Researching the researcher.

posted in: Interviews | 0

Several months ago, Maureen, our GM, was contacted by a student of the London School of Economics inquiring about Theatre for Social Change and the work we do to progress the social change agenda in Canada.  In her email the student, who for purpose of this blog post requested to be nameless (a request made in relation to maintaining her own research practices), expressed an interest to interview our Artistic leadership for her dissertation.   Feeling honoured, we agreed and over the next couple of months we eventually were able to set a schedule for her visit from England.

The plan was to have her visit for 3 days.  During these days she would meet the office team and artistic team, sit in on a rehearsal and preview performance of Plastico: an Epic ECO adventure and lastly hold a focus group with MCT associates to explore theatre for social change in Canada and her dissertation themes.  Upon meeting the student and talking to her about her research, I decided to turn the tables and make the researcher – the researched.  So we held a little interview.  Below is the transcript of our discussion.

Duncan: You’re coming from the London School of Economics, but you are researching theatre for social change, how does that work?

A lot of people have misconceptions about the London school of economics; it is a social science university, and I am studying at the institute of social psychology.  I am studying human behaviour, particularly towards helping community development.  I wanted to go into health policy initially, but as I was just telling the girls [Maureen and Kristin] my interests were more in how the human mind works particularly not  at the individual level, but at the community level and how we can utilize that in order to make a social impact and create awareness about issues that need desperate awareness, so that is where my research started.

And I am interested in theatre generally.  I came to Canada from Pakistan when I was 13, and Pakistan being a society where we don’t like to talk much about anything, one of the first plays I saw in my eighth grade class was about sexual education. And I was…, this was the first time that sex was talked about in a gym full of other students, and I was like “woah, what is going on?” and it sparked an interest.  Now when I think about it, I forgot about that play for many, many years but that was the first time getting educated about sex, and it had an impact.

The reason for this research project was because of my favourite professor’s class. She does research in Brazilian favellas, and had been working with an organization called Afra-Reggae.  What they do is, its a bunch of guys from the slums, who started dancing one day and their dance grew popular and got support from other community partnerships, getting bigger and bigger, so they started recruiting other kids and now their this big organization.  I think they performed with Cirque de Soliel last year.  Anyways they just went viral and they have ended up helping thousands and thousands of kids get off the streets.  It was a big movement and I wanted to see how far we can take theatre.  So that’s why I started researching.

Duncan: In terms of theatre do you have any theatre experience yourself?

None what so ever.

Duncan: So then why theatre?  Why does that speak to you so much?

In any play, there is the audience.  I love being the audience. I love seeing it, it absolutely excites me.   I know many people enjoy theatre, but I just feel that because theatre is so versatile it can address so many issues, you can be something extremely funny or something extremely sad, you can talk about anything with theatre.  I believe to address these sensitive issues theatre is a good forum to do so.  I want to take this places where theatre is not considered okay.  If you take theatre to a place like Pakistan, I believe that it has quite a bit of power in order to influence social change.

And I have a lot of theatre watching experience, if that is important.

Pakistan has a very vibrant culture of theatre and movies and music.  Theatre is just entertainment and is very popular, and has a very large audience, just not this kind of theatre.

Duncan:  So you said that aside from interviewing MCT there is a company in Pakistan that you have discovered that already does Forum?

Yes.  They are very successful, very political organization.  I stumbled upon them, and I spoke to my dad, who is a big social activist – at least in his head – and he said that ‘when we were rallying on the streets in Pakistan back in the 1980’s the theatre was really popular’ and what they do is go from village to village and they could get killed or murdered for it.  Right now a few of their productions are banned so if they get caught doing it they will be jailed, and they do it anyways.  That is the only way that in a place that is so oppressed as Pakistan, to talk about anything.  Hopefully I will get to interview them.

The comparison I think will be very interesting because the challenges that you face may be so different and so similar at the same time.  I really want to dig deep and see what it is.

Duncan: How did you discover specifically Forum Theatre or let’s say Theatre of the Oppressed?

I wrote a 7000 word paper on Paulo Freire.  Two of my friends are also heavily involved in the practice.  One is from Chile, and one is from Peru, and apparently in Latin America TofO is really picking up popularity.  They feel it is very important, so I wanted to transport that idea to south Asia.  So that’s how the idea started, and it is developing more and more everyday.

Duncan: If there is one thing out of your research, aside from completion of your dissertation, what are you hoping for?

Oh that’s a good one.  I am hoping for an answer.  And that answer I know I am not going to get, so that is a bad answer to your question.

Duncan: An answer to what?

An answer to how to start this dialogue that is continuous.  How to have a conversation in a place that is developing, without the fear of being persecuted.  How do you take a community of people where a conversation between a man and a woman is taboo, and bring them together and create a safe space where we can talk about sexual education, where we can talk about homophobia.  How to get that answer from a place like Canada, where these conversations can happen and take them back home.  I know this is a broad answer and that I am talking about a total social revamping that I know is not going to happen.  Just the key ingredients that are needed in creating that safe space, like a 4 by 4 room where a couple of people can sit and have a conversation about fear.

Does that make any sense?  It doesn’t make sense.

Duncan: No, it does.  Your hoping to get closer to understanding how to create a safe space for dialogue about social change.

And I think theatre is one of the only answers.  People take it seriously without taking it too seriously.  If someone doesn’t agree with what they see – they will disregard saying ‘oh their just actors’ and they will just go. People take it seriously, but not too seriously, so its getting its job done.  Its sending that message, its creating that dialogue and people are having conversations when they leave.  At the same time its not a political rally that if people don’t like what they are hearing they wont get to angry.

Duncan: Earlier in our conversation you said that you have seen a surge in this kind of work, so I wanted to know what you think is causing that?

I think awareness in general.  In the last five – fifteen years the level of communication that is increasing from place to place. There is so much information available.  People can see what is happening all over the world, all you need to do is go on YouTube, and that is creating a movement, that is creating an awareness, and we may not realize that on an everyday basis, but I am sitting here, I am studying in the UK and I am going to be going to Pakistan.  Its these ideas that are being transported so rapidly around the world that is causing an effect that these issues are becoming more and more in our face, we are able to see them, we are able to see what people are doing and that is what our job as social activists is, taking good ideas from certain places and putting them in other places that need good ideas.  So I think that has a lot to do with it, the fact that information is so freely available.  People are getting more interested, because we are seeing things failing.  None of the WHO development goals are being fulfilled for 2015, we have failed on all of them.  S o this time focus on educating women, forget educating everyone – its not going to work.  Educate your women.

Strong by Megan Landry

posted in: Speak Out | 0

Today, Carina received an email from a young girl named Megan Landry. In the email she attached a video she created inspired by some of her own personal experience with bullying. The song is titled “Strong.” She wrote, recorded and filmed everything on her own. Oh, and she is 15.

In the body of the email she wrote:

“I was not going to let them break me. Reality, if it shows that it bothers you, they’ll just do it more. I hope my song will help those that are starting to feel torn down — to rise up! Don’t let anyone make you a victim. They aren’t worth it.”

Rise up.   Speak out.

Remembering “10% Reality”

This is Duncan McCallum, Associate Artistic Director, and I wanted to do some blog posting for a while now, but never found an appropriate topic to start with, so I kept putting it off.  Today, while waiting for the cast of Plastico: an Epic Eco Adventure to arrive, I noticed a reminder about the Day of Pink, which got me thinking back to my first job with MCT in 2006.

For those of you who are not aware, April 11th, is the international Day of Pink – which is a movement started by high school students to raise awareness of bullying, discrimination, homophobia and transphobia in schools and communities.  The idea is that on April 11th, an individual wears pink to show support and help create dialogue for social change in their schools.  Check out the website for more info.

Back in 2006, after completing my Bachelor of Education at Queen’s I returned to Toronto, to start my performing career.  One of the first gigs, if not the first gig, I managed to get was with MCT as an actor in their production of 10% Reality.  The project was developed in partnership with a school board in Northern Ontario to create dialogue about homophobia in middle and high schools in their region.  The board approached MCT with this concept and over several months Luciano Iogna, the playwright, and Simon Malbogat, the director/dramaturge, created the play, which was then toured for two weeks.

In first entering into the company, as an actor/educator, I had never experienced Forum Theatre so the project was an incredible learning experience for me.  Once I had been fully introduced to MCT techniques and the production was rehearsed, we left for the northern region to begin our school tour.  At that point, I wasn’t expecting anything from our audiences:  Stand up, tell us what you think, change the situation and then we will discuss. For the youth’s part this was what we were getting: open and honest dialogue about the issue.

After a few shows the group really hit a stride.  The show itself was effectively catalyzing these youth to have a difficult discussion about homophobic culture within their school and community.  The youth were daring and creative in the ways they challenged the different prejudices in the play.  They found numerous, heart felt ways to speak out about and essentially stop the harmful behaviour.  Overall, the production was a success.  It was then that we started to receive some unexpected community resistance about our presence in schools.

Seeing as how the board had brought us into the community to create this production without first consulting the community, the community itself was angered.  Unbeknownst to us, several churches in the area had become aware of our production and its focus, and without first investigating or viewing a performance, started instructing their constituents to counter act our attempts at open social discussion.  Parents started pulling their students from class, teachers started calling in sick, and community members started attending our productions sitting in the back of the room audibly disagreeing with our presence.  The churches even went so far to accuse MCT of trying to ‘teach students how to be gay.’


Student’s argue over public prejudice in 10% Reality. (Left to Right – Nawa Nicole Simon, Duncan McCallum and Dan Watson)

To give you some context to the intent of the play, here is the show’s description taken from MCT’s website:

The 10% Reality examines the effects of homophobia on young people who are trying to come to terms with their sexuality—and the bullying they and their friends sometimes experience as a result.

Sam is being bullied at school for being gay, and now his Dad wants to kick him out of the house. At school, his best friend, Tanya, has started to experience name-calling and bullying because of her friendship with Sam. After learning Sam may be gay, Tanya’s father demands that she end her friendship with Sam.

Sam’s battle is difficult, as he struggles to come to terms with his sexuality. Tanya, too, feels immense pressure. Staying Sam’s friend will mean trouble for her at home and at school. Her other choice sees her abandoning her best friend to avoid the grief of being bullied at school and of defying her parents. What should she do? How can both friends stand firm about what is right for them? We ask students to help us find options for both Sam and Tanya.

At first, the cast were all astonished to find the community taking these measures, especially when no one had really approached us about the issue, or done research into the intend effect of the show.  From our perspective as artists, consultation with the community (students, schools) was accomplished and did effect the final product, as is MCT’s creation methodology.  As time went on and the negative prejudice persisted, we as performers  became unknowingly defensive.  We started speaking negatively among ourselves about this section of the community that would “dare have the audacity to do this.” etc. The negativity continued to bleed into our performances and at one show, we found the typically engaged response from our audience to muted.  The students just weren’t catalyzed.  It seemed as though the prejudice that had been brought into our space, had begun to influence us and then started to shut down the dialogue.

After this specific show, the facilitator (Nawa Nicole Simon) and cast (Sefton Jackson, Rachel Brittain, and myself) conducted a closing circle to air some of these feelings.  It was during this talking circle that we all named what was happening, and cleared the frustrations and feelings that were affecting our major purpose being in the community (catalyzing open and non-judgmental dialogue about social issues).  As a collective we decided to focus on the effectiveness of character and story and keep all personal feelings separate.  We are all facilitators there to allow the community to start conversation about their own issues.  We catalyze and facilitate, so there is space for open-hearted dialogue.  The community are the specialists in their own issues.

After this discovery, the frustration and anger from disagreeing community visitors had nothing to rebound off, nothing to build from and thus it dissipated.  Ultimately many visitors approved of our efforts, and slowly the community blow-back disappeared.  Through excluding our third party opinion, the community managed their own response which permitted the youth to, again, be the focus. This allowed their thoughts, opinions and options time to be considered and analyzed.  The production continued to spark creative solutions and helped to establish a strong base for the schools to continue raising awareness.

When using theatre as a tool for social change it is difficult to not allow negative perception, anger, guilt to affect the space and the individual, especially when you are dealing with raw and real issues.  Staying objective when creating dialogue is key because it takes away the target for these negative thoughts and emotions, allowing you to just ask questions and facilitate the discussion.  Your work is there to create the space for dialogue not to preach an agenda. The community decides what works for them; you help to catalyze and mediate, not decide.

Today, being the day of pink, it is important to remember that these issues are still a major part of our society.  Social issues don’t change over night or even in the course of a few years, it takes decades of talk to really change perception and create inclusion.  It is also good to remember that even in the face of prejudice when the dialogue is honest, people will listen, minds with ponder, and things can change.

Thanks for reading and keep it real.