Forum Theatre for the Masses by the Masses

11 Jan

The British Council has been active in introducing Forum Theatre to the people of Sri Lanka for a while now. It’s a fairly recent and innovative form of theatre performance (conceived of and created by Brazilian Theatre Director Augusto Boal), where real and current problems in the society are acted out, leading to a tragic ending. The focus of the forum theatre is to make the spectators (spect-actors according to Boal) come up with solutions or modifications of the behaviour of the personalities involved (within a believable range), to avoid / minimize the trouble they get into.

One of the British Council’s ongoing FT projects is the Shakthi troupe, consisting of rural youths around the country. The British Council holds acting workshops in rural areas and young people interested in doing FT performances to raise awareness of social issues are solicited and encouraged to join the troupe. The troupe consists of Sinhalese, Tamil as well as Muslim actors, from all around the country, who also travel the country acting out their messages and advocating social change.

“This is about helping people with their problems by raising awareness as well as coming up with solutions from within their own peer group,” says Nalinda Premaratne, one of British Council’s FT trainers. “So far, the troupe has carried out FT performances around the country on issues such as domestic violence, alcoholism, child abuse and mistreatment of widows (a very common problem now in the aftermath of the war)!”

The troupe consists of members who are trilingual or bilingual as well as those who are only fluent in their own languages but are putting in the effort to learn the others. They see it as an opportunity instead of as a drawback or difficulty. And the audience? Depending on the area, the performance might be predominantly in Tamil or Sinhala but for their FT performance in Colombo, held at the British Council on Wednesday (January 4) to show a Colombo audience what they are doing, the performance was in equal parts of Sinhala and Tamil. The play had been structured / scripted in such a way that even if the audience understood at least one of these languages, they could figure out what was happening. If one character spoke in Sinhala, the other character responded in Tamil and from these interactions, it was easy to figure out what was happening.

The story is that of Priyah, a teenager interested in studies who has to contend with an alcoholic father and domestic violence at home. In the wish to find some love and stability in her life, she falls prey to an older, upper caste boy in the village who takes advantage of her and eventually rapes her.

Issues of alcoholism, domestic violence, girl child abuse (the father didn’t want her to study), casteism, class snobbery and gender based violence were all raised within the brief skit that the Shakthi troupe portrayed to their Colombo audience.

The play was repeated again for the spect-actors’ input. So many in the audience came up with so many ideas that the play couldn’t be concluded on its second run due to time issues. But within that time, a lot of interesting issues, ideas and solutions were raised.

As the alcoholic father could not conceivably be changed (brilliantly portrayed by 22 year old Lahiru of Polannaruwa), solutions were put forward on how the other three family members, all female should behave; to be stronger, to be united in their interactions with the father, to not give him any money when he demanded it of his wife…

To have more love and unity at home so that Priyah would not be susceptible to semblances of it outside, especially from the wrong quarters.

She also had a friend who knew what the boyfriend was like and had advised Priyah against him. Spect-actors also tried to make this character more forceful and wily, in order to protect her friend.
All in all some amusing and innovative interactions as well as discussions came up during audience interaction time – the measure of a good forum theatre performance.

After the event, which ended in full spate and a little prematurely so far as the audience was concerned, Ceylon Today spoke to some of the troupe members. Premalatha, Surendran and Bernard were from different areas of the North and East but had one thing in common; they were all ex LTTE combatants. Now happily reinstated in mainstream society, they are either self employed or employed in jobs but take off whenever necessary to join Shakthi in taking a message to the masses.

So how receptive are the masses in rural areas to these theatre performances?

“Oh very receptive” says Bernard. “They feel it very intensely because our performances are based on real problems that they are facing. And sometimes they learn for the first time that there is hope in these situations by acting /reacting in a certain way instead of just suffering silently.
“For example in one recent performance, the audience thought it was no use going to the police over a certain situation as they would just demand hefty bribes and then do nothing about it. We showed them that there were ways to work around that too. Places they could go to, authorities they could appeal to, if indeed the police were unhelpful. It was an eye-opener for them.”

Despite his very convincing abusive alcoholic performance on stage, Lahiru Pradeep appeared quite sober and cheerful off stage. He is still in the process of learning Tamil, just as some of the other troupe members are in the process of learning Sinhala. But meanwhile he says he knows enough to understand and manage in audience interactions from Tamil areas.

So what does he think of audience participation in the North and East?

“It is extremely educative and humbling. The people are always so grateful. They become intensely involved during the interaction stage and after the performance, they keep thanking us again and again for raising these issues.”

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