Earlier this week, As part of the Scottish Mental Health Arts and Film Festival, the Centre for Contemporary Art hosted a day-long seminar on using the arts to work with youth experiencing mental health issues. I attended several discussions and workshops; Lorenzo Mele, of 7:84 Theatre Company Scotland led a brief workshop on producing collaborative drama (or Forum Theatre...this is “of the oppressed week” for me as we are reading Pedagogy of the Oppressed for my MSc and I am now reading Augusto Boal’s Theatre of the Oppressed from which forum theatre is based). After the workshop, Lorenzo invited me to a performance today at The Tron, a theatre here in the city.
The performance (though, as you will see below, that’s not quite the correct term) is short drama dealing with domestic abuse. The material for themes and scripting came from youth in several Glasgow schools. It was staged with two actors; one actor played the part of a man at various stages from youth to adulthood. The other, a woman, played his girlfriend, mother, father, teacher, and counselor (both wore masks). The viewpoint character was the man (this was rather disturbing to some in attendance because, at first consideration, it seemed he was supposed to be a sympathetic character).
The actors went through the whole performance once (about 45 minutes) then began again; however, the second time through, members of the audience could call for the action to stop and request that one or the other characters lift the mask and reveal his or her thoughts. (The dialogue here came from a mix of the actor’s understanding of the character and the young people who contributed to the scripting).
Unfortunately, we were not able to proceed on to the third (and, arguably, most important) stage. The actors would go through the play again; this time though, the audience would become actively participative in the story itself. At any time they could call out, stop the action, and make suggestions for how the characters should act to change the situation (or actually step into the role of one of the characters). I think this would have cleared up some of the misgivings about showing the man as a sympathetic character; this was drama written by and for a very specific audience (young people at risk of abuse or becoming abusers).1 The point was to set up a space where they could explore these issues head on—yet still be in a “safe” place where the action can play itself out. The session this afternoon was an adult audience who work with youth in these situations and are considering ways to address them creatively.
Kudos to 7:84 for doing this project; it’s not something that can just be done on paper and it’s not something that can be performed “at a distance.” The actors involved have to have a good understanding of the issues and be willing to “act” face to face with someone who may be playing these things out in reality.
1 though I think that is not really a separate group of any society; everyone is at risk of some form of abuse and we all hold the potential of doing great harm (or great good) in the lives of those close to us.