[ mediums for activism ]


"What I do is my contribution to the society in which I live. I use art as a language to communicate the things I care about. For me, this is the most eloquent way I can communicate"
(Franko B in Heathfield, 2004: 226)

Theatre is another mode of intervention for communicating ideas relating to a huge expanse of themes from the personal, political, social, cultural, moral and spiritual.

Theatre has a diverse range of ambitions. The ambitions I am concerned with here are those that, for example, seek to critique cultural norms, de-structure thought, educate, challenge particular views, transform and/or aspire their audience about a particular issue. In other words, it is the actors medium for activism.

There have been many theatre productions over time, big and small, that have attempted to work towards inspiring positive change in the observer/audience/spec-actor. There is an assortment of genres that producers, directors and writers can adopt to facilitate the production and suit a variety of tastes and needs. Political theatre is well-dated and is a process that seeks to educate the audience about particular issues and may inspire personal, social, political, spiritual, ecological changes.

What can be powerful about theatre for change?

  • Creative
  • Innovative
  • Confronting/Exposing
  • Powerful representations
  • Tool for self-expression
  • Medium for voicing the silenced
  • Role-Reversal
  • Lived Experience
  • Can involve the spectator
  • Can be empowering for both actor and spec-actor
  • Can inspire people to act, change their view, raise awareness.

What is something that theatre can offer the audience?

Theatre can reveal things that talking alone may not reveal or perhaps have the same impact. Theatre can offer a very raw interpretation of reality through the physical use of the human body. It can provide a different way of studying human behavior/action related to a particular issue. Like other mediums, theatre can act as a modeling process for social criticism and change.

"Performance has become a vital means through which the nature and values of these powers [such as the western time-system] may be contested and their regulatory grip loosened"
(Heathfield, 2004: 10)

Performance provides, like other mediums, an opportunity to challenge and question perspective, structures and practices. This is a point also raised by O'Toole (1995: 86) whereby the 'reality' of the play can cause truth to be ambiguous, question 'right' answers, and draw openly upon the 'unreal' so to reveal that which is not easy to digest. I have been on the receiving end of such endeavors and have always found the journey completely mysterious and confronting. Personally, I akin to the mirror-effect that performance can have. I admire the way in which it can allow us to look at ourselves in a much closer and critical manner. I think this is where a lot of the juice rests in theatre; is in its potential ability to do this.

Street Theatre

Often street theatre is more of a by-chance interaction than a planned one. Street performance can be a medium where it's not just about entertainment or trying to make a living.

Often the audience of street performance is the 'shopping crowd' or workers that may be preoccupied or in a rush somewhere. This can be an issue if the audience is not up for the political message being pitched at them.

Due to the spontaneous nature of street theatre and the consistently changing audience, performers have a very difficult context to work with. Often the audience may only see parts of the performance which limit its ability to achieve desired outcomes.

O'Toole (1995: 83) raises an interesting point in relation to street theatre in its ability to capture the audience. He appoints that "It must offer something meaningful but not threatening - and not just a 'good time', which will quickly pall and the patrons will move on" (O'Toole, 1995: 83). I personally feel that it is more complicated than this and that a person's response to street theatre can vary in different contexts. I feel that people have different notions of what is meaningful and not. I think there is more of a psychology behind audience responses to street theatre that O'Toole doesn't adequately explore.

It's rarely ever known if street theatre has obtained its objectives. The audience may applaud at the end to honor efforts, or reflect entertainment value or perhaps even simply to be polite. Then they walk away with a completely mysterious experience of the performance. Are there ways you could find out if it was effective? Could you stage some interactive creative feedback at the end to gauge these factors? Is it better to assume and opt for wishful thinking?

My experiences...

While at La Trobe University, I participated in the construction of a live performance to present around the university at open day. We had three different short plays that looked at the culture of Bendigo, first year experiences and friendship. The intention of our performance was multi-layered. We wanted to prompt people to reflect on our depiction of Bendigo culture, provide insight into the nature of the first-year experience and the importance of friendship between peers.

Due to the nature of the environment we were working in, our audience was receptive to our plays due to its potential relevance to their lives. The main disadvantage was that our audience often came part way through a performance and missed some of the relevant ideas and messages. I found that our audience was most interested when our performance seemed more entertaining. Our last play consisted of a rap whereby we danced, beat boxed and sung a song we had made up about Bendigo and university life. This part of our production seemed to engage our audience the most - seemingly for its entertainment value. Here we were confronted that there is perhaps the preconceived notion that street performance is/should be about entertainment and not politicised messages.

A Look at Role-Play

I find role-play to be one of the most accessible forms of theatre and one that is relatively easy to set up and potentially very educationally effective.

I have had some experience in facilitating and participating in role-plays.

I have had some experience using role-play in the classroom which has allowed students to take on the role of other people. This has resulted in some interesting transitions in students, particularly those that really grasp the opportunity seriously. For some students, they realised things about particular roles, such as being a logger, and possible factors about their working life and lifestyle that they would perhaps have never considered. I find that when role-plays run smoothly they provide a much more effective tool for raising awareness than just talking about the issue. It brings life into the classroom and the role-play provides a living resource which meaning can be drawn from.

Role-play has also been great for improvisation and seeking out alternatives/solutions to problems as opposed to passive brainstorming which lacks the visual cues that role-play offers. One play which is still fresh in my mind today was a powerful role-reversal play that we were not suspecting. We became the actors getting a small taste of what it was like on the receiving end of European dominance, having our children and homes taken away. It was so powerful and brilliantly facilitated in a normal classroom setting.

Many years ago some friends and I put together a play from a children's story book, The Giving Tree by Shel Silverstein, which explores human-nature relationships. We then performed the play for 40 school children while on camp in hope that the story would prompt kids to think/reflect/reconsider how they treated and related to the environment. I played one of the main roles, as a talking tree, which was a powerful experience to physiologically embody what it might be like for the tree. We, the actors, made a decision to not debrief the play afterwards as it was part of the ongoing environmental theme of the camp we were on. We hoped this would allow students to derive their own meaning from the story.

However, outside of the school education scene, role-play is not used extensively apart from theatre, drama and therapy groups (to my knowledge). This means that role-play as a medium for creating change has a limited audience.

To what extent can theatre/role-play/performance art effect individual, social, political, cultural change?

I feel that this is something we can all answer from a personal point of view and experience. Draw from your own experiences and reflect on the performances strengths and weaknesses. What was your experience? Why did you experience in that way? How did the event flow into other aspects of your life?

There are some performances I have seen that I feel are fantastic, powerful and resonate with their message. I feel like I am already there - they are preaching to the converted. I have the level of awareness and complimentary action that the performer is seeking. However, the performance acts as a source of inspiration for what I am already doing and can sometimes identify new ways of going about the issue.

Some plays with positive intentions have been hit and miss. Why is this so? It's not that what they are doing was wrong, it just creates a reaction inside me that I don't want. I don't need to see a play of a child being abused to think and feel that it is wrong but someone else might. In other words, I resonate with the message, just not their personal representation of that message. I feel that is ok too.

O'Toole (1995: 78-87) also explores the varying roles of drama and its influences it can have on the spectator/audience. Upon critique, I feel that O'Toole glorifies the outcomes of drama and role-play too kindly. I feel that this can be based on the premise that he makes some clear assumptions and generalisations in his discussions rather than based on grounded research. I feel that there are unknown dimensions relating to the impact/outcome of a performance on an audience that are far-too-often assumed than qualified.

The Presentation of Self

Goffman's (1956) The Presentation of Self In Everyday Life provides some infiltrating insight into the nature of 'interpersonal interaction' through the lens of theatrical performance. He explores, with some depth, how people present themselves in everyday life and how observers perceive them. In particular, he explores the notion of our 'front' which seeks to identify the various aspects of ourselves that produce our external performance both in terms of appearance and manner (Goffman, 1956: 32-40). In other words, how we communicate ourselves and what is at interplay when we do this. Elements of this 'front' are fixed in nature (e.g our racial features, aspects of our physiology), while other aspects are continuously changing (e.g social statuses, how we dress, use our voice, individual identity, group relations, meaning of information).

However, although these influence actions they ideally don't necessarily proscribe a particular action. Goffman (1956:38) expresses this clearly; "fronts tend to be selected, not created".

Goffman (1956: 37) also explores stereotypes in particular social fronts whereby pre-existing fronts are attached to particular roles. This already established role influences how a new person can play out their role. Barba (1993: 3) touches on this concept when she describes her military experiences being "shaped by stereotyped conduct" and revolved around appearances in the form of codified poses which "conveyed acquiescence and acceptance."

In my experience I have seen some 'fronts' that exist in the protest activist scene: one example being the loud, aggressive, self-righteous, demanding, strong-body stance/front/demeanor at a protest. Stereotypes of this type of protester exist in many minds. I have seen this front at protests over and over again. I have embodied this 'front' myself in the past, and discovered that it is definitely not me. However I have found that there is sometimes a certain pull or expectation towards having to put on this 'front' to be perceived as fulfilling the role of a protester.

So, the deeper question becomes - how do we work around these 'established' fronts, stereotypes and expectations. Well, Goffman (1956) doesn't seemingly have the answers - just suggestions and theories. If anything, I think his works encourage us to move away from our own conditioning and preconceptions and into a place of awareness. For us to have awareness of the various dynamics in different contexts (such as the factors limiting our performances) and the myriad aspects of ourselves that influence our performances. Here it can become important to have, as Schutzman (1994: 151) suggests, an "awareness of how habituated social masks function to restrict one's potentiality and limit options for action".

I explore this notion of the performing self more deeply in my personal experiences.

Learning through re-visiting and reviewing experiences

Explorations through Augusto Boal

I would like to take a moment to talk about a great drama facilitator, Augosto Boal. He explores, in great depth, alternative ways of dealing with oppressive situations as well as providing tools for changing how we may understand our world.

Augusto Boal developed a theory and process/practice called Theatre of the Oppressed (Boal, 1985) which is a form of participatory theatre that requires thoughtful, cooperative and egalitarian interaction between participants. Theatre of the Oppressed does not exist merely as a display but as an explorative dialogue available to all. A process where people can learn to creatively contest, fight against and in some ways prevent oppression in day to day living.

The process begins by a participant sharing a situation where they felt oppressed. This is re-enacted into a play, which is then intervened at different points where other participants, known as 'spec-actors', can take over a person's role and bring in their own ideas. This goes on for some period of time as different spec-actors move through the different roles (entirely up to the spec-actors) and they have both the chance to act and observe. Do you sit there and watch or do you do something about it? Furthermore, rather than just imagining change, performers get to actually practice and experience that change. At a later stage, through discussion, the group can collectively reflect on the various performances they observed and experienced.

Processes such as this can be seen as vehicles for social change by exploring ways out of our powerlessness, oppression, marginalisation or domination- in other words to discover ways out of dilemmas. We don't get the opportunity to deeply observe ourselves in action. The greatest challenge is bringing those lessons and practices into the big world!

The principle aim of this is not only to explore alternatives and/or solutions but to see ourselves in action, listen to our voice, observe our body language and note our thoughts (Boal, 1996: 47). In doing so, we can come to know ourselves, how we experience certain oppressions and the layers of language we use.

Boal (1995: 19) also expresses the notion that we are all performers. Thus, that even in observing we are still performing a particular role. In this respect, we can become conscious potent representations within an aesthetic space that can be worked with in different ways.

Linds (1998: 110) eloquently expresses that he finds this theatre process to "show alternatives, to enable people to become protagonists in their own lives, express concerns in a community and to explore options dealing with those concerns in the present" (Linds, 1998: 110). In other words, this process can deepen ones understanding of the issues; why we do and don't act, how to observe ourselves in action, ways of dealing with it personally and the potential consequences.

A process such as this one also allows an opportunity to explore the bodily experience of oppression, marginalisation, powerlessness as well as potentially have breakthroughs, and experience success and harmony. These bodily experiences become powerful messengers for personalised paths for action. This can be more deeply explored through non-verbal exercises. Although Linds (1998) does not go into great detail about this bodily knowing, I personally feel that understanding our feelings, emotions and senses in these situations is incredibly important. I have been able to explore the body dialogue deeply through 5 Rhythms dance (see Personal Explorations).

What are some limitations I can perceive about this practice?

Even though a process like this may present some amazing practices for future situations, their effectiveness is hindered by the ability of the person to follow through with that action. In the complexity of a different environment (i.e. reality), new oppressive forces can present themselves, ones that weren't explored in the drama setting.

I think Boal's (1985) model is fantastic in the sense that it illustrates the point that there can be many ways of dealing with oppressive situations as well as their possible varying impacts. However, in a new situation there may be many layers of complexity to the situation that make previous explored options difficult to proscribe. I also feel that there is a mysterious element whereby you can only make some assumptions about what a person's reaction may be. Boal recognises this too; "We cannot evaluate whether Theatre of the Oppressed works well or not with precision" (Boal, 1996: 51). Even though Boal's method can reveal a variety of reactions (due to many people taking on the role), it can still have its limitations in preparing us for the 'real deal'.

Linds (1998) also critiques and measures the success of this process. Linds highlights that there is not enough scope in the practice to consider the broader range of relationships in which oppressive situations are occurring (Linds, 1998: 111-112). Furthermore, that there seems to be no follow-up process as to whether the explored theories and practices proved themselves successful in day-to-day living.

Peggy Chinn (1995) has also devised ways out of oppression and imbalances of power. She brings with her a slightly different perspective than that of Boal (1985) in that she works from a values perspective;

"Because my interest in deconstructing the agendas which support institutionalized oppression is theoretical, I also work to develop innovative programs to change conditions in the here and now, in practical terms"
(Chinn, 1995: 5)

Her book Peace and Power (1995) defines ways of working with issues of power, hierarchy and group interactions. The processes she defines aim toward being able to live ones values at work, in communities and at home. I feel that Chinn's story illuminates that there are many paths out of oppression available to us. Her methods may not be right for everyone, but that we just need to work out what works best for us in oppressive situations in a positive and uplifting manner.