All the world's a stage

21st April 1995 at 01:00
Jonathan Croall on an international theatre conference.

Whenever two researchers in the same field meet, they're almost bound to disagree over basic definitions. Put together 55 members of the drama and theatre breed from 26 different countries, and you could be heading for terminological anarchy.

This was the mix at last week's international conference on Researching Drama and Theatre in Education, where one speaker revealed that the printed summary of the conference papers contained some 60 different ways of describing the participants' field of activity.

This discovery neatly symbolised the need for such a gathering. Held in the School of Education at Exeter University, it brought together drama researchers from Jordan, India, South Africa, Nigeria, Uganda, Argentina, Brazil, the West Indies, Australia, Canada, the USA, and many European countries.

The preponderance of overseas academics - about 75 per cent - underlined the paucity of UK research, which remains sporadic and mostly unpublished. One explanation offered was that research was felt to contaminate or detract from the creativity of drama and theatre; another was that people were too busy advocating or defending its value to engage in research.

A plethora of topics was on offer at the conference, from Taoist approaches to Shakespeare's sonnets to researching drama on the Internet, from animation theatre to the use of semiotics in drama in Irish schools, besides the more predictable methodological and classroom-based subjects.

Many of the group discussions showed how widespread is the influence of Augusto Boal. His technique of Forum Theatre seems to inform much of the pioneering field work going on in the poorer areas of many African and Asian countries, where theatre is widely used as a participatory tool for development, health promotion or political change.

One of the more striking initiatives reported at Exeter was Dramaide, an HIVAids prevention and lifestyle education project for rural secondary schools in the KwaZulu-Natal province of South Africa. With Aids predicted to affect more than a quarter of the adult population by 20l0, the need to change sexual behaviour among the young is seen as urgent.

Dramaide involves a team of field workers presenting plays to the youngsters, encouraging them to discuss and role-play the issues, and then create their own work in the form of plays, poems, posters, songs and dances. These are then performed at open days, attended by parents and the whole community.

"Sexuality was previously a taboo subject, and Aids was simply seen as an American idea to discourage people having sex," says the project's director Lynn Dalrymple. "There's been a great shift in knowledge and attitudes among the young people, and their parents have been very keen on the idea."

Purna Chandra Rao is a theatre activist based in Hyderabad, who uses what he labels "victims theatre" to help poor and i1literate communities in India. His method is to train groups in a community - weavers, agricultural labourers, the unemployed, women in slums - to perform plays that highlight the acute problems in their lives, and then to take them round their region as part of a political awareness campaign.

"I found to my surprise that the improvisation skills of the illiterate people were often higher than those of experienced actors," he says. "This kind of theatre is a very good educational tool, it gives the people the strength to go back to their work with a new understanding."

Rao is one of a small group of theatre activists, artists, writers, social workers and folklorists based at an ethnic arts centre in Hyderabad. Another of its projects entails using the "victims' theatre" method to encourage illiterate children to leave work to attend school for the first time. Some l,500 have done so during three campaigns; few have later dropped out.

In some Far East countries, children's theatre is part of the Theatre of Liberation movement. The Maya theatre company in Thailand, for instance, creates plays out of children's ideas, dealing with issues such as health, poverty, democracy, the environment, and reaching thousands in rural and slum areas.

The dissemination of information about these and a host of other drama and theatre activities and research projects around the world is the main purpose of a research network now being established at Exeter, and of a new journal Research in Drama Education, which will be launched next January.

"We're trying to fill a vacuum, to empower another layer of people below the gurus," explains John Somers, the conference organiser and dean of Exeter's faculty of education. "At the moment people collide by accident, they don't know who's doing what research. A systematic database is badly needed."

Further information from Exeter University School of Education, Heavitree Road, Exeter EXl 2LU (O1392 264824).

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