African Theatre for Development acts as a forum for investigating how African Theatre works and what its place is in this postmodern society. It provides the subject with a degree of detail unmatched in previous books, reflecting a new approach to the study of the performing arts in this region. The collection:
• reveals the dynamic position of the arts and culture in post-independent countries as well as changes in influences and audiences,
• shows African theatre to be about aesthetics and rituals, the sociological and the political, the anthropological and the historical,
• examines theatre's role as a performing art throughout the continent, representing ethnic identities and defining intercultural relationships,
• investigates African theatre's capacity to combine contemporary cultural issues into the whole artistic fabric of performing arts, and
• considers the variety of voices, forms and practices through which contemporary African intellectual circles are negotiating the forces of tradition and modernity.
The book provides an opportunity to discover contemporary material from experts, critics and artists from across the world. The contributions are in a language and style that allow them to be read either as aids to formal study or as elements of discussion to interest the general reader.
Read an Excerpt
African Theatre For Development
Art for Self-Determination
By Kamal Salhi
Intellect LtdCopyright © 1998 Intellect Ltd.
All rights reserved.
Neither 'Fixed Masterpiece' nor 'Popular Distraction': voice, transformation and encounter in Theatre for Development
I. Harnessing 'deeply combative inventions'
The content and personnel of Theatre for Development derive from 'on-the-ground' situations and embrace the logic of a Freireian-Boalian paradigm of direct fictionalising and dramatising which lead ideally to action in real life. In practice, Theatre for Development has found itself frequently and perhaps increasingly blocked by this direct cause-analysis-action paradigm into a role as a theatre of social information and social education. However, as well as recognising in itself these processes of communication, Theatre for Development may need to exploit more fully its identity as 'theatre' since much of its strength and attractiveness is the very fact that it is creative, 'theatrical', 'dramatic' and 'spectacular'.
Among these unique and exhilarating qualities is the discovery of the right to speak, the ability to articulate a point of view and through performing, the freedom to reveal another 'self. By selecting events and characters from real life, a fictional narrative is constructed, giving form to imagination. Out of this - voice, action, imagination - a performance is created which in turn creates a performer-audience encounter that is simultaneously 'real and not-real'. In performance, the performers within the drama encounter others outside of it, who, through engaging directly in the drama either by words or by action can, at any point, become performers. It is this encounter facilitated through fiction which enables the 'real' encounter to take place, either simultaneously (within the fiction) or subsequent to it. The exhilaration inherent in each of these discoveries and experiences distinguishes Theatre for Development from other processes of analysis and representation.
'Development' refers as much to 'consciousness-raising' as to material development and essentially encompasses the kinds of inner experiences or realisations that I have been referring to and which I call 'transformations'. At a later stage it is this experience of transformation, not necessarily a resolution to clear a well or establish a fund to build a clinic, which can make a significant difference in the life of the individual or group from the 'host' community. It is such a transformation in one's own self-perception that may eventually lead to development of a material sort. The practical benefits that can be achieved by a community arise out of the confidence and understanding inherent in the transformation.
Abah describes such a transformation within a drama about 'two political aspirants ... canvassing for votes' which took place through the intervention of Etta, a woman farmer and well-known singer in Onyuwei village, Nigeria, in 1989:
She ... opens the firing shot in song. She articulates the point of view of the community ... She sums up the community's resignation. She nips in and out of character, one time she is a pregnant woman who cannot have medical attention because of the remoteness of her village from the nearest medical centre, another moment she is something else. She illustrates one issue dramatically, the other she enhances with her songs ... Another lady takes a ... stick to indicate that she is playing the role of an elderly lady. The audience has taken over the process and the facilitators can only look on. The magic of the theatre is beginning.
On a much later visit, Abah saw a village meeting at which there was a heated discussion about which crop to plant. The men stated that they were planting one thing and the women said no they should plant a different one. The men refused, so the women said that if the men went ahead and planted that crop, they would not weed it for the men. The women's choice of crop was planted! Abah is certain that such confidence shown by the women would not have been possible prior to the Workshop.
Artaud and Theatre for Development
Artaud disdained the 'fixed masterpiece' unresponsive to contemporary needs, but at the same time, he was not a populist and abhorred what he saw as the theatre's debasement into 'a means of popular distraction'. He rejected the idea that whatever theatre was produced by the populace, was edifying. These two phrases suggest two poles on a continuum rather than two opposing possibilities and offer a useful framework for placing Theatre for Development into a spectrum of engaged drama.
Artaud passionately believed that theatre was about much more than taking people's minds off the struggles of life and ascribes to Shakespeare responsibility for the: 'aberration and decline, this disinterested idea of theatre which wishes a theatrical performance to leave the public intact, without setting off one image that will shake the organism to its foundations and leave an ineffable scar.'
Theatre for Development in providing a fictional framework within which people explore their own real lives is designed to leave an 'ineffable scar'. Artaud wanted theatre to be a deeply affecting encounter between its participant-audience and its participant-performers, so that each individual should take with them a changed perception of reality and a changed mode of interacting with reality. He deplored a theatre detached from realities and proposed a 'theatre of cruelty' wherein the spectator is compelled to understand that, 'we are not free. And the sky can still fall on our heads. And the theatre has been created to teach us that first of all.'
This 'cruelty' was to be achieved not by directly confronting situations of exploitation, injustice and inequality but through exploring the aesthetics, skills and forms of theatre which would so affect the senses of the participant-audience that they would be transformed by the encounter. Exoticising and 'othering', Artaud envisioned a perfect theatre based on performance forms and content distant from his own. Nevertheless, this skewed historicity should not blind us to making use of Artaud's central precept of the transformative power of performance. Artaud was concerned with a professional theatre, not one arising out of the abilities of untrained non-specialists, but it is his perception of the potential power of theatre rather than his social analysis that is of interest here.
Soyinka too described this transformative quality of 'acting', at once elemental and affecting: 'Acting is therefore a contradiction of the tragic spirit, yet it is also its natural complement. To act, the Promethian instinct of rebellion, channels anguish into a creative purpose which releases man from a totally destructive despair, releasing from within him the most energetic, deeply combative inventions which without usurping the territory of the infernal gulf, bridges it with visionary hopes.'
David Kerr quotes Derrida's vision of performance where 'the spectator presenting himself as spectator will ... efface within himself the difference between the actor and the spectator, the represented and representor ...' and goes on to say: 'I believe that Utopian vision has in no way been achieved in the theatre experiments of Artaud, Brook or Grotowski, but that something approaching it was inherent in some African indigenous performing arts.'
Within all theatre, the particular relationship between spectator and actor is a variable one, so that sometimes the spectator is a participant-spectator and sometimes an audience-spectator. The former connotes a more interactive, contributive role than that of the latter which suggests an observer role, attending a performance in order to be entertained and acted upon, wooed. Boal has made the experiential transfer between a spectator role and actor role a central pivot of his later writings devising the word 'spectactor' to encompass his ideal. Theatre for Development relies at every stage of the process on the contribution of participant-spectators to create the drama. In other words, their interactions and reactions are not optional extras without which the drama will go ahead anyway, but the sine qua non, the very basis of the drama, without which there will be no drama. In Theatre for Development, everyone who is present at rehearsal or performance is a participant-performer and n participant-spectator. The opportunity to shift more than once between the two positions is the mechanism which gives Theatre for Development its power. As David Kerr suggests, many African performances do require participation and initially it seems that the two positions parallel a passive recipient role and an active executive one. However, I will suggest that within local performances, the 'fixed masterpiece' is still firmly in place and that 'popular distraction' thrives. Theatre for Development through transferring responsibility for the creation of a performance to non-specialists and a combination of analysis and performing offers new sets of relationships, as well as new forms and new content. In its shifting, non-literate, analytical approach, Theatre for Development is a committed, open-ended theatre that is neither the 'fixed masterpiece' nor the 'popular distraction' that Antonin Artaud deplored.
Change world-wide in the sixties and onwards
During the liberating period of the sixties and into the seventies, a world-wide resistance to the dominance of text-based, professional theatre grew and this provided creative space for the growth of a wide range of alternative theatres. The 'fixed masterpiece' both as text and as performance reflected an ideology of superiority, so the search for alternatives took place on several fronts, embracing form, aesthetics and political awareness. Some theatre companies and individual actors prioritised the expression of direct political commitment, retaining the written script as an eventual outcome of any project such as in the performances of John Mc Grath and the 7:84 theatre company in Scotland, that of the actor-writer-director Robert Serumaga in Uganda and of Dario Fo in Italy. These professionally initiated dramas which were researched and scripted by the writer-director, were performed in pubs and clubs and village halls as well as in small local theatres. They largely retained the basic audience-performer relationship, albeit with opportunities for varying degrees of audience response throughout the performance.
For other companies such as Bread and Puppet Theatre Company in the United States and Welfare State Company in England, the Travelling Theatres of Makerere, Zambia and Malawi and the Guerilla Theatre of western Nigeria, the primary ways in which they challenged existing forms was through devising an alternative to the three-act play and then performing it in locations other than that of formal theatre. Involvement with the local community at the preparatory stage was not a priority. Some of these companies devised spectacles - often using local legend and myth as well as contemporary local issues - and placed great emphasis on immediate audience participation during the performance, initiating comic chases and encouraging dialogue interactions.
Alongside these two broad categories, both of whom retained the professional performer-actor as central to their performances, was the growth of a myriad of street theatre and community theatre approaches which were distinguished by a concern to engage a specific community in a particular work, and in which the professional performer played a lesser role. Whilst the work of Augusto Boal in Latin America, Sistren Theatre Company in Jamaica and Ngugi wa Thiongo and Ngugi wa Mirii in Kenya are amongst the best known examples of this approach, everywhere there were hundreds of locally initiated performances in which people drew for the content of their performance on local legend, knowledge or issues and for their personnel on local people and then played to audiences drawn from the local community. In this loosely defined third category, there was usually a mix of professionals and local people organising the event, as at Kamariithu, but responsibility for the construction and production of the play was deliberately shared with a specific, geographically defined community. This emphasised the participatory aspect at all stages of the preparation and is distinct from what David Kerr has called the 'heroic auteur approach which offered a ready-made, albeit relevant, performance by professionals for the entertainment and response of the community. It is the participatory style of community theatre that is most closely linked in its practice and ideology to Theatre for Development.
It is almost impossible to overstate the impact of these world-wide moves, at once diverse and concerted, away from the earlier reverence for the published playtext and the proscenium arch. This really was the overthrow of the dominance of the 'fixed masterpiece', though not happily of all fixed masterpieces. With this overthrow, perhaps more slowly, came the questioning of established forms of actor-training and acting styles. Stanislavski's 'naturalism', was no longer seen as the harbinger of truth onstage, and in many instances within Africa was being replaced by greater attention to indigenous forms of representation. Simultaneously, from Europe, an alternative professional influence on acting styles - Grotowski's 'poor' theatre began to be evidenced in the urban theatre of South Africa and in Robert Serumaga's work in Kampala, Uganda. 'Improvisation', previously mainly known as a means of covering up errors and fluffed lines on stage, became the buzzword for creative performing. The difference between its old and new meaning lay in the fact that it did not imply 'unrehearsed' but rather a technique of building up a performance in an interactive mode of sharing moves, lines, dance, words, stillness, touch, narrative and dialogue. Whole performances were advertised as 'improvised', not 'scripted'; 'devised', not 'directed'. It was this shift away from the glorifying of the scripted word that freed up the latent creativity in many people, enabling them to move directly from imagination to movement and to take charge of their own performances.
One other crucial factor in the rise of the new performances, was the disappearance of the cluttered, 'realist' stage. Pavements, village squares, market places were the new sets for the new theatre, for 'hereand-now theatricality' or 'rough theatre'. Everywhere people were reinstating performance into their lives and extending old forms to incorporate new approaches. Most importantly of all, however, was the fact that performance had moved away from being the prerogative of a few highly trained specialists towards once again being the right of everyone to make and to do. Local performance was re-jigged, reformed and displayed in new and barely recognisable settings and forms.
In Nigeria, one of the most outstanding examples was the form of performance by the Tiv people called kwagh-hir, meaning 'a wonderful or marvellous thing', in which puppet-sized figures performed on mobile wooden stages about the size of a table. Hidden from view by the decorated sides of these stages, young men manipulated the figures from underneath to articulate in imagery, sound and narrative, their social and political resistance to the threats of a neighbouring political giant. From its inception, aesthetics were always as important as content and context in the new kwaghhir. This vibrant form of performance derived its content from storytelling traditions and from the world of humans and a world of non-human beings, the adzov. The new form of theatre was so effective that within Tiv society, power moved temporarily from those elders aligning with the external political force to those identified with the opposition.
A directly politicised form of performance, kwagh-hir was also used in commenting on or directly supporting development, where this served an internal political purpose. In one well-known piece, for example, which was popular during the seventies and eighties, a puppet doctor operates on a woman who is about to have Caesarian operation. Carefully the puppet doctor lifts the puppet baby from the puppet woman's stomach. The baby is 'alive and well'. The message here is that miscarriages are not inevitable. Women - and their husbands - can take control of a difficult birth and get to hospital where she can be safely delivered of her baby. Thus the supernatural forces manipulated destructively by those men with access to supernatural power and believed to be harming the baby, can, through personal action, be resisted. This kind of theatre seems to simply be promoting a health message, yet at another, deeper level, it is challenging established forms of authority, where they are perceived as negative or even destructive.
Such a multi-layered message can only be conveyed to a local audience, because of their sophisticated knowledge about local relationships of power and how these are articulated in the society through something as seemingly unrelated as a difficult birth. To the outsider, in its content, this is overtly about a matter concerning women's health, yet to the insider, it is also, and perhaps primarily, an in-group challenge to the relationships of power among men.
Excerpted from African Theatre For Development by Kamal Salhi. Copyright © 1998 Intellect Ltd.. Excerpted by permission of Intellect Ltd.
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Table of Contents
1. Neither ‘Fixed Masterpiece’ nor ‘Popular Distraction’: voice, transformation and encounter in Theatre for Development
2. Product or Process: Theatre for Development in Africa
3. Didactic Showmen: Theatre for Development in Contemporary South Africa
4. Post-Colonial Theatre for Development in Algeria: Kateb Yacine’s early experience
5. Uses and Abuses of Theatre for Development: political struggle and development theatre in the Ethiopia – Eritrea war
6. Satires in Theatre for Development Practice in Tanzania
Juma Adamu Bakari
7. Popular Theatre and Development Communication in West Africa: paradigms, processes and prospects
Bala A. Musa
8. Werewere Liking and the Development of Ritual Theatre in Cameroon: towards a new feminine theatre for Africa
9. Women Playwrights and Performers respond to the project of development