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History Of Applied Theatre English Literature Essay

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: English Literature
Wordcount: 3647 words Published: 1st Jan 2015

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In this chapter will present a brief overview of the concept of Applied Theatre as my starting point in order to answer the question formulated by this dissertation: "What role can applied theatre play in the reintegration of former child-soldiers?" Based upon the question, this chapter is interested in what AT can do rather than what it is. I will then explore African Indigenous [1] theatre and ritual performance practices to find out if there are similarities with AT. I argue that art processes, in any form, whether AT or indigenous performances or rituals can be a useful method for change and for helping people to identify the gaps in society that divides and those elements that can help to foment change for a forward-looking community.

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Applied theatre is a wide range of theatre practices that fall outside the conventional theatre settings (Thompson 2003) with its trained actors, five acts, proscenium arch and paid audiences. It is theatre done in places where theatre is least expected such as in prisons, refugee camps, forgotten estates, hospitals, museums, centres for the disabled, old people's homes and underserved rural villages (Thompson 2003:15). One of its most significant attributes is that it gives voice to the voiceless and it is theatre for, by, and with the people. As Thompson puts it, "…Applied theatre becomes a practice that engages with the politics of prepositions…" (Thompson 2003:15); which means that applied theatre mode of engagement takes a bottom-up approach to practice. It is a collective of theatre practices that uses theatre and drama-based processes including, mask, puppetry, mime, sculpting, dance, music, art, story devising and storytelling. AT covers a plethora of theatre practices such as Theatre in Prison, Theatre in Education (TIE), Theatre of the Oppressed (TO), Women's Theatre, Theatre in Place of War and Theatre for Development (TfD). All of these are individual theatre practices that utilise the theatrical processes to engage individuals and groups in phenomenal ways that differs broadly from the theatre of the commercial genres. What these practices have in common is that they are participatory in scope and seek to achieve, as the ultimate goal, a change in circumstances to improve the lot of particular groupings on the fringes of society or as Taylor informs, these theatre forms are:

"…powered by the need to change: a community is hurting and theatre can enable people to process their hurt; or if there are too many unnecessary acts of disease, of hate, and of substance abuse in our midst, theatre might be one way for a community to consider alternatives…" (Taylor 2003).

Whenever a community is fractured as a result of natural disasters, wars or even by health issues such as HIV/AIDS, alcoholism, drug addiction, Applied Theatre can be a good process to do what Prentki and Preston explains as "…processes that take participants and audiences beyond the scope of conventional theatre into the realm of a theatre that is responsive to ordinary people and their stories, local settings and priorities…" (Prentki and Preston 2009:9), or as Taylor informs, it is a good mechanism to prevent life threatening behaviors such as domestic violence, race relations, youth suicide, and to heal fractured identities…" (Taylor 2003:1). These fractured identities may emerge from natural disasters, and other such anomalies that upset the status quo causing chaos and fragmentation of communities and peoples such as armed conflicts. It is important to note that applied theatre participants do not require training as actors to engage since it is a theatre for people to engage in the process together enabling change. Better put, Thompson explains thus, that Applied Theatre does not "leave in participants a performance skill to be simply replayed later" (Thompson 2003), it is not like rehearsing a scripted play with a beginning, a middle, and an end. In other words, participants would use the applied theatre process in such a way that the process becomes continuous and would keep on evolving which Thompson describes as "action fragments…" (Thompson 2003), and only recalling what resonates for their required change.

It is the sort of practice that intersects with other disciplines (Thompson 2003) such as health, anthropology, education, the elderly, women and gender issues, people living with disabilities it becomes a very good tool for research without trying to pretend to be an expert in those fields. AT is about engaging people and communities so they can, together, find another way of dealing with specific situations that affect them as individuals and as a group. Because of its efficacious character, participants are able to discover alternative ways of approaching a problem. Moreover, it is theatre that is done in unexpected places outside the conventional theatre buildings (Thompson 2003). This form of theatre is target-specific. It is the tool of change that is accessible to marginalised and disempowered groups.

Examples of AT can be found in the TO (see ) or Thompson Kothuru (see) in Sri Lanka to cite a few. In these examples, one can discern.

History of African Indigenous and Ritual theatre

Look at cultural norms, rituals, community, socialisation

African Indigenous Theatre

I am using the term theatre as an all encompassing term to discuss African indigenous theatre practices.

Many African scholars and theatre practitioners intimate that African theatre dates back some 5,000 to 50,000 years. (Banham 2004), however, written documentation of the history does not exist due to the fact that Africa was mainly an oral tradition and practices are passed down orally from one person or group to the next. African indigenous theatre practices include, mime, dance, songs, music, masquerade, festivals and rituals and storytelling. Adelugba and Obafemi say that such practices are, "…cycle of human life marked by a succession of these events…" (Banham 2004). These art forms, however, should not be viewed purely as entertainment since they usually have specific aims and objectives. For example, among these art forms there are performance arts for education, rituals settling disputes, birth, funerals and agrarian (Banham 2004:138).

Indigenous theatre comes from the community, making it communal in scope and the groups work as a collective. The theatre they create comes from the participants. It has no proscenium arch or raked seating. There are usually no distinction between artist and spectators, and performances can take place anywhere. This is evident in performances in the streets in a football field, market, and town-squares across the continent. Another major facet of indigenous theatre is that there are no written scripts. In other words, the theatre comes from within the self of the artist. This Harding views as:

"…quite different, for the art is produced in the self of the artist, and the entity thus produced each time is defined temporally in vivo, produced in and by the performer as both artist and art object. It is seen and heard through presence, voice and movement and its temporary existence verified by the presence of spectators. The quality of its temporality is physical, embodied in the performer; it is rendered forever ephemeral, existing only for as long as the performer performs…" (Harding 2002:3).

African indigenous theatre cannot be discussed without acknowledging the debates surrounding the term. Academics, theorist and theatre professionals argue about whether Africa's indigenous performances and rituals can be classified as 'theatre' or as 'drama'. Finnegan argues that "…with a few possible exceptions, there is no tradition in Africa of artistic performances which includes all the elements which might be demanded in a strict definition of drama or at least not with the emphases to which we are accustomed" (Finnegan as cited by Kirby 1974:22). Some African scholars and theatre practitioner holds similar view. However they put it in a different way. They argue that performance, festivals, rituals, and dance were not known as theatre or drama. These are European terms. (CITATION) . Still, it does not alter Africa's claim ancient performance practices that predate Europe. (BARBER). Kirby use the term 'quasi' in reference to the African indigenous. However, it seems he was somehow confused by what he witnessed because he continued by describe some of the practices as theatrical and drama. (KIRBY). When Finnegan used the term 'we', it implies that she is speaking for a vast number of people. Because Drama comes from the Greek, dran, meaning 'to do' and theatre comes from the Greek, theatron, meaning the seeing place, it would seem, in the case of Finnegan, that because mostly a large part of Africa were former colonies of Britain they did not Anglicised many of their 'primitive' terms. Moreover, if 'artistic' (Finn) performance evolved in a European sense-theatre; proscenium, specific aesthetic form of telling a story - if these define theatre then it came in with European. This seems to be the bone of contention.

Indigenous theatre practices and rituals are utilised as tools for change, for development, for HIV/AIDS awareness, for maternal and child health, for women, peace and security. Nahim informs that rituals for the reintegration of ex-combatants, including girls took the form of exorcism, sacrifice, cleansing, testimony, acting out in order to release what they believe to be evil, a spirit. One example of sacrifice is: killing a goat, or sheep, depending on the specific situation the participants are in. The participants are then washed with the blood from the animal, after which a performance of dance and trance takes place. The evil is transferred into the dead animal and the person gains freedom for all the atrocities he or she may have committee in the war. A procession with costumes, sing, dancing marched through the town to a river where the participants are washed in the river - they then receive a new set of clothing and the old ones are burnt. (Nahim 2009).

Against this backdrop,

"…Drama is an integral part of socio-cultural life of Sierra Leone. It features in every form of social interaction. In festivals and celebrations, religious and cultic rites, in storytelling sessions and even day-to-day interactions, the element of being in a state of possession, of role-playing and impersonation and various functional dramas as so evident that their theatricality is often taken for granted.

"…Especially notable in the current context of reconciliation in Sierra Leone are grassroots initiatives for the rehabilitation of ex-combatants. Working with NGOs, local communities in many parts of the country are reworking practices of divination and sacrifice, composing ritual processes for the cleansing, healing, and reintegration of young ex-combatants. In so doing, they create their social and moral world anew as they re-member it through ritual" (Shaw 2002:268).

Byam 17 - "Many TfD projects have addressed the problems of bad roads, unclean drinking water, or poor health conditions without relating them to the social and political structures that encourage such problems.

Throughout Africa, many indigenous theatre practices are ethnically contained-meaning, it is akin to particular groupings of people. This does not mean that the influences on other groups have not occurred. There is a common thread that runs the gamut of indigenous practices throughout Africa such as storytelling which Kirby describes as "significant indigenous performance mode'. The masquerades are also common across Africa, at least in terms of structure.

According to Kirby, "rituals often have a quasi-dramatic structure composed of sequence of more or less independent events" KKIRBY 24). The ritual form utilises 'symbolic enactments". For example, rituals are cyclic and extend over a number of days,and are structured around aphorisms that are sung, interpreted, danced, and acted out, while certain objects (natural artificats, art objects) are displayed, manipulated, carried, and moved around in dramatic performances by groups of initiates (Biebuyck 74)Kirby))24).

However, being an oral culture, those in the literate world have come to debate what Africa claims to be theatre.

Academic discourse on African indigenous theatre is contentious at best as the debates seem to imply (Kirby 1974; Sheriff 2004; Ukaegbu 2009) to name a few. Some scholars question Africa's claim to theatre in their historical past. Some academics and theatrical professionals argue that Africa does not have theatre and is of the view that whatever Africa has in terms of performance and rituals or drama either does not fit into what is known in the West as 'theatre'. It would imply that Finnegan is speaking for a vast majority of people when she uses the term 'we'(Kirby 1974). It seems that because mostly a large part of Africa can be described as former colonies of Britain, they did not Anglicised many of their 'primitive' terms. Moreover, if 'artistic performance' (F 516) evolved in a European sense-theatre, location, proscenium, specific aesthetic form of telling a story; five acts, style to traditional drama - if these define 'theatre', then it came in with European.

Many African scholars and writers also share Finnegan's view in so far as the term 'theatre' may be concerned; however, they put it in a different way. They write that performance, festivals, rituals, and dance were not known as theatre or drama. These are European terms. (CITATION) Drama comes from the Greek, dran, meaning 'to do' and theatre comes from the Greek, theatron, meaning the seeing place. Still, it does not alter Africa's claim to ancient old performances practices that predates colonial Europe. (Barber et al. 1997; Banham 2004; Ukaegbu 2009). Seemingly, it is the term 'theatre' that is in contention and not whether Africa has similar practices. From classical, contemporary, to travelling theatre, Africa can boast a vibrant theatre form indigenous, traditional to popular and modern theatrical forms. Most scholars agree that the Africa's indigenous and rituals are intertwined with indigenous performance practice. This means that what the colonialists left behind has been reformed to be more far-reaching to fit within the local cultures.

Conclusions such as those presented by Finnegan, and others, are constraints imposed upon African performance. African scholars (CITATION) are fighting these constraints to remove those shekels. Most of what Africa has in terms of theatre, despite what some scholarships iterate as to whether it is ritual theatre or drama, is participatory, is endogenous, and is always performative. What is even more important to this paper is that African indigenous theatre is transformative.

I would like to compare African Indigenous performance and rituals with AT. It is clear that what Africa practiced what is now coined as AT. As many African scholars and theatre practitioners have said, is more participatory and brings audience in or makes it with them. The Strength of theatres is that it is live and do not necessarily need a rehearsal as in the conventional theatre setting. Pre-colonial performances in Africa

Applied theatre has come to include mask as is evident in Boal and others. For the post-colonial and present-day African Theatre, mask has and is always used as way to resolve dispute. For example: ….

The same arrangement holds for traditional African theatre whose structures does not necessarily reveal a cumulative development of scenes. What is normally obtains is a melange of independent sketches all bound to a common message on communal harmony. Without doubt, the link of traditional drama to ritual and folklore must have dictated this pattern.

Oyin Ogunba describes the structure of traditional African drama: … is organized on an episodic basis. An actor comes forward and dramatizes a historical event or a myth or simply creates a scene with his appearance and general bearing, and this act may have little or no relationship at all with the proceeding or subsequent one; indeed two acts mimed in sequence at a festival may, in history, have been separated by centuries (foot note) check). (254) the dramatic touch of difference: theatre, own and foreign by Erika fischer-Lichte, Josephine riley.

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As regard effecting social change in the interest of the common man, traditional AT may not overtly prescribe class confrontation as ineluctable. A reason for this more placid stance could be the affinity between traditional AT and worship which inherently abhors violence - particularly of a kind that is disruptive of internal peace and harmony. In this context, therefore, the more genial veneer of satire seems preferable for demands on social change. Th social goal of tat is not dissimilar to that of epic theatre, since both are ultimately committed to evolving a social order that guarantees equity and the pursuit of happiness for all.

Ukaegbu's (2004) work suggests that this may be a limited view, however, and that -

rather than being relatively new - applied theatre forms are as ancient as theatre itself. He traces what might now be called applied theatre in the earliest African performance rituals (2004: 45- 54), seeing much of what is applied theatre practices as 'later spin-offs' (2004: 52). He explains that: irrespective of cultural differences, traditional performances everywhere are applied for history informs us that while ancient Greeks 'applied' Dionysia performances to strengthen community bonds, the early European Church used them to transform adherents' overall religious and cultural experiences. (2004: 53)

Ukaegbu argues that what is being described as applied theatre has been going for a very long time - but it wasn't, of course, called 'applied theatre'. It was called 'theatre' or 'performance'. He explains that: 'Traditional African performances straddle sacred-secular boundaries but by commanding some form of investment in efficacious outcome, most performances can serve ritual and aesthetic functions simultaneously.' (2004: 53) 'What is needed is not a new concept or definition but the re-introduction of production strategies and collective concerns that created the traditional performances that audiences attended as participants instead of as detached spectators.' (2004: 53)

Participants may choose to work out issues that affect their lives and communities whether social or political. Although aesthetic helps in strengthening the messages that may be the intended purpose, it is the process of drama that allows participants to discover numerous approaches to a situation. Applied Theatre is a multi-faceted field () in that it transcends disciplines; working in health, education, It means theatre that that uses theatre and/or drama-based processes that may include art, music, dance, drama, improvisation and storytelling. The unique thing about this phenomenal practice is that it is always participant-led. Audience participation is caveat for AT although this is not an absolute.

Community theatre, prison theatre, medical theatre, educational theatre are all theatre-specific practices that is purposeful. Citing O'Toole, it

"Being actively involved in a group process and especially one that requires you to physically play with incidents, stories and emotions, might be empowering in itself. It might in fact intervene to increase the power of a certain group in a community in a direct way. P169

This separation insists that a community must have the power to tell their own stories and have their knowledge of the specifics of their lives respected before interventions can be enacted. This moeel claims that intervention is only viable if it is based on community's analysis of needs and that theatre itsel in TAR is not an intervention. P. 168 (Participatory theatre.


Banham, M. (2004) A History of Theatre in Africa, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, UK.

Barber, K., Collins, J. & Ricard, A. (1997) West African popular theatre, Indiana Univ Pr.

Harding, F. (2002) The Performance Arts in Africa: a Reader, Routledge.

Kirby, E.T. (1974) 'Indigenous African Theatre', The Drama Review: TDR, vol. 18 no. 4, pp. 22-35.

Nahim, E., MD, (2009) Personal interview, Via telephone, 9 Sept. 2009.

Prentki, T. & Preston, S. (eds.) (2009) The Applied Theatre Reader, Routledge, Oxon, UK.

Shaw, R. (2002) Memories of the Slave Trade: Ritual and the Historical Imagination in Sierra Leone, University of Chicago Press, Chicago, IL.

Sheriff, M. (2004) 'Sierra Leone' in A History of Theatre in Africa, Banham, M. (ed.), Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, UK, pp. 171-180.

Taylor, P. (2003) Applied Theatre: Creating Transformative Encounters in the Community, Heinemann Drama, Portsmouth, NH.

Thompson, J. (2003) Applied Theatre: Bewilderment and Beyond, Peter Lang Publishing.

Ukaegbu, V. (2009) 'Performative encounters: performance intervention in marketing health products in Nigeria', Journal of Applied Arts and Health, vol. 1 no. 1, pp. 35-51.


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