Zawe Ashton in Clean Break’s recent production There Are Mountains
Stepping under the hot lights of a stage in front of an audience and performing, as yourself, a dramatisation of your personal experiences of oppression, trauma or conflict would strike most people as a terrifying prospect. Yet several theatre groups around the country are doing just that in order to ‘give a voice to the voiceless’, create forums of debate and compassionate communication, and ultimately to advance social change for those whose stories are usually invisible or marginalised.
One of the most prominent examples of empowering theatre approaches is Theatre of the Oppressed, founded by the Brazilian playwright, activist and theatre pioneer Augusto Boal, who left a worldwide legacy after his death in 2009. Forum Theatre is one form of Boal’s work, along with Invisible Theatre and Image Theatre, which were designed to create democratic arenas for interaction and growth. Forum performances involve dramatising an oppressive situation familiar to the cast’s real‑life experiences in a small play. The play is then performed a second time, during which audience members – ‘spect-actors’ in Boal’s terminology – can shout ‘Freeze!’ and take to the stage themselves, improvising alternative courses of action in the hope of taking the play to a less oppressive ending. The degrees of success of different ideas are discussed by the audience.
The new strategies can be used to empower participants in their real lives. For social movements the exercises can highlight potential strategies, developed in a collaborative and community-led setting. Performances are not the only aim of the form – Boal also developed drama exercises encouraging openness, exploration and the building of trust.
Forum Theatre is widely studied and ‘study-able’, with Boal’s books full of catchy quotes such as the famous statement that: ‘Perhaps the theatre is not revolutionary in itself; but have no doubts, it is a rehearsal of revolution!’ Yet its application in a pure form is rare in the UK. One exception is Cardboard Citizens, which has become an established charity working with people affected by homelessness in London. It is one of the leading practitioners of Forum techniques (Boal visited frequently over the course of 15 years) along with offering more traditional services such as workshops and training. It takes Forum plays, performed by members who have experienced homelessness, straight to the doors of the ‘hard-to-reach’ audiences, on an annual hostel tour – a mode through which many new members end up becoming involved.
Catherine Pinhorn, a trainer and practitioner of Forum Theatre with training organisation Change-X-Change, who has studied under Boal and is currently working with homeless groups herself, points out that Forum Theatre exercises are used in many educational and corporate settings. Although Boal himself encouraged adaptation of the form to suit particular participants, she sees the use of Forum to impart predetermined messages a dilution of the strengths of the approach, which essentially centres on truth and human agency.
‘I think it literally provides a forum in which [the individual] can be heard,’ she says. ‘Lots of people in our society are not listened to. That they don’t feel heard is actually a reflection of what’s going on. There is far too much glossing over everything. And people then turn in, and they don’t bother to communicate.’
Although local authority budget restraints are hindering the chances of setting up groups in hubs such as community centres, which Pinhorn is a proponent of, the potential of Forum Theatre to redefine conversations in communities from the grassroots is being explored by groups such as the Brighton Forum Theatre Collective. The collective is now into its second season after forming last year. Dee O’Halloran is one of the co‑founders. Like most of the group, she does not have a drama background, but was ‘really inspired’ after taking a short Forum Theatre course out of interest.
‘We just thought, this could be really beneficial to people,’ she says. The collective’s last performance, Beyond Care, explored issues of disempowerment in the workplace and concerns about attitudes towards social care for the elderly – a story based on the experiences of one of its members. Its next project is still in the early stages of development and may be performed to a wider audience in the city’s next Fringe Festival.
Other theatre projects have a more overtly activist stance, such as Clean Break, an organisation established by two female prisoners in 1979. They sought to ‘bring the hidden stories of imprisoned women to a wider audience’ and highlight injustices in the criminal justice system’s treatment of women. Their plays have explored themes of addiction, trafficking and the difficulties of reintegrating into life outside the prison walls.
Imogen Ashby, who has worked with Clean Break for more than 10 years and is now its head of engagement, directed its recent production, There Are Mountains, about the theme of release, which was written by Chloë Moss and performed by eight prisoners alongside actor Zawe Ashton, known for her part in Channel 4’s Fresh Meat. She explains that although there are both theatre professionals and offenders/ex-offenders involved, the heart of the stories is always about real experiences of the criminal justice system: ‘It’s why we do what we do.’ To begin the process of producing There Are Mountains three days were spent with women in Clean Break’s founding prison, HMP Askham Grange, asking what they felt it was important for audiences to know about the theme of ‘release’.
Clean Break has taken its political message on tour by performing at events such as Scotland Yard’s trafficking conferences and as part of the White Ribbon Campaign events in Scotland, which highlighted violence towards women. Another tour was directed at magistrates and sentencers, focusing on the impact of short-term sentences and alternatives to custody.
The performances have a unique ability to challenge preconceptions. Ashby quotes the reaction of the governors who had watched There Are Mountains and said after that ‘even though they had worked in the prison service for over 20 years, they learnt things they hadn’t thought about.’
In Northern Ireland, theatre is being used as a method of healing, reconciliation and peace-building by giving a human voice to the Troubles from both sides of the conflict through Theatre of Witness, a form developed by Teya Sepinuck. Since 1986 Sepinuck has been creating performances in her native US with diverse groups such as homeless people, refugees from Vietnam and Cambodia, victims and perpetrators of domestic abuse and prisoners, including ‘lifers’. Four years ago she began a residency at the Derry Playhouse, during which she has produced plays addressing the burden of the conflict’s legacy for those whose lives have, in one way or another, been shaped by it.
Although the Troubles have long been a subject of theatre, the Theatre of Witness plays were set apart by the directness and honesty of its performers, who perform personally rather than mediated through playwrights and fictionalisation. Her process is based on extensive interviews with participants, from which a script is developed. This is designed to mirror their own words, which they then perform on stage as themselves. The goal is not just to tell stories of people that wouldn’t normally be heard, but also ‘to find the medicine in the stories, which for me means, “Where is the point of healing? Where is the point of transformation, the point of redemption?”’ says Sepinuk.
The emphasis on openness, in the context of post-conflict Northern Ireland, was ‘ground-breaking’, according to James Greer, a former combatant who performed in the 2009 production We Carried Your Secrets. The experience, he says, was deeply challenging, confronting his fears to speak of a past that felt ‘taboo’. In the end the performances had a lasting positive impact on him and the other performers: ‘For all of us it lifted a weight off us, lifted the weight of the past off our shoulders.’
Audiences too were deeply affected. ‘It was medicine for the soul for a lot of people,’ says Greer. He recently took part in a delegation for Theatre of Witness to the European parliament, where extracts of the productions were performed to assembled heads of state.
The profound impact is one Sepinuck has seen repeatedly in her experiences of doing Theatre of Witness, and her appraisal of the art form could be applied to many other empowering theatre projects. ‘I think the beauty of theatre is that it’s a group process of bearing witness. It’s almost like a group catharsis and there’s something very powerful about witnessing together,’ she explains. ‘It’s different from opinions, it’s different from discussion, it’s different from political discourse, it’s different from the news, it’s different from facts. Hopefully it’s penetrating at a deeper, more complex nature.’
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