Forum Theatre as Theatre for Development in East Africa

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Theatre for development (TfD) includes a variety of performance practices that aim to communicate or foster dialogue in a development context. Forum Theatre, developed by Brazilian Director Augusto Boal as part of his Theatre of the Oppressed movement has become one of the most widely used forms in TfD. This dissertation looks at the use of Forum Theatre specifically in public health-focused programs funded by the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) in Uganda and Kenya.

The appeal of Forum Theatre for addressing development issues stems from its participatory nature, particularly as it aligns with current trends towards community involvement in development. However, power imbalances inherent in foreign-funded projects, public health communication theories modeled after advertising, and the realities of life- and livelihood-threatening conditions on the ground all work against the liberatory potential of the form. The focus of Forum Theatre is on identifying and combatting oppression; in developing communities, what oppressions can theatre projects initiated from the top down by USAID actually address in practice?

This study is a multi-sited exploration of the organizations and individuals involved in the funding, planning, and executing of two forum theatre projects promoting global public health goals. Through interviews of stakeholders and organization publications including training manuals and project reports, I examine how the organizations involved implement, evaluate, and justify the effectiveness of the use of theatre in their work.

Despite the popularity of theatre for development in Sub-Saharan Africa, many development professionals, particularly in the US, have limited knowledge of how to use theatre in their programs. This study has the potential to improve the understanding of the use of Forum Theatre for both development professionals and theatre artists, allowing for more effective application. It will also place theatre for development in its context in the complicated web of the development industry, illuminating how TfD projects are planned and funded for an audience of theatre scholars and practitioners.