Theatre and development

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KIT Dossier Theatre and development

Last update: Wednesday 30 November 2011

Theatre as an educational tool
Theatre is frequently used as a tool for communicating information across a range of sectors, particularly health, to bring about attitudinal and behavioural change, and changes in life style. Subjects that are dealt with include family planning, safe motherhood, safe drinking water, environmental degradation, child abuse, violence against women, rape, and HIV/AIDS education. In this kind of theatre, a group of actors or puppets perform a play containing a particular message, often with little or no audience participation or discussion.

Theatre as a learning process
Theatre is also used to analyse, discuss and identify problems and to seek solutions with the participation of the community affected by the specific problems. Both local workshops and public performances represent a process of learning. Through dialogue, it raises the level of awareness and contributes to the empowerment of all involved. It may also mobilize people to take action and support them in processes of social and political change. This type of performance may be devised through community workshops and participatory research. Theatre for Developmen (TfD) activities of this kind may be performed by community members or by a group of actors/facilitators. the audience may participate by acting on stage or even in writing, and in discussion.

Not a new concept to developing countries
The use of theatre as a tool for development is easily accepted in developing countries. It builds upon the culture and traditions such as the travelling theatre, story telling, puppet shows, sociodramas, mimes, songs, dance and riddles. For generations, rural populations have relied on the spoken word and traditional forms of communication to share knowledge and exchange information on social, health and agricultural themes, and to provide entertainment.

Advantages and disadvantages
The potential to entertain gives theatre an advantage over some other information and communication methods. Advantages of the use of theatre for development, identified in the literature, include:
- it can be culturally appropriate and context sensitive
- it can be a means to listen to the voice of the silent sectors of the community and allow expression of issues by peer groups rather than by agents of the development organizations
- it is a public, non-intrusive vehicle to communicate information
- it can foster ownership by the partner community, of strategies that have been developed together
- it can serve as a social lubricant for those changes
- it is portable and thus can be presented in many places
- it is recordable and thus useful for broader dissemination
- it is cost-effective in terms of one performance reaching many people
- its methods can be used by field-workers to facilitate dialogue and ensure ownership of cultural action and change
- performances may be adaptable to local contexts, especially when accompanied by workshops
- it can be used with other media to reinforce its message (e.g. pamphlets, radio)
- it does not require a literate or otherwise specially educated public.

It does have some disadvantages:
- the cost of development and implementation, by outside performers, can be high if scriptwriting and actor fees are costly
- the time required for development and implementation means that messages requiring immediate dissemination may be slow to be released
- the effectiveness of the drama may be dependent on the abilities of the producers and actors. This is not true at local community level, where the presence of peers in the drama has its own contextual impact.

Need for support
Despite the potential of theatre to involve and reach audiences, it is perhaps misleading to expect too much from the perfromance alone. If people have become aware of the disadvantages of certain behaviour and are willing to change, or if people are empowered to act but their actions are blocked or given little support, then the performance without support and follow-up will only serve to generate frustration.
Theatre is perhaps best used as part of broader projects or programmes which can provide opportunities and the incentives to change.


Participatory performance practices - contributed by Alex Mavrocordatos

The Theatre for Development (TfD) practitioner must take on a cycle of activities starting with participatory research with the community leading through to performances inside the community and beyond - and then back again.

The process of TfD is a strategic tool, which should be at the heart of any community development initiative that envisages social or behavioural change. Participatory performance practices may be both process and product. Community artists can sell their own story, highlight their own concerns and develop their own strategies amongst themselves and with their neighbours. These public peer to peer statements are empowering in themselves. And the performances can then be addressed to a broader public or to those policy makers in the wider world who have power over their lives.

There is nothing new in these aims, but TfD has not been getting any closer to realizing them. There is a growing misconception of TfD as a `bolt-on accessory´, a message service. Using participatory performance practices (PPP), TfD explores a full and participatory engagement with local culture, cultural action and change. For more information on PPP go to The road to PPP.

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