest of the group to change or 'improve' the image - so that it expresses its intention more clearly or so that it sharpens the contradictions more pointedly. [S]he can ask the clay to speak a line (thoughts, sub-texts etc.) All this is to reveal undercurrents of attitude and aspects of the issues that have not emerged through conventional debate.

However that further manipulation of the image is essential to the exploration and expression (research) of these ideas. Interventions by the rest of the group as well as their own images on the same topic will usually reveal and open out different attitudes to the same theme.

This is a key research tool that can opens doors to hidden areas of concern as well as enriching the understanding of facilitator and group alike. The facilitator or 'prashnakarta' must learn to spot these hints or clues and be opportunistic in following them through.

Plus, on a different level:
These images can be a useful tool in devising 'instant' plays with community groups who may not be experienced in the creation of 'plays'.

A performance narrative can be built up (or sub-divided) into a series of still images. The facilitator can make sure these images contain (or encode) all the visual elements necessary for the expression of scene and sub-text. This would include subtexts and relative character-status, as well as showing the key events. In this they are not unrelated to Brecht's 'gestus'.

These can then be used as anchors or points on a 'performance map'. Improvisers can navigate their way between these anchor points so that a performance can remain fluid enough to admit changes of actor and even shifts in narrative intention. This freedom allows for new perceptions and opinions to shine through, when performances are easily changed to accommodate different circumstances and emerging plans of action.

This fluidity is essential for a PPP that is responsive and participatory.

 

 

2. The River of life

The life-map is a key element in the PPP process, as I mentioned at the start of the backbone pages. There are times however when it is not appropriate in exactly the same form as suggested, or when it might be construed as prying, for example.

It is the subjective adjunct to the transect walk (or walk-talk-look-listen, or malonje -- or any adaptation of the transect. More of this later).

 

3. All forms of improvised narrative

These would include anything from simple story games to full performed scenarios. There is of course a theatre skills training function in this.

And from the research point of view, the more free improvisations there are the wider the range of topics will be explored. The more freely improvised narratives are created the wider the range of imaginations will be expressed publicly. These in turn will reveal issues, concerns and contradictions that may lie just beneath the surface of the overt meaning of any one story.

However, the facilitator must be both attentive and opportunistic, for these insights are not handed over lightly or even deliberately. They need to be verified through further improvisations and observation as well as through still pictures and direct discussion. It HAS been suggested that this approach verges on espionage, but as long as the partner group is aware of the process and has embraced the notion, the accusation should be null.

(Note: I'll be adding examples of these - the notion of the development police!! from Tana village in Mali, where filed-workers were distressed when the plays revealed that the community had not taken to heart the programme that the NGO's filed-workers had been implementing. Supposedly withthe support of the community.)

 

4. The 7Ws

This exercise is key. Still within the Looking inwards phase of a PPP campaign, this stands alongside the still pictures as key PPP (crossover) exercises, the building blocks of PPP. Along with the rivers of Life they offer a starting point in which the research aspects and the analyses that result cannot be separated and called either PRA or TFD exercises.

7W however is implemented at the point when a group has already identified key issues for themselves through earlier exercises and has agreed to focus on a specific topic. It can be used to amplify workshop outcomes and discussions either within the confines of a workshop group or outside it, within the community, through the presentation of brief performance 'codes' aimed to provoke spontaneous discussion with small ad hoc audiences.

"It is so quick. We can put together a performance [code] very quickly and be out there
with the community for much longer."
(workshop participant, Janakpur, Nepal)


The seven Ws is a combination of a number of exercises and principles. In South Africa in 1968 Robin Malan and Bill Tanner taught me to use a game called Bugsy in which a volunteer was named Bugsy and was given his 'persona' by the rest of the players who decided where they were, who they were and what was their history. They then went on to improvise scenarios based on the characters that evolved through this.

Jo Blagg was developed by the Theatre in Prisons and Probation Centre (TIPP) at Manchester University. The sequence of seven questions comes from this source and to a large extent it's evolved purpose.

All this in co-existence with Paolo Freire's notion of 'codes' to be 'cracked' by participants in resolution of their own constraints.

In our case these codes are usually performed accounts that 'encode' the contradictions within a given issue, expressed in such a way as to provoke thought, dialogue and analysis (decoding). They could also be drawings, still pictures or even songs shared with the audience through a facilitator.

This could be done as a 'five minute play' - taken and performed several times within a short space. DElivered to different grouping within a community, be they street children under a bridge, women at a water point or men in a tea-house. The different responses can then be explored and analysed and incorporated in future action and performance. These plays can be built through Bugsy and 7W - or by any other means.

Hopefully they lead to a determination for action and change.

Most important:
The PPP worker would use the 7Ws at a point when an issue has already been identified and agreed upon by a community or workshop group.

How it's done:

The group brainstorms ideas towards the creation of a 'character' (Jo[e] Blagg) that embodies the identified issue in a fictional social context. Because Blagg is created collectively the narrative is 'owned' by the group and represents common or typical elements, characteristic of the reality they are wishing to explore. The facilitator will be monitoring whether this creation echoes the threads of opinion revealed by earlier workshop exercises and improvisations.

The process usually begins within the confines of a workshop, but the short codes may be presented as five minute performances at water points, street corners, coffee houses or factory floors. These can be repeated in a number of locations, to audiences of five to fifty-five. De-coding discussions are thus held with small groups, often localised according to relevant interests. For example a play about water resources may performed at a local well where women are queuing up for their turn to fill a single bucket. The same play performed a few minutes later for a group of men sheltering from the harsh sunlight will yield a very different discussion. Both points of view may not have been voiced in a performance of a more polished play in front of the whole community.

But I am getting ahead of myself. Within the workshop, the research process can be formalised in a sequence of seven questions to be 'brainstormed' between facilitator and workshop group. It begins with the collective creation and naming of the character.

"Only everyone can know the truth." (Goethe)

As a group creation, the character's personality and circumstances will reflect the attitudes and contradictions uncovered during earlier workshops. Each stage of the process, each question, may take different amounts of time, depending on the energy it generates.

Most of the questions will lead to further still images or scenes. These will be explorations or research in themselves and may or may not be taken further into performance elements.

At each point the answer should be depicted physically, in still-picture. This will allow the spontaneous shift at any time, into improvised exploration using the picture as starting point.

The actor playing Jo[e] Blagg (please rename this according to local names) may wear a half-mask as we did in Nepal, to make it easier for the part to be taken over at any time by any other person (including, later, someone from the audience).

 

Who?

Who is [s]he? Name, status in society, all relevant details…….

What?

What has happened to the person with respect to the identified problem issue? Or what have they done; what can be seen as a key turning point in their lives that leads to some downward spiral into poverty, ill-health, prison, homelessness or whatever condition is appropriate to the choice of theme?

Create a still picture of this moment.

What?

What are they thinking at the time?

Have them speak a line or two of 'sub-text' or 'thought-script'.

Who?

Who else is affected by these events?

Show them in still picture.

What?

What happens as a consequence?

Again, a picture.

What?

What is our character is doing at the very end of the story (frequently a low point in
the character's life)

Another picture - and perhaps some words of thought-script can be offered by the actor….

Why?

Here we move backwards again in time from that starting or turning point, to look at
What it is that has led to the fall of our protagonist.

Although this comes last, it is often the key to investigation into the causes of the decision. It may have been unavoidable at the time - so was there ever a point at which different actions might have led to different outcomes

By the end of the questions, a series of pictures or short scenes will have been created.

 

There are scenes where the workshop group or audience offers or verifies the initial premise. They go on to offer suggestions or to verify what might happen to such a person (who after all is created as typical of themselves) if things go on in the same vein. Once it is established that things end badly along this path, the focus shifts back to the beginning. They are asked for pictures of life before the key turning point, and before that, and before that too, until we are able to locate the source of the issue. Finally we look for points at which things might have turned out differently and thence for solutions to the problem or strategies to avoid it.

From these pictures and images, the group may choose to create a brief (five-minute?) performance that will 'encode' the identified problem and act as a spur for discussion with an audience. In this way the issue can be taken out to a selected range of ad hoc audiences wherever they may be found. These may not be among those who would normally turn up to a drama performance, or a community meeting. The attitudes and opinions offered by the worktop participants are then tested and verified or altered according to the debates generated. Discussions may also lead to action and a determination for change among members of the audiences.

As part of the TFD 'process' this stage may be just as important as the performance of a prepared and sophisticated conventional 'play'.

Usually the findings of such a 7W foray into performance are logged on a chart for further analysis and planning for more cultural action events.

 

to be continued ...............

Apologies - this work in progress is progressing gradually.

I may not be Dickens, but I'm still making it up as I go along.

Perhaps it's in the nature of PPP

Please revisit and the serial will continue .... in September.

Alex Mavrocordatos

Performance at Pharping in Nepal

.. Subsequent to the first PPP workshop in Lusaka, Kamoto began a project with a group of disabled young people in Ng'ombe compound.
.. When we came to work again with Kamoto the disabled group had been performing their play around the neighbourhood. The play expressed their own frustrations in the face of attitudes towards their disablement. It also voiced some of their hopes and aspirations.
.. In support of this and to further the research / performance process of PPP we went into the local school and began a series of workshops with the children in a range of classes. With the children our fieldworkers prepared improvised performances that explored and expressed their own respective attitudes.
.. These different perspectives were then brought together and shared in a mini-festival. The result was a fruitful exchange and some revelations too. The school kids had been frank and honest in their portrayals of their own prejudices and this led to the dismantling of some local barriers and a new openness between the kids.
.. A small breakthrough perhaps, and to sustain it will be the next task. But the issue continues to be a cultural problem and theatre is a cultural tool ......