“Well – maybe its time you put them in front of an audience” Sam suggested. This was his solution to my bemoaning my group’s mid-project doldrums – attendance rates were right down, we had generated lots of material but not yet polished it to a performable state, and the idea of ever performing to anyone seemed very remote.
The group are a team of local teachers who (alongside apparently endless extracurricular training to bring up their professional standards) had been giving up their precious evenings to become Mabaruma’s first and only Community Theatre Group. Our remit was public health education, and alongside training them as performers, I was also training them as drama workshop leaders in their own right. At some point in August, this should blossom into spin-off summer schools at Nursery, Primary and Secondary level. On top of that will come my own cherished outreach trips – taking shows to remote Amerindian villages around the region – the first time this has ever been done here.
But half way through the project, this end seemed impossibly out of reach, so I took Sam’s advice and scheduled a preview performance – there’s nothing like the prospect of an imminent audience to energise an acting company and focus everyone’s minds.
Last night was the preview performance of our first (yet to be named) show. We played to an audience of friends and family, plus some local relevant experts – the Regional Health Officer came along to give her input, as did the local director of Red Cross. It was hardly a West End opening – no champagne and nibbles, darling – and until 10 minutes before we started it looked as though we would have to cancel, as the power was down (a transformer in the town generator had burst into flames the night before). But at ten to seven, just as we were deciding whether we had to pull up our stumps or else perform in the dark (far more forgiving) the fluorescent striplight flickered into life.
The performance was rough and ready – some of the material had only been rehearsed once – but the evening was incredibly helpful, both for shaping the health message and getting extra feedback. Here’s a rundown of the content, so you can get a sense of what we are up to. We tried to work with a broad selection of material and forms, local and international, and also aimed at as wide an age range as we could.
‘Little Jonny and Victor Vomit’ – a street theatre piece for children, where Victor the Vomit Bug lurks around Little Jonny as he plays cricket, plays with his dog, visits the latrine, eats his cookies. The kids have to shout out what Jonny is doing wrong as he fails to wash his hands, drinks untreated water etc. Then Victor turns on the audience, looking for children who haven’t washed their hands and scaring them (which they love). Finally, the children are invited on stage to whack Victor to death with enormous bars of soap and bottles of bleach, to much vocal approval from the audience.
‘How to Stay Healthy’ – a glove puppet piece about three kittens – Pinkie, Fluffy and Blackie - who decide to eat mangoes straight from the floor without washing them. The kittens get sick, and learn their lesson – always wash your fruit before you eat it.
‘Family Planning Skit’ – skits are the main form of theatre here. In this one, our two performers Seetama and Anthony, have a ball sending themselves up as a mother and son who are both as confused as each other about safe sex. Anthony is accused of impregnating a girl called Samantha – but its impossible, he claims, as they practiced safe sex. This involved Samantha drinking cold water, jumping up and down and putting her head between her knees after sex. Eventually, a local health practitioner offers some advice – these are family planning myths which won’t protect you from pregnancy or from STI’s like HIV either. The best thing is for Anthony to use latex condoms which he can get from the hospital. At this Seetama joyfully runs off to fetch him some – and returns with an enormous box of condoms which will last him a lifetime and more.
‘Nutrition Playlet’ – this short drama tackled some more emotionally difficult subjects, and raised some laughs where we really weren’t expecting them. We’ll be looking at this and seeing if there’s a way we can adapt to this. The play involves a young mother bringing her very sick baby to hospital – the baby is malnourished and has fallen sick, on top of which the mother has given it local constipating medicine as treatment. The nurse tries to educate her about caring for her baby, but it is too late and the baby dies while they are trying to treat it. Next we see the mother ten years later – again with a young child. She speaks about how she has learned all about how to care for her child through nutrition, and that she never wants what happened to her first child to happen again.
‘Chronic Illness Skit’ – another skit – here, two friends meet on the street, Betty and Sati. Betty has been diagnosed with Hypertension, and is trying to think of ways that she can remember to take her tablet every day, even when she feels OK. This is a big health issue here, where people with chronic illnesses don’t keep taking their medicine once they feel well, and so get into cycles of illness. Together they go through some options – what about with my alarm clock? Says Betty – but you switch it off and go back to sleep, says Sati. OK – what about with the chicken feed? Says Betty – but what if you feed the tablets to the chickens, says Sati. Eventually, they find the solution – in Betty’s pants drawer (or panty bag as its called here…) – she never leaves home without her knickers on….
‘Tiffany’s Story’ – Forum theatre piece. This was the biggest experiment of the night – staging our first forum theatre piece – in which the audience are actively encouraged to get up on stage and change the course of events. We had no real idea how the Guyanese audience would respond to this. Tiffany’s story also has challenging content. When selecting our theme, I asked the teachers to identify a group they believed was oppressed locally. This might seem like a strange request, but the central idea of Forum theatre is to identify with social groups who are in oppressed situations socially, to put them on stage, to try to activate positive change for those groups and to raise awareness of their plight – most importantly through awakening their own sense of empowerment and dissent.
Somewhat to my surprise (perhaps I had over-romanticised the appearance of happy families here in Mabaruma), almost all of the teachers wanted to treat the subject of child sexual abuse. They told me that it is very common in this community – one welfare survey came up with a truly staggering 79% of children suffering some form of sexual abuse in the home. Depressingly, the official response to this statistic was a bit of a shrug – well what can be done if its so prevalent? In a way they have a point – resources here are extremely scarce – there is not a single social worker in the region, let alone women and children’s refuges or counselling. Perhaps most depressing of all, most teachers knew of at least one case where a family had tried to act and a father or a step father had been reported to the police, only to have the police bought off and the charges dropped. For teachers who had acted on a child’s behalf, this also raises frightening prospects of reprisals. Their view though, was that the vast majority of cases go completely unchallenged, with poverty playing a major role. For too many of the women here, the economic consequences of challenging a partner’s abuses - possible abandonment and destitution - are just too harsh, and so they too end up complicit in their children’s situation.
So – into this quite complicated picture we have waded, with Forum theatre as our tool. In Forum theatre, you develop a scripted core, in which a central protagonist is depicted in the situations which oppress them. The emphasis is very much on the oppression side of things, with the aim being to provoke the audience into challenging the protagonist’s passivity and offering alternative strategies. And then acting them out themselves.
Our scripted core was in the end a bit long (this is previews remember, so we’ll be cutting). We had a scene over breakfast (Breakfast at Tiffanys, get it?) where Tiffany’s father bullies the mother into leaving for market, before abusing Tiffany. Next we see Tiffany at school, rejecting her friends’ attempts to talk to her. Then we see her in class – a teacher has noticed her strange behaviour and wants to know what’s wrong. The piece continues with a scene with her headmistress and eventually with a highly apathetic Welfare Officer.
When we replayed each scene, we encouraged the audience to stop the action when they wanted Tiffany to behave in a different way. They would then explain what they wanted, and then come on stage and enact it. The actors on stage would stay in their characters and improvise to try to keep the action going the way their character wanted it to. We had some excellent interventions – with various Tiffanies managing to stand up to the Father, call for help from neighbours, talk to their friends or their teachers about what is happening. And eventually, in a brilliant adaptation of the form, we had audience members replacing other characters. The Red Cross director was so disgusted at the apathetic welfare officer, she got up and replaced her, making her a sympathetic and caring figure.
It was quite a hit as a piece, with most people very engaged, and a few people coming up time and again with different possible strategies. Happily there was a lot of fun and laughter, despite the tough subject matter. In the improvisations, the performers really shone, as they hung on to their characters, or adapted them at instructions from the audience, with great sponteneity and playfulness. In terms of hosting the piece, the role of the Joker (who kind of conducts the audience, mediating their desires) was a real learning curve for myself and Candaisy, who were both chipping in. In particular, we should have enlivened the younger audience members early on (it tended to be confident older women who intervened), and also to try to find ways to get male members of the audience feeling able to identify with and play Tiffany. I’m not sure if this will be possible – gender roles are very defined here – but I will try. I still can’t help feeling it was a real success though, with a sense of thrill as each new intervention began, and with the older women getting to model positive behaviour for the younger ones, also putting over the message that there are people in the community who will listen and help you if you need them.
Its going to be interesting putting this piece in front of a more mixed audience. I hope and pray it will have a positive reception, and if it raises a hornets nest (its pretty critical of the current welfare system in place) I hope it will be with a positive outcome. I suspect I can’t really mediate for that, but in the immediate term, I think the piece should at least raise awareness and model more assertive behaviour for young people. And it’s a joy to be making theatre which the audience can change, adapt and get real pleasure out of moulding.
The Grand Finale!
Anyone who knows me will recognize the irony of this one. I was really keen to use song in the show. One of the exercises we did was to take popular songs which everyone knows, and to subvert the lyrics to deliver a health message. The most successful of these was based on “Rum Until I Die” a massive Soca hit around the Caribbean in the past couple of years. My group adapted the lyrics into “Rum will make you die, Rum will make you die, so you’d better stop now, and live a better life!” Going on to describe in 4 verses the tragic consequences of alcoholism and the positive outcome of choosing to abstain. “Pass out this message to all your buddies – give up the rum and save your monies”. Oh yeah. Just now.