Friday, 14 August 2009

Forum Theatre, by Frank Hakemulder

Imagining oneself into being someone else is often considered an effective way of learning. Through imagination, it is assumed, one can explore the possibilities and risks of unfamiliar circumstances. Furthermore, putting oneself in the shoes of another person is considered to be fundamental for empathy and moral reasoning. Such thought processes may be enhanced in several ways, in particular, it may be suggested, through responses to narrative and role-play. It may even be that these are very much alike.

A practical application of this idea can be found in Forum Theatre, a kind of interactive drama developed by Augusto Boal. Originally, the purpose of Forum Theatre was to make audiences aware of relations between oppressors and the oppressed (click here) as well as the possibilities of avoiding their unsavoury consequences. The scenario of a play in this kind of theatre typically brings the victims to an unhappy ending caused by the oppressors. The play is performed twice in one session: once in the usual way, and then, during the second performance, spectators are invited by a facilitator, called the Joker, to participate. When someone feels that he or she could turn the sequence of events in a positive direction, they are encouraged by the Joker to come to the stage and play the role of one of the characters. It is through the active involvement of improvising in an imaginary situation that the participants may be able to change their attitudes and beliefs. Their practicing of alternative courses of action that would resolve the problem of oppression may add to the effect of Forum Theatre. In addition to the active mental effort of placing oneself in the position of someone else, participants have the bodily experience of actually being in situations unfamiliar to them. This is assumed to boost the effects of Forum Theatre considerably.

To evaluate the effectiveness of Forum Theatre I conducted a field experiment in Sri Lanka (an abstract of this field experiment, Hakemulder, 2009, was presented at a recent conference, PALA-2009, click here for abstracts). In the study, I examined which aspects of audiences’ reactions to such interactive improvisational theatre may be responsible for its influence on both participants and onlookers. Studies concerning the impact of narratives on real-world beliefs, as well as the results of role-play experiments suggest that participants’ and spectators’ feeling of being transported (Green & Brock, 2002) into the as if situation of the play may cause belief changes. This hypothesis was put to the test in the context of Enter-Growth’s Palama, a project of the International Labor Organisation (Click here to see a brief YouTube documentary on Palama). The project aimed at changing the predominantly negative beliefs about business in rural Sri Lanka. I found that some of the intended effects did occur. The degree to which the audiences felt transported explained, in part, effects on beliefs about the possibilities and benefits of starting a business.

Melanie Green & Timothy Brock (2002). In the mind's eye: Transportation-imagery model of narrative persuasion. In M. C. Green, J. J. Strange & T. C. Brock (Eds.) Narrative impact: Social and cognitive foundations (pp. 315-341). Mahwah, NJ: Erlbaum.

Frank Hakemulder (2009). Imagination in the leading role: The effects of feeling transported into a fictional world on real-world beliefs. Paper presented at the Poetics and Linguistics Association Conference (PALA-2009), Middelburg, the Netherlands.

1 comment:

Keith Oatley said...

Thanks very much indeed, Frank, for this post. I find the idea of Forum Theatre fascinating in itself, and the fact that you have accomplished an outcome study on its effects even more interesting.

Here is a question I have been meaning to ask you. Forum Theatre clearly has an element of persuasion to it. Although theatre-goers are not coerced, the writers of a Forum Theatre drama have in mind the kinds of ways in which they would like participants to change. By contrast I think my view is that art needs to keep fairly clear of persuasion but instead aim to enable those who engage with it to change in their own ways, autonomously, in relation to what is presented in the work of art.

I am not sure about this distinction. At one end of the dimension of the persuasive are propaganda and advertisements. More towards the other end I can think of some very political plays and films that I think are fine art. I would like to get a bit clearer about this issue. What do you think?

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