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Environment Magazine September/October 2008


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Bytes of Note - Sustainability Theater

Theater reaches audiences in a very personal and compelling way, touching both the heart and the mind. Because theater can also impart technical information and encourage action, it addresses one of the most notorious challenges of the sustainability project: moving people from the status quo to sustainability action.

Changing our behavior in economic and personal realms is a key step toward sustainability and its lasting gains in equity, well-being, and ecological health, yet because the dangers that we face are often hidden, uncertain, or have consequences far in the future, doing things differently to avoid them is difficult. A November 2005 article in Environment noted people’s reluctance to make changes involving discretionary spending on self and family;1 changes involving the fulfillment of human imperatives such as food, water, waste disposal, sex, shelter, and livelihood carry even higher personal stakes. Positive change is still more difficult when blocked by poverty, illiteracy, or oppression.

Theater that addresses risks in a community context has the flexibility and power to motivate such behavior change. It provides a safe way for vulnerable people to speak and for communities to talk about taboo issues, and it reaches the literate and the illiterate alike. Perhaps it is no surprise, then, that theater is used in communities around the world as a participatory development tool. Usually called “theater for development,” these programs facilitate interactive roleplaying and interpretation in a local community, with drama centered on key issues and realistic scenarios.

The most familiar use of sustainability theater for many of us is HIV and AIDS education in sub-Saharan Africa. Two how-to guides reflect this common focus but might be adapted to other settings as well: Feel, Think, Act! A Guide to Interactive Drama for Sexual and Reproductive Health and Young People by the International HIV/AIDS Alliance  and Act, Learn, and Teach: Theatre, HIV and AIDS Toolkit for Youth in Africa, a project of the United National Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization’s (UNESCO) Co-ordinating Committee for International Voluntary Service.

Theater for development has been directed at many other subjects as well. Arthur P. Casanova, a practitioner in the Philippines, mentions the issues of “poverty alleviation, women[’s] empowerment, human trafficking, human rights, children’s rights, protection of environment and human resources, [and] protection of indigenous culture, arts, and tradition.”

As yet, despite at least a decade of development of the field, there appears to be no comprehensive portal on the Internet for theater and development. However, the Netherlands’ Royal Tropical Institute Web site on theater and development contains a brief introduction to the topic, links to other sites and publications, and a news and events listing that, at this writing, mentions theater activity in Cameroon, Egypt, and Kenya.  The Paris-based International Theatre Institute, founded by UNESCO and the international theater community in 1948, has begun a directory of theater for development practitioners worldwide, listing people in 13 countries, including Pakistan, the Philippines, and a “theatre between frontiers” in Sudan. Jayne Cravens, a researcher on the organizational context of theater and development, maintains a list of Web sites, publications, and helpful practitioners.

Source, a London-based “international information support centre designed to strengthen the management, use and impact of information on health and disability,” maintains an impressive annotated bibliography on all facets of participatory communication. Under the “Key lists” subhead, click on “Theatre for development” for a list of publications, then click “full details” to get the annotations. The International Institute for Environment and Development journal Participatory Learning and Action published a special issue in 1997 on “Performance and Participation” that examines how international development practitioners have applied the theater arts to their programs.

The academic presence of theater for development in the United States appears to be largely limited to single courses or isolated faculty within a department, occasionally in combination with visiting faculty or field study. The United Kingdom, however, has several formal programs of study. At least one undergraduate program exists, Drama and Applied Theatre at St. Mary’s University College in London. Most university programs, however, are at the graduate level. These include programs at the University of East Anglia (Theatre and Development); the University of Leeds (Theatre and Development Studies); the University of London (Drama in the Community and Drama Education, at the Central School of Speech and Drama, and Contemporary African Theatre & Performance, at Goldsmiths College); and the University of Winchester (Theatre and Media for Development).

Because the outcomes of theater for development are difficult to measure, regular evaluation and self-examination of programs are appropriate. A 2003 study funded by the Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency looked retrospectively at programs in six African countries and offered suggestions for the future. The study recommended in particular that practitioners focus intently on involving local participants in creating new scenes, testing actions, and solving problems, rather than in presenting finished products. In addition, the overview by the Royal Tropical Institute listed above mentions potential drawbacks, including cost, long development times, and varied skill levels of producers and performers. Individual practitioners have offered important perspectives as well, including Alex Mavrocordatos, a senior lecturer at the University of Winchester, who warns against top-down performance and emphasizes the need to work directly with the community.  Further, Cravens outlines a number of administrative and contextual factors necessary for the success of theater for development efforts, including networking, funding, and outreach in advance.

A final caution: two quirks of the term “theater for development” pose difficulties for research on the Web. First, “theater for development” overlaps quite a bit with other terms, including popular theater, theater for social change, and applied theater, and each bears searching. Second, researchers need to remember to try the British spelling, “theatre,” as well as the American, “theater.”

GEORGE E. CLARK is the environmental resources librarian at the Harvard College Library. Material for Bytes of Note may be directed to him at

1. A. Leiserowitz, R. W. Kates, and T. M. Parris, “Do Global Attitudes and Behaviors Support Sustainable Development?” Environment 47, no. 9 (November 2005): 22–38.

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