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Nothing about us without us - Creating inclusive discussion through Forum Theatre

Ivan, a youth educator from St. Petersburg is one of the participants who joined the training course Civil Stage in October 2019 in Tbilisi, Georgia. The aim of the training course was to give participants the skills and competences to use performative arts in youth work based on the pedagogic principles of human rights education.

Ivan got in touch with forum theatre for the first time a couple of years ago in a play which tackled the problems of the Russian educational system. He was impressed by the possibilities improvisation enabled. “In Russian culture, there are problems with verbalizing dissatisfaction and anger - we tend to keep these emotions inside. Improvisation allows us to express some of this accumulated emotion and discuss how we generally express anger in normal life.” This experience lit up the spark for the young educator to get to know more about forum theatre as a method to tackle social issues, and eventually, to participate in the Civil Stage training course.

During the training course, participants were given the competences (skills, knowledge and attitude) to run their own improv and forum theatre activities. After returning to Russia from Georgia, Ivan conducted three different forum theatre events in cooperation with a group of local activists. Together with his group, they focused on the topics that were relevant to the communities that were involved. In St. Petersburg the plays tackled the theme of migration, in Sortavala they performed a play to discuss the problems in the local school and in Volkhov they wanted to address the topic of young people leaving the town. The activities were a success and the group manage to spark discussion about difficult but relevant issues of the local reality. “At the shows, the audience got actively involved. They tried to find solutions and make a difference. I was very pleased with the discussions after the shows.

We asked Ivan to share his learning outcomes and advices on planning a forum theatre activity. These are his top three things to keep in mind in order to create a successful forum theatre event:

1. Know your audience

Take time to do some basic research and gather information on the audience you are performing to. Who are they? What are the relevant issues and problems in the local community? “Work with the local community to get into the root of the issues and to choose topics that are relevant to your audience.”

2. Nothing about us without us

When you are creating a play about a situation you haven’t experienced or about an oppressed group you don’t belong to, the result can come out as shallow or stereotypical. Ivan advises to always include the real voice and experience of the people that the play concerns. “Nothing about us without us. This basically means that it’s extremely important to include representatives of a vulnerable group in the development of the play, this would help to achieve an outcome that reflects the community’s lived experience and is relatable.”

3. Take into account the psychological effects

In a forum theatre play the main objective is not to entertain the audience but rather to spark discussion on relevant issues concerning the local community. Some of the topics can be sensitive to members of the audience and can even trigger anxiety among other unwanted emotions. Therefore it is important for the organizers to be prepared to handle heated situations. “In a forum theatre experience there is a risk of triggering unwanted psychological effects, it’s the responsibility of the organizers to make all the precautions to ensure that the activity is emotionally and physically safe for the audience and actors.”

However, like with all other things in life, experience makes the master. So do not be afraid to dive into the unknown world of forum theatre. If you are a complete newbie, start by participating as an audience member to a show or get in touch with a local forum theatre collective. In case there are no forum theatre activities in your community, keep your eyes open for upcoming forum theatre related training courses and maybe you could be the one that will introduce your local community to the fascinating world of forum theatre.

Forum Theatre in a nutshell

  • Created by Brazilian theatre director and educator Augusto Boal in 1973

  • The scenes consist of short passages where the character is mistreated or oppressed. Any member of the audience can stop the play and replace an actor in order to present an alternative way to take the role forward.

  • This method seeks to transform viewers into active participants (spect-actors). Viewers have the opportunity to influence the course of the performance and seek solutions.

  • The topics of the plays are usually related to issues that have arisen in the local community.

The article was prepared by Nilza MAFLA

Civil Stage was a long-term training course organized by Youth Association DRONI and SIW with the support of the Erasmus+ programme of the European Union

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