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Inspiration & Learning in unlikely places. Part 4 of 4: The world of Theatre

When I first started working with young people, I was often struck by both the value, but also the limits, of role play. When I looked at what theatre had to offer, it seemed to offer something different, possibly something more. And so I went looking and I spent a lot of time with actors and around Theatre for Young People.

Yes, I am aware that there is a view of ‘Theatre’ that it is something for ‘the elite’; that it uses odd language and strangely artistic ‘doings’ which few of us can understand. But Theatre can also offer us ways of telling stories that invite us to look at ourselves, our lives and the world around us. Augusto Boal, who was a revolutionary in both social and theatrical terms, told us: ‘This is Theatre – the art of looking at ourselves.’ And for those of us who work with young people, the world and the tools of Theatre, can serve us well in our endeavours to add something to the lives of the young people we work with. In this post I’m going to comment on just three areas of the magical world of Theatre which can add something for us in our work. And if you happen to be a real theatrical person, I hope you will forgive my clumsy analysis. It is simply (part of) what I see as theatre being able to offer those of us in the non-theatrical world.

1. Strategies and Activities

Actors, both when learning their craft, and often too in preparation for performance, make use of a wide range of activities which build within themselves and with other actors, ingredients they will need in performance: trust, cooperation, confidence, imagination, risk-taking, support, spontaneity…the very ingredients young people need as they travel through life. An activity, for example, where you mirror the actions of your partner, encourages us to pay attention, and respond, to those around us. Simply being observed as we walk across a room, and then receiving feedback about how we ‘carry’ ourselves can be very illuminating. An activity which requires a circle of people to spontaneously count to 20, but one voice at a time, builds both a strong sense of team spirit and individual contribution. And yes, also at times, it can create moments of frustration.

There are lots of books on these sorts of activities. There’s a free one here. (Or at least a sample copy.) And some good things here too. All these activities do need to be used with a good sense of timing and common sense. Not all groups are going to respond well to being invited to ‘do theatre.’ If the word ‘theatre’ fits for your group, then use it; and if not then we don’t even need to use the word. Just say we are going to do an activity.

2. Augusto Boal and Forum Theatre

…is the second area I want to comment on. Youtube is full of stuff from Boal himself and from practitioners of Forum Theatre. Just take a wander around and see what appeals. Here’s my description of Forum Theatre: It’s an interactive, theatre-based process for helping individuals, families and communities, solve problems and pursue their dreams. Here is also a pretty good description of Forum Theatre of the Oppressed (ie Forum) from the man himself, Augusto.I have written a paper about use of Forum and some of the ways I think it can be misunderstood and mis-used. As well as what I think are some guidelines for putting together a piece of Forum. (You will need to subscribe to read this but it’s all free). For now I will simply mention what seem to me to be two essential ingredients for Forum to be successful.

  • People must be able to ‘see’ themselves in the situation ‘on stage.’ If someone is saying to themself: ‘What’s this got to do with me?’ then we have missed the mark. A piece of Forum showing people trying to work out which school to send their kids to presented to people who are wondering where the next meal comes from, is obviously not going to work. People need to look at the piece of theatre and say: ‘Yeah, that’s my life!’ (Or…could be.).
  • Showing ugly stereotypes, no matter how reality-based they might be; often just creates distress for an audience and/or can inadvertently perpetuate the very stereotypes we may well want to challenge. Men are like this…women are like this. So with an eye on reality, we need to present something that looks like life, but also leaves room for movement. We need to see alternatives and not be trapped by what already exits. (This view is likely to be contested, but I’m sure you can do a little research and make up your own mind).

Boal has given us a number of books full of activities with wide-ranging application. When you look at them, do bear in mind that many of them are clearly ‘theatrical’ as this is the place of their birth and their application. So as you take a look at them, if you find them excessively ‘theatrical’ then just adjust them to suit you and your circumstances. In his book ‘Games for actors and non-actors’ Boal offers a wide array of activities that we can use in groups, and, with a little imagination, with individuals. There is a PDF available here for free.

3. The magnificent outrage of Keith Johnstone. (And Theatre Sports)

Keith Johnstone offers us a usefully defiant response to what he saw as an increasingly ‘greying’ of the world. It’s his contribution to the world to encourage spontaneity and creativity. That’s where Theatre Sports were born. And in case you’ve been out of town for the past 50 or so years, here’s how Wiki describes ‘Theatre Sports.’

Theatre sports is a form of improvisational theatre, which uses the format of a competition for dramatic effect. Opposing teams can perform scenes based on audience suggestions, with ratings by the audience or by a panel of judges.’

Theatre Sports, like the world of acting generally, offers us lots of activities that we can call on, especially in Groupwork with young People.

But in some ways, more importantly, Keith also offers us ways of thinking; ideas or principles which can guide or inform, but not dictate, how we might approach not only Theatre, but in our case, our work with young people . And two which appeal to me mightily and which I first found in his book ‘IMPRO Improvisation and the Theatre’…are these:

  • ‘If in doubt, change direction.’ I love this! And really, every time I do something with a young person that feels like it’s going nowhere, whether in a group or in an individual ‘conversation’, I remind myself of this principle. Pete! Change direction! Do something else; ask an unusual question, go for a walk, introduce a new topic, share food…do something, anything that creates a ‘new direction’.
  • ‘Keep the action on stage.’…is the second and equally valuable ‘principle’. And our ‘stage’ is the present moment. If a young person says that they would like to do more exercise…jump up and go for a walk; do a handstand, a sit-up…anything that ‘keeps the action on stage.’ If a young person regrets having done something which has hurt another person in some way; made the world slightly less; we can join with them in working out right here and right now, what they can do to make the world slightly better. If a young person is rethinking a disagreement they had with someone…then if that person was here right now; what would you say to them. ‘Keep the action on stage.’

In this remarkable TedX the remarkable Keith, no-longer a young man; but nevertheless still remarkable, offers us more ideas, principles to consider. Keith tells us that ‘Improvisation is high risk’. And he is, of course, right. Anything could happen. But it seems to be that that is the nature, and the joy, of working with young people. If we work only to a set script or to pre-planned programmes, we are likely to miss important opportunities. Let me add quickly, that planning what we might do, or are likely to do or even need to do, is a good thing. But these are the guidelines within which we work, not a pre-determined blow-by-blow process.

Keith encourages us to be defiant in the most positive of ways; push back against the world with spontaneity and creativity. So to Keith Johnstone I will be eternally grateful for the magnificence of Theatre Sports, but even more so, for his irreverent and challenging approach to theatre…and the world.


Inspired by the work of Keith, and of Augusto…and others, I have developed what I hope is a small contribution to this field by creating ‘A Story Unfolds’; also a form of interactive, story-based problem solving. You will find a paper about it in the same place on my website as the paper about Forum Theatre.

I will finish with this quote from Boal, which I think is simply wonderful, and which you will find at the opening of his book ‘Games for actors and non-actors’

‘Theatre can help us build our future, rather than just waiting for it.’





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