Earlier this year, I taught a course in Theatre for Social Change at Principia College, a liberal arts college on the banks of the Mississippi in Illinois.
It was the first time for me working in the US and was an exciting time, working with an enthusiastic bunch of 12 college students, in a project that also enabled us to try out our skills in a project with local youth at Alton High School.
I shared with the college students my experiences of working in China, the historical context of theatre for social change, exploring visionaries and practitioners such as Bertolt Brecht, Augusto Boal, Paulo Freire and eastern European playwrights such as Vaclav Havel whose writings inspired the beginnings of the Velvet Revolution and the fall of the Eastern Bloc.
We did a 'deep dive' into the writings and practise of Augusto Boal and his famed Theatre of the Oppressed, which has been foundational to my own practice. We looked at the Forum Theatre intervention and tested our learning on the college community in a Forum Theatre piece on the discrimination that international students experienced at the college.
Our work at Alton High School used techniques such as group character creation, hotseating and Forum Theatre too to explore issues that young people in the community face, issues such as drug abuse, homosexuality, single parent families, friendship issues and truancy. Having never worked in the so-called 'developed world', it was fascinating to see the constraints we faced as theatre practitioners working in the community, receiving little or no support from the larger school community, whilst simultaneously developing a loyal following from the students for being able to address the issues they face in a 'real' way.
Augusto Boal is a huge hero of mine and my experience in Illinois brought home to me echoes of Boal's own work when he was exiled from Brazilian dictatorship to Europe (to Paris indeed!) and discovered that, whilst people living in the so-called 'free world' did not experience political oppression, they were equally, if not more so, oppressed by the 'cops in the head', the mental limitations they imposed on themselves.
The 'This is our Story' project was a huge success and the young people excelled themselves in a Forum Theatre performance held at the local Jacoby Arts Centre with their parents and teachers. Some of the feedback we had on the project included the following:
“Through the work we have done with Alton High School, I have found that theatre is an effective avenue for not only addressing issues essential to the community, but also to empower the actors and the community at large. In this process, I have grown as an actor, realized important values that I want to promote in my community, and discovered an amazing way to inspire others [through] open dialogue about critical issues that effect [sic] their communities, and the world.”
“Theatre will always be a light in a dark place, but after reading Boal’s work and seeing forum theatre in action, I think theatre for social change is a bonfire in a dark place. It’s dangerous and contentious and stirs in the minds of the people, but ultimately it’s [sic] light attracts and it’s [sic] heat stirs fire within.”
You can listen to a radio interview here and read an article on the project here.
I am a trained actress and founder and director of Hua Dan, one of China’s first and leading social enterprises. Hua Dan uses the power of participation in drama-based workshops to reveal and develop individual and community potential. Hua Dan has a particular focus on working with China’s rural-to-urban migrant workers, particularly women, who work in the manufacturing and service industries, at the heart of China’s economic boom.