Theatre in India has always had a socio-political agenda. However, I had very limited knowledge of its vast history and its role in social change until I started working in the social sector in West Bengal in 2002. We used to design and implement community organising and alternative learning projects to bring about community-led action in rural India.
As I travelled into the interiors of rural West Bengal, I was fascinated by the diversity of indigenous local theatre forms and their power to influence and organise people. For over 10 years, we studied, experimented, learned various ways of using social theatre with specific social agendas of the grassroots. The experiences were extensive across communities and cultures but what was magical was the liberating, confidence-building and inspiring role social theatre played in challenging apathy, raising issues and motivating collective action.
With its long tradition, theatre emerged as an effective instrument of social development overriding the importance of the state during the 1960s and 1970s. In changing times, it has been used to mobilise social change through community education, raising consciousness, voicing concerns, initiating community dialogue, and bringing about collective activism by community itself. Various international pioneers continued to have an influence on the rich Indian theatre practices, leading to exchange, experimentation, research and diverse applications of social theatre.
Broadly, social theatre can take place anywhere, and mostly occurs in places which are not the usual spaces for theatre. Its performances involve “non-performers” as well. It directly touches people’s emotions through the depiction of real life with which they can identify. It triggers them to think logically, discuss, voice and finally act, reinvigorating the continuous struggle for social development that is both meaningful and necessary for them.
My experience and learning on this subject led me to an opportunity to conduct a social theatre workshop at the International Summer Academy in Drosendorf, a small town in the district of Horn in Lower Austria, about three hours from Vienna, in 2014. Being a non-performer, it was a difficult yet exciting project for me. The participants were not required to be theatre specialists either, but could be anyone who wanted to learn about social theatre. The workshop was organised by Unesco Club Vienna as part of their annual event, where, every year, in partnership with the local government, they invite different specialists from across the world to work with the local community in and around Drosendorf.
The participants in my workshop included a local theatre practitioner, a social worker, a fashion designer, and a real-life Countess who led social development activities in her town. All the participants knew German and very little English. I got support from an ex-UN lady, and the organiser, who was also a pianist and composer for various Vienna orchestras. They were there not only to translate for me, but also to help me with my stay in a German-speaking town for seven days.
The workshop started with classroom sessions on social theatre, its various formats, processes and applications across the world and my specific experience in India with various local practitioners. As the sessions became interactive, discussions were held on possible local issues to be developed into a play. As the objective was to undertake action, forum theatre, a particular technique originally created by Brazilian theatre practitioner Augusto Boal (1931-2009), was the format chosen by the group.
A typical forum theatre format starts by depicting social reality “as it is”. The feature that distinguishes it is that it is stopped in the middle, after the social problems are established by the actors, but before any solutions are presented. Instead, the stage is opened up to the audience, who are encouraged to participate and engage in the ongoing play, attempting to suggest different solutions to the problems addressed in the play, by taking up the role of one of the characters.
Our theatre workshop concluded with a German play, scripted and developed by the participants themselves during the workshop, which addressed their local first-world issues: saving local organic food farmers’ markets (which have been closing down because of big multinational chains coming in), having dedicated cycling tracks in the city to minimise accidents and use of more cars, and racism. The strand on racism was brought into the play by the Countess, who based it on her personal experience of adopting a boy from Africa and raising him, along with five of her own children.
On the last day of the workshop, the play was staged at their community centre. The mayor, the bishop, and many local residents came to see the performance. Taking inspiration from forum theatre, the audience was asked to participate in the play to discuss the issues raised, ask questions and present their own views. When the play ended, the audience, sitting in a half circle did not move and waited to hear more. We explained the format and the purpose, which was appreciated. The mayor saw value in the medium’s use for local social development and the Countess decided to form her own team for local activism.
For me, staying at a castle in a town with just 1,200 residents, and surviving in the deafening silence of the place was quite an experience. I still cherish the hospitality, warmth and friendship. Now, when I look back, it almost feels like an incident from a story book, especially my visit to the castle of the Countess, where I spent an evening with the Count and the Countess. The castle was what I always imagined when reading PG Wodehouse’s description of Blandings, and had a collection of artefacts to rival any museum.