Forum and Legislative Theatre in practice

threeicons-legislative-theatreIn the middle of November, my colleague Gill posted a blog about Forum Theatre. I’d like to build on that by showing two other uses to which it has been put.

toto-origins-treeFirst, in the 1990s, Augusto Boal, who invented Forum Theatre, linked it with politics in a procedure that he called ‘Legislative Theatre’. After being elected city councillor in Rio de Janeiro, he opted to let citizens make their own laws. He held forum theatre sessions around the city, and invited participants to suggest new laws based on their ‘spect-acting’ experience. Boal then proposed these laws to the city council and got 13 of them passed, resulting in more hospital beds, public day care facilities, and an expanded witness protection programme.

The second example is from the UK, and involves the Health Authority of East Sussex, Brighton and Hove. In 1999 it commissioned an organisation called the Scarman Trust to use Forum Theatre to develop a Health Improvement Plan. The play was about a week in the life of a single mum on a council estate. It begins with her trying to get to her evening class, but things go wrong. Her childcare falls through, the electricity runs out and she hasn’t got any money to charge up her key for the electricity meter. At the end of the play, she’s at the doctor’s with her son who’s got asthma, and she’s got pains in her legs. The doctor is unsympathetic and simply prescribes anti-depressants. The play ends with her taking the anti-depressants and bursting into tears.

tfacThe most successful use of the play was a rehearsal in a pub on a council estate. At the end of the play, the organiser from the Scarman Trust, Naomi Alexander, found four women in the front row in floods of tears. They said, “that’s my life you’ve just shown us”. Then they and others started thinking about things that they could do. Naomi Alexander adds that “there were also some men at the back, propped up against the bar, who came into the social club every night for a pint after work. When we first walked in and started setting up they were going ‘oh god, what’s this, bloody theatre’, but by the end of it, they were going ‘stop, this shouldn’t happen! They should employ a local person to work on the front desk of a doctor’s surgery’.”

The highest policy recommendation was that Community Development should be recognised as the main way to engage with communities. However, the Health Authority didn’t pay much attention.

It announced that its priority for this year was ‘Accident Prevention’. This was not a priority for local people. It was, however, one of the Government’s top priorities. Two vital pieces of information were not made clear at the beginning of the process. First, the government had already given health authorities targets, in this and other areas, without any extra funds. Second, the government had obliged health authorities to involve communities in identifying their own priorities, but without any guarantee that there would be extra resources to address those priorities.

Naomi Alexander concludes by saying thatsomeone said to [her], ‘they’ll just tick the ‘consulted’ box and do what they were going to do anyway’ and in a sense, that’s what happened.” So the lesson is to clarify what’s up for grabs at the start – or get yourself elected.

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4 thoughts on “Forum and Legislative Theatre in practice

  1. And for those of you interested in Boal’s ideas, his book Games for Actors and Non-Actors is a good place to start exploring myriad ways of processing and developing ideas. A contemporary of his, Roberto Friere, also developed SOMA, a physical therapy to build collectives and process the trauma of being an activist under dictatorship.

  2. I have used a Forum Theatre approach only a few times in my career as a co-op trainer, every time a revelation & I would love to do more. The first time was with a group of worker co-ops, we were looking at sexist behaviour and how to challenge it. One female participant described her experience with a male client’s sexist assumptions about her role, then she became the ‘director’ as two other (male) participants acted out her experience. Then we all discussed ways in which she might more effectively challenge such behaviour. The participants loved it and found it illuminating. More recently I used it in a coping with conflict session at a worker co-op event and again seeing the action through the performance of the participants is revelatory, seems to be cathartic for the protagonist to actually direct people acting out her or his experience, and it helps everyone, performers and audience alike to see the experience from different perspectives. That opens peoples’ minds I think to come up with different ways to address conflicts.

    However, a word of caution, this approach needs time, it can’t be rushed, you need time to explain it, time for people to absorb it and to think up conflicts they’d like to address, then time for the acting and plenty of time for discussion and de-brief, so at least a half day or 3 hour session is needed.

    & yes, Games for Actors & Non-Actors is a great read and will help you to understand and appreciate the value of this powerful technique.

    • Many thanks Kate for sharing your powerful experiences of Forum Theatre, and your lessons from using it in practice. Your examples illustrate it’s transformative potential. We’ve also found it very powerful when we’ve taken time to use it as part of longer training sessions, in digging deeper into what’s going on both between people and within one individual.

  3. Thanks for the addition Carl. Friere and his approach form the basis of much Community Development and also Rhizome’s approach to training. A lot of this input is quite subtle, as we blend many approaches and take from different methodologies. One example of where we’ve used SOMA work is the training we delivered as part of Sustaining Resistance, where it proved very powerful.

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