Theatre – the opening dialogue

focus1Madhu Smriti Shukla

It has often been asked if art can be taught. Can you teach someone to become a painter, a sculptor, an actor or a musician? Or are children gifted and talented and it merely has to be identified and nurtured? This seemingly complex question would probably find an answer if one tried to understand the objective of an art form.

In today’s increasingly consumerist society career options for young adults lie in avenues that are likely to maximize financial returns, be it with any compromise. Hence, these ‘yet to be made’ decisions directly influence the time children invest in learning, apart from ‘swallowing information’. The general reactions and attitude towards an art class today, range from ‘how is this important… what relevance does this have?’ to saying ‘this is an urban thing…. an indulgence… there are better things to learn… this is such a waste of time…’

Should the purpose of an art class be only to churn out artists of tomorrow or can the purpose of interaction with art take deeper significance? Should an art class be all about the right design for the right product that will sell in a market or can an art class be the road to refinement of the aesthetics of human consciousness?

The art of theatre
It is said that where there are two people in a common place and there exists a conflict between them, the magic of theatre happens. Theatre is all about interaction and communication. What distinguishes it from all the other art forms is its composite nature, for it combines in itself drama, writing, song, music, dance, painting, architecture, sculpture and so on. And the art of theatre has been reaching out to children in many forms.

Theatre for children is a format in which adults come together to put up plays for children. Adults plan and enact roles of other adults, children or even imaginary characters for an audience of children, who are also entertained, as some important idea or message is being conveyed to them.

In theatre by children, adults plan but it is the children who enact a play for others. Popularly this is where parents and teachers feel that hidden talents are unleashed and children find a platform for creative expression.

focus2Some schools do offer theatre as a subject of study where various aspects of performance history, and developments are studied and performance texts are analyzed; however, the theatre in education format looks at the possibilities of theatre becoming a technique to impart other core subjects like maths, science and social sciences more effectively. Here the children don’t deal with theatre directly as an art form but through the route of theatre exercises and principles understand other subjects including the exploration of life skills.

Theatre education, on the other hand, deals with techniques imparted to teachers and educators to teach theatre and utilize theatre principles effectively.

Theatre and the classroom
Education has primarily been experienced as a passive process. The teacher talks, the students listen! Discipline, rigidity, standardization, examination, mark sheet scores define the boundaries of this system which displays a strong disconnect with the realities of daily existence. Learning is fragmented for only a few mental muscles are utilized; the larger physical body, sensorial body and the body of consciousness remain untouched. And the only way to revert this restrictive process is by engaging in experiential learning. A process where everyone goes through a concrete experience together, observes, reflects, analyzes abstract concepts and tests them in new situations. This immediately replaces the hierarchy of the teacher and the taught and both become co- learners. The involvement in art opens up the avenues for such a system to function. It inherently calls for engagement, expression, making choices, having an opinion, reflection therefore encouraging the child to activate her/his mind, body and spirit.

Theatre becomes a very powerful medium in this context. It breaks all traditional hierarchies. It allows for direct contact with as many varied human experiences and each subjective experience is valued as there is no one right way of experiencing. Each person and her/his experience becomes unique. Critical and divergent thinking is encouraged; the uses of language are enhanced and hence even the articulation. Classroom becomes a collaborative and creative activity without the fear of judgment.

Theatre and life skills education
The two worlds that orient a child’s world are the home and the school. The crucial aspect that strikes the right balance is the psychosocial competence or the child’s ability to have a constructive relationship with the varied challenges and pressures of life. For school going children, life skills learning represent the vehicle by which they can gain a feeling of psychosocial competence.

Life skills are a set of ten skills prescribed by the WHO – decision-making, problem solving, creative thinking, critical thinking, effective communication, interpersonal skills, self awareness, empathy, coping with emotions and coping with stress. These can be defined as competencies in adaptive and positive behaviour that enable individuals to deal effectively with the demands and challenges of everyday life.

These life skills ought to be examined in several ‘contexts’ such as gender, sexuality, peer pressure, career choices, conflict, abuse, self harm and so on. Life skills instructions so far has remained largely in the realm of theory.

However, if a platform for discourse is created, the process of awareness building, understanding relations within the society, their construction, the construction of knowledge, the domains of public discourse and practices, have an opportunity to be examined and explored by the children. Discussing experiences in general provides a window to life skills; discussing life skills provides a window to conflicts and problems; discussing conflicts in general provides a window to specific issues of gender construction / practices/ stereotyping and so on. This ‘window framework’ allows for flexibility and adaptability in context and content development.

The most effective way of imparting and facilitating these life skills is by the use of experiential methodologies like art work, narratives, games and group work. However, the use of theatre seems to enable greater outreach due to its sheer fundamental nature of engaging people in non-threatening and participatory activities. No one has to perform in isolation, a lot of spontaneity is encouraged and through the course of exploration of life skills, participants develop a sense of affiliation, connection and trust. There is space for deeper enquiry through scene work and role plays. All along the methodology is experiential not didactic, contextual not content based and most importantly, process oriented than being outcome oriented.

Theatre – the beginning of a dialogue
As much as theatre can be fun and entertaining, it can also become a very important medium of learning based on the hypothesis that dialogue is the common and healthy dynamic between all humans.
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In the words of the great theatre practioner Augusto Boal, “Dialogue should be the rule for humanity. All relationships can tend to become a monologue, a man and a woman…. Races –one race tends to be the one who imposes the standards of beauty, etc., the other race submits to that… human relations should be a dialogue but one of them sometimes becomes active and the other passive……. it should not be spectators specializing in listening and looking at the actors specializing in being super human – we should specialize in being human. Because to act is to be human.”

If theatre is embraced in this light, then theatre becomes all about participation, ownership and dialogue – a process of engagement and transformation. Performances are aimed to meet the needs of all individuals for interaction, dialogue, critical thinking, action and fun. The individual’s story becomes a springboard for collective wisdom. Theatre then, is the way of developing personal skills. The path for a journey of discovery and transformation, for every individual who sets upon it.
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And it is this ‘rehearsal of the future’ that allows for the recognition and celebration of the aesthetics of life.

With gratitude to Dr. Shekhar Seshadri, Professor, Child and Adolescence Psychiatry, NIMHANS, Bangalore, for his invaluable guidance.

The author has facilitated several self-discovery and personal growth workshops through drama and theatre in education workshops for diverse groups. She is currently with Makkala Jagriti, an organisation setting up learning centres for children in government schools and communities. She can be contacted at madhushukla@gmail.com.
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