After the warm-up AD led the group in voice work. She introduced a song from Congo. Once the rhythm and words of the song were learnt she began to work in more detail on tonal quality, voice projection and keeping time. AD added a second component to the exercise by asking participants to write their own lyrics to the theme of the song. One by one, each participant sang his or her version of the song, accompanied by members of the Shakthi group on percussion. The group responded to the challenge remarkably well and once more a range of languages and individual expressions were heard. The exercise also gave the group a boost in confidence and the song was used again as part of the following day’s warm up activities.
THE BASICS OF FORUM THEATRE
After a short break, JM gave an overview of Forum Theatre, outlining first of all how the Image Theatre activities from the past two days fit into the Forum model. For JM, a Forum play begins with the common will to address a particular socio-political issue within a given community. The initial work is therefore a research phase, a period of dialogue with members of a community to locate on-going problems. Forum work does not invent issues; it is a platform that enables a past or present issue to take centre stage within a community and for the community to work out alternative outcomes with the help of the Forum team.
JM explained that Forum Theatre purposely presents ‘a negative trajectory’, the worst possible outcome of a given problem. It does so in order that the downward spiral has a chance to be redressed over the course of a performance. The basic structure of a Forum play can be split into three temporal segments: before the chosen issue; the manifestation of the issue; and the outcome of the issue for the victim and/or wider community.
Forum plays are performed twice. The first time as a short dramatic piece, and the second time with the audience member’s ability to shout “stop!” at points where s/he believes an alternative outcome can be given. At that point, the play stops, the Forum facilitators enter the stage and invite the audience member to take up the role of the character whose behaviour s/he wants to change. The facilitators make it clear to the audience that only characters in a position of weakness/disempowerment can be replaced. It is not unusual for a twenty-minute Forum play to last several hours on its second run. The significance of a Forum play lies not in the momentary satisfaction of restoring the balance of justice within the dramatic narrative, but rather in the community witnessing alternative realities, and the potential for those alternatives to affect choices and decisions in daily life, long after the play is finished.
JM described the image work operating as layers within the larger structure of a Forum play. They serve as basis on which to grasp the workings of forum, and in the context of a week-long workshop, in which one half of the group was encountering the form for the first time, it offered a concrete way into this type of work with the added benefit that Image Theatre can operate independently, as a methodology in its own right.
IMAGE THEATRE – FORUM SCENARIOS
With the Forum model in mind, participants got into groups of five once more. This time each participant was charged with the task of thinking about a simple scenario for a Forum play and to break that scenario down into three representative images: the first image would occur before the play’s key issue/event, the second would address a central aspect of that issue, and the third would deal with one of its consequences. Each image was to be sketched out on paper before being presented to fellow group members.
In the group I joined, the themes that emerged in these scenarios included war, genocide, rape and alcoholism. The use of images and captions made the process of relaying experiences of trauma more accessible. At the same time, it was on this point of representation that one of the workshop’s major challenges emerged. That is, the substitution of cultural and contextual specificity for global stereotypes of conflict and trauma. In order to adapt to the ‘neutral’ circumstances of Ueberstorf, participants tended to suspend the specificity of their personal contexts in order to access the generality of the group. Part of the challenge then, was finding a way to convert that general knowledge back into local practice, and how to partake in issues that are culturally specific without undermining their urgency.
This challenge emerged at the point of selecting material for the group’s scenario. Instead of choosing the scenario of a particular member, the group opted for an amalgam of stories. An armed conflict formed the background to a story of rape, and the victim was subsequently shamed by members of her community. While the basic tenets of the scenario may seem plausible, agreements were made during the selection process whereby details specific to local experience were substituted for generalities that would ‘make sense’ to the larger Act 2 group. A parallel can be drawn here with the boat exercise from the first day of the workshop, in the sense that in working with such a culturally and linguistically diverse group for such a short period of time, there is a tendency to find common ground in stereotypes.
A second set of problems emerged at this stage in the work, related to structures of power within the group. Whereas previous group work had supported the equal input of ideas, the pressure of working towards a final presentation led to the emergence of a director. The result was that some voices in the group were marginalised. I raise this point as a reminder to the complacency that even the most altruistic of structures are susceptible to.
EMMANUEL JAL – “FINDING PEOPLE WHO CARE”
EJ discussed how to pass a message to the world. He constructed a pyramid diagram to show the divide between people who care (humanists) and those who don’t (corporate entities). He asked the audience how far they were willing to go in order to make a change in the world. The answers weren’t that forthcoming, though after a long silence one of the participants did say they were willing to do whatever it takes to make a difference.
Jal asked the group what they thought it was necessary to work on so that the people, who don’t care, do end up caring. The question that was left unanswered was what the end goal of the mission was.
After a short seminar session, EJ turned to the forthcoming 1-day conference. As Act 2 Patron, EJ had been invited by the British Council Switzerland to mark the opening of the conference and was given an afternoon slot to perform some of his hip-hop songs. EJ was keen to share the few minutes at the beginning of the conference with the other members of the group, emphasising that this should be made in to an opportunity for a multitude of young activist voices to be heard rather than simply his own voice.
From the beginning it was agreed that whatever the group came up with, it would be a positive and constructive surprise for the audience and would serve as a reminder of the real lives of people at stake in global discussions on humanitarian aid, charity work and applied arts practices. The next hour of the EJ’s session became a brainstorming session for ideas to fill the short conference slot. Towards the end of the hour, a number of key ideas had emerged; these included:
- The use of live music (a drum and an acoustic guitar had been present throughout the workshop);
- The use of placards with slogans to get messages across with speed and clarity;
- The use of bodies and voices as much as possible, including dance and song;
- The use of personal testimony related to cases of on-going oppression in the world;
The decision was taken to assign these different elements to smaller working groups. Thus musicians, dancers and singers moved to one side of the space, and writers and speakers moved to the other. Both groups set about devising material. This would be refined with the help of JM at various times over the next two days.
Among the short testimonial speeches were the following:
- “In my country there is freedom of speech, but there is no freedom after speech.” Rowina, Zimbabwe.
- “I come from a war torn country where 2.2 million people died.” Clement, South Sudan.
- “I care and I’m looking for people who care.” Kevin, Northern Ireland.
GROUP DEBATE ON GENDER MATTERS
For the latter part of the afternoon participants were split into two groups: male and female, and were asked to discuss the role that gender politics plays in each participant’s home community. At the end of the discussions the entire group reconvened to share views. The debates were intelligent and lively and the following is a summary of the main points raised by both groups.
The men spent most of their time discussing reasons why gender inequality was still so prevalent and ways in which the balance could be redressed. Nalinda remarked early on that forcing a gender divide for the purpose of the discussion was itself a counter-productive move and that inclusivity across all areas of society should be a default setting. Clement extended this point by addressing the problem of general access to an infrastructure of equality; in the first instance this meant access to opportunities in education and employment, but also access to welfare services, and political and legal rights. Without this, Clement could see no basis for equality.
Senthuran located one of the major stumbling blocks to gender equality in religious and secular traditions that subjugate women to patriarchal values. He gave the example of forced marriages in Sri Lanka, whereby a father gives his daughter to a man from another family often on the grounds of a sizeable dowry. In his experience working with the Shakthi Forum Theatre group in the Eastern provinces of Sri Lanka, the force of tradition was far greater in rural contexts. He added that until a standard level of infrastructure was in place, women in those communities would remain vulnerable targets, making the itinerant work of the Shakthi Group and other cultural and charitable organisations all the more vital.
Charles moved the focus of the debate to East Africa, raising the on-going problem in Kenya (and other countries besides) of female genital mutilation. For Charles it was important to recognise that any progress that had been made in combating such practices had been achieved through education; that is to say, by informing people about the clinical and psychological dangers of excision rather than simply relying on laws that ban the practice outright. He emphasised the importance of recognising cultural tradition as a living and mutable entity. Senthuran was adamant that education would have the final say on this matter since even those who have had access to further education in Sri Lanka were still strongly wedded to tradition. For him, combating such practices was ultimately a question of both law and education.
Gabriel moved the discussion into the political sphere arguing that policies of so-called ‘positive discrimination’ often run the risk of being tokenistic or serving an ideological purpose rather than actually benefitting people on the ground. In his view action had to be taken further upstream at the source, rather than relying on central government to regulate society. Here the role of the NGO was paramount. In his native Peru, the cultural fabric of society was so dense and understandings of government policy so varied, that there was little ground for central dogma; change therefore, had to be rooted in the local, not the national.
The women’s debate had focused on issues surrounding religion and culture in the six countries represented within the group (Sri Lanka, Palestine, Zimbabwe, Georgia, Chechnya and Yemen). Rowina reported back to the whole group and began with a list of constricting gender roles; a litany of stereotypes held as an indictment of both conscious and unconscious patriarchal consensus, these included: cooking/housewifery; jobs in the service of men- the example given was the secretary; predetermined sexual roles and the male control of sexuality – the example given was the observance of virginity until marriage; arranged marriage and social pressure to marry: ‘if you are going to date, you are going to date your husband’; the absence of women in politics; the lack of female representation in the body politic as a whole; restrictions on identity – the example given was the observance of particular dress codes.
Following on from this list, Rowina raised a point about double standards. She stated the case of Zimbabwe where a 50/50 gender split is written into constitutional law, but women are still written out of positions of power. She extended this point to the example of her own workplace, where young women were reluctant to take part in decision-making processes. In response to this, she had initiated a women’s group to facilitate decision-making beyond the gaze of male employees. However, she found that even here the women who joined were ultimately disinterested, concluding that before a struggle for gender equality could take place, an understanding of the importance and meaning of individual agency had to be arrived at.
One of the conference attendees, Humaira Mumtaz Shaikh, a Humanitarian Response Coordinator from Shirkatgah, Pakistan, was present at the debate and asked the women in the group whether they felt stronger, as a result of shared experiences throughout the workshop, about standing up for their rights in their own country. The response to this question was passionate and divided. Afrah, for example, said she had gained a degree of confidence in sharing stories of gender discrimination with fellow participants and was encouraged by the common desire to make a difference. In contrast, Riham felt all the more discouraged in recognising the extent of inequality on a worldwide scale. Esma ended the debate echoing the sentiment raised by Nalinda at the beginning, that ultimately all discussion and action in favour of women’s rights, and human rights in general, must be borne out on stages that are mixed gender by constitution. Without this premise as a founding block, no progress would be made.