Forum Theatre as Tool for Civic Engagement

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Author: Samapika Gautam

Theatre has an instrumental value in leading social and political phenomenon through social and behavioral change. Participatory Forum Theatre in Nepal, is a vibrant tool for manifesting the spirit of participatory democracy, as it embodies the principle of citizen participation and empowering people of urban and far-flung areas, where other participation mechanisms are limited. Amateur Street and forum theatre groups at grassroot levels have frequently used this performance method to promote social dialogue, literacy and to build community and perspectives on a vast array of topics; leading to a reinterpretation of issues that were previously unexplored or misunderstood.

This article is an attempt to offer the prospects of forum theatre as an effective communication tool for civic engagement in governance that addresses community issues, encourages citizen participation, builds citizen-state trust, improves service delivery and promotes community-driven solutions. As the need for pro-active civic engagement and peacebuilding is must in the governance process, Forum theatre interventions can be used as an artistic methodology for participatory citizenship in creating a process of collective reflection to produce solutions to community conflicts.

Anatomy of Forum Theatre Interventions

Brazilian theatre practitioner, Augusto Boal,  founded this interactive theatrical form borrowing idea of ‘‘Conscientization’ by Pablo Freire, where the audience is actively engaged in rehearsing their realities of power relations that created a status-quo calamity. Rather than passively observing the oppressions imposed on the stage, Forum Theater breaks down the traditional boundaries between performers and audience by allowing them to intervene with alternative solutions. It fosters dialogic communication and fuels discourse to generate solutions while stimulating communities to become more proactive in pursuit of their own betterment. Boal’ techniques were considered subversive although they democratize the means of theatrical production and succored in transforming realities through dialogue. Following his footsteps, many practitioners and communities have now embraced this method to reach the marginalized communities to address broad range of socio-political issues with special support from community-based organizations, NGOS, INGOs, even the local governments.

One efficient way of devising this dramatic frame is to visit the communities, co-ordinate with local stake-holders and realize community’s pressing issues. Local participants along with professional actors are integrated in the play-building process while theatrical inputs and knowledge are shared for maximizing expressive capacity of non-performers. An open space is chosen for demonstration that attracts heterogeneous audiences with the targeted communities and they are made aware of their imminent role as protagonists by the Joker. Joker is the facilitator who run the course of events and halt the show mid-performance during the culmination of its staged crisis. As spectators are demanded to alter the course of the dramatic action, each proposed solutions are tried out with the actual participation of the audience. One of the key features of forum theatre is rather than presenting a one-size-fits-all solution, their interventions involve interviewing locals to understand their experiences and perspectives, and tailoring the performance to the specific context. By actively co-creating the piece, the audience is able to explore different perspectives, challenge assumptions, and develop new insights. This approach allows for a deeper understanding of the intersecting social realities and by engaging in collective social action, participants are able to address systemic issues and work towards creating more just and equitable structures.

Practices and Outcomes of Forum Theatre Interventions

During the century –old Oligarch, conventional theatre in Nepal was packaged as form of pure entertainment, reserved for elites and within their walls.  Even when the artistic freedom and public participation was curbed by monocratic governance during the Panchayat, theatre was still catalyzed as vehicle for creating socio-political awareness against such austere regimes. One of the earliest instances of Forum Theater in Nepal was the formation of the Sarwanam Theatre Group in 1982, which used forum methods to subtly amplify their dissent on political oppression and prevalent social discriminations. Shilpee Theatre, from 2007, staged street plays addressing the issue of regional conflicts, federalism and constitution while frequently practiced forum theatres to underscore the  issues of local governance like political instability, tedious protocols for citizenship and registration process to name a few. The need for using participatory method to raise civic awareness led to the proliferation of theatre groups who in coalition with community members, local government officials and other stakeholders helped to examine the root causes of various forms of oppression and experiment unexplored alternatives to tackle them.

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The methods of Forum Theatre are inevitably adapted by various practitioners worldwide in diverge philosophies or agendas. To portray the remarkable range of cultural, political and social differences and demands, the forum theatre techniques have been used by workers, teachers, social workers, advocates, psychotherapists, NGOS in digital as well as platforms like streets, churches, temples, and prisons. Jana Sanskriti, a Forum Theatre group active in West Bengal, India, has been using this method to address some of the deeply entrenched social norms, including those related to child marriage, domestic violence, maternal and child health issues to promote collective action for its eradication. A six-year long Brazilian Forum theatre project titled ‘ Staging Human Rights’, reached its targeted audience of prisoners and prison guards through forum theatre to improve the condition of implementing their human rights and citizenship.

Educators and Health service professionals in mental health utilized techniques of forum theatre to acknowledge interventions in Child psychiatry with major aims of assisting children from psychotic and personality disorders in various schools, communities and hospitals. Inviting community members to get involved in stages of engagement from story-building to performance and evaluation has resulted in better understanding of antibiotic resistance risk and its controlled use , according to post-forum theatre focused group discussions from Myanmar. Since 2016, more than 60 women Internally Displaced Person and women from host communities have participated in the Forum Theatre workshops and performances in the eastern, western and central parts of Ukraine. The participants felt forum theatre as a secure and productive setting for discussion, and it had fostered empathy and understanding between the displaced individuals and the host families. Through their performance, participants identify the barriers impeding their social integration and access to opportunities, resources and decision-making in new communities, and even voiced their concerns to be integrated into national strategies for recovery and peace (source: UN Women). Theatre group Ashtar, uses Forum Theatre as democracy-building tool to protest against the vicious circle of violence and political injustice imposed on the Palestinian People. The outcomes of such forum interventions has promoted discussions that center on locating points of agreement and formulating plans to deal with the conflict’s underlying issues.

Such global case studies show that by incorporating forum theatre into their decision-making processes, local government officials can foster greater collaboration and communication with their constituents and work towards more effective and equitable outcomes. Community residents carry a sense of ownership over the decision-making process so Forum theatre interventions can be used to gather public feedback on proposed policies and initiatives. Public officials can help build stronger, more resilient communities by promoting dialogues and collaboration, through Forum and other Street Theatre Interventions.

 Limitations and the Way Ahead

Depending on the community in which it is presented, interactive forum theater may be viewed and understood differently. While some audiences could welcome the chance to engage with and discuss delicate and divisive topics, for other populations, the interactive experience might exacerbate traumas, concerns, and vulnerabilities. The results of the performance are frequently unpredictable because the audience’s contributions shape the narrative in real time, so the actors and facilitators may encounter cases of resistance that limit the program’s effectiveness. For this reason, the party mobilizing forum methods must aim to establish a safe context, carry out community follow-ups, and make people aware of the support systems that are available. Forum theatre productions requires significant resources, including funding, actors, technical support, and accessible venues for public , so Local governments can create partnerships with community organizations and  theatre groups to develop, implement and promote awareness programs that promotes community engagement.

The graphics, views and opinions expressed in the piece above are solely those of the original author(s) and contributor(s). They do not necessarily represent the views of Centre for Social Change.

Samapika Gautam (she/her/hers) is a social theater practitioner and researcher based in Kathmandu, Nepal. She identifies herself as an interdisciplinary artist and educator who seeks artistic inspiration from diverse disciplines. Besides engaging in theaters and performances, she pens research-based blog articles on the topic of youth engagement, media, and children, pop culture and communication.

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