The role of theater in promoting social change
We live in a digitalized world with massive ideas and values emanating from and affecting our human lives. In every part of the world, people in power are mapping our lives, at the political, economic, social and ecological levels.
Practices of all forms of dictatorships, corruption and injustice are all common human-made acts that are in turn tackled by people across history and space through wars, revolutions, obedience or otherwise arts and performances.
While we, the “ordinary people” may not have enough political, economic or even legislative power to implement changes in our social lives, we have at least the ability to impact feelings and ideas through arts and performances that are proving to be more capable of influencing people’s attitudes and mentalities, and thus effectively and pacifically addressing their needs and challenges.
Theater is one such platform whereby actors and audience can be “indirect activists,” addressing their own individual and social issues, resolving them and thus contributing to the achievement of a better world. It can thus go beyond mere entertainment and social gatherings to communicate educational, social, political or religious messages as well.
The “Theater of the Oppressed,” initially developed by the Brazilian theater practitioner Augusto Boal is a form of popular theater that spread first in Brazil then Europe in the 1970s as a tool to help people learn how to resist oppression in their daily lives and promote social and political change. The audience in such a platform becomes “spect-actors” as they discover, express, analyze and change the reality they are living in.
Gradually the concept of using theater to explore pertinent issues and create social impact evolved to include three types of popular theater (“Theater for Social Change and Development,” by Pearly Wong). The first type is one that is produced by a professional group of performers (actors and directors) but targeting the people to stimulate social transformation by transmitting messages and encouraging them to challenge problems tackling the community. The second is the one that is organized by and for the people/audience without professional expertise to showcase their stories. The third type of theater, called forum or “Playback Theater” is an improvising form whereby audience members relate stories or problems in their lives and see these performed on the spot and thus try to resolve the issue and come up with their own solutions to their own problems.
Lately, the use of playback or forum theaters within social movements has increased to address issues including poverty, racial discrimination, gender-based violence, militarism and environmental degradation. In this regard, The Arab School of Playback Theatre, founded in 2012, represents one active regional organization that provides training programs for educators, cultural activists, theater practitioners, community workers and others to apply playback theater within various situations, in Lebanon, Palestine, Jordan, Egypt and India.
By giving a voice to silenced voices and countertestimonies, it helps to raise awareness about the realities of injustice and oppression. It enables oppressed people to express their own sense of self while building up and rebuilding solidarity and common struggles.
Overall, when real-life experiences are “captured” in a play, people can easily relate, displaying their strong emotions and resonance leading to stronger outcomes such as changes in behaviors, attitudes and even solutions to certain personal and social problems. It can also be used for conflict resolution between different community members, channeling the process of understanding and reconciliation by showing the others’ points of view.
In this regard, we have to salute the initiative of Zeina Daccache, the “pioneer of drama therapy” throughout the Arab world, who uses theater as a tool to induce social change. Founder of Catharsis, an organization that provides drama therapy programs on different levels, Daccache works to “do theater for a cause” as she once said in an interview with Al-Jazeera. “I was tired of doing art for the sake of it. I wanted to give voice to those who had something to say.” Indeed, she was able to successfully produce effective plays of which the “12 Angry Lebanese” (2009), “Scheherazade in Baabda” (2012) and recently “Johar … Up in the Air,” which was acted in Roumieh Prison, connecting the audience with the prisoners. She has indeed proved that therapy through theater is an effective and powerful means of problem-solving, promoting well-being, understanding and reconciliation within individuals. By giving special populations a tool for self-advocacy, and thus communicating their messages to the society and decision-makers, it can heal different personal and societal problems that other means proved unable to sustainably solve.
Another initiative worth acknowledging is that of MARCH, a civil movement established in 2011 that focuses on peace-building by opening honest dialogue “to recognize and admit past deeds, and instill a working framework of mutual respect.” In late 2014, after violent clashes between Tripoli’s Jabal Mohsen and Bab al-Tabbaneh neighborhoods, MARCH organized a theatrical play performed by young actors, most of whom were former fighters. “In Love and War on the Rooftop – a Tripolitan Tale” is a real-life comedy play that talks about the daily lives of the actors aged 16 to 29 years old, from the two rival neighborhoods. At first, the performers were armed while rehearsing, but when their experiences were given a voice, they realized they had a lot in common beyond their disputes, especially social issues like unemployment. Later on, a cafe was developed on Syria Street, the former front line of fighting between residents of Jabal Mohsen and Bab al-Tabbaneh. It is being gradually managed by them, giving them job opportunities, which further proves the success of that initiative.
Theater is one of the best means of creating social transformation, compelling us, as academicians, researchers, policymakers, governments, donors and civil society activists, to give it adequate attention, awareness, recognition, support, research, funds and advocacy so that we are able to face our mounting challenges.
Dima El Hassan is director of programs at the Hariri Foundation for Sustainable Human Development.