What exactly is forum theatre and how can it help us solve our problems?
TEXT BY JO TAN
Published on 23 June 2015
TEXT BY JO TAN
There has been plenty of hype recently about interactive theatre, where affluent dinner-theatre goers get to speak to characters and even take on a role in the plot. But before interactive theatre became a novel type of amusement, it played an important role in the form of forum theatre.
Brazilian director/activist Augusto Boal created the Theatre of the Oppressed in the late 1970s while the country was under rigid military rule. His aim was to use the stage to help beaten-down masses find a way to deal with their overlords. One method Boal popularised was known as forum theatre. Actors played out a scenario of oppression and members of the audience, who were generally from the lower classes, were invited by a facilitator (the ‘joker’) onstage to step into the shoes of the oppressed.
This is known as an intervention and involves the intervener trying out different methods of dealing with the ‘persecutors’ in that particular scenario. By changing the outcome in a theatrical setting, the audience could, hopefully, also apply similar actions in real life.
Today, forum theatre has found such a footing in sunny Singapore, our island is seeing its first-ever Forum Theatre festival — SCENES, presented by Drama Box — in July. “I first observed the mushrooming of the form here in about 2010, maybe 10 years after Drama Box started working it in Singapore,” says Koh Hui Ling, SCENES’ artistic director, who is also the associate artistic director of Drama Box and 2013 Young Artist Award recipient. “We were doing a piece of forum theatre and up till then, many of our new audiences still had no idea what was expected of them, when suddenly in that year, people were saying, ‘yes, I’ve seen this before.’ Now, even government ministries are commissioning forum theatre pieces to help different target groups deal with difficulties… quite a leap from a time when Boal’s government exiled him for promoting anti-establishment ideas.”
Says forum theatre actor Hang Qiang Chou, who will be performing in SCENES, “The forum theatre Drama Box has been doing is not so much theatre of the oppressed, but more Theatre for Living, more for first-world countries in times where the line between oppressor and oppressed — in an office environment, perhaps — is no longer so defined. You may feel oppressed by your manager, but he probably feels oppressed by his boss. The state of oppression is constantly in flux. So Drama Box creates forum theatre pieces for various people, such as sex workers and migrant labourers, to help them brainstorm ideas to manage aggressors, as well as average Singaporeans like students or office workers, or people with dying friends and relatives.”
“It’s theatre for everyone in the community really, which I love,” adds Koh. “Everyone has some knowledge or experience that is precious and unique that can be brought out and shared. This craft of forum theatre allows them to do that, offering each unique person an opportunity to negotiate, communicate and challenge each other, asking, ‘Why do you do this? Why do you think that?’ It’s very constructive.”
Indeed, Koh has seen many people connecting through forum theatre in her 15 years of experience with the form. “There are three things we always observe at each performance. Firstly, people will say, ‘I never knew someone was facing the same situation as me.’ Or they might say, ‘I never thought things could be seen from this point of view’. This happens when a participant sees new perspectives, thanks to someone else’s intervention. Thirdly, people form impromptu groups to discuss the issues brought up, without any encouragement on our part.”
Hang remembers witnessing a scene of empowerment at a forum theatre performance. “Some years back, I performed this piece about cyber-bullying, and I remember this girl coming in to intervene in a scene where a student gets ostracised. She took over the bullied girl’s role, and when confronting the oppressors, she said things like, ‘You all laugh at me because I’m fat.’ In our play, the bullied girl didn’t have weight issues, she was being bullied for different reasons. But the girl intervening was slightly plump, and we inferred that she was probably projecting her own experience onto the character.
“The joker nudged her a bit and she snapped back into story and made some good points. But you could tell in those few moments she had thought about her problems and we hope she used the experience to address her own oppression.”
Koh and Hang have been seeing more and more people willing to jump in and speak out at performances. Elaborates Koh, “In the year 2000 there was still no social media, so people were very hushed, worried about speaking up. Over the years, we started to generate our own audience who understood how forum theatre works. Meanwhile, the education system was also encouraging people to ask questions. Then in 2004, the Internet started to change as well, and people became connected to more vocal worlds.”
However, she is quick to point out that the-sometimes abusive vocal stream on the Internet is not the sort of conversation forum theatre encourages. “Often you just see mutual insults online rather than actual communication, perhaps because there’s nobody to facilitate constructive discussion. The problem could be the lack of critical discourse within our education system. Or our ability to analyse issues may be lacking, this may be linked to the decrease in emphasis on Literature. While this online generation seems more vocal, they may need forum theatre, and the real dialogue it allows, more than ever.”
Accordingly, SCENES targets audiences of all levels of experience with forum theatre. “The festival has three main segments: The Young Can Change the World is an introduction to forum theatre for people with zero knowledge of it. They go through the entire process as participants, bringing up their thoughts and issues that we structure into forum-theatre pieces. The Community Theatre Training Programme is for people who already understand the form and could learn to be ‘jokers’. A lot of social service organisations are very interested in this to lead their communities to try and find solutions.
“Lastly, there are the performances — we’ve invited stellar international groups who perform forum theatre in their own very unique ways; it’s mesmerising for new audiences and also inspiring to experienced forum-theatre practitioners who are open to trying new things. The Indian performers of the piece Sonar Meye (Golden Girl) use movement, voice, live music and percussion to highlight issues of young girls being forced into marriage. Real Voices Real Lives from England is performed entirely by people with learning disabilities, employed full-time as actors. How does this challenge our perspectives and stereotypes of learning-disabled people?”
All of these will be staged inside the GoLi, Drama Box’s inflatable mobile theatre, as SCENES also marks GoLi’s official launch. “After SCENES, GoLi will appear again in the Singapore International Festival of Arts. Over the next few years GoLi will appear twice or thrice annually,” reveals Koh.
“GoLi is a great venue to stage community theatre pieces like forum theatre, since it can pop up in community areas, like Toa Payoh and Dakota. And while Drama Box may, in the near future, turn part of its focus back to developing more challenging ticketed works, we pride ourselves on being a socially-engaged company where our theatre must always speak to, and for, the community.”