Whose is the message?
Shifting the focus towards Participatory Performance Practices
this article was written during 2000, before the third round of PPP workshops, as part of a broader account of cdcArts' activities, for UNESCO's Culturelink publication: Culture and Development vs. Cultural Development. (Special Issue 2000).
n 1997 the British Council ran a seminar in Harare designed to look into the world of Arts and Culture for Development and determine a policy that would be a guide to its implementation in the field. During the week of papers, presentations and discussions it became evident that the Community Arts practitioners, Arts Officers, Academics and Development agents that were present had previously had little occasion to enter into each others' discourses.
Theatre for Development (TFD) practitioners occupy varying stages of a spectrum whose more people-centred end seeks to enable the voice of a partner community to identify its own preoccupations and explore its own social reality, possibly adopting interactive performance methods such as the ubiquitous Forum Theatre.
More conventionally, however, TFD has tended towards the presentation of developmental messages by outside performing groups to community audiences who did not necessarily ask for these communications. It is the task of most Development workers to address specific issues and they have generally welcomed the notion of playlets that would pass on their viewpoints and propose their solutions. For their own part local performing groups have been glad of a chance to help their community, or of a job that used their skills as artists. Neither was aware of the potential and mutual benefit of fusing the two disciplines. This was particularly true before notions of Participation and Empowerment suffused the rhetoric and (more slowly) the practice of Community Development.
By and large TFD in India, Africa and the Pacific is still run on conventional message-bearing terms, often using existing groups of performers, storytellers, puppeteers and musicians. There is no doubt that theatre can serve up a diet of pure information. This is a necessary food in the context of people who may have no other source of factual input. In the pacific state of Vanuatu the Wan Smolbag theatre group serve up a prodigious diet of [informational] plays. They reach a vast spread of islanders who do not really have any other source of information about (ill-) health, the preservation of the turtles in their own seas or their individual right to cast a vote in the elections (among other topics).
Food, however, is useless unless digested and it is that process
that the Theatre (for Development) artist must facilitate. Mere information
is not the same as knowledge. Education is not fed by the spoonful.
One of Wan Smolbag's plays tells the community how to know, and how to exercise, their rights when faced with the alien presence of the loggers from abroad who promise wealth and prosperity but actually exploit the forest and the community alike. When they find themselves performing before a community who already have the loggers in their midst and who have already made the mistakes depicted so movingly in the play, they are unable to adapt their performance to explore this slightly but significantly altered reality.
The most 'participatory' end of this spectrum leaves room for the performers from the community to be artists in their own right, articulating and expressing their own set of priorities, attitudes and knowledge about their own chosen issues. Of course there may be a dilemma here for local performance groups commissioned to carry out TFD programmes and who are committed to their own identity as artists. The play making is supposed to be theirs. It may be difficult to let go and allow the community to take over their skills and be satisfied with the 'home-movies', low-level performances that put their brother and sister on the stage as they explore, for themselves, the issues that concern them all. At that point what do the audience care about the quality of the performance? They may be touching each other's hearts with the immediacy of the issue.
That is the dilemma of TFD. It must also allow room for the community artist spontaneously to express, release or reveal inner concerns without prior conscious intent. These expressions may provoke further responses and deeper issues may emerge. At the very least such 'home-movie' expressions may be the germ of individual and collective empowerment. This in turn leads to the conscious use of theatre to explore issues and gain the kind of critical understanding that is 'education' in itself. This is essential if it is to 'educate' the community and generate cultural actions that produce cultural - and thus political - change.
The Harare seminar sowed the seeds of various initiatives that seek to fill some of the gaps. Alex Mavrocordatos was at the Harare seminar representing the Centre for the Arts in Development Communications (cdcArts) who were already developing an approach that sought to accommodate both people-centred and artist-centred Theatre for Development. In collaboration with the British Council he and cdcArts are now running two extended training programmes that focus largely on existing performing artists who hope to make a living from their 'art' within the Development sector.
The first of these, the "Giving a Voice to the Marginalised" programme, began in Zambia in 1998. The Participatory Performance Practices methodology (PPP) emerged through this workshop; it is described below. In 1999, cdcArts and Small World Theatre began work on the "Street Theatre for Human Rights" training programme in Nepal. This adapted and developed the same methodology with specific reference to local cultural realities. The British Council funds both projects with the collaboration, in Nepal, of the British Embassy.
A common methodology has emerged that incorporates participatory research, performances by the community and allows for performances by facilitating artists as well. It re-emphasises the research (process) in constructing a performance (product). It regards that process as a dialogue with the community, developmental in itself by promoting debate and a critical understanding of the issues while according respect to the ideas and priorities of the community members.
Most of the Zambian participants were already familiar with the notion of participatory research and the second Phase of workshops in Lusaka emphasised a fusion between Participatory Rural Appraisal (PRA) techniques and those of theatre as research. This means that a TFD performance group could sub-divide into smaller groups or pairs and work as facilitating artists for different agencies or with different target groups within a single community, addressing related issues. This was the path taken by Kamoto Arts after their members attended the first Phase, when they used PPP with a group of mostly disabled young people in the Ngombe compound on the outskirts of Lusaka.