In September, a group of Oxford students are heading to India for three weeks where they intend to do something bold, original and likely to be incredibly revealing; using forum theatre to discuss mental health issues and stigma surrounding the topic across the country. Sitting down in Worcester gardens to chat to four of those going: Emma D’Arcy and Tom Bailey, (who are also co-founders for Act for Change alongside Roxana Willis), Claire Bowman and Charlotte Fraser, they explained what exactly they’d be doing and what they wanted to achieve through the project.
‘The project that’s running in September is one that uses forum theatre for development’ explains Emma D’Arcy. ‘The three weeks we’re away sees a group of actors from Oxford and a group of actors from Delhi working together using forum theatre and street theatre to create a forum for discussion about people’s experiences with mental health and to create a safe space within which that can be discussed.’
But what exactly is forum theatre, and why is it such an effective means of creating discussion for these issues? Pioneered by Brazilian theatre director Augusto Boal, forum theatre essentially revolves around actors and audience members coming together and being able to manipulate or influence the direction of a performance. As Charlotte Fraser explains, ‘it seems to be right at the heart of what theatre should be about – getting audiences to interact with actors and talking about important things without getting lost in big marketing campaigns or huge pieces of scenery.’ Tom Bailey goes on to elaborate: ‘a lot of peoples’ problems with theatre is that the depiction of controversial issues really is external – you come to the theatre, you see it on stage and then you leave to go about your lives. What forum theatre does is that it takes that external safe space but makes that useful and gets people talking about things they might not otherwise talk about. It just seems like a great use of theatre.’
There’s no doubt that forum theatre works – Augusto Boal for instance managed to get 17 laws passed whilst running his legislative theatre project in the 1990s. Even for some of those going to India forum theatre had already proven to be successful, with a previous project in Cameroon discussing a number of issues including voter apathy really allowing opinions to be expressed in a new and fresh context. As D’Arcy explains, ‘we get to create a virtual space, a new reality that isn’t tangible, and this means you can try things that might otherwise be scary, especially in the case of something all-affecting like mental health or mental illness.’
But the problems can also be a lot closer to home for some of the actors. As Claire Bowman says, ‘for a while, getting involved in acting, you gradually develop the concern that maybe it’s a self-centred thing to do, and that maybe you’re doing it for yourself. Act for Change has the potential to do something good and to raise some awareness and allow people to discuss the stigma surrounding mental illness, which is quite a rare thing in theatre.’
A key part of the process is to go with an open mind, it seems. Bailey stresses how ‘we don’t want to go there with a pre-planned message, it’s going to be much more about getting people to talk. We don’t want to pretend that we can go to India with any answers about mental health, because you just can’t do that, and mental illness, everywhere in the world, is a complex issue.’
Act for Change may not leave until September but it is clear that the work starts now – getting the funds being an important task. Having already done some forum theatre workshops in Oxford, the key is about raising awareness of the issues being discussed but also getting people to know about Act for Change and all the work it has been doing. For further information make sure you check out http://act-for-change.org/ or the Facebook page at https://www.facebook.com/actforchangein?fref=ts.