Recently I attended my first forum theatre performance. It was the last in a week-long series of performances of The Great Austerity Debate taking place around the country done by the Menagerie Theatre Company. They’d been commissioned by two geography researchers, Prof. Susan Smith and Dr Mia Gray, from Cambridge University. Performances have been filmed, so no doubt a version of it will be available in due course.
Forum Theatre is both political and participative. The format for this one was:
- An introduction that explained the format of the evening (and gave the audience the option of leaving if they wanted);
- 50 minutes of 3 actors portraying half a dozen characters, focusing on a single parent’s experience of low paid, privately run care work and claiming Universal Credit;
- A brief discussion in small groups of the audience of around 100 people;
- A debrief of the audience by the director about key things they had seen in the play;
- The opportunity for the audience to ask questions to the 3 main characters (with the actors staying in character) on anything they were curious about;
- The opportunity for members of the audience to make different plot, dialogue, acting or character suggestions in a couple of scenes and see the actors portray how that might have played out, and then discuss what the changes might mean. A couple of members of the audience were invited to take part.
I found myself today comparing it to training using role-plays. As a facilitator and trainer of activists and organisers I sometimes use a role-play so people can imagine and practice their responses to different scenarios. But role-plays can feel contrived or risky for participants, more so if they are done as fishbowls with some participants watching others, so these are often not done in large groups. Despite theatre being predominantly something to be watched, and maybe only talked about after over a drink with your mates, with this format most members of the audience were very engaged in the performance. This ranged from everyone taking part in both small and full group discussions through to a couple of people being invited on stage – in this performance one was one of the characters and another was an advisor to one of the characters. It’s likely that the people who joined in on stage had a level of confidence that saw them through without taking too much risk, and it was done with plenty of humour, but everyone seemed energised by the experience. Animated conversations carried on with the cast and director and between complete strangers at the end.
My experience yesterday was that, as this started with a substantial and compelling dramatisation, it created an emotional reaction that provoked the engagement of audience members in ways that they felt very comfortable with. It’s likely that this audience (in the Unite trade union office in London) was sympathetic and ready to find the scenario and plot realistic, even if it wasn’t for the timing of it coinciding with the national release of I, Daniel Blake and all the clarity that that film has brought to people’s understanding of the nature and effects of austerity. I imagine in other settings or at a different time, this particular dramatisation might have gained very different reactions.
It’s clear that there is significant potential for this format, and that working with a professional theatre group can produce it to a very high standard. In terms of practicalities, though, it is no doubt both time consuming and would take some time and funding to execute well. It feels like a real privilege to have been involved in such a well directed piece of political theatre with well managed participative audience discussion and engagement on something I feel strongly about. Is anyone up for doing something similar about climate change?