Using Theatre To Promote Social Change Theatre Essay

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1st Jan 1970 Film Studies Reference this

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Theatre can makes concepts coherent and real for people. It involves its audience both intellectually and emotionally, it sensitizes audiences to issues, ideas and people portrayed, and it engenders a personal connection with the events and characters on stage. Community-based theatre goes a step further; when a play is directly relevant to audience members’ lives and concerns, a process begins which can lead to deeper understanding and change. Audience members recognize the characters and their dilemmas and identify with the people portrayed. And because they can watch rather than live the experience, they also objectify the problems, and in so doing begin to be able to think critically about possible solutions or alternate actions and so have the ability to change.

In this essay I will examine the need for social change as well as the impact of theatre on the society. I will explore the uses of theatre as an instrument of change as well as focusing on Boal’s theatre as his methods were used as a tool for change.

What is social change and why it is needed?

One of the most concise definitions of social change is characterised as the “significant alteration of social structure and cultural patterns through time”(Harper, 1993). And this social structure is made up of “a persistent network of social relationships”(Harper, 1993). In which interaction between people or groups has become repetitive. The resultant changes can affect everything from population to the economy, as industrialisation and shifting cultural norms and values, are also established agents of social change (Popenoe, 1995). In another words social change is the transformation of culture and social structure over time.

There are various causes of social change. One of these causes is Culture which is a system that constantly loses and gains components. Also values, beliefs, and ideologies have certainly shaped directions of social change in the modern world, such as Nationalism, Capitalism and others.

Change can be occur through the impact of environmental factors such as famine,

International shifts in economic or political advantage, as the ‘Globalisation’ which is one of the key factors in our modern society affecting the global economy, political structures, culture, etc.

Change can also occur from social movement where people join together for a common cause or

The mass media which considered a vital factor in speeding social change. It permits rapid diffusion of ideas, making this manifest in the private and relaxing environs of the home, where audiences are at their most susceptible.

From all the above, social change can occur because of lots of reasons that mean there is always a demand for change, whether by individuals or through a larger forces which leads the community in some cases to a comprehensive change. Theatre is considering a mean to reflect people lives and re-create it for a deeper insight, it might be a tool to understand the real problems of society and contribute in finding solution for them as continues attempt for change.

Theatre and societies

Theatre arose in the ancient Egyptians era before 4500 years ago and in Greece before 2400 years ago on the basis that it is an education intermediate, Aristotle argues that the purpose of tragedy is purification while the purpose of comedy is social criticism (Aristotle, 1987), this what lead me to believe that the theatre in the beginning was closely connected with the concept of social change as we understand it today. Thus become the development of theatre throughout the history of the European Communities which was linked to their need for change, The history of theatre in Europe was and still in a clear continues progress, on the contrary, in many other cultures for example in the history of the ancient Egyptian Theatre, who did not continue its progress. Taking the example from history of Europe theatre does not negate the evolution of theatre in other societies such as China, India and some regions of Latin America. Back to linking the concept of theatre to social change in Europe, we find it represented in several periods which I will focus on some of them.

The association with the Christian religion with politics and power in the first third of the fourth century theatre art has been eliminated temporarily as theatre artists was persecuted and considered to be heretics and enemies of religion but After a period of time theatre was revived again by the church itself, which used the theatre as a new way to celebrate and spread the message the religions and to promote to it. Thus, over the middle Ages the Church had to take a reconciled position with the theatrical art, perhaps this was a recognition of the clergy at that time of the role that could be played by theatre as a good and appropriate way to achieve the communication between the members of the community, which possessed the ability to unify a minimum fair amount of collective consciousness and activating the concept of culture that carries values for the society in which it was designed to be Christian, this theatre was used for social change towards the values and concepts of Christianity that was adopted as a prerequisite for this period. This played a role as in our own concept of the role of contemporary media, but because when theatre impersonating the media it loses much of its dramatic interactive and become closer to preaching than exploration and surprise pleasure.

So soon after the fall of the Romanian empire and the weakness in the dominance of the church, new artists emerged in what is reminiscent of the Renaissance, this was an era in which theatre carried out to revive the Greek and Roman heritage and values relating to them, but in the frameworks respect to the traditions of the church, where the renaissance theatre worked for guiding the society towards rejection the superstitions. Theatre has also taken a functionality based on the guidance and education for people of moral values as well as changing society through the promotion of virtue and prevent vice.

And with the emergence of William Shakespeare and his keen interest in issues of human self-imaging and his pain and anguish. where theatre become a carrier and reflective of the human as well as giving up it guidance role, and so theatre played a new role in the social life by becoming the centre of the desired change in that period which was elevating the attention of human beings and embody his suffering of all social, religious and political restrictions.

The Norwegian writer Henrik Ibsen had realized the need for social change in his era, his works became one of the most visible models and a boot process for social change, as not only his attempts to deal with real issues and address the prevailing values by criticism and queries which leads to a demand for social change, but also he himself changed and shocked the theatre audiences when he used prose rather than poetry in writing the play in order to approach the level of daily language, and if he did not just announce the need for change but also uses new tools of his time (Barton and McGregor , 2008).

Thus, from the history of the European theatre progress I conclude that the theatre and social change have always been two sides of the same coin, which theatre recreate life either by condensation, auditing, deletion, selection and rearrangement the art elements to be performed in front of viewers who can re-evaluate the performance and have hopes of change, or recreate life by staging it according to its creators thoughts in a period of time to put an image in front of the viewers pushing them towards the future of access desired. So, we cannot describe the theatre as a direct cause for social change this is because the social changer creates a model that community is required to reach while the art in general as a social and cultural practice wonder about the feasibility of the concept of change. And theatre in particular, as the form closest to the cultural practices in the community exposed to what is going on and measure the pulse of the community to discern the need for change and enquire about its usefulness, which he often does not answer these questions, even if the content has been alluded to answer, leaving the community to adopt these responses or even rejected, but in the end there will be perceptions of change, These perceptions were not to interact with reality, However, after the experience of these interactions through the theatre as a metaphor laboratory to test the prevailing societal values or alternative values that may be proposed within the assumed process of social change.

Thus the theatre obligated to change its shape and form according to the causes and issues of society that generated it, However, these variables remained committed to the centrality of the theatrical text that presents what I referred to attempts to change, the theatre performance continued in bringing together all the elements for the interpretation of the text and despite the diversity of performance styles representative as the backbone of the performance that it was only in the context of the character. It is worth mentioning in this regard the most influential theoretical and pedagogical model of the twentieth century has been, without doubt, Konstantin Stanislavsky’s method. And here comes Bertolt Brecht to put new principles on the theatre art and be a pioneer in the exploitation of this art to the concept of a radical positive social change.

Brecht attempts for change

The reason for Brecht’s importance in theatre is that his work attempted to bring about a change in the whole relationship between the actor and the audience, the purpose of which was to broaden the social basis of the theatre and to set it once more in its proper social context. What Brecht most disliked and reacted against was the professional’s view of the theatre as an end in itself. He wanted the theatre to accept its responsibilities as the social art with the utilitarian purpose of communicating with ordinary people about the matters that most concern them. (Bradby & McCormick, 1978)

In pursuit of theatre as craft or sporting display, Brecht later evolved his characteristic production style: the half curtain which did not attempt to completely cover the preparations in progress behind it; the use of placards or screen projections to comment on the action; the non-naturalistic settings; the visible rows of stage lights. These followed naturally from Brecht’s desire to reduce empathy in the audience and to induce his actors to ‘demonstrate’ rather than to incarnate their characters. Just as a concert pianist or a boxer tries to show off his technique, so Brecht wanted every technique and object used in the production to be visible and comprehensible (Bradby and McCormick, 1978). For the production of The Mother in 1935 for the Theatre Union in New York, he wrote:

“Let’s have a platform, and on this platform we’ll put chairs, tables, partitions – whatever the actors need. For hanging a curtain give me a wooden pole or a metal bar; for hanging a picture a piece of wall. And I’ll want a large projection screen… Let it all be elegant, thin and fine like Japanese banners, flimsy like Japanese kites and lanterns; let’s be aware of the natural textures of wood and metal… We’ll place two grand pianos visibly at one side of the stage; the play must have the quality of a concert as well as that of a drama… And we’ll show the lighting units as they dim on and off, playing over the scene.”

He approached acting less from an emotional and hence psychological angle than from its ability to demonstrate social relationships. Gestus or physical movements that accompany speech should not be seen as an expression of an actor’s personal experience but rather as supra-individual and thus symptomatic of larger, social contexts. This means that the actor’s relationship to his or her role is a detached one. Role enactment should serve as alienation or distancing effect whose goal is to endow the spectator with a searching, critical attitude towards the action on stage. (Balme, 2008)

The alienation effect is the most consistently misunderstood part of Brecht’s theory. It is interpreted to mean that any emotional pleasure in the theatre must be suppressed. But for Brecht the strongest source of emotion to be found in the theatre was the delight in understanding reality. The alienation effect consists in the reproduction of real-life incidents on the stage in such a way as to underline their causality and bring it to the spectator’s attention. This type of art also generates emotions, such performances facilitate the mastering of reality, and this it is that moves the spectator. The purpose of the alienation effect, then, is to foster an alert, critical spirit in the audience by emphasizing causality. But this alone is perhaps not enough to generate emotions or give rise to ‘fun’. It goes hand in hand with an attitude towards people and their life in society summed up by the Philosopher in The Messingkauf Dialogues:

“I have an insatiable curiosity about people; it’s impossible for me to see and hear enough of them. The way they get along with each other, the way they develop friendships and enmities, sell onions, plan military campaigns, get married, make tweed suits, circulate forged bank notes, dig potatoes, observe the heavenly bodies; the way they cheat, favour, teach, exploit, respect, mutilate and support one another; the way they hold meetings, form societies, conduct intrigues. I always want to know why they embark on their undertakings, and my aim is to distinguish certain laws that would allow me to make predictions.”(Brecht, 1965)

To achieve the desired alienation effect, Brecht suggested that the actor perform in the third person, transpose the action into the past and speak the stage directions and commentaries. (Balme, 2008)

“Using a third person and the past tense allows the actor to adopt the right attitude of detachment. Speaking the stage directions out loud in the third person results in a clash between two tones of voice, alienating the second of them, the text proper” (Brecht, 1964).

Thus, far from wanting to suppress the emotions of his audience, Brecht wanted, like all great artists, to channel them, He wanted to provoke a spirit of passionate but detached enquiry. For this, he found that the ideal dramatic structure was that of the Shakespearean history play; a sequence of events narrated with no artificial restrictions as to time or place, which could vary the scene with ease from individual destinies to national conditions and back again. Brecht’s basic political position as a Communist, however unorthodox, meant that his plays were always addressed to the people rather than to the intelligentsia, and written in a language that would enable him to communicate effectively with working people. (Bradby & McCormick, 1978)

Brecht’s theatre was a theatre struggling for reintegration with society. He liked to describe it as a theatre that was scientific and dialectical scientific because of the detached way in which it tried to dissect the mechanisms of social life, and because it aspired to be useful; and dialectical because its method is one of discussion and contradiction, not of doctrinal affirmation. (Bradby & McCormick, 1978)

To conclude Brecht was convinced that theatre must be an agent of social and political change. He believed that theatre should appeal not to the spectator’s feelings but to his reason. While still providing entertainment, it should be educational and capable of provoking social change.

Boal’s Spect-actors

“Theatre is a form of knowledge: it should and can also be a means of transforming society. Theatre can help us build our future, rather than just waiting for it” (Boal, 1992)

Augusto Boal established The Theatre of the Oppressed in the early 1970s which is nowadays used all over the world in different fields of social activities such as: education, culture, arts, politics, social work, psychotherapy, literacy programs and health.

The Theatre of the Oppressed, in all its various modalities, is a constant search for dialogical forms, forms of theatre through which it is possible to converse, both about and as part of social activity, pedagogy, psychotherapy, politics (Boal, 2004).

Two Brechtian principles underpin Boal’s praxis the first is that theatre should promote concrete political action. A performance should represent actual life, not for the purpose of allowing contemplation of powerful artistic fictions but to provoke and rehearse interventions that might change those aspects of society that oppresses individuals and groups. The second is the notion that dramatic performance it self constitutes a dialectical process of learning (Gordon, 2006).

Boal was not satisfied with the inflammatory relationship that formulated in Brecht’s epic theatre, but he built a partnership between the spectators and actors in order to establish the scene and direct the events of the performance. He made more radical alternatives to the process of the epic that was adopted by Brecht, persisted in approaching the oppressed groups, contact with their problems in order to raise awareness of the causes and the potential to overcome these causes as well as engaging the public in analyze their problems, and search for their own solutions as a way to attempt change.( Gordon, 2006)

In the traditional theatre, the spectator is a passive element, receptor of subjective representation of the reality. And since those responsible for theatrical performances are in general people who belong directly or indirectly to the ruling classes, obviously their finished images will be reflections of their visions of the world. Aristotle elaborated the poetics of the theatre that focused on its political dimensions.( Boal, 2000)

The Theatre of the Oppressed therefore aims to transform the spectator into spect-actor. The word oppression is used as any force that private one individual to express and realize his wills. Everybody can be oppressed and an oppressor. This theatre gives the opportunity to express ones desires, identify the oppressions, which can be objective or subjective, and try to find the best way to deal with them. It is a Game of the Dialogue, where everybody can speak, and where everybody learns interacting with the others. ( Boal, 2000)

When the spectator becomes spect-actor; he can modify the scenes he does not like in order to find different solutions that maybe would be afraid to attempt in his real life. He becomes active, developing his creativity and freedom of speaking. This activation that does not end with the play, activate his feeling of member of one society and his will to act in reality to improve it. Being citizen is not only living in one society but actively participate in it, trying to do it better for everyone.(Boal, 1992)

The Theatre of the Oppressed appears as an effort to transform the traditional passive role of the spectator during and after any kind or performance. It consists in different techniques and games that can be used in order to make the spectator participate in the construction and the realization of the piece as the Image theatre, Newspaper theatre, Invisible theatre, Rainbow of desire and others. The main goal of this theatre is activate the creativity and the capacity of expression of the spectator, in order to analyze and find original solutions to the conflicts our society. As when the objective oppressions have been identified, a pacific confrontation to them will be proposed. When there is not a real oppressor or oppressed, the dialog should help find the better solution to deal with the conflict.

One of Boal’s most influential methods is Forum theatre which was born from ‘simultaneous dramaturgy’ when, according to Boal, by chance an audience member who was so frustrated that the actor did not understand her directions, took their place. This undid the audience/actor split and a new form of political theatre was created. He discovered that through this active participation the audience-actors, ‘spect-actors’, become empowered. This concept of the ‘spect-actor’ became a dominant force within Boal’s later Forum theatre work. The audiences were now encouraged to not only imagine change but to actually practice that change, reflect collectively on the suggestion, and thereby become empowered to generate social action.

Forum theatre events take place in public areas, in popular community, not necessarily in a theatre venue. They involve representing a scene with a conflict situation, or including an issue that the community suffers from, or telling a personal story that is without end. The performers are people from the community with Forum theatre trainers & multipliers, the audience is invited at the end to make an intervention and suggest a way to deal with the issue or the situation by coming to the performance space and playing one role in the scene to try and change the events. This way we can provide live suggestion from the people to their own issues, through representation, as well as public discussion (Boal, 1992).

Boal’s Legislative Theatre is also one and most remarkable stage in his work. ‘Legislative Theatre’ is an attempt to use Boal’s method of ‘Forum Theatre’ within a political system to create a truer form of democracy. It is an extraordinary experiment in the potential of theatre to affect social change. Forum Theatre invites members of the audience to take the stage and decide the outcome, becoming an integral part of the performance. As a politician in his native Rio de Janeiro, Boal used Forum Theatre to motivate the local populace in generating relevant legislation. In Legislative Theatre Boal creates new, theatrical, and truly revolutionary ways of involving everyone in the democratic process (Boal, 1998).

Finally, the main purpose of Theatre of the Oppressed is to search for solutions to actual cases of oppression that members of the community suffer. From there the hope is that the community is empowered to manifest the change and dismantle the oppression. Theatre of the Oppressed clearly has the potential to make social structures, power relations and individual habits visible and, at the same time, provide tools to facilitate change. It is one of the few methods that offers an integrated approach to work on individual, group and social levels, and involves both the body and the mind.

Study case: Theatre and Women Development

The project name “Theatre and Women Development”, One year project in four segments, Series of training workshops, onsite community work, performances and publications, it was held in Alexandria, Egypt. Organised and managed by Reflection for arts training and development NGO. 2008

The project focused on the promotion and support of human rights via theatre, namely the rights of the freedom of expression linked with some personal rights, such as the freedom of opinion, and the rights of women, specifically to be protected from sexual harassment and domestic violence.

The first segment of the project was a “Forum theatre” training workshop for theatre artists and social activists. Forum theatre was and still a methodology used for community work. It was the first time to create a Forum Theatre team in Egypt, a method that is made specifically for dealing with social issues, community participation, democratic discussion and seeking change.

The second segment was a workshop for young women. The workshop was implemented in a community space in partnership with a feminist NGO, inviting 20 young women between the ages of 16 to 22. The workshop also used the Forum Theatre technique in order to represent situations which the participants live, suffer from, aspire to or oppose to.

The end of the workshop included 3 nights of Forum theatre public events, where the participants performed stories and situations and ask the audience for their opinion, and how to find better ways to manage the difficult situations or experiences of those young women when they are faced by social values oppressing them. The aim of the workshop is not to reach the public events only, though it will be the culmination of the whole process and the real test of how this work can relate to the community and produce dialogue leading to change, but the aim is also to provoke discussions and give voice to young women who do not usually express themselves. The workshop was function as an open space for the participants to speak out, to gain self-confidence, to break the usual social hypocrisy and to acquire new skills of expression and of creative positive thinking, which could support their future roles in society as potential community leaders.

The third segment of the project was a workshop with women between the ages of 30 to 50. The theme was domestic violence, one of the most sensitive and unspoken issues in Egypt. Domestic violence is a theme that will require a lot of care and sensitivity when it comes to community work. It will be our responsibility to respect the social borders surrounding this issue, while raising the awareness of the participants of their rights to be secure, respected and protected in their own homes and families. Forum Theatre technique was taught to the participants and used to structure scenes about situations of domestic violence that the participants suggest. The task of the group was to find out how to prevent those situations, how to deal with them and how to protect the women who are suffering in those situations. Special attention was given to traditional values as well as legal views, in order to analyze the reasons behind this phenomenon and to find out how to support and empower women to speak out and seek help.

The fourth segment of the project used storytelling techniques and dramatic theatre to represent the real stories of sexual harassment in Egypt. For this segment we collected real stories from the community, re-worked on them dramatically, then brought female participants from the previous workshops, train them to act the stories out, and present them as the first theatre production in Alexandria based on true stories of harassment.

The project Goals was to promote awareness on human rights: Freedom of expression, freedom of opinion, the right to security at home, and self-protection, the right to be respected and not discriminated against, and all related women’s rights, To create a public form of participation in the dissemination of those rights via Forum theatre, To use this public form to represent real issues and stories of the community, To allow democratic discussion and management of those issues via Forum theatre, To empower young women’s thinking and provide social skills of self-expression, To create new ways combining arts/theatre and development and social work, To bring sensitive issues to the surface in a creative and sensitive way, such as domestic violence .

The project succeeds in reaching the majority of his goals and become a genuine basis of using theatre as a tool for social change.

The Conclusion

To conclude, Theatre through history had a great role on affecting people’s lives, by helping them to see their lives and problems more clearly. It become a tool to understand the real problems of society and tries to find an effective solution for them. It tries to enable those who are marginalized in some way to examine collectively their issues from their perspectives, to analyze causes of these issues, to explore avenues of potential action, and to create an opportunity to take such action. Through dialogue by rising the level of awareness as well as it 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.

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