Breaking the passivity

Even pigs could fly

Pigs in Space is a sketch from the popular 1970’s TV series, The Muppet Show. Whenever I find myself in chaotic circumstances, I think of this beautiful image: pigs inside a space shuttle, lost, with little hope of returning to Earth.

One such situation occurred on a bitterly cold winter’s day in 2010: a group of actors confined in a van - far away from any theatre – desperately looking for signs of human habitation. This was the early days of our theatre project, Theatre for Everyone, and it was an incredible adventure, encountering a world we did not know before. There were very few events that we organised that did not involve some odd surprise. There was little romance in these ‘ghost stories’ from the Cserehát region, given our lack of contact with the inhabitants of these dark villages we were travelling to.

The people of Cserehát appeared to be living in a different space and time. The streets were dark, but even worse, this darkness also seemed to have dimmed the spirit of the people who lived there — spirits we wanted to rekindle through theatre art.  When we got acquainted we began to open up and better understand each other. Was it necessary for us outsiders to step into the lives of these people? For me, it was, up to a point. Our project wouldn’t have worked if we hadn’t understood the emotional and material lives of our audience. I also believed it was equally important to understand our own strengths and limitations with regard to the nature of help we were able to offer them. We needed to gain their trust, firstly by differentiating ourselves from schools and other social institutions – from all forms of authority.

After three years of insecurity about the future of our mission, our work received a real boost when we joined the project, ‘Giving Wings to the Pigs’ (Szárnyakat adni a malacnak). It helped us to operate at a higher level of efficiency.  The Malacka network helped us to begin a new chapter in our adventure. With the help of Malacka we were able to reach thousands of children, young adolescents and adults and involve them successfully in our theatre, engaging them in different levels of dialogue, not just related to theatre but to real concerns in their lives. The positive effect was mutual: outside of the events, our colleagues from Malacka (social workers, development professionals) also connected more easily with the locals. The theatre event was an occasion for the whole community to enjoy not just the performance but to be involved at a deeper level:  after each show, the actors would play with and engage the children, giving parents and mentors time to work together, a rare opportunity for parents and caretakers to have quality time for themselves.

This ‘split group event structure’ that we employed helped to break the passivity of even the most ‘difficult’ settlements in Cserehát, such as Gagyvendégi or Felsővadász. This strategy combines theatre/drama/participatory events with forum talks that follow the performance. It is a simple idea the potential of which we have only begun to explore. We are proud that at the forum talk that followed the show in the settlement of Selyeb, the participants agreed to establish a social cooperative.

 

The interactive theatre performance, where the locals have roles both on stage and as the audience, prepares them for the moderated dialogue.To put it in more technical, psychological terms: The interactive theatre performance, where the locals have roles both on stage and as the audience, prepares them through a series of cognitive shifts  for the moderated dialogue that follows between them and the theatre group. The dramatic empathy created by the performance (i.e., the increased ability to understand another person’s feelings or circumstances, which allows actors to convincingly portray characters very different from themselves) lays the groundwork for increased mutual understanding among the participants. These uninhibited encounters help the participants to verbalise their problems. Unfortunately, we didn’t carry out any research to develop empirical evidence of such outcomes, so it is still difficult for decision makers to believe that even the very first encounter with a potent piece of art can act as a life-changing experience — and that the change lasts in the long term. Involving the audience in various activities of a stage production, and harnessing the stage as a development vehicle, has long been proven to be an effective method of empowerment. Interactive theatre techniques have been shown to play a role in bettering the life of young people and their broader community.

Our artistic conviction stems from our own experiences that affirm theatre’s ancient function of creating a community and improving its collective state of mind by giving expression to the role-playing fantasy which lives in every human being.

We aim to preserve the experiences of everyday drama in our performances by keeping them closest to the sites of inspiration in contemporary, everyday life. But theatre is not merely about meaning. The physical body, acrobatics and jugglery are crucial elements in our performances, as they attract the attention of audiences who would otherwise perhaps not be as engaged, and highlight the talents of the actors. The use of Commedia dell’Arte masks also helps audiences relate better to the characters.

Our theatrical techniques and equipment are adaptable to a variety of situations: We can set up and perform anywhere within 30 minutes of our arrival, without using a single electrical cable. Over the last few years, our work has moved from theatre to more direct pedagogical work with groups and communities. Our work was acknowledged by the US Embassy in Hungary with the November 2012 Active Citizenship Award.

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Breaking the passivity

Even pigs could fly

Pigs in Space is a sketch from the popular 1970’s TV series, The Muppet Show. Whenever I find myself in chaotic circumstances, I think of this beautiful image: pigs inside a space shuttle, lost, with little hope of returning to Earth.

One such situation occurred on a bitterly cold winter’s day in 2010: a group of actors confined in a van - far away from any theatre – desperately looking for signs of human habitation. This was the early days of our theatre project, Theatre for Everyone, and it was an incredible adventure, encountering a world we did not know before. There were very few events that we organised that did not involve some odd surprise. There was little romance in these ‘ghost stories’ from the Cserehát region, given our lack of contact with the inhabitants of these dark villages we were travelling to.

The people of Cserehát appeared to be living in a different space and time. The streets were dark, but even worse, this darkness also seemed to have dimmed the spirit of the people who lived there — spirits we wanted to rekindle through theatre art.  When we got acquainted we began to open up and better understand each other. Was it necessary for us outsiders to step into the lives of these people? For me, it was, up to a point. Our project wouldn’t have worked if we hadn’t understood the emotional and material lives of our audience. I also believed it was equally important to understand our own strengths and limitations with regard to the nature of help we were able to offer them. We needed to gain their trust, firstly by differentiating ourselves from schools and other social institutions – from all forms of authority.

After three years of insecurity about the future of our mission, our work received a real boost when we joined the project, ‘Giving Wings to the Pigs’ (Szárnyakat adni a malacnak). It helped us to operate at a higher level of efficiency.  The Malacka network helped us to begin a new chapter in our adventure. With the help of Malacka we were able to reach thousands of children, young adolescents and adults and involve them successfully in our theatre, engaging them in different levels of dialogue, not just related to theatre but to real concerns in their lives. The positive effect was mutual: outside of the events, our colleagues from Malacka (social workers, development professionals) also connected more easily with the locals. The theatre event was an occasion for the whole community to enjoy not just the performance but to be involved at a deeper level:  after each show, the actors would play with and engage the children, giving parents and mentors time to work together, a rare opportunity for parents and caretakers to have quality time for themselves.

This ‘split group event structure’ that we employed helped to break the passivity of even the most ‘difficult’ settlements in Cserehát, such as Gagyvendégi or Felsővadász. This strategy combines theatre/drama/participatory events with forum talks that follow the performance. It is a simple idea the potential of which we have only begun to explore. We are proud that at the forum talk that followed the show in the settlement of Selyeb, the participants agreed to establish a social cooperative.

To put it in more technical, psychological terms: The interactive theatre performance, where the locals have roles both on stage and as the audience, prepares them through a series of cognitive shifts  for the moderated dialogue that follows between them and the theatre group. The dramatic empathy created by the performance (i.e., the increased ability to understand another person’s feelings or circumstances, which allows actors to convincingly portray characters very different from themselves) lays the groundwork for increased mutual understanding among the participants. These uninhibited encounters help the participants to verbalise their problems. Unfortunately, we didn’t carry out any research to develop empirical evidence of such outcomes, so it is still difficult for decision makers to believe that even the very first encounter with a potent piece of art can act as a life-changing experience — and that the change lasts in the long term. Involving the audience in various activities of a stage production, and harnessing the stage as a development vehicle, has long been proven to be an effective method of empowerment. Interactive theatre techniques have been shown to play a role in bettering the life of young people and their broader community.

Our artistic conviction stems from our own experiences that affirm theatre’s ancient function of creating a community and improving its collective state of mind by giving expression to the role-playing fantasy which lives in every human being.

We aim to preserve the experiences of everyday drama in our performances by keeping them closest to the sites of inspiration in contemporary, everyday life. But theatre is not merely about meaning. The physical body, acrobatics and jugglery are crucial elements in our performances, as they attract the attention of audiences who would otherwise perhaps not be as engaged, and highlight the talents of the actors. The use of Commedia dell’Arte masks also helps audiences relate better to the characters.

Our theatrical techniques and equipment are adaptable to a variety of situations: We can set up and perform anywhere within 30 minutes of our arrival, without using a single electrical cable. Over the last few years, our work has moved from theatre to more direct pedagogical work with groups and communities. Our work was acknowledged by the US Embassy in Hungary with the November 2012 Active Citizenship Award.