Forum theatre for social change
The arts are probably one of the most effective and dynamic mediums through which to bring about social change – that's a given. And what better artistic nuance to use for this purpose, than the inventive technique of forum theatre?
Making yet another significant contribution to Sri Lankan theatre, Jehan Aloysius' amateur theatre troupe, CentreStage Productions, recently launched their new humanitarian endeavour, the 'StageHands Project.' Being a theatre-based programme, the project uses the performing arts for psychosocial development, trauma therapy, social development and education.
Basically an interactive and workshop-based programme, it targets various participant groups and addresses specific community issues. According to the founder of the StageHands Project, Jehan explains why he took on this initiative. "The Boxing Day Tsunami was a turning point for CentreStage Productions and myself. Since then I've been focusing more on using theatre as a tool for initiating social change that could develop, empower and mobilise communities to grapple with social and personal issues."
This initial StageHands forum theatre workshop was held on November 25 and 26, 2006 at The Kawantissa Vocational Training Centre at Tissamaharama. The training centre is located in the Tissamaharama temple compound in close proximity to the temple itself.
The project is solely funded by the Consortium of Humanitarian Agencies (CHA), being co-ordinated by Jeevan Thiagarajah and Hishanthi Soysa.
CARE Hambantota provided local assistance and organisational support, with the choice of location a result of considering the information and suggestions from regional representatives of CARE Hambantota, headed by Team Leader Sumedha Weerasekara. "Our intention was to introduce students to the Forum Theatre technique as well as to further train and select students who were given previous exposure to the technique last year. The total student participation was 33-35, with some students arriving on the second day only," he said. The age group of the children was predominantly between the ages of 16 and 18 years, but children as young as 10 years participated in the workshop as well.
The StageHands Team for this initial project comprised Jehan Aloysius, Avanti Perera, Arnold Pietersz, Shehan Nelson, Samantha Mendis, Michael Jayawardana and Anura Pushpakumara. They are all bilingual artistes, trained in facilitating Forum Theatre workshops and have conducted theatre workshops as well. Before the programme got underway, several discussions were conducted and dramatic scenarios were devised by the StageHands Forum Team, to equip the trainer/performers with requirements of the forum experience. "From the scenarios devised at the workshops, several possible scenarios based on issues that our target group may face were discussed, performed and analysed. Certain key issues such as domestic violence, child abuse, depression and suicide, were short listed for further development as subjects for model forum theatre performances," he said. With the program beginning with ice breakers, the audience was then introduced to the technique of forum theatre, and experiences were shared, with the first day ending with the enacting of the StageHands Model.
The students devised their group forum theatre piece on the second day, under the supervision of the StageHands team, while the presentation, interaction and evaluation was privately carried out by the StageHands team.
The identification of future group leaders from among the participating students and providing them with the guidance to spread the use of the Forum Theatre technique as a community-strengthening mechanism, could be seen as a tool of empowerment that this two-day workshop achieved.
Having laid such an initial foundation, StageHands sees the potential to build upon this success and proceed to an advanced training workshop, as Stage Two of this project, within the same target group in the near future so that continuity and progress of the project is ensured.
"The StageHands Team wishes to extend our appreciation for the generous financial support of the Consortium of Humanitarian Agencies (CHA), as well as the special interest taken by Mr. Thiagarajah and Ms. Soysa, for making this project possible," said Jehan, adding that the StageHands teams look forward to the continued support of CHA in their future humanitarian endeavours.
Shortly after the Tsunami, Jehan was invited by the British Council to work with John Martin of the Pan-Centre for Intercultural Arts, for training on theatre for development. As a result, he was able to work in tsunami camps in Vakarai, Tissamaharama and Hambantota in partnership with CARE International, using the theatre for trauma therapy and development.
Jehan has also worked with renowned Scottish director Toby Gough on the award-winning productions, Children of the Sea (2005) and Finding Marina (2006), which were performed at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival by children from Mathara, Weligama, Galle and Trincomalee who have been affected by the Tsunami and the ethnic war. Incidentally, it was these productions which brought pop-star Kylie Minogue to Sri Lanka and Edinburgh this year.
As for this initial workshop, Jehan states, "the students are now equipped with a 'bag of tools' in the form of basic knowledge of the Forum Theatre technique, which they could apply to interrogate a variety of social issues."