One of the greatest means of communication for social action in Africa has been through drama. Applied drama explores unconventional means to enlighten and sensitize society, creating awareness and reaching out to society by enhancing critical thinking for social action. This article explores teamwork by junior third level students of the Benue State University Makurdi. The work relates the development of skills to deepen an understanding and potentials of applied theatre practices. It is the combined efforts of both High School and University students. The workshops culminate in drama skits focusing on diverse topics on social issues young adults experience.
Keywords: applied theatre, social action, Benue State University Students, theatre in education, critical thinking
Applied drama is a most provocative and exciting development in theatre research. It is an offshoot of Theatre in Education, Community and Development Theatre, which raises questions about its future role in performance studies. This movement began in Britain in the mid-1960s, and later spread to other parts of the world in response to the needs of both theatre and schools. Applied drama seeks to harness the techniques and imaginative potency of theatre in service of education, social issues and everyday life, providing an experience for people to engage in participatory theatre while also contemplating challenges in order to effect change. This article discusses examples from workshops in applied drama in Makurdi, Benue State in Central Nigeria.
At the heart of the experience of applied theatre is the fact that it is a theatre for change that exists primarily to question and challenge the given order. Applied theatre is a hybrid form of theatre, and it can be conceptualised as theatre plus something else, as in Theatre and, the title of the Palgrave Macmillan series of short books that attempt to capture the interdisciplinary links of theatre and key issues in society (Landy 129).
Theatre has always served as an effective tool for addressing diverse issues centred on social change. There has been no exception to this fact in Benue State in Central Nigeria. It is on this premise that I discuss how drama has been used for educational purposes across Nigeria. Throughout the years, Theatre for Development programs have existed in numerous different forms across Nigeria, particularly within the universities as part of academic curricula. Additionally, several development agencies and organisations such as WATER-AID and UNICEF have used Theatre for Development for promotional purposes. The practice is used not only to mobilise different stakeholders particularly community members who are the end users towards organisational goals and objectives of the agencies but also as a tool for actively engaging all stakeholders of these agencies. This is done with the belief that this theatre is participatory in nature and is capable of bringing about significant change.
Applied Drama in Central Nigeria
In October 2014, students from Department of Theatre Arts at Benue State University carried out workshops in several schools within the Makurdi metropolis in the Benue State capital of Nigeria. I initiated the project because I had been assigned to teach a course on Theatre in Education to junior or third-level students for the semester. Having taught several other courses in the Department for many years at the Benue State University, this was another opportunity to use theatre to engage the students to explore social issues important to young people.
As a playwright, artistic director, scholar and researcher, I trained at the University of Ibadan in Nigeria. As professor of theatre, I worked at the Department of Theatre Arts at Benue State University, Makurdi. In my own practice, I explore art for social communication and use theatre to address issues of social justice, human rights, politics and development. I have worked all over the world exploring art for research and teaching purposes in a broad number of subfields.
Focusing on the course, though, I had discussed the theory, pedagogy and essence of theatre in education in class discussions and course material. However, I wanted the students to get a better understanding and purpose of educational drama by engaging them to collaborate with schools within the metropolis. This way, they were able to explore drama in education with young children and teenagers and enable the young minds to develop critical thinking skills. Since it was a large class, the students were split into groups, and each group chose a school with which to collaborate.
It was essential to plan a schedule which suited all collaborators. Students visited various schools to get themselves acquainted with elementary and high school students, and they were asked to create imagination workshops through the use of games and other participative modules.
The purpose of the project was to educate school children on subjects and issues concerning their immediate environment and surroundings, with the aim of creating awareness and tasking the imagination of students with creative solutions to social issues that concerned them. This project was meant to engage students’ creativity and inspire them to speak out about and tackle challenges important to them. The themes of the workshops focused on social issues like cultural and moral values, drug abuse, sex education, media education, rebellion and personal hygiene, discrimination and exclusion. The exercise was particularly successful, as students from both ends of the age spectrum worked together collaboratively.
The exercise involved both staff and students at the various schools, and it served as an avenue for both sides to interact and discuss social matters candidly. Various schools worked on a diverse gamut of themes, which were then developed into skits. Each skit was created and performed separately for school audiences. It is important to mention, too, that some skits were created from shared personal experiences of the students, as well as people they knew.
The Process of Playmaking
The skits and dialogues of this project were all based on improvisation. The university students went to the various schools to get familiar with high school students and staff, and the whole creative process spanned five weeks. Both elementary and high school students were available only during recess, so there was limited time to spend during rehearsals. As a result of this time crunch, students had to visit schools many times to build and develop these skits.
The first week of rehearsals was slated for games as a means of introducing the students to each other and eliminating any shyness or perceived intimidation from the team of university students. Our second goal was to tackle the students’ imaginative minds and to build their concentration skills, which the young students found exciting and entertaining. The third goal was to develop students’ minds through critical thinking and to react fast to stimuli. For instance, one of the games was the game of letters, ABCD-Z. This game is based on making a sentence beginning with letter A, while the next person carries on with letter B to create a story. The chain has to continue and not be broken. Any failure means the person is “out.”
The content of this game focused on various topics. For example, students were asked to share their understanding of the term “drug abuse.” Some had no clue of what it meant, while others believed that it was any ingestion of a “hard” substance. Some related to how young teenagers spike soft drinks to get high or drunk, while others take an overdose of cough syrup to get intoxicated. Names of particular drugs were mentioned such as Panadol, Codeine and Aspirin. The discussion also focused on alcoholism, hygiene in relation to students and children at home, food hygiene, sex education and social media. Some students shared personal experiences of friends and other people they knew, and we created stories based on those shared experiences.
The process of brainstorming during discussions created an avenue for weaving out imaginative plots around the subjects. Each group had different themes to work with, at the end of which dramatic skits were created for presentation. These skits had to be reworked several times: certain actions and dialogues were changed for clarity, pacing and content. Through experimentation and discussions, new suggestions were made as to how scenes could be performed better. These new suggestions resulted in better ideas of resolving a challenge or answering an ideological question. The goal was also to achieve a more convincing and meaningful plot. All actions were, therefore, based on improvisations.
Rehearsals took place at the elementary and high school premises during recess, as this was the only time available for the young students in school. Rehearsals were held every week, running for thirty minutes each day. Set and props were all improvised, except at Makurdi International School, where the students used actual chairs.
Performances took place in the fifth week of the project and were held at the school premises with other students, teachers, and head teachers in attendance. There was much excitement in the air as high school students saw their friends and classmates acting in dramas in collaboration with university students. It was a totally new experience for them. Facilitators acted as a bridge between the casts and audiences by interacting with and posing discussion questions to the audience. The cast also asked open-ended questions to enable audience participation. Some questions put out to the young audience included: “should children try cigarettes?” The audience chorused a loud “No.” The facilitators asked why, and they answered, “cigarettes will damage your lungs!”
The workshops succeeded in bringing students and staff together under one umbrella to discuss and learn through drama. These experiences provided hope for the possibilities of change, where future leaders are encouraged to think about their role in facilitating the common good and the repercussions of public change; where the community is reminded about the dire consequences of personal reflection and social action (Landy 130). Following are some examples of these skits.
Skit One: Quick Action
A young child, who lives with his parents, falls sick and is taken to the clinic by his father. He is given medicine to take. Due to parental negligence, the father leaves the young child all by himself at home, since the mother is at the market to sell her wares. So, the father goes out to spend some time at his neighbour’s house, hoping to return soon. The young boy, who is left at home, decides to take the rest of the tablets with the belief that taking everything is tantamount to quick recovery. He later starts to feel uncomfortable and cries out for help. He collapses and is rushed to the hospital by his mother who just returned from the market. It is discovered that the cause was drug abuse. He is attended to and his system flushed.
This skit focuses on child neglect and drug abuse, which are prevalent problems in Nigerian society today. Child neglect is fast becoming a menace in the society, as many parents are absent in the lives of their children, especially during the formative years of childhood. This is also rampant because many men walk out of their homes, leaving their wives to take care of their children. In other situations, many go out in search of money and leave the children at home. I single out this skit because it emphasizes the need for parents to keep watch over their children.
It is important for parents to oversee what young children are doing. This resonated with the audience because many of the spectators complained that the financial situation in the country has pushed parents out so that they can place food on the table. Others were of the view that the search for economic power should not be to the detriment of the family. It was an insightful discourse because some of the teachers related how many young adults are involved in substance abuse from idleness and boredom. Some spoke on how substance abuse haslcaused many young people psychiatric problems (a pervasive scourge in modern society).
Skit Two: The Drunkard
This skit is based on a family. Ajo is a drunkard and heavy smoker who keeps sending his young son to buy cigarettes for him. On the long run, the young boy naturally becomes curious about cigarettes. On a fateful day, Ajo asks Buta to get the “usual” for him. Curious to find out the excitement and appeal of cigarettes, Buta decides to give one of the cigarettes a try. He chokes in the process and starts to cough profusely. His sister sees this and threatens to tell on him, but in order to defend himself, Buta intimidates his sister, Lamen, saying that he would tell a lie against her for stealing from the pot of soup, and thus confirming how girls are bullied both at home and at school in modern society. Buta, however, carries on with his smoking and begins to choke on the cigarette. His mother rushes in at this point and is shocked to find out that her young son has been smoking. Buta is taken to the hospital.
The skit confirms that the home is the first learning environment for young children: parents are major role models. This is because children observe and easily pick up the habits they see around them. This is depicted in the skit as Buta, the young boy, gets curious about cigarettes because he sees his father smoking. This was the argument the audience debated following the performance. Some spoke on the danger to which some parents have exposed their young children. Others related how some parents introduce their young children to alcoholic drinks and later in life watch them become drunkards. One of the teachers even gave an example of her own neighbour, who used to brew local beer, which the son grew up drinking. The son ended up a heavy drinker in need of help. For this skit, many were of the view that parents need to lay good examples in the home for young children to emulate.
Skit Three: Rebellion
Kator, a young boy who always loves playing video games at home after school, is warned by his father to get serious with his studies instead of spending so much time playing his games. Kator ignores his father, saying that he is old and old fashioned so cannot possibly be in the right. Kator rebels against the father and keeps up with his games on a daily basis, playing so much that he wakes up late for school. He arrives to school late, though he is pardoned. However, he is met with the task of writing a test in class, and because he has not prepared for the test, he decides to cheat and is caught by his teacher. Kator finds himself in this crisis because he rebelled against his father.
The above skits were performed at Peniel Nursery and Primary School Makurdi with about three hundred pupils and teachers in participation. The pupils were most excited because they were involved in the discussions on the issues raised in the skits. The pupils answered questions during performances as the action stopped to open discussion.
The teachers were pleased that their students commented on these skits because they had always thought that drama was only used for entertainment purposes. During the course of the presentations and interactions with the pupils, these students’ perceptions of the art form changed; they found the exercise different and highly educative.
Philip Taylor makes similar claims about applied theatre as performed in non-theatrical settings. He suggests that applied theatre can “rais[e] awareness about how we are situated in the world and what we as individuals and as communities might do to make the world a better place” (Taylor 112).
Beginning with raising awareness, Taylor goes on to specify other objectives: applied theatre can provide alternatives to embedded problems. It can heal psychological wounds or barriers and challenge contemporary discourses about society, as well as voice the views of the silent and the marginalized. Prenki and Preston also add that applied theatre addresses ordinary people and their stories, local settings, and priorities. Its purpose is to bring changes in the world outside of theatre (125).
This theory and its intersection with my work, as well as the example I introduced above, take roots in Augusto Boal’s theory and practice of Forum Theatre, which is designed to enable the audience to participate in the drama rather than merely being passive spectators. This theatre empowers the audience to find new ways of resolving dilemmas presented in the drama and has insight to social action.
In developing Forum Theatre, Boal sought to provoke audience members out of their safe passivity as viewers. In Forum Theatre, the spectator becomes more of a spect-actor, so to speak, by switching roles with the protagonist and entering directly into the action. In doing so, the spectator seeks to play out a new ending and propose alternative solutions to embedded problems within the narrative. For Boal, there is not a single solution to a significant social or personal problem, only alternatives. He says, “if the actor can become a sick person, the sick person can in turn become a healthy actor” (37).
In breaking down barriers between audience and performer, stage and society, and in posing alternatives to embedded problems, Boal proposes a new ethos of theatre-making based on political and sociological principles calling for a reversal of the dynamics of oppression. This ethos permeates much of the work seen within Applied Theatre.
Since this theatre has its deep roots in community, it has over the years become a significant site for praxis. The field has grown in other directions including Playback Theatre, Applied Theatre and Drama Therapy practiced within many community venues, which serve to realize the aims of social awareness and change.
Skit four: Sorry for Mhonum
This was a skit performed at Lady Victoria Academy School, Makurdi. A total number of six hundred students and staff were in attendance. The students were most excited because the skit focused on an extremely sensitive subject: sex education. In Nigeria, most young people find it difficult to communicate with their parents when it comes to issues of sex education. Parents also fail to educate their children at home for fear of inciting curiosity in them. Thus, sex education is a difficult subject to raise in most Nigerian homes. Many young people either get their information from their friends, social media or magazines. For this reason, many young adults have wrong notions and information about this taboo subject. This makes them shy away from their parents when they are in trouble, as well.
This performance took place at Lady Victoria Academy. The skit was created by the high school students and the university students. Rehearsals took place for three weeks and were held during recess, since the school had no boarding facilities. Presentations took place at the school compound; the performance was extremely well attended, with many students cramped together in the open space. The action involved both students and facilitators.
The story focuses on a teenage girl, Mhonum, who engages in a conversation with her friends at school. They discuss bodily changes that they have noticed in themselves and conclude to ask their parents at home. Doobee anxiously discusses this with her mother. She tells her mother all the changes she has noticed in her body. Her mother explains the reason for the changes in puberty and also strongly advises her about her virginity so as not to contract STDs (sexually transmitted diseases) or HIV/AIDS, and also not to be prey to any man, in order to avoid getting pregnant. As Mhonum tries to find answers to her questions from her mother, her father steps in and discourages such conversation on the grounds that Mhonum is too young to be educated about human sexuality. Two years later, Mhonum falls sick and is taken to the hospital only for her parents to find out that she is pregnant and HIV positive. Her parents are shocked at how their young daughter could become pregnant at the early age of fifteen: her mother is distraught.
Mhonum’s friends come to pay her a visit and are also shocked when informed about her situation; the girls claim they had warned her about her friendship with notorious boys at school, since their own mothers had advised them against keeping bad company like that. Mhonum’s parents are surprised at their level of knowledge on sex education. At this point, Mhonum’s mother becomes extremely angry and blames her husband for ruining their daughter’s life. The father regrets his actions, and the parents pledge to take good care of their daughter until she delivers the baby, whom they will also raise into a responsible child. The audience was excited with the performance and started asking questions right away, with the moderator facilitating the discussion between both sides. The students asked and answered questions posed by both facilitators and teachers at the event. The skit resonated well with the students because it related the everyday life of a young teenager who is curious to know more about her sexuality but is in the dark and so resorts to social media and friends for correct information.
In one of the scenes, Andy, Mhonum’s boyfriend, shares his plan to take her out on a date with his friend. From time to time, he turns and asks the audience for advice on new ways to court a girl. He asks the audience, “How do I hang out with her?” Some boys suggest, “Take her to Mr. Biggs” (an eatery), while others suggest, “Fish World.” The audience laughs as he purportedly lays out his plans, telling his friend that he will give himself two weeks to woo Mhonum. When Mhonum becomes pregnant, she asks the audience if “parents should discuss sex education with their children”; some responded, “yes,” but others said, “no.”
The facilitator asked why audience members responded this way. Some spectators said they felt more comfortable discussing such matters with their friends than with their parents. Others felt bringing up such matters at home would mean one already knew everything, so they would rather not discuss them with their parents out of embarrassment. This turned out to be a tough discussion. The facilitator would stop mid-skit to pose a question asking students whether they believed it was right to discuss sex with their parents. The girls found this unimaginable because it was embarrassing for them to open up to their parents about dating. Some said they felt more comfortable opening up to their friends, while some said they felt conformable discussing sex education with their mothers but not their fathers because they thought women would understand them better.
The topic of health and teenage pregnancy spurred a lot of discussion among the students. In Nigeria, HIV/AIDS is one of the most infectious diseases that can be transmitted through sexual intercourse, blood transfusion, sharing of unsterilized needles or sharp objects, or coming in contact with blood of an infected person through open wounds. There is also the difference between persons who are infected with the virus but show no symptoms (antibody symptoms), and those who have developed symptoms of AIDS. Most often, HIV/AIDS have direct links with sexually transmitted infections.
Discussions about HIV/AIDS generated a lot of excitement among the crowd of students and staff. These discussions focused on the need for prevention and behavioural change, rather than an emphasis merely upon treatment. The facilitator asked questions like “What is good health?” giving the audience an opportunity to express their views about personal health and hygiene. Other questions related to causes of HIV/AIDS and healthy living also arose, like “What are the causes of HIV/AIDS?” “How can we maintain good health?” and “Is it possible to live a healthy life?”
The audience gave varied answers to these questions. Some responded in the affirmative, that it is possible to live healthy lives through prevention and discipline. The most exciting part was when the facilitator asked the audience if they would accept to do the HIV/AIDS test. Many of them only laughed and did not answer the question directly. Some audience members also said that they would not share their status if they ever did the test. Some of the students were afraid of being rejected and stigmatized by the public, so they would refuse to take the test.
Skit Five: Yahoo Trip
This skit was performed at Makurdi International Secondary School. The theme focused on media education. The topic was quite timely, as teenagers and youths are often seen these days surfing the net using smartphones. The skit reflects the negligence of working-class parents in the modern society, who fail to check on their children to know what they are seeing on the internet. This neglect has cut deep into the society because most parents come home late from work and never bother to look after their young children. Care is left to nannies or housekeepers who barely have any knowledge of childcare and education because most of them are not themselves educated.
The play begins with Nkoli and her sister Mimi, who is seen surfing the internet in the sitting room. Their father comes home to find them glued to their phones. He inquires why they are still at home and not in school. They give a litany of excuses but are rebuked and asked to leave for school immediately. Their father takes their phones away. Knowing that their father has gone back to work, the kids sneak back into the house and go for their phones to resume chatting with their friends on social media. Their behaviour contributes immensely to their poor performance in school, it turns out. The girls negatively influence other students and tarnish the school environment in general. As a result, the class teacher writes a report to the college principal about their bad behaviour in the classroom and at school.
Later in the story, Mimi and Nkoli fall into a trap set for young girls who want to travel out of the city. The young girls make arrangements to travel with the scammers and deceive their parents into thinking their journey is a field trip for school. Their mother goes to the school principal to find out details about the school trip but realizes that it is all a hoax. She is shocked to find out that her daughters could come up with such lies and about a nonexistent trip. The parents pretend to be in support but secretly keep an eye on their children only to find out that trip has been organised by scammers. The appropriate authorities get involved, the scammers are arraigned, and the girls are rescued from their trap.
This skit raised a lot of discussion as it focused mainly on parents who pay no attention to their children or their educational activities, but rather lavish them with expensive gifts of smartphones and other electronic distractions. The skit also reflected the absent mindedness and neglect of parents who do not check to know what their children are viewing on the internet, who they are chatting with, or what websites they are using. Additionally, the skit reveals the fact that many young girls have been trapped into forced prostitution by connecting with strange people who promise to take them to other countries.
The skit on Yahoo Trip, performed by the Makurdi International School students, took a different shape from the other skits involved with this project. This time, the facilitator took the role of a traditional storyteller and narrator to interact with the audience. Performances took place on the sports ground. Students were more comfortable in their space because the school has boarding facilities, so the students made use of props, set and costumes, which they readily provided for the skit.
Students were excited about the performance, and the facilitator serenaded the audience with various songs that connected to the story. Some audience members were so excited that they got up and danced to the different songs. The facilitator threw questions to the young audiences on the subject of using smartphones and the consequences of their behavior on social media, asking if children should be allowed to use smartphones. Some students were of the view that phones and tablets should be allowed in school, since they use them to conduct their assignments and to gather information on the internet. A good number of the teachers believed that students should not be allowed to use smart phones. They provided many reasons, even using examples from the skit. The discussion demonstrated that this performance deeply resonated with the audience. It was educational for everybody and showed to the parents that they must check on what their teenage children do on the internet.
The workshop turned out to be a huge success because it brought together both students and staff under one roof to discuss social issues through interactive sessions. Another important achievement of the project was that students were able to gain more knowledge and information on the consequences of drug abuse, sex education, HIV/AIDS and social media.
The issue of teenage pregnancy among girls was raised as it was a serious concern because of lack of accurate information available to young people. Students were cautioned on the need to be more disciplined in their personal lives, and to look out for each other.
Audiences realised that the inadequate information and communication between students and their parents and teachers created barriers to proper knowledge on the issues that bother them. Poor information, it turns out, is the major problem to many young people in society. Many young people have no proper homes where parents have time to educate them, and they therefore turn to crime and violence.
The dialogue and interaction during the production was typical of a Forum Theatre, where facilitators inspired discussions and analysis which identified societal problems and offered solutions. Participants agreed that the skits depicted a true reflection of social issues in Nigerian society.
The audience shared their perceptions on current challenges faced by both parents and young children at home and society, but they did not relate any personal experiences themselves.
Based on these findings, it is clear that theatre for social change can be construed as one of the frameworks that can be used to solve problems and create societal change. The main objective of the project was to explore how applied theatre could be used to address and debate social realities by allowing the audience watch the performance and engage in a dialogue as they learned by visualizing their problems through their point of view: this objective was achieved to some great success.
Through the years, several facilitators working with young people in educational settings have shifted into applied drama, and they have therefore incorporated the many ideas of Augusto Boal. With this focus, drama and theatre can be seen as catalysts for social change and as a medium for learning academic and social skills, thus becoming a means to promote critical thinking. This tradition suggests that theatre-making offers the opportunity to explore and enact what it means to be ethical citizens.
This theatre takes place in different and sometimes unglamourous settings like prisons, schools, orphanages, market squares and in the streets. It involves participants who may not be skilled in theatre arts. It also involves audiences who have a vested interest in the issues taken up by the performance or members of the community.
But the fact remains that this sort of theatre is effective: it has produced quantifiable change in communities. Changes have taken place in several nations as a result of consciousness-raising drama and theatre. Awareness on social issues like HIV/AIDS, drug abuse, child labour/servitude, trafficking and migration has been heightened through applied drama in Zimbabwe, Kenya, South Africa and Uganda. This has been effective because applied drama has the ability to promote discussion about social issues. Therefore, change has become the essence of the theatre experience, wholly engaging people with their work in educational and social spaces.
Boal, Augusto. Legislative Theatre: Using Performance to Make Politics. Routledge, 1998
—. The Rainbow of Desire: The Boal Method of Theatre and Therapy. Translated by Andrian Jackson, Routledge, 1994
Freire, Paulo. Education for Critical Consciousness. The Continuum International Publishing Group Inc., 2007.
Goffmann, Erving. The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life. Double Day, 1959.
Landy, Robert, and David T. Montgomery. Theatre for Change: Education and Social Action and Therapy. Palgrave Macmillan, 2012.
Nicholson, Helen. Applied Drama: The Gift of Theatre. Palgrave Macmillan 2005.
Prendergast, Monica, and Juliana Saxton, editors. Applied Theatre: International Case Studies and Challenges for Practice. Chicago UP, 2009.
Prennkti, Tim, and Sheila Preston, editors. The Applied Theatre Reader. Routledge, 2009.
“Quick Action.” Directed by Sewuese Orodi and Marley Atule, 13 Oct. 2014, Benue State University Makurdi, Nigeria.
“Sorry for Mhonum.” Directed by David Unger. 15 Oct. 2014, Benue State University, Makurdi, Nigeria.
Taylor, Philip. Applied Theatre: Creating Transformative Encounters in the Community. Heinemann, 2003.
“The Drunkard.” Directed by Sewuese Orodi and Marley Atule, 13 Oct. 2014. Benue State University, Makurdi, Nigeria
*Mnena Abuku is Associate Professor of Drama and Theatre and a Consultant in Development Communication, social justice writer and researcher. She has facilitated several development projects working for the advancement, improvement and welfare of women and girls in disadvantaged areas and rural communities. She holds a PhD from the University of Ibadan, Nigeria. Her background in performance has helped informed her work on programs that are reflective to social needs. She has also directed several productions employing applied theatre and reaching out to very many people in diverse communities.