Theatre as a path to social learning

By Felix Donkor and Noel Oettlé

In her opening keynote address at the recent Adaptation Colloquium, Heila Lotz-Sisitka argued that: “the nature of the sustainability challenges in times of climate change is such that dominant pedagogies and forms of learning need to be troubled / expanded / transformed to enable us to deal with accelerating change, increasing complexity, contested knowledge claims and inevitable uncertainty.”  She made a strong case for expansive social learning in effective adaptation to climate change, and reflected on the calls that have been made for deeper insights into learning in times of climate change.  These include the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s emphasis on the need for further research into learning in times of climate change, and the call for new modes of learning in the Foresight report of the United Nations Environment Programme.

Image below: Participants of the Forum Theatre for Adaptation workshop
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Successful adaptation to climate change requires fundamental transformation of individuals and society. Lotz-Sisitka referred to the insight from literature on sustainability transitions that radical niche innovations involve  “fighting, negotiating, searching and learning with others how to bring about transformations”.

In order to drive these transformations, adaptation practitioners need a repertoire of tools and skills that go beyond “business as usual”. In this context the Adaptation Network offered an opportunity in July for adaptation practitioners to acquire and practice a new set of skills under the guidance of international participatory theatre facilitator and development worker Angelo Miramonti. The Forum Theatre for Adaptation training workshop was held at the Theatre Arts Collective in Observatory, Cape Town at the end of July. It introduced participants to the medium of forum theatre, created opportunities for participants to act out and transform situations of oppression, and provided rich insights into how it can be used to facilitate learning and transformation, particularly at community level.

Forum theatre is grounded in the idea that every human being can act, as well as think, with their entire bodies, and uses games, theatrical exercises, and the enactment of unresolved conflicts to explore strategies for conflict transformation. The method is non-judgmental and empowers individuals and communities in the search for their own ways to transform the conflicts they live with, without imposing top-down solutions from the outside.

Central to the forum theatre concept is the understanding that people who suffer because of a particular situation are best placed to change that situation, and also have a great deal of knowledge to share about possible transformation strategies. Adaptation practitioners live and work in communities that have their own protracted individual and communal stories of oppression, struggle and even transformation. Forum theatre is used to engage communities and individuals, especially the most marginalised and voiceless, in the search for responses to oppressive situations.

Forum theatre uses the stage as a safe space where people can put into practice their ideas of change, observe them from the outside, and brainstorm the intended and unintended consequences of each course of action. This process provides participants with knowledge to change, build links of solidarity, and engage in collective action with other members of their communities or groups.

Image below: Theatre provides a safe space for participants to practice and observe ideas of change
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The Forum Theatre for Adaptation workshop started with stimulating ice breakers and warm up exercises. Participants were not required to have previous theatre experience, but were asked to share their motivations for attending.  These included:

  • Helping people from oppressed communities to work in harmony
  • Skills for engaging people to speak out especially youth and children
  • More creative ways of expressing myself
  • Skills to transform myself before using to share with others.
  • Learning new techniques for working with diverse groups especially in South Africa
  • Developing novel ways of creating awareness in rural areas with media that they can easily relate with.

Miramonti explained that theatre is universal, as it exists in all cultures. Play is common in all cultures, but as people progress from childhood to adulthood, they play less and less. Theatre provides a safe space for people to create alternatives to intolerable or unacceptable situations they feel unable to escape, and helps build empathy to our own challenges. Forum theatre is used worldwide to foster dialogue on many social issues, such as domestic violence, reproductive health, and climate change adaptation. Such theatre-in-education approaches are increasing in popularity across the globe for exploring and dramatising social challenges.

“Forum theatre uniquely breaks the invisible barrier between the audience and the actors”, explains Miramonti: “Here the audience are not spectators but spec-actors”. The main pedagogy in forum theatre is to experience, process, and then share with others. After participants have successfully gone through their own theatre process, they are better empowered to design an agenda for addressing issues of concern.  Any work using forum theatre must be sensitive to local socio-cultural norms.

Public education is a vital aspect of the global response to climate change. It helps communities appreciate and deal with the impacts, inspires changes in their attitudes and behaviour, and helps them adapt. The workshop was in line with the Adaptation Network’s goal of raising awareness about climate change using novel approaches to climate literacy by providing quality climate change education, coupled with enhancing non-formal education programmes through media, networking and partnerships.