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In the world of theatre and performance we talk a lot about the aesthetical dimensions of pieces, and the issues and feelings they raise, but much less about the fact that, to a significant amount of people in the world, theatre is not accessible. Whilst some have easy access to culture and theatre, in other areas there are people who have not seen a single performance in their lifes. However, theatre has always been a community forum; it can enable people to feel connected even if they think they do not belong to the same community. It moves something in them that is hidden, oppressed or forgotten: it can empower them. Accepting this to be true, it follows that, in order to make the world a better place, as many as possible should experience theatre. Educational theatre and applied theatre practicioners try to make this happen, to use the power of theatre as a mechanism for social change. They leave the space of the theatre and go out into schools, community centres, prisons, small villages, to create dialogue and to work with nonprofessionals using theatre. I am one of them.

As a forum theatre practicioner I have been lucky enough to work with people in small villages in Hungary where there are high levels of unemployment, a lack of cultural or community events, and a general lack of motivation,  where people are often excluded because of their identites.

In one of these villages I spent a week putting on a forum theatre play that was performed and devised by the local inhabitants there.  The village in question is a small village with a population of around 400; the people live in very close proximity but rarely talk to each other or organize community events.  When we started on the first day, only 2 participants appeared. People were scared of doing theatre because they knew very little about it and could not see any importance in doing it themselves. In the end, instead of inviting them to the local community centre we took to the streets and began talking to people face to face. And they were grateful for that. Eventually, a very diverse group of people gathered all with different ages and from different ethnic and socioeconomic backgrounds.

teatro foro en HungríaOver the week they got to know each other better; people who previously hardly knew each other were soon playing on the floor together, and one of the disabled participants even forgot for several minutes that her leg couldn’t move. But, more importantly, through their bodies, they shared stories, questions and problems relating to themselves, the village and the community. Thanks to this week, they were brave enough to put on the play, to have the confidence to show other people a piece of theatre that told the story of each and every inhabitant of the village. It took the form of a story about a big flood, full of situations where people wouldn’t help each other.

The forum theatre performance brought many people to the community centre – children, elderly people, Romani, non-Romani, even the local mayor – to think and play together, to replace the fictional protagonists of the play and face the conflicts that they rarely talked about in the real world; to become active instead of passive. On the performance night, they were finally able to feel that they were part of the same community and could look at their issues together, given the chance to become spect-actors.
After this experience, the members of the theatre group founded their own community group where they could sew, cook and create together. When I arrived, they did not have access to theatre; in creating it, they became empowered by it and, in turn, it started to act as a catalyst for change in the village. With these people and in this place, I felt the power of theatre to empower communities, to build trust and widen the imagination of people who can hardly brings themselves to think about their dreams or desires – which implies the aesthetics of the theatre of the oppressed.

The project was realized with Dialog Egyesület and Artemisszio Foundation. Thank you for their collaboration!

Veronika SzaboVeronika Szabó is an actress, drama teacher and applied theatre practicioner who specialises in forum theatre and theatre as a pedagogic tool. She studied Applied Theatre at Goldsmiths, University of London and is interested in audience participation and theatre as a medium for socio-political change. She is a chartered member of the hungarian participatory theatre company, Forum Company.
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