In your own way

Participation through Body, Voice and Space: A Conversation with Theatre for a Change

“People are the experts of their own lives. Development only happens if it is owned by the people and participation is fundamental to real development.”

Owing much to Robert Chambers’ insights into Participatory Learning and Action, and the educational theory of Paulo Freire, participation has become a very important concept and practice in development. Theatre for a Change (TfaC) is an NGO founded in 2003 that uses drama and interactive theatre to work with the most vulnerable and marginalised groups, particularly those at risk of poor sexual and reproductive health and who have limited opportunities to assert their gender rights. The methodology was first applied in Ghana in 2003 as a response to rising rates of HIV/AIDS. Today, TfaC works in Ghana, Malawi and the UK.

Say for Development had the opportunity to have a conversation with TfaC’s Founder and Executive Director, Patrick Young*, on how gender equality can be achieved through using participatory theatre methodologies.  

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Say for Development: In the past few decades, participation has become a very important concept and practice in development. No longer are top-down approaches the most widely used methods for bringing out particular messages to the community. Theatre has often been used as an effective method to sensitise people on various issues. What is the idea and concept behind using theatre as a participatory methodology and how has it evolved?

Patrick: From the very beginning, we put the experience of participants at the heart of the process. We have a phrase that we use – ‘participants are the experts of their own lives’. Nobody knows their lives better than they do. So, participation is at the heart of the ideas and concepts of our methodology. It is about understanding and experiencing effective ways of enabling marginalised groups to engage and lead the process of development. We seek to establish the pathways in which participants can see their desired ways to development. So, in terms of understanding what issues participants are facing, we look at these issues through participatory approaches. When understanding what to change around these issues and what consequences they bring, we again seek to understand that with the participants. One of the key aspects of the methodology is that it is centered on group experience. Hence, working with groups of women and sex workers, we lead activities that explore the consequences of the issues that they raise and then finally see what could be changed in order to address issues and consequences that they have identified. I think one of the central aspects of the nature of participation is that it is an experiential participation and a cognitive process, which enables participation on the emotional, psychological and physical levels as well as the cognitive level.

In our work, theatre-based activities are at the heart of participation. Theatre, first of all, directly relates to the body, voice and space, and for our work with gender and sexual reproductive health, the body is an important arena where change can be brought about.

Say for Development: You founded Theatre for a Change (TfaC), an organisation that uses theatre participatory methods to work with vulnerable groups of women and girls. What inspired you to institutionalise this concept?

Patrick: I come from a background where the understanding of education and developmental potential of drama was already institutionalised. I was the Head of Drama in secondary schools in relatively marginalised communities in the UK. There were curriculums around GCSE Drama and A-Level Performing Arts and all these were frameworks which embodied theatre as a learning and developmental methodology. I also founded Streets Alive Theatre Company and worked with young homeless people in the UK. It uses a very similar process that enables young homeless people to gain a voice in their own lives and also on social and community-based platforms. The same is true for TfaC. We set up this organisation to allow us to use this methodology and institutionalise it in a way that gives us the most reach and impact.

Say for Development: You have headed TfaC for more than 13 years now, what are the most inspiring and challenging parts of your work?

Patrick: The most inspiring part is the day-to-day work with participants, and seeing the journey and pathways that participants engage in. Because TfaC adopts such a physical approach, it is very evident how change happens because you can see and hear it. It is very exciting to see marginalised groups, who were profoundly lacking in self-confidence to gain a voice- not just within the group but also in their personal relationships, as well as on wider social and community-based platforms.

The challenges are numerous of course, because the project is quite ambitious. As you can see, enabling participants to take control over their personal and social lives means encountering a number of barriers, whether it is poverty, gender, culture and so forth.

There are always challenges, but to me it is always the participants and their journey that are particularly inspiring.

TfaC's 'Saying No to Unwanted Sex' workshop in Malawi for girls. Image: Theatre for a Change

TfaC’s ‘Saying No to Unwanted Sex’ workshop in Malawi for girls. Image: Theatre for a Change

Say for Development: TfaC works mainly with the empowerment of vulnerable women and girls in their sexual and reproductive health. Regarding gender issues, we always hear about the need to engage men and boys as agents of change for the achievement of gender equality. Yet, in reality, there is still a serious lack of male presence in these discussions. How can we use theatre as a tool to engage men and boys, especially in a patriarchal society?

Patrick: Our programs are mostly workshop-based where theatre and drama activities help to identify the patterns of power in relationships and how they could be changed. This means that when we are working on gender power relationships, it is very much a dialogue and exploration between women and men. For example, when we are exploring gender rights, gender equality and what they mean, we do not come with a message and pre-determine the process. Instead, we explore the experience of equality and how that is manifested in the way that people experience relationships. For example, in exploring the experience of equality, we would not be saying ‘boys, you have to respect girls as you are equal’, or ‘men, you have to respect women because you are equal’.

Instead, we approach it by looking at ways that people experience balance in a physical sense through physical exercises. This allows men and women to explore what balance feels like when they work in pairs and how it shows, almost without exception, that balance is something which makes us feel happy, equal and included. For example, we do activities where boys and girls lean against each other or pull away from each other in a way that balance can be physically achieved. We then ask them to show us, through improvisation, situations in their lives where they have experienced this kind of balance, and identify the dynamics underneath it, whether it is between siblings or friends. Then, we look at imbalance through physical exercises and ask them questions – do they find the imbalance dangerous and unsettling? Do they feel unhappy when balance is lost from the sense of falling? We look at relationships where imbalance happens. Unfortunately, most often these are gender-based relationships where there is a massive difference in power between women and men.

The consequences (and frequently these are the consequences that we focus on are) are how, as an example, imbalance could lead to difficulty in negotiating condom use, which leads to higher risks in contracting HIV. So very quickly, what this establishes here is that balance is not a culturally relative phenomenon, but a universal human phenomenon of wellbeing. This approach, if you like, avoids the sense that human rights and gender equality are western ideas because actually, balance is something that we all flourish in. As a result, it is very much a collaborative and participatory approach that includes men and boys as active, interested and committed partners. And this makes a big difference to the overall impact of our work.

Say for Development: Theatre has been said to be very empowering and effective for those participating in the process. At the same time, raising the awareness of the community is also important in order bring about social change on issues concerning vulnerable women and girls (such as HIV/AIDs). How does TfaC engage with the community?

Patrick: I would say working with communities would involve interactive theatre performances, which might be live or on the radio. The invitation to the community is to watch or listen to a piece of drama made by a participant or a group of participants from the community, in their own language and in a way that is very much based on their own lives. The reality of the situation is often very apparent and they recognise that. The invitation in interactive theatre is to identify the character who needs help (often the protagonist), and to physically enter the space and tag the person on the shoulder who needs help, become that character and see if they can approach the barriers that they face in a different way.

This means that the community is engaged in a participatory approach to finding out the answers to the questions that they raise themselves. It is a way of engaging sensitive issues in a culturally acceptable and highly communal manner.

An interactive theatre performance takes place in a community in Lilongwe. Image: Theatre for a Change

An interactive theatre performance takes place in a community in Lilongwe. Image: Theatre for a Change

Say for Development: TfaC generates behavioural change and transformation among its participants, such as raising self-esteem. This qualitative impact may be difficult to track and measure. On the other hand, donors always look for evidence to justify and continue their support. How do you monitor and evaluate the impact of TfaC’s programs?

Patrick: We are only really interested in tangible changes, so it is about the way that self-confidence and assertiveness are manifested, such as the ability of a participant to report gender-based violence when it happens. It is about identifying the types of outcomes that are visible and easier to measure in more concrete ways. We have outcome, indicators and log frames that identify the key components and indications of change. For example, when victims of sexual abuse report their cases and they want their reports to be approved and taken seriously, the transformational process of gaining self-confidence and self-advocacy really gets manifested. In short, we want to see actual change in significant ways that would make a concrete difference in the lives of people.

Say for Development: With your years of vast experience with TfaC and professional theatrical training, do you think that in the future, theatrical participatory methodology will become more widely used by development organisations?

Patrick: Absolutely, we have a forum called ‘legislative theatre’, which we use to enable marginalised groups to advocate for themselves to policymakers to achieve policy or legal change. I think what we are seeing when we offer our methodologies to other organisations (public or private) is that there is a lot of interest, because everyone knows that development only happens if it is owned by people. I think there is a huge need for these kinds of approaches, and we are not the only ones that are committed to participatory approaches by any means, but certainly we are finding that this is fundamental to real development.

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*Patrick Young is the Founder and Executive Director of Theatre for a Change (TfaC) since 2013. Prior to his journey with TfaC, he was the Founder and Artistic Director of Streets Alive Theatre Company, and the Head of Drama of London Comprehensive Schools. Patrick has extensive experience working with vulnerable and marginalised groups through theatre and drama.

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Say for Development is thankful to Patrick for sharing his insights and thoughts on the topic as well as the work of Theatre for a Change. This conversation was prepared and conducted by Sarabe Chan and Mahmudul Hoque Moni.

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Feature Photograph: Patrick conducting a ‘Raising Girls’ Self-Esteem’ workshop during DFID’s Girls’ Education Forum 2016.  

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