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Day 6 of 16 Days of Activism Against Gender-Based Violence

Photo by Eduardo Pastor on Unsplash

AWC Berlin is participating in 2020’s “16 Days” campaign by posting stories on gender-based violence to inform and inspire action. Follow the series on our blog and social media and let us know what actions you’re taking.

Editor’s Note: The following story is an updated version of our post in 2016’s “16 Days” series.

Preventing Gender-Based Violence: Theater for Social Change

by Jennifer Post Draeger

I first encountered Theater for Social Change as a graduate student at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, where Professor Patrick Sims led a troupe of diverse students in the Theater for Cultural and Social Awareness program. University departments and local nonprofits alike engaged the troupe to help their community members explore issues of equity and inclusion. From friends involved in the program, I knew that it could be a powerful tool in helping individuals both recognize their own responsibility in a situation and take action accordingly.

So I was pleased—but not surprised—to learn that this type of transformative theater is being used to empower people to fight sexual violence.

In the United States, gender-based violence has become an important topic on college campuses and in the military, as trusted institutions acknowledge their responsibilities to address and prevent both the crimes and the cultures that enable them. Prevention programs based on the principles of Theater for Social Change are emerging as useful pieces of the bigger puzzle, helping to empower individuals and transform institutional cultures.

Many of us can relate to the experience of being a bystander to a situation where someone is being threatened or treated unfairly. We may want to help, but we don’t quite know what to do. In these cases, we may end up doing nothing—for fear of worsening the situation, putting ourselves into danger, or simply looking foolish. Theater for Social Change uses the techniques of Forum Theater to empower participants to try out behaviors that could change the situation.

Here’s how Forum Theater works: first, a community decides to use Forum Theater as a way of addressing a concern. This could be a business seeking to improve equitable treatment of customers, a school working to change bullying dynamics, or a college seeking to reduce sexual assault. Members of the community gather in a small-group forum, and a team of performers (professionals or trained amateurs from within the community) act out a situation that involves the issue of concern. Audience members are explicitly invited to stop the play, come onto the stage, and act out a potential solution or intervention. The actors play along with the new participants’ contribution, and then the audience and performers discuss the results. The process is repeated with different situations and different audience members, allowing community members to test out the effects of intervening in a challenging but supportive environment.

Forum Theater is a strong match for sexual assault prevention programs based on Bystander Intervention Theory, which is rooted in the concept that sexual violence affects everyone in a community, not just the victim. Since everyone is affected, everyone has a role to play in preventing these crimes against the community. Forum Theater provides a platform for potential bystanders to test out behaviors they could use to intervene in an unfair or unsafe situation, as well as the opportunity to discuss the behavior and its effects with other community members.

The origins of Forum Theater are found in Brazilian director Augusto Boal’s Theater of the Oppressed, in which audience members become “spect-actors” and critical thinkers, and in which the theatrical piece is seen as a “rehearsal for social action.” Theater of the Oppressed is now used across the world to empower the disenfranchised and tell previously untold stories, tackling issues from drug abuse to homelessness, and now, to gender-based violence. (See an example from the Teatro Dell’Oppresso in the “Call to Action” section below.)

Numerous American universities are now applying the techniques of Theater for Social Change and Forum Theater in their programs to prevent gender-based violence. In her 2012 PhD dissertation on the subject, Dr. Candace Christensen cites the University of Texas at Austin, the University of Oregon in Eugene, California State University, Long Beach, and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill as among the higher ed institutions whose work in this area has been studied, in addition to Dr. Christensen’s own study of the University of Utah’s program.

What’s more, the US Air Force has begun to use this type of theater in its own efforts to change the culture around sexual assault. (Find out more about the Air Force program in the “Call to Action” section below.)

Gender-based violence is a complex problem. Eliminating it requires changes in attitude and action, something that this kind of theater is uniquely positioned to deliver. I’m heartened to see these programs spreading.

Call to Action
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