What Is This Thing, Drama? Plays for Dialogue in a Rwandan College Setting

Amy Green*

Abstract

Between 2010 and 2017, a series of summer residencies at the University of Rwanda College of Education brought groups of American graduate students in applied theatre to Kigali to support the training of that country’s first cohort of secondary-school drama teachers. Workshops introduced the preservice teachers to such applied and educational theatre strategies and performance skills as process drama, Forum theatre, theatre for literacy, playbuilding and staging a show. Paramount in the planning, implementation and effectiveness of the program was adhering to best practices in Theatre for Development to avoid Freirean cultural invasion, honor the assets of the Rwandan participants and treat them not as legatees of genocide but, rather, as forward-looking undergraduates preparing for professional futures.
Over time, these strategies created a trusting partnership, classroom and performance skills, and open dialogue about life in Rwanda and the United States. Given Rwanda’s legacy of post-colonial, lecture and testing-based education, the project’s most important accomplishment was to give the drama teacher trainees direct experience of theatrical activities that problematize the familiar, challenge right-and-wrong answers and elicit ideas that might otherwise be taboo, within the relatively safety of aesthetic distance. Initial participant responses often echoed standard discourses around national unity and progress, but in each iteration of the project, dramatic engagement allowed participants to challenge hegemonic ideas. Outcomes were ultimately constrained by limited funding, the fact that positions for Rwandan drama teachers never materialized, the drama major withered and the projected ended in 2017.
Keywords: University of Rwanda College of Education, educational theatre and drama, drama teacher training, Theatre for Development, CUNY Master of Arts in Applied Theatre

The stylish young woman was enjoying lunch with me and a cluster of her peers in a bustling café directly across the street from their college. I had invited the classmates, who were ready to graduate from the University of Rwanda College of Education (URCoE) in Kigali, to talk to me about how they had used theatre as a pedagogy in their student teaching internships. They shared triumphant stories of students making up skits in English classes and playing theatre games to build confidence as public speakers. The student teachers directed outdoor plays that attracted whole schools full of students to watch and cheer from classroom windows. These activities had persuaded doubtful headmasters to recognize the value of theatre in schools. I would have the pleasure of confirming the headmasters’ conversions when I visited schools in and around the city. Thinking back over their four years together reminded the young woman of her confusion when she first opened her letter of admission to a new drama major and wondered “What is this thing, drama?” (Green).[i]

It is a good question and invites us to reconsider others: What are the purposes of drama/theatre? Who makes it and who receives it? What does it demand of artists and audiences? How do creating and watching a performance affect creators and witnesses? How do the answers to these questions change over time and place?

This essay explores a years-long international partnership between URCoE and the City University of New York (CUNY) School of Professional Studies (SPS) that enabled the Kigali drama students to develop context-specific answers as they experimented with educational theatre forms and co-created original plays, most of them for the first time. As a founding faculty member of the CUNY Master of Arts in Applied Theatre program (MAAT), I accompanied the group to Kigali in 2013 and 2015 to document and evaluate Project Rwanda.

Context: Post-Genocide Theatre in Rwanda

Almost two decades after the 1994 Rwandan genocide, unity, reconciliation and social and economic progress were still the highest national priorities. Government-run programs sought judicial and community conflict resolution, more gender equality and less domestic violence, universal primary education, increased secondary school and college access, efficient agriculture and a vibrant economy. The National Unity and Reconciliation Commission recognized “‘art and theatre . . . as tools to foster unity and reconciliation among Rwandans” (Thompson 78–79).

Gacaca court session, 2006. Photo: Elisa Finocchiaro

Performative events were woven into the national recovery effort. Gacaca tribunals, a traditional form of African community justice, were inherently theatrical. Local survivors of the genocide assembled under acacia trees to adjudicate victim complaints and perpetrator confessions according to a predictable script. Every April 7, the first day of the 1994 genocide, commemorative spectacles of suffering and mourning fill Kigali’s thirty-thousand-seat Amohoro Stadium with “terrified, pleading wails” (Gourevitch).[ii] Government-sponsored village associations use skits as a forum for public discourse, and NGOs present didactic playlets that preach public-health messages and generally instruct locals on “correct behavior” (Breed, “Performing Reconciliation” 508). Popular TV and radio soap operas peddle cautionary tales of fortunes and lives lost to those who flout norms.

Performers re-enact the mass slaughter of the 1994 Rwandan genocide. Photo: Ben Curtis/AP
A swooning audience member is carried out of Amohoro Stadium during the 2014 kwibuka memorial event. Photo: Getty Images

Critics claim that didactic, utilitarian performances “‘convey a message’ to audience ‘targets’ to create ‘outcomes’ that are ‘tied to the fulfillment of criteria’” (Kerr 216). They are antithetical to theatre’s capacity “to ‘transcend’ or sidestep the normative values of a society” in order to create “space and time beyond the dominant” in which alternative voices and alternative ways of seeing can be explored and celebrated” (Kershaw qtd. in Jackson 198–99). Ananda Breed faults post-genocide Rwandan performance for subservience to “identity construction and nation building” (Performing the Nation 33). Their pervasive function was indoctrination. “[T]he governmental adoption of grassroots associations may illustrate a ‘bottom up’ initiative, but the danger may be that the mass population participates in government-driven rhetoric of reconciliation instead of truthful and analytical communication” (“Performing Reconciliation” 508).

Rwandan audiences exposed to these didactic, “anti-dialogical” (Freire 93) performances might propose a corollary response to “What is drama?” In their hypothetical definition, drama would be a mechanism to show everyone, including those without formal education, the right way to behave in the aftermath of the genocide in order to build the New Rwanda.

Drama for Education: An International Partnership

Perhaps in response to performances that supported the national agenda, the Rwanda Education Board (REB) issued a mandate in 2009 to add drama to the secondary-school curriculum. Drama participation would “enable [students] to effectively shape, express and share their ideas, feelings and responses” and “encourage the writer, performer and audience to become better informed and more thoughtful about a range of political, social and moral issues” (Advanced Level Drama Curriculum 5).

In response to the mandate, the University of Rwanda College of Education (URCoE)[3] designed and recruited an inaugural class to a new major that would prepare students to become the country’s first drama teachers. Shortly into the first semester, the faculty realized that they lacked expertise about the uses of drama in education and the practical theatre arts. Their orientation was literary and theoretical. They taught their drama students to read and analyze plays but knew they also needed to provide practical strategies for work in the field.

A member of the URCoE faculty, Jean de Dieu Musayidizi, had earned his master’s degree at the Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drama, where he discovered the benefits of drama in education. His mentor, Tony Goode, put him in touch with Chris Vine and Helen White, the heads of another new theatre program seven-thousand miles away. The CUNY Master of Arts in Applied Theatre (MAAT) was the first program of its kind in the United States when it opened in 2008. Two years later, Vine and White accepted the invitation to supplement drama-teacher training in Kigali and launched Project Rwanda

Applied Theatre Pedagogy

Applied theatre, according to MAAT Academic Program Director Vine, covers a wide range of participatory activities in service of education, community building and social justice. Applied theatre harnesses “the distinct educational value of theatre in a variety of social, cultural, and artistic contexts” (Jackson 1). In contrast to didactic performance practices that aim to correct and indoctrinate, applied theatre is dialogic. It intends to raise awareness, pose questions and spark dialogue among theatre makers and audiences alike.

Foundational texts in the MAAT curriculum include Paulo Freire’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed and Augusto Boal’s Theatre of the Oppressed, both derived from the authors’ work with impoverished communities in their native Brazil. Freire’s philosophy of “humanistic liberatory education” cultivates conscientização (104),“the emergence of consciousness” through “action and reflection,” that can lead to “critical intervention in reality” (81). Awareness of systemic oppression teaches that social and political practices are not immutable laws of nature and can be dismantled. “[T]hrough transforming action they can create a new situation, one which makes possible the pursuit of a fuller humanity” (47). After Freire, Boal calls for participatory forms of theatre that turn passive audiences into “spect-actors,” who engage in “rehearsal for the revolution” (122).

Vine and White recognized the relevance of their pedagogy to the Rwandan situation. In consultation with the URCoE faculty they planned the first summer residency which became the basic model for subsequent visits. The goals of the partnership were to “explor[e] stagecraft for creating and performing original work and facilitation skills for using it to promote dialogue and critical thinking amongst audiences” (Project Rwanda).

Veteran practitioners, Vine and White were mindful of the quicksand that can sink well-meaning Theatre for Development projects into impotent, condescending and sometimes dangerous exercises in “cultural invasion” (Freire 180). Northern Hemisphere saviors bearing gifts of expertise to developing parts of the world can impose alien values and unworkable solutions to local problems. They committed to demonstrating theatrical pedagogies, fostering performance skills and instilling confidence in the teacher trainees and not to dredge up the genocide or dwell on its legacies. Despite their radical pedagogy, the MAAT visitors had no desire to foment social upheaval in Rwanda. They would use metaphor and aesthetic distance to support critical thinking and creativity. The participants would decide whether to relate the stories to their own lives.

Two-week residencies comprised community-building games, graduate-student-led workshops and faculty-led collaborative playbuilding projects that culminated in public performances. Devised plays were adapted from a variety of global source materials, from African folklore to fairy tales to Romeo and Juliet and an American novel. Casts of undergraduate and graduate students turned skeletal scenarios into fully realized dramas. This process facilitated cultural exchange, playful experimentation, mutual learning and the joy of presenting original work to a live audience.

URCoE students build their theatrical  imaginations in a fabric-play workshop. Photo: Amy S. Green

In a country being held together by an aspirational unified identity and strict codes of conduct, there was no guarantee in 2010 how much “truthful and analytical communication” (Breed, “Performing Reconciliation” 508) Rwandan students, faculty and administrators would tolerate. Nor could we have guessed whether the URCoE students, as products of a post-colonial lecture-and-exam system, would be willing to unleash their imaginations, resist hegemonic norms or launch themselves full-throated into live performance.

Devising, Performance and Reception in a Kigali Multipurpose Room

Devising a play with a large, multicultural, multilingual cast of near-strangers in less than two weeks would be a major undertaking anywhere. In Kigali, it meant bridging language, culture, varying levels of experience and overcoming stage fright. In 2013, the partners produced a double bill of original short plays: The Last Town on Earth, based loosely on Thomas Mullen’s 2006 novel, and The Great Sleep, compiled from multiple global variations of the story most familiar in the West as Sleeping Beauty. According to Vine, materials were chosen for their potential as Brechtian Lehrstück, or learning plays, and for their adaptability to the concerns of Rwandan young people. Generative themes included loyalty, greed, betrayal, revenge, pride and inequality.

The Playbuilding Process

Applied theatre projects do not necessarily need formal spaces, trained performers, well-designed sets, lights, or costumes, a script or even an audience. Original plays are often devised through playbuilding, “the creative process of assembling a dramatic performance or presentation from the building blocks of drama and theatre, through improvisation, discussion and rehearsal” (Bray 3). Playbuilding invites participants “to be playwright, performer, director, composer, technician, designer, [and] critic” (1).

In addition to teaching in the MAAT, Helen White is Artistic Director of the CUNY Creative Arts Team Youth Theatre which she and Vine (they are married) co-founded in 1995. The young people come from all five boroughs of New York City, join without audition, participate for free and range in age from 12 to 21 in junior and senior companies. They meet weekly from September to June and use a variety of participatory techniques to investigate things they care about, such as family dynamics, peer pressure, racial injustice, disability rights, healthcare and economic inequality. The senior group devotes the winter months to devising a play for public performance. They propose and research issues of concern, improvise scenes, share and reflect on their works-in-progress, hone the material and develop thematic threads. It takes eight weeks. At URCoE, the creative team had two weeks at most.

The condensed time frame in Kigali required shortcuts and benefited from workshops in basic theatre skills. The more summers individual students participated in the residencies, the better the skills and vocabulary they shared with their CUNY teachers. The biggest time saver in Kigali was adapting source material instead of starting from scratch. Given scenarios launched the creative process. Finished plays were made through collaboration, brainstorming, experiment, compromise and problem-solving. They could only have been made by these performers, some of whom walked up to four hours each way from home to campus. Some of the male students attended daily sessions in sparkling white button-down shirts and neatly pressed slacks that had been painstakingly hand-laundered and ironed the night before. Facilitators were careful to make floor work optional.

Playbuilding at URCoE followed a routine. CUNY facilitators narrated the basic elements of stories in English. More fluent English speakers translated for their classmates. In Rwanda, primary school children are raised and educated in the familial language, Kinyarwanda. High-school students learned in French until 2009, when President Paul Kagame joined the East Africa Community and declared English the official language of commerce and higher education.

Co-director/facilitators decentered themselves to cede significant artistic and interpretive authority to the actors. Questions prompted the cast to fill in skeletal plots with twists and turns, invent stage action and generate bilingual dialogue. In cultural exchange sessions, Rwandan students taught CUNY students traditional songs and dances. CUNY students taught the Rwandans to do the Dougie, sing Hey Jude and dance the hora. Cast members shared laughs and celebrated triumphs as they coached each other in singing, movement and pronunciation. They came up with comic bits, musical numbers and fantastical creatures. An accessible, story-theatre aesthetic foregrounded forward-facing speech and broad physical action. The actors handled invisible props and used their bodies to create mise-en-scènes. Some brought costumes from home.

Performances drew audiences of up to 200 people, including URCoE faculty, staff and students, university and local officials, high school students and workers from the surrounding area. Servers from the café across the street came. Representatives of the US Embassy attended in 2013. Plots always ended at an inflection point or cliff hanger. Post-show feedback sessions challenged audiences to respond to the characters and imagine what might happen next. Of course, each play had its own unique journey to the stage. Below, working from field notes, interviews, and video documentation, I reflect on the creation and reception of the 2013 double bill.

The Last Village on Earth

MAAT alumna Linda Ames Key had been to Kigali as a graduate student in 2011. She returned on a Fulbright Fellowship to co-direct The Last Village with Helen White. Mullen’s novel, set in the Pacific Northwest during the 1918 influenza pandemic, depicts a close-knit logging community that has managed to stay safe but is torn apart when the illness encroaches on their town. The stage adaptation transferred the action to a Rwandan village surrounded by an unnamed plague and forced to make tough collective decisions to keep it out. The URCoE cast were final-year students who had participated in previous CUNY residencies. Confident in their prior experience and common vocabulary, they were eager to take the stage again.

Victims of the encroaching plague in rehearsal for The Last Town on Earth. Directed by Linda Ames Key, Chris Vine and Helen White. 16 July 2013. University of Rwanda College of Education, Kigali, Rwanda. Photo: Helen White

The first rehearsal established the world of sickness outside the village. Ames Key asked the players to decide, “What kind of sickness is this?” and “How can we show what it is like?” (Green). The company proposed digestive symptoms and improvised moaning, belly grabbing, heaving, retching and falling down. With repetition came comic exaggeration. The opening scene became a Grand-Guignol of misery and death that lured its audience into the grim tale about to unfold.

Urgent digestive impact of the encroaching plague in rehearsal for The Last Town on Earth. Directed by Linda Ames Key, Chris Vine and Helen White. 16 July 2013. University of Rwanda College of Education, Kigali, Rwanda. Photo: Amy S. Green

In the second day’s rehearsal, White invited the players to divide themselves into three character groups: village adults, their children and a band of strangers who seek refuge with them. The groups deepened their identities and characterizations by improvising family dynamics, friendships and rivalries. The cast thought that parts of the story would be better told by the full ensemble. At those points, the actors slipped off and then back into their original characters.

As the deadly plague rages beyond their clearing, the villagers seek a scheme to protect themselves. White asked for suggestions of what they might do. They could shoot anyone who came too close; they could flee to an even more remote area; they could build a fence. They decided to build an impenetrable fortification. Their deliberations crystalized into bilingual dialogue:

What should we do?
There is nothing to do.
Let’s run away. (in Kinyarwanda)
Good idea.
There’s nowhere else to go.
Let’s get some medicine. (in Kinyarwanda)
There is no medicine for this plague!
Let’s keep the people with disease away from us.
How? (in Kinyarwanda)
I know! Let’s build a wall.
Yes, good idea!
Make it strong to keep them out. (in Kinyarwanda, then repeated in unison in English).

Last Village
The townspeople block out the strangers’ pleas in rehearsal for The Last Town on Earth. Directed by Linda Ames Key, Chris Vine and Helen White. 15 July 2013. University of Rwanda College of Education, Kigali, Rwanda. Photo: Helen White

The sequence proved the benefits of experience together. An actor proposed a short pause between “Let’s build a wall” and “Yes, good idea!” to let the idea sink in before the villagers agree. White accepted the proposal. “I’m glad you know it should be a very short pause. So we don’t’ have any trucks. Beep beep-ba-beep-beep.” The cast giggled and nodded their heads. In their shorthand, beeps indicated pauses long enough for a hypothetical truck to drive through. They ran the sequence a couple of times. “I didn’t beep at all!” White celebrated (Green).

She asked the actors what kind of wall they imagined. A brick wall. “What steps does it take to build a brick wall?” (Green). They needed to get the clay, bake the bricks, and stack them together. The whole cast needed to participate to show the enormity of the undertaking. They formed three temporary subgroups: clay diggers, brick makers and bricklayers. The laborers improvised and essentialized their tasks into simple gestures. Might the laborers might sing while they worked? Actors demonstrated and evaluated three traditional work songs and chose a call-and-response for the scene.

White challenged them to synchronize their pantomime into a rhythmic round. Diggers shoveled clay to brickmakers, who formed and passed the blocks to bricklayers, who paced back and forth to cement the bricks into the imaginary wall: dig, pass, shape, build; dig, pass, shape, build. The wall materialized as one-by-one the performers abandoned their stations to line up side-by-side, link arms and climb on one another’s shoulders.

“We are bored and curious!” Children climb over the wall, in rehearsal for The Last Town on Earth. Directed by Linda Ames Key, Chris Vine and Helen White, and. 16 July 2013. University of Rwanda College of Education, Kigali, Rwanda. Photo: Helen White

Despite their parents’ warnings, the bored children—“I am tired of reading!”—climb over the wall (Last Town). Within seconds of their stolen freedom, they meet the band of strangers trying to penetrate the safe zone behind the wall. The strangers order the children to reason with their parents but to no avail. Unable to get in, the strangers kidnap the children and declare an ultimatum “to change your parents’ minds.” The parents must take the strangers in or the hostage-takers will kill their children. The boys and girls plead, but the parents still refuse. They scold their children for disobeying and endangering the community. The play ends abruptly, leaving the outcome unresolved. The company declares in unison what each group has declared along the way: “Desperate times need desperate measures” (Last Village).

In advance of the performance, Vine worked with the cast to develop follow-up audience questions. The Last Village on Earth described a long-ago imaginary plague, but “desperate times” resonated. The students wanted their audience to consider the characters’ moral dilemmas: What are our obligations inside and outside our immediate circles? To what lengths should people go to defend and protect their kin?

After a rousing curtain call, pairs of cast members strode into the audience to lead small-group conversations. I participated in a group with URCoE students and faculty, high school visitors and community guests. Opinion was divided as to whether or not the parents should give in to the strangers’ demands. One of the arguments caught me off guard. The children’s escape had violated the deeply held Rwandan cultural value of respect for elders. A high school student insisted that because the children disobeyed their parents, they deserved their predicament. “Won’t the parents be sad if their children are killed?” asked an adult. “The parents can have more babies to replace the bad children” (Green). Triggered by the sudden offense to what I considered universal values, I broke my self-imposed silence and said I would do anything to get my child back. I got my comeuppance when an adult challenged me to reconsider. Would I still do that if I had a second child who had stayed behind and would also be exposed? The facilitators welcomed contrasting views and rebuffed requests for right answers.

Graduating teachers lead a post-performance workshop after The Last Town on Earth. Directed by Linda Ames Key, Helen White and Chris Vine. 19 July 2013. University of Rwanda College of Education, Kigali, Rwanda. Photo: Helen White

To answer our presiding question, this particular drama “thing” was a community-generated entertainment that used humor, pathos, metaphor, music and bilingual dialogue to explore the potentially dire consequences of indifference and inequality and inspire critical thinking about intercommunity obligations in times of social stress.

Play-in-a-Day: The Great Sleep

If The Last Village benefitted from mutual experience, The Great Sleep had neither that shared foundation nor the relative luxury of two-weeks’ rehearsal. First-, second- and third-year drama majors spent most of the residency in workshops with graduate students, becoming familiar with such classroom techniques as drama for literacy, visual and physical stage expression, and Forum Theatre. But it was important for them to experience playbuilding and performing for a live audience.

Vine and White split directorial duties to devise the companion piece for the double bill to be presented on Friday afternoon, July 19. The new play was made in twenty-four hours, from Thursday afternoon to Friday morning. Playbuilding followed the familiar participatory process but with larger groups and longer, more intense rehearsals. Bilingual narrators were deployed to telescope the action. Graduate students served as subgroup captains to support moment-to-moment devising and stage manage from within. With less time to experiment with plot, facilitator questions solicited important details. What song would farmers sing in the field? How would a parent react to this? What do you think the characters should do? How do you say that in Kinyarwanda? (Green). This cast were younger, less experienced and nervous. After the first stagger-through gave them a concrete sense of the work-in-progress, there was a notable shift in focus and confidence as they anticipated showing off their work.

Celebrating the birth of the Princess in rehearsal for The Great Sleep. Directed by Helen White and Chris Vine. 18 July 2013. University of Rwanda College of Education, Kigali, Rwanda. Photo: Helen White

The Great Sleep tackled loyalty, jealousy, greed, discrimination, revenge and inequality. The court celebration for the birth of a princess is disrupted by the arrival of uninvited guests. Courtiers swill banana beer and carouse in songs, dances, pratfalls and displays of lavish gifts. They are offended when peasants show up bearing only a “a heart full of love” for the royal baby (Green). The courtiers refuse to share even a crumb with the empty-handed supplicants. The royal parents turn them away with insults, then face the vengeance of the spurned. The enraged peasants curse the court. “When the Princess is grown, she will pierce her finger as you have pierced our hearts, and a great sleep will fall upon the land!” (Great Sleep).

The King bans sharp objects from the kingdom. Cooks and servants will have no cutlery, gardeners and farmers no tools, but, the narrators caution, “The King forgot about the natural world” (Great Sleep). The Princess is carefully sheltered, but her adolescent self is more adventurous. Walking in the garden, she accidentally pricks her finger on a thorn. The entire kingdom nods off. The scene became a wax museum of drooping, leaning, drooling and sprawled out bodies.

The overgrown forest obscures the sleeping palace. The Great Sleep. Directed by Helen White and Chris Vine. 19 July 2013. University of Rwanda College of Education, Kigali, Rwanda. Photo: Amy S. Green

Years later, the original band of peasants wanders back into the unrecognizable area. They wonder what might be beyond the overgrown thicket. Wielding imaginary machetes, they slice through a tangle of trees and vines to discover the time-suspended palace. They try to wake the guards. “Make a big noise.” “Tickle them under their nose with a feather.” “Shake them.” The first guard jumps at the loud noise then sinks back to sleep. The tickled guard sniffs, snorts and throws his head back as if to sneeze, but nothing. They give the third guard a vigorous shake, but he does not bat an eye. The peasants venture on into the garden where they find the peacefully recumbent Princess (Great Sleep).

The Princess remembers the curse. The Great Sleep. Directed by Chris Vine and Helen White. 19 July 2013. University of Rwanda College of Education, Kigali, Rwanda. Photo: Amy S. Green

The Princess reminds one of the peasants of her own daughter. She takes pity and kisses the Princess on the cheek. Startled, the Princess shakes off her stupor, looks around in confusion and spies her still-standing parents fast asleep. The peasants tell her about the curse. She begs them to free the court. Still disgruntled, they consent only if the Princess agrees to become their servant and “live poorer than us.” Forced to consider whether to free her family and indenture herself to the peasants or live free while her family remains frozen, the Princess turns to the audience. “What should I do?” (Great Sleep). End of play.

The Princess asks, “What should I do?” The Great Sleep. Directed by Chris Vine and Helen White. 19 July 2013. University of Rwanda College of Education, Kigali, Rwanda. Photo: Amy S. Green

Unresolved questions hovered. Vine moderated a large-group question and answer period. How can cycles of vengeance stop? What does it take for a bitterly divided society to heal its wounds? To make amends? To forgive?[iv]

Conclusion

Dramaturgy conveys meaning. Resolved conflicts imply a stable and knowable world. As we have seen, typical post-genocide dramatic activities in Rwanda followed a traditional arc: incitement and complications of stark conflicts leading to finite resolutions that underscore the morals of the stories. Dramatic structure reinforced dominant national recovery narratives.

If neat endings proffer comfort and stability, unresolved endings unsettle and provoke. In 1873, A Doll House shocked its audience and critics for its assault on middle-class patriarchy. Alissa Solomon complicates that analysis with dramaturgy. “[T]he rejection of Ibsen may have seemed like a revulsion toward his dangerous topics, but was really ‘the condition of vertigo’ instilled by a dramatic style that made “‘the reality’ purportedly presented . . . and the artistic standpoint from which that reality might be judged’ feel as though they were dissolving beneath the audience’s feet’. . . . The epistemological order” is left dangling (Solomon 53–54). Twentieth-century theatre artists made overt calls for disruptive theatrical forms. Brecht’s Epic Theatre appeals to the audience’s reason to provoke social change. Boal bemoans traditional forms that keep the audience “seated, receptive, passive.” He demands a new theatre to be wielded as “a weapon for liberation” (Boal ix).

The Last Village on Earth and The Great Sleep, with their ambiguous endings and direct questions for the audience, were liberatory and revolutionary in the Rwandan context. The plays were made by and for the college community and drew inspiration from the casts’ experiences and perspectives. Playbuilding supported the teacher-trainees’ growth as critical theatre artists and pedagogues. The performances activated audiences to fulfill Breed’s desire for “truthful and analytical communication” (Breed, “Performing Reconciliation” 508). 

Audience member poses a question after The Great Sleep. Directed by Chris Vine and Helen White. 19 July 2013. University of Rwanda College of Education, Kigali, Rwanda. Photo: Helen White

Instead of tackling current events head on, the plays relied on metaphor to create aesthetic distance that empowered actors and audiences to make their own meaning. Devising and responding to fictional situations bypassed ambient repression. It is illegal for Rwandans to utter the names of the formerly-recognized ethnic groups that clashed in 1994, but the plays created neutral space where participants could grapple candidly with still-simmering tensions around privilege, dominance, jealousy, greed, vengeance, loyalty, empathy, compassion and the power of collective action. By depriving their audience of tidy resolutions, open endings engendered a wide range of audience reactions from intrigue, anger, compassion, excitement and confusion to contentiousness and eagerness to reflect and debate in the public arena.

Making and sharing these performances shifted the normative rules of theatrical engagement by giving direct voice to creators and receivers. The process was dialogic from earliest rehearsals to post-performance conversations. It generated candid discussions of individual and community concerns and invited everyone present to sample Freire’s “humanistic liberatory education” and perhaps sparked a taste for conscientização (Freire 104).

Playbuilding also provided sustainable training that could be reapplied in the future. In 2015, I visited high schools outside Kigali where Project Rwanda alumni had produced plays with their students. I was treated to a Romeo and Juliet featuring a bride in a mosquito-netting veil. At another school, students welcomed me with traditional dance and drumming before performing their devised play about gender oppression at home and sexual harassment at work. I observed another pair of alumni at their weekly drama session with homeless and runaway “street children” (Green).

“What is this thing, drama?” is, of course, a silly question. No response could capture theatre’s diversity around the world, but the CUNY-URCoE partnership suggests its own: Drama as deployed in this project was a collaborative aesthetic process that galvanized communities on and off-stage to engage their imaginations in pleasurable pursuit of honest and respectful dialogue about otherwise taboo topics.


Endnotes

[i] In 2010, Rwandan university admissions placed applicants in programs based on test scores and national priorities. All spoken quotes are included with written and/or oral permission of the speakers.

[ii] Hope Azeda leads Mashirika, the company that produces the annual commemorations. In a June 2020 interview with Segal Talks, she describes the origins of the spectacles and the community-oriented evolution of the company’s play-development process. 

[iii] The Kigali Institute of Education merged with the University of Rwanda in 2014.

[iv] In a rare private conversation, one of the URCoE students asked if I thought Rwandans were “foolish.” When I asked why, he said, “because we pretend that we can live together.” 


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Solomon, Alisa. Re-dressing the Canon: Essays on Theater [sic] and Gender. Routledge, 1997.

Thompson, James. Performance Affects: Applied Theatre and the End of Effect. US Edition. Palgrave Macmillan, 2011.


*Amy S. Green is Associate Professor of Applied Theatre and Interdisciplinary Studies at CUNY and Associate Artistic Director of Nora’s Playhouse, a Brooklyn-based women/femme theatre collective where she directs, acts and serves as dramaturg. Most recently, she directed the off-off-Broadway premiere of “whatdoesfreemean?” by Catherine Filloux. Green’s 1994 book, The Revisionist Stage: American Directors Reinvent the Classics was reissued by Cambridge University Press in 2006. She holds a PhD in Theatre from the CUNY Graduate School and a Kennedy Center Gold Medallion for Lifetime Contribution to the Arts for her work with the American College Theatre Festival.  

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