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Arts feature

Changing behaviour

Toby Jones on how theatre is being used in Malawi to help stop the spread of Aids

20 February 2008

12:00 AM

20 February 2008

12:00 AM

Toby Jones on how theatre is being used in Malawi to help stop the spread of Aids

The interior designer charged with decorating the IT suite probably didn’t have theatre in mind. I am staring at the pastel carpeting, Venetian blinds and the useless plug dangling from the overhead projector: we could be anywhere. The sex worker casually hands me her baby and takes to the carpet. As I rock the baby to sleep, I watch the mother and several of her sex co-workers acting out the moment a colleague of theirs declared herself HIV-positive.

We are sitting in the British Council offices in Lilongwe, Malawi, where we have spent the afternoon singing and improvising with these 15 extraordinary women. As they tell their stories, the offices transform into the bottle shops, streets and slums in which they live and work. At one unforgettable moment even the dangling plug is woven into a noose as the mother is driven to suicide.

Natasha Freedman, director of education for the British theatre company Complicite, and I are the guests of Patrick Young. Natasha is keen to explore the potential for a collaboration between Complicite and Patrick’s theatre company Theatre for a Change (or TfaC as it is affectionately abbreviated). The afternoon we spend with the sex workers at the British Council is our introduction to their remarkable work.

Our aim is to spend the week sharing ideas and technique. In practice I will lead a workshop with 20 current TfaC trainees. At the same time Patrick and his two Ghanaian colleagues, Eric and Samuel, will introduce us to their methods as they continue their first year here in Malawi.

Theatre for a Change makes theatre that works directly to help audiences change their own lives. In particular it aims to boost HIV/Aids prevention through a process of storytelling and open debate. The process owes much to the forum theatre developed by Augusto Boal where the audience is encouraged to act out their own solutions to crises that the story throws up.


The move to Malawi follows five highly successful years in Ghana, where strong roots have been laid and where their theatre continues to thrive. With the generous and imaginative support of the British Council TfaC has now relaunched in Lilongwe. It is an ambitious project: 18 to 20 trainees (chosen from 450 applicants) will go through a year-long course as they learn to become facilitators in the Theatre for a Change process.

As would-be facilitators they undergo a carefully structured training in which they examine not just their own sexual practice but also, crucially, the gender behaviour that underlies it. At the same time they create stories to illustrate the consequences of that behaviour. These stories will form the basis of both their ‘plays’ and the open debates that result.

In Malawi these stories are not hard to find. Everyone’s life is touched by the virus. According to the Malawian Health Ministry ten people die of Aids every hour, 240 every day. It is a crisis fuelled by destructive gender behaviour. Women are routinely undermined, ignored and abused by men. The stories that TfaC tells open up the contradictions of that behaviour and invite the audience to articulate and debate the key moments of the drama.

‘How could things have been different?’ the facilitators ask, and the audience will literally get up on stage to demonstrate their answers.

As I begin to work with the trainees it is clear that they have already been on an extraordinary journey of personal development. The women in particular are confident, articulate and equal members of the group. None of these young people has acted before and yet their emotional commitment to their characters is startling. They discuss their stories and the issues that emerge with the candour and empathy which will serve them well when they begin to facilitate their own groups and audiences.

Several years ago Patrick Young took part in some open workshops with Complicite in London. When Simon McBurney, artistic director of Complicite, found himself in Uganda filming The Last King of Scotland he called Freedman to discuss the potential for education projects in Africa. Freedman remembered Patrick’s participation and began to explore the possibility of fusing the work of the two companies.

Complicite frequently devises its own stories and it is this experience that I try to share with the trainees. In the mornings we focus on improvisational games and physical technique. The afternoons are spent writing. The stories that they show me are often intense, fragile dramas that graphically depict the brutal social effects of HIV/Aids. One character is forced into prostitution as her husband rejects her, another is routinely raped by hers. We explore ways of modulating these dramas without compromising the authenticity of the experiences that inspire them. It is delicate and rewarding work.

Natasha Freedman sees the collaboration with TfaC as a way of extending Complicite’s work beyond the traditional theatre audience. Education has always been at the heart of what Complicite does, and like TfaC she is keen to explore ways in which physical theatre can promote self-awareness through play. In the UK there is a pressing need to reconnect young people with their bodies, to which rising levels of STDs, teenage pregnancies, obesity and eating disorders bear witness. The dynamic work of TfaC and its facilitators offers a way forward in attempts to use theatre as a means of changing behaviour.

The roots of Complicite’s theatre lie in the games and exercises developed by the great French teacher Jacques Lecoq. Much of his work was about returning the actor to the centre of the theatre-making process as author, deviser and facilitator of their own work. By rediscovering the origins of contemporary theatre in ancient masked rituals or crowded piazzas Lecoq encouraged his students both to revisit those traditions and to mix and match them in new ways.

As the facilitators finish their training later this year they will take what they have learnt into the nine national teacher-training colleges. Within a year their message will have been passed, via the colleges, to more than 6,000 teachers. These teachers are the key to sustainable grass-roots ‘behaviour change’. They will have the opportunity to inspire thousands of eight- to 12-year-old Malawians. These children constitute Malawi’s ‘window of hope’ if only they can learn to pursue a healthy future. The TfaC project is nothing short of a counter-virus.

By the end of this initial trip it was clear that the two companies could forge an ongoing relationship. Our stated desire to return and continue the work with the company was greeted by a sustained 20-minute sung improvisation. And as the voices rose to a crescendo, floating in and out of the different verses, the trainees began moving and weaving through the space in the familiar shapes of a Complicite chorus. An exchange is already under way.

For more information on the two companies or to find out ways you can collaborate see: www.tfacafrica.com and www.complicite.org


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