Theatre for Change: An experiment in Disobedience [Guest post]

Blog friends: at the end of June I spent a week in residence at the Royal Central School of Speech and Drama, University of London, where I am a Senior Visiting Fellow. I had the chance to run two seminars for graduate students and faculty, one of which focused on teaching, activism, and writing about teaching. I invited participants to become guest posters here on the blog, and today I am thrilled to share reflections on her practice by Nicola Abraham, who teaches in the DATE (Drama in Applied Theatre and Education) stream at Central. Enjoy!

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Theatre for Change: An experiment in Disobedience 

By Dr Nicola Abraham

Introduction

For the past two years I have run a unit called “Theatre for Change” on a drama degree programme in London, England. Theatre for Change examines performances and protest approaches that intend(ed) to provoke audiences into making social change, i.e. by advocating for a change in the law, for equal rights, or further protesting for or against a particular political ideal. Theatre for Change also encapsulates drama based workshops that may be conducted several times a week over a longer period of time within a community setting. Often these community settings are formed of hard-to-reach groups within society, for example, refugees, elders, at-risk youth and caregivers. The intention behind working with marginalised groups is to enable the often suppressed voices of that community to be heard publically.

The Theatre for Change unit is based on my practice and research, and it provides an opportunity for me to introduce students to similar work in this area of Applied Theatre. (Applied Theatre is an umbrella term for theatre that takes place with, for, or by communities.) Part of the challenge I set myself for this unit is to ensure that sessions perform the core pedagogical values of Applied Theatre practice. I would describe these values as follows:

  • Valuing equality of voice
  • Ensuring inclusion of diverse voices in discussion
  • Playing with ideas through practice

Context

We are fortunate to have a growing diversity within our cohort of students. This provides a rich set of voices from different socio-economic and political backgrounds, though predominantly students are left-wing liberal in their thinking. Whilst this diversity offers a wonderful opportunity for students to encounter and embrace different ideas, it does create challenges, especially during whole-class discussions.

Students have a tendency to search for consensus as a means of validating their perspective. For example, one of the students in a recent class raised the point that Theatre for Change leads definitively to social change, that once an audience see a provocative performance, they leave the theatre thinking differently to when they arrived. The unit challenges this point, asking the students to think critically about the possible barriers to change transitioning beyond an audience’s experiences of a performance into their attitudes and actions in their daily lives. Instead of engaging in a debate to examine this potential problem, students responded generally, noting their agreement with their peer. This kind of reaction could be read as a supportive approach towards the dominant views held by the cohort.

Part of this tension may be related to attempts to provide the ‘correct’ answer so that the discussion might move on, which students seemed to think involved a change of topics as opposed to the exploration of more challenging facets within the idea already on the table. For instance, when discussing the ethics of using Forum Theatre to find ways of tackling domestic violence, I raised a question about the ethics of using this approach to tackle such a complex topic. (Forum Theatre, an interactive, problem-solving method derived from Augusto Boal’s Theatre of the Oppressed, seeks solutions to problems depicted on stage from amongst audience members, who actively intervene in the action.) But as soon as I mentioned ‘ethics’, students gave responses mirroring the language I had used to form the question I initially posed to them, rather than taking up the baton of debate the question sought to pose. Here are a sample of replies:

‘I think that, ethically, Forum Theatre shouldn’t explore domestic violence’.

‘For me, it’s really unsafe and unethical to suggest Forum Theatre can work for women in violent relationships’.

One student, however, gave an example of a piece of Forum Theatre she had read about which challenged domestic violence. In this instance, a women in the audience had implemented a solution on stage to change the power dynamic in her relationship with her abusive husband, but had ended up in hospital as a result. Following this incident, her husband was arrested. The student argued this was a successful outcome, representing one possible way out of a violent relationship. A majority of the class disagreed with this suggestion, but the student who had suggested the idea stood her ground. The moment produced an interesting dilemma for the group to consider.

Learning Styles

I should mention that most of my students on “Theatre for Change” are kinaesthetic learners who find understanding new theoretical ideas, through didactic lecturing, challenging. They tend to thrive when they can draw from their own experiences to pin down a new concept. However, this can lead to further tensions, which arise when students appear to give more weight to shared experiences that build consensus, rather than exceptional experiences that break the ‘rules’ of their consensus-seeking approach to discussion. Honouring diverse views is a priority for my classroom, and working through tensions to seek a place of dissensus is important. It is not only necessary for the group to learn the skills to engage in a complex debate, but also to learn a core facilitation skill to help them navigate similar situations in community settings later on.

I would like to share with you an approach I used to enable the group to unpack a complex set of ideas and approach dissensus. I provided them with a ‘shared’ experience of an experiment looking at the concept of disobedience as a tool for civil activism. This formed part of a session entitled ‘Neoliberalism, Austerity and Art for Disobedience’. Before we began the experiment, students had offered their understandings of the potential of Theatre for Change, noting that they generally felt that incremental changes lead to fundamental social change. This session was designed to provide a ‘felt’ response to the barriers that hegemony places in front of a radical practice aiming for fundamental change.

It was also a trick…

disobedience files 2

The Experiment: How do we play it right?

The session involved working in teams (chosen by students) to play a game. Each team was given a brown envelope containing instructions for their first task, a pen, note paper, and contact phone numbers for the ‘game master’ (me). The groups were given 40 minutes to complete the game and told that they must provide evidence of the completion of each task in any way they wished. There were no other rules apart from one: The aim of the game was to be disobedient, and the best team would win. Time began at 3:30pm.

The tasks for each group were as follows:

  1. Task one: Prank call one of the numbers provided and tell a funny story. More points are awarded for longer phone calls.
  2. Task two: Steal a book from the library.
  3. Task three: Propose something to a member of staff in the café, and ensure your proposal is accepted.
  4. Task four: Fall asleep and get someone to wake you up; you may not speak.

Each task, unbeknownst to the students, had been set up to avoid any negative repercussions. Books had already been signed out of the library – but they hadn’t been deactivated. Prank calls would be made to other members of staff and to my answer phone. The café staff had been briefed to only say “yes” if a student’s proposal was sincere, and students were informed that their final task had to take place within the safety of the university campus.

Most groups eagerly sought to obey the task instructions to the letter, and sent screen shots of their phone call timings via e-mail or photo message. Others found some tasks too challenging and opted out, after apologising.

A Dilemma: I don’t get it? How to do disobedience properly

The timer stopped at 4:10pm. In a classroom full of excitement teams boasted about their ‘challenge’ stories to one another before we began our debate to reflect upon the game. I informed the group that we had a winning team, but that all the scoring was completely random and disconnected to the achievements of the groups. (However, there was still a prize – a very small bag of chocolates.)

A debate ensued about the tasks, with some groups noting that they completed every activity and should thereby be declared winners. I, however, noted that the instructions were to disobey, so by completing all the tasks, had they really won? Another group at the back of the room noted that they had refused to do the activities and had therefore disobeyed. I asked them what they had chosen to do instead, and they said that they were bored and had sat in the classroom waiting for us to return. I asked why they had chosen boredom as an alternative to the game: was this a way of punishing themselves for disobeying? There were plenty of things they could have done instead to reward their choice to ‘disobey’: for example, visited a local ice cream shop, watched a film, or had a nap. This led to much debate, with groups unpacking their experiences; some noted that no matter what they did they couldn’t win because they felt morally obliged not to undertake certain tasks or were embarrassed to try others.

We then talked about the links between their responses in relation to the invisible work of hegemony, noting how easy it is in our culture to feel morally trapped, compelled into particular behaviours and compelled to avoid other, ‘wrong’ ones. Where does this come from? The group that had felt emotionally torn when asked to steal a book talked about why they felt this way, noting that they felt a moral obligation not to disobey their parents (who teach: you shouldn’t steal). The groups also talked about previous experiences of disobeying authority at school, suggesting that if they didn’t do what they were told they might be put in ‘isolation’ (a strategy used by some secondary schools to punish bad behaviour by making a student work alone in a supervised room). The way hegemonic behaviours had been enacted by the group during the game formed a strong shared connection within the class, and students slowly started to make links between their chosen responses to the tasks and the reasons why they had reacted in that way. Despite holding, individually, vastly different moral and political views of the situation, this time the group didn’t seek consensus but made reasoned responses to the game, connecting theories from previous sessions to justify their actions within the game.

disobedience files

To end the session, I picked up a previous thread of debate among us, about student concern with grades as a quantifiable measure of success and how this might contribute to neoliberal thinking by fostering a sense of competition within the education system. The students were adamant that they weren’t concerned with success in this way, so I asked them: ‘If this isn’t important to you, then you won’t mind me not revealing the name of the winning group, will you?’

The room erupted. I asked why they needed to know who had won, when I had already told them the scoring was totally nonsensical and they had just claimed not to be interested in competition or grades. They responded that they ‘Just did!’, that ‘they had earned it’, and that I was being unfair: they had done this exercise well for me and deserved to know. I told the group I would make a compromise:

‘I will give you a choice: if you are okay with not knowing the result, you can leave now. I will give you two minutes to decide; after this point I will announce the winner and give away the prize’.

Only 1 person out of 41 students left the room… more work to be done.

About Nicola Abraham: I am a Lecturer in Applied Theatre Practices at Royal Central School of Speech and Drama, London, England. Over the past 10 years I have worked in a range of community settings within the UK and abroad. As an Applied Theatre Practitioner I have had the privilege of working with many people in society from Camden Carers, Arts for Dementia, KAYAK youth club, an Orphanage in Zmiaca Poland, Pupil Referral Units, Schools, Psychiatric units, Women’s Advocacy Groups, Children’s Charity contexts for vulnerable youth, Crossroads bi-communal project in Cyprus, Drama in Education in Germany (2016), IDEA conference in Austria (2015) on intercultural practice and Hellenic Drama in Education in Greece (2013). I have also undertaken a research project with women’s prison theatre company Clean Break. I am currently conducting research into the potential of theatre to affect change in the lives of vulnerable youth in inner city contexts.

 

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