Social Theatre Questions and Peacebuilding Dilemmas

In this powerful 10-minute documentary trailer (link) by Brandeis University, “Acting Together On The World Stage”, the film highlights some of the tensions within social theatre and applied theatre, especially the theatrical, peacebuilding and ethical dilemmas. As stated by Lee Perlman from The Abraham Fund in Israel at 06:13 in the film, these questions are:

…[O]ne theatrical dilemma has to do with the aesthetic, whether the use or the utilisation of theatre for a very, very clear social purpose is even legitimate. That’s a dilemma.

Roberto Varea, from the University of San Francisco adds (06:32):

The other very dangerous aspect of it is […] is actually do [sic] work that is very mediocre in quality and not given the right time to be digested, processed and be ready to be offered to an audience. There are not so many places we can come together to learn how to do this work.

Playwright Catherine Filloux (7:54) states:

There is the hope of not wanting to re-traumatise people that have survived genocide. […] I would like to talk about the idea of remembering as a revolutionary act.

I do not need to cite James Thompson’s counter-argument on the act of remembering again. Probing questions and interrogating practices are not prerogatives by theoreticians and academics; sensitive theatre-makers and cultural arts workers must also hone their praxis by asking themselves the typical 4W1H questions: who, what, how, why and where.

So here, I believe, are some of the tensions, dilemmas and questions that any theatre practitioner working in conflict zones could, should, and must ask themselves before, during and after each project:


1. Function of Art

  • Should the Arts serve a social function?
  • If it seeks to be instrumental or utilitarian, then what — and where — is Beauty/Aesthetics?
  • Where does Beauty/Aesthetics begin or end?
  • Can, and should, we subscribe to the art-for-arts sake argument?
  • Do I subscribe to the universalist tradition that all art is good and beneficial? Or do I believe that artistic standards, for example, are relative?
  • If so, what “culture” is being envisioned by myself – a fixed, coherent entity, or an unstable, ever-changing process that is being reshaped and reformulated through local, regional and global dialogues?
  • What is theatre’s role in facilitating these dialogues?

2. Evaluation and Measurement

  • How should one measure the observable and non-observable impact of art?
  • Who are the audiences of the aesthetic process/product?
  • Is the aesthetic quality high? Or should we accept a lower standard, knowing that the artists are primarily non-artists?
  • Is it permissible or more appropriate to judge the product using a different model of aesethetic evaluation? Should relativism be accepted? Why/why not?
  • What conditions and pre-requisites need to be in place before measurements take place?
  • What is the impact on the material, economic, political, social, educational situation in which the work is informed?
  • What constitutes “evidence” and how does one collect them? What is being privileged or assumed in the process?


1. Forms

  • Is storytelling the normative form of theatre-making? What alternative models are available in the community?
  • Are we harnessing or exploiting these narratives which capitalise on trauma, and possibly re-traumatising the victims and survivors of conflict situations?
  • Should we seek to have the community remember the past? Can forgetting be equally valid?
  • What other creative forms, including silences, are culturally accessible to the community?
  • Whose narratives are exhibited, taken out of context, displaced, silenced?
  • Can there be multiplicities, ambiguities and opposing narratives, or are the ‘socially acceptable’ ones promoted as a cohesive civic and national discourse, whilst lessening fears of protest and violence?
  • What narratives and counter-narratives are being reported by the media, and in whose language?
  • What political leanings would these media have, especially in the way the artistic experiences are being represented?
  • Is a “good-intentioned” project good enough for the community? How might I be  undermining local practices, economy, or development strategies?
  • The Boalian methodology in re-imagining alternative endings and possibilities as a way of emancipation is only one practice in the field of applied theatre. What dangers would this pose to the community, if local communities are suddenly “open” to the idea of democracy, human rights and protest? What structures need to be in place first?
  • What implications might foreign and unfamiliar dramatic forms have on audiences’ expectations? How might this promote, disrupt or exacerbate local cultural (in)sensitivities?
  • Am I assuming there are homogeneous and internally cohesive cultures within this community, or will there be sub-groups that have not been legitimised, validated or experienced?
  • What critical efforts are taken to ensure cultural pluralism is promoted? Why/why not?
  • What, through what means, and for what purposes are intercultural and intracultural aesthetic experiences produced, negotiated, and consumed?

2. Process and Product

  • An aesthetic product may not necessarily reflect ethical practices in process. Similarly, a rich process may not always yield aesthetic performances. How useful then is the binary between theatre-making as a process and performance/showcase as a product?
  • Should one take precedence or priority over the other? Why/why not?
  • What is being commodified, exchanged, or reciprocated in this theatrical transaction? What implications might this have for us and them?


1. Relationships

  • What is my relationship with the organisation, community, stakeholders and funders?
  • How much do I know/not know about the community, its culture, its history, its politics?
  • Am I, knowingly or unknowingly, ignoring or over-simplifying obstacles and challenges faced by the community?
  • How would my work be influenced by financial constraints, as well as cultural, political, religious and other social factors?
  • Is co-participation an important process for the participants? Why/why not?
  • How does my reliance on translators and interpreters affect the quality of the work?
  • How would I respond to changes on the ground?
  • Would I be complicit with larger bureaucratic agenda that might not serve the interests of the community?
  • How might my “well-intentioned” project undermine the local economy or political stability?

2. Safety, Security and Confidentiality

  • How do I protect the identity (and should I?) of the participants or the data collected?
  • What are the foreseeable risks involved in the project with regards to safety and security to participants and myself?
  • What safety and accountability measures are in place?
  • Have I made a risk assessment of the area?
  • Is verbal/written consent made or given? Why/why not?
  • How do I ensure that no force or coercion has taken place in my presence and absence?


1. Hegemony

  • How would large concepts such as capacity building, cultural empowerment, democracy, human rights, equality and fairness, peace, etc be envisioned?
  • Are these Western constructs? Or are they universal ideals?
  • Should they be adopted, adapted and superimposed on a target culture? If so, will this be insensitive to local cultures by normalising Western ideals?
  • To what extent are these extensions of a neo-colonial hegemony?
  • What are the alternatives available to the community?
  • What steps and measures need to be considered to prepare the community at large to engage in, and negotiate with, sensitive issues?
  • What structures and supports are made available, including those from civil service organisations or non-governmental ones?
  • What, and to whom, these structures are being denied?
  • Who owns these discourses?
  • Who owns the means of cultural production in a globalised and transnational world?
  • What, and whose, values are being espoused?
  • What (in)consistencies are observed in the practice of human rights and the humanitarian rhetoric of corporate organisations and governments?
  • What implications are there when globalisation, capitalism, and possibly human rights, are construed as saving the poor, helping the needy and emancipating the oppressed?
  • Are we domesticating the community, rather than liberating them?
  • If liberation is a key outcome, then where do I stand in relation to theatre as  redemptive rhetoric?

2. Impact

  • What sustainable partnerships are forged?
  • What are we measuring, when and how are they measured, and by whom?
  • Whose interests do they serve?
  • What implications will this have for funders/donors and the local community?
  • What constitutes “evidence” in evidence-based measurements? Are they adequate, and do they fairly represent the community in terms of contexts, improvements and challenges?

These questions (cf. James Thompson, Helen Nicholson, et al) — as usual, not exhaustive — reflect the dynamic nature of social theatre or applied theatre (used here rather interchangeably, but not without semantic and discoursal differences). Helen Nicholson writes in Applied Drama: The Gift of Theatre the importance of seeing this field as a diasporan, rather than discipline, which characterise some of the above-mentioned  dilemmas and tensions. I quote her at length:

In diaspora space, the boundaries that define and confine knowledge, meaning-making and understanding are subject to continual critical scrutiny, and the ways in which power is constructed are closely examined. Rather than seeking a single canonical reference point or a single set of dramatic practices, it is an approach to theatre-making that embraces diverse forms of cultural learning and many different theatre forms. The concept of diaspora space also has the potential to offer ways of thinking about how boundaries are encountered and transgressed, how those on the margins can move to the centre, and how the global asserts itself into the local. As a framework for analysis, this recognises that the process of locating and mapping narrating enables us to more fully appreciate where, temporarily and contingently, the hoizons and limits of practice in applied drama may lie. Aesthetic and performative encounters within diaspora spaces also require the capacity to move around and negotiate different locations, not as the meeting place of fixed identities or positions, but as an open state of becoming. (p.159)

Allow me to raise one final set of questions by extending this apt metaphor to peacebuilding as a critical ontological and epistemological inquiry: If we embrace Nicholson’s border crossings and visualise social theatre as a complex resettling on new, foreign grounds, then as a practitioner, what is the ethical relationship to my own identity formation: assimilation or integration with the host country from where my practice stems? If the community I work with exemplifies the host-refugee (they-I) relationship, what procedures, documents and passports must I possess, obtain or acquire to gain the trust of my hosts? If they give me the legitimate right to exist, then who am I? What am I?