A powerful way to stimulate critical reflection is the forum theatre approach, such as the Theatre of the Oppressed method (subsequently adapted as Forum Theatre, Image Theatre and Invisible Theatre) developed in Brazil in 1971.
In forum theatre, actors perform a short, carefully scripted play illustrating a problem in the community. For example, they present scenes in which a school girl is harassed by a male teacher. After the short play, the actors or a moderator ask the audience to discuss the problem and propose solutions. Audience members are invited to come on stage and re-enact the scene taking the role of the person whose behaviour should change; or they may instruct an actor, to act on their behalf. Different audience members can propose their solutions, which are acted out on scene and then assessed together. As participants identify with the person on stage, they become emotionally immersed in a powerful experiential learning process, which takes place in a safe and emotionally engaging setting. Forum theatre can be highly effective in exposing contradictions and risks associated with “automatic” compliance with social norms (such as the tacit acceptance of domestic violence), and generating motivation for behaviour-change.
Example: The African Resource for Integrated Development (Réseau Africain pour le Dévelopement Integré, or RADI) has used this technique to raise awareness for new legislation on domestic violence (adapted from The New Tactics in Human Rights Project/Center for Victims of Torture, 2004):
Domestic violence, especially of a sexual nature, is a taboo subject in Senegal, and rarely reported to authorities. In a country where many believe that religious law permits some forms of domestic violence, RADI needed to find an effective way to raise awareness regarding newly passed legislation. Because illiteracy is rampant, and because theatre has experienced a remarkable resurgence, RADI chose theatre as the means to enhance its ability to reach its audience, raise awareness on domestic violence issues and make people aware of available resources.
RADI brings in well-known actors who select women from the audience to join them in 10-minute improvised sketches portraying scenes of domestic abuse. The spontaneous actions of the women and the audience members reveal their familiarity with these situations. The sketches are left unresolved in order to allow the paralegals to facilitate discussions on possible remedies and options that can be taken to address the domestic violence situation. The paralegal also makes sure to present the legal resources available and the penal and civil penalties for violence.
RADI draws on two important cultural resources in its tactic. First, theatre is already a widely accepted and well-understood method of teaching in Senegal. Second, the programs are organized around mbottayes, traditional informal gatherings of women that generally guarantee very good attendance at the group discussions. RADI reports that most participants in the theatre and discussion sessions not only learned more about their own rights but also passed this information along to family members and friends.
Many groups have used theatre and performance to promote human rights, but RADI combines law and theatre in a unique way. Part of the reason RADI succeeds in reaching its audience is that it uses the existing social structures of the mbottayes. The theatrical aspect offers further incentive to participate — it’s entertaining — and offers the participants a layer of protection that facilitates conversation without asking them to discuss personal situations.
Read more in the publication: Gaye, O., Using Popular Theatre to Break the Silence Around Violence Against Women, Réseau Africain pour le Dévelopement Integré, 2004 (in English and French).
For more tips, consult the Guide to Interactive Drama for Sexual and Reproductive Health with Young People by the International HIV/AIDS Alliance (2008). The international Theatre of the Oppressed Organization provides links to Forum Theatre practitioners around the world. Many groups provide training for social activists.