Community drama, local theatre: Tools for galvanizing citizens engagement

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Vusumuzi Sifile

By Vusumuzi Sifile

Since time immemorial, mass communication approaches such as community drama and theatre have been used as powerful tools for raising citizens’ awareness of various development issues, and mobilizing them to meaningfully participate in addressing the issues. For many Southern African peoples, artistic expression through drama, theatre, poetry, music, sculpture, among others, have always formed part of the tools used to communicate serious messages between leaders and their people.

Despite the proliferation of new communication formats and technologies, drama and or local theatre remain relevant means of efficient message delivery.

There are times when a drama performance can spread a message better than a speech. There are times when a theatre performance can bring out a message better than a meeting. Compared to other channels of communication, community drama and local theatre have the advantage of combining actions, words and symbols to create meaning. It enables people to not only see situations on stage, but allows them to join the cast to experience a problem or challenge, identify and implement solutions. Drama not only entertains; it also informs, educates and creates lasting images and impressions in people’s minds.

Through drama, citizens do not see themselves as victims of challenges or circumstances. Instead, drama or theatre enables citizens to view themselves as protagonists and kingmakers in solving the challenges. In drama, the citizen is not a passive recipient of messages, but is an active participant in the creation, refinement and dissemination of the content.

By using images and settings that people are familiar with, drama easily fits into the social narratives and allows members of the audience to decode meaning without much struggle. It creates an environment where citizens can engage even with what may appear to be very complicated or difficult issues. One such issue is the accountability and transparency in the extractive industries value chain.

In amplifying voices of the poor and marginalised, and mobilizing them to participate in addressing development challenges, Panos Institute Southern Africa uses participatory drama as one of its innovative communication for development approaches. This is a form of drama that enables members of the target audience to interact with the message by asking questions, sharing their experiences, and proposing actions to address issues raised or identified on stage.

Participatory theatre enables citizens to participate in the development and dissemination of the message. The many advantages of drama include the following:

  1. Simplifies complex information: Drama resonates well with marginalised and disadvantaged communities as it simplifies technical and complex information and allows the target community to engage with the message and take ownership of the issues being raised. By using simple, everyday language, drama and other forms of local theatre address ambiguities that have resulted in some messages being lost in transmission.
  2. It represents reality: Drama says it as it is. Community drama and local theatre resembles reality in a manner that enables members of the audience to see themselves as active members of the story. When people see or hear it on stage, they are usually left with no doubt what the message is, and what action they should or can take.
  3. Enables messages to move faster: Because of the manner it is presented, drama enables community members to quickly relate with a message and generate meaning from it. This makes drama an effective tool for outreach, enabling a message to move quickly and reach a wide section of society.

This concept has worked well in North Western and the Copperbelt provinces of Zambia, where Panos is using community drama to expand citizens awareness of the Zambia Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative (ZEITI) mechanism. Our experience has shown that ff well planned, community drama and local theatre is effective in galvanizing citizen engagement in addressing development challenges.

Vusumuzi Sifile is the Knowledge Management and Communications Manager at Panos Institute Southern Africa. For feedback, email: vusa@panos.org.zm.

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