In the middle of February, 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.
First, 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.
The 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 that “someone 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.