The Art in Everyday Life:

Theatre as a Channel for Creative Self- and Community-Expression

 

“Education emphasizes “theories instead of values, concepts rather than human beings, abstraction rather than consciousness, answers instead of questions, ideology and efficiency rather than consciousness.”

-Elie Wiesel (quoted in David W. Orr, Earth in Mind)

 

The problem we face in schooling today (at all levels) is that there is a mass production mind-frame at work – through the goals of efficiency and predictability and the promotion of quantity over quality, passivity over engagement.  As Wiesel’s quote suggests, we no longer nurture the values of self-worth or creativity.  We are instead encouraged to follow paths that lead succinctly toward ‘success’ – as defined by school degrees, well-paying jobs and social status. In pursuing these didactic ideals, we lose our abilities to act in spontaneous, innovative, self-motivated ways—for our own accord and in interactions.

 

While there are many social and political barriers that limit change in education, there are constraints that we can challenge first individually – those on our imagination.   Artist Ananda Coomaraswamy said, “An artist is not a special kind of man, but every man is a special kind of artist.”  But, given how creative tendencies are stifled as children filter through factory schooling, it becomes more applicable today to say, “Everybody should be an artist.”  We must lose our fear of being wrong, of choosing a new path, if we are to embrace the power of our own creativities, our own self-knowledge.

 

Processes for un-molding our minds and embracing our creative powers cannot conform to set models.  The emphasis, rather, must be on experimentation.  Because each place is rich in its own diversity of environments, people and ideas, exploring and questioning will unfold in equally diverse ways. The example that follows is specific to Udaipur as a Learning City.[1] However, its premise, open for interpretation and adaptation, is that everyone has unlimited creative potential, but that this potential can only be truly realized as a community.  We encourage other people and places to experiment in their own contexts to develop their own unique processes of community dialogue.

 

Creative Theater Workshops

Tania Meyer, a visiting dramatist from Germany who facilitated ten days of workshops in Udaipur, explains that, “theatre is that art which includes all other arts and all parts of life.”  While participants may have come in with all sorts of personal ideas concerning the meaning of “theatre” today, it has its ancient roots in ritual.  These rituals were used to convey real life wishes, loves, visions, views, conflicts, needs, activities. In this way, theatre had (and still has) the potential to be a powerful medium for free and respectful self-expression, collective creation and community dialogue.

 

But community expression is not in practice anymore.  It is losing meaning, becoming commodity-focused, because of how it is depicted in today’s mass media.  There is an extreme perceived dichotomy in today’s theatre that forms an impenetrable barrier between the role of the actor and that of the spectator.  Theatre nowadays has adapted a mechanized quality, in which participants are followers, roles assigned, lines memorized, and productions staged.  Period.  This leaves no room for creative interaction, self-direction or reflection. 

 

With these considerations in mind, the Shikshantar “theatre” workshops strove to break down mind-barriers, to un-learn these stereotypes through a variety of experiences.  The larger aim here was not on production, as in a drama club or such, but rather on a process that, through meaningful activities and interactions, involved everyone in community expression. Mahesh, of Shikshantar, explains that the theatre workshops were a “collective, honest effort – a process of creating, not imposing, an atmosphere to be free and respectful.”

 

Over the course of ten days in October, Shikshantar hosted three theatre workshops, two for local children and one for youth.   Tania led the workshops in collaboration with the Shikshantar team.  Approximately 60 children, between the ages of six and 13 attended the seven-day workshop consistently, divided into separate morning and afternoon sessions. Approximately 15 youth, between the ages of 17 and 23 attended the three-day youth workshop.  The activities within each workshop included non-competitive games, skits, and exercises in reflection that aimed to enhance awareness, cooperation, collaboration, trust, coordination, concentration, relaxation, creativity and confidence.  The differences in activities among the workshops were based on what the participants chose; what worked well for one group (or sub-group) was often different for others.  The participants had the freedom to explore the activities they enjoyed and to make decisions about how their time was spent.  This also meant that they held responsibility for completing tasks, such as creating skits, brainstorming in groups, discussing ideas, etc.

 

Examples of Non-Competitive Activities

Non-competitive games provide an outlet for group engagement in which participants are not encumbered by the pressure to win, to use aggressive words or actions, or to judge. In fact, very few games or tasks require competition in order to be successful or effective. The short list of non-competitive games that follows provides a basic idea of how such activities are carried out and what meanings or themes can be engaged through the process.  These games have limitless potential for adaptation and re-structuring.

 

Winking Game: This eye-contact game is played with two concentric circles of people, one directly behind the other. There is one person alone in the inner circle; this person is “It”.  The goal of the game is for the person “It” to make eye contact with someone else in the inner circle.  By concentrating on the eye movements and focus of “It”, each person should be aware of who is about to move and when to react.  The  person chosen by a wink must dash across the inner circle and stand behind the person “It”…BUT only if he/she can move fast enough to avoid being grabbed by HIS/HER partner in the outer circle.  If there is a failed attempt, the partners swap positions (the person in the inner circle goes behind to the outer circle); if there is success, the person standing alone is the new “It”. By stressing the importance of initiating and maintaining eye contact throughout, this game serves to facilitate alertness, concentration, awareness and collaboration.  As participants learn to focus on the eye signals and messages of others, they also learn to communicate through and value these signals.

 

Blind Walk: This is a trust-building game that can be played in a number of ways.  One way is for three or four people to form a circle around a “blind person” (who is either blindfolded or closing his/her eyes).  The blinded one walks, unassisted and without instruction, trusting that the circle of people will not let anything get in the way.   Another variation of this game is with partners.  One is blinded and the other leads by making a buzzing or clicking noise in the direction the blinded should walk.  The leader can move forward, backward, side to side and also up and down.  The blinded person follows this noise, walking as he/she is ‘told’.  These are trust games, in a number of respects.  In one way, they create a trust between people.  In another, they create trust in one’s own senses and an awareness of everything around them through these senses. 

 

Machine Game: In this game, the goal is for participants to collaborate and work together as a team to create a  “machine” of movement.  One person starts a movement and another person incorporates themselves into this movement in a new way.  For example, if one person is rowing, a new person can pretend to be the force propelling the row.  As each person chooses a place somewhere in the scene, a complex machine is constructed, with every person performing a different role.  This game encourages participants to act as an individual, using personal ideas and creativity in a collaborate effort.  There is no preconceived idea of how the “machine” will work, so each person’s contribution is unique and welcome.

 

Reflections on the Process

Many of the children and youth did not know each other.  Creating relationships was an important part of the workshop process. In the beginning of the workshops, from Tania’s observation, there was a tension caused by self-consciousness and fear, especially apparent in the case of the youth workshop.  This tension may have been tied to their deeply embedded need to fit into the crowd, rather than take their own risks in standing out.  In the children’s workshop, attention span also posed a challenge; some children could not focus on a task or game, which led to interruption for the entire group.  The new types of interactions and activities introduced through the workshops defied a structured way of learning that has been integrated into their lives and relationships.  It was difficult for many to discard situational expectations and customary ways of group relating.  The freedom of self-expression, the importance of participation and the opportunity to put forth personal reflections (as pivotal points of the workshops) posed a radical challenge to those accustomed to schooling.

 

Vimal Vyas, 20, a business-management student in Udaipur who participated in the youth workshop, explained that he does not normally have these sorts of opportunities and interactions.  “Even eye-contact was new for some people,” he elaborated. “When I heard about [the workshop], my initial response was, ‘What am I going to do for six long hours everyday?!’ But within that time we were able to start breaking down many mental and personal barriers.”  This, Vimal believes, is the first step in a process of change – of communicating ideas and developing initiative.  These small steps are key to building an understanding between people, to using expression as a tool to break down the fear that immobilizes us and prevents us from communicating and trusting others.

 

For Tania and others at Shikshantar, the workshops presented the opportunity for some level of facilitation.  The role of facilitator is important to reflect on, because the role of “teacher” is often attributed to an authoritarian figure – one who is in charge, directing, setting expectations, and measuring others against them. The goal during these workshops was for everyone to be involved in a learning process.  For example, the entire team was trying all or some of the activities for the first time, participating fully in the learning experience with the children and youth.  Facilitators sought to abolish the standard of teacher/student relationships and create an atmosphere of equally distributed responsibility and participation – where no one was above or below and no one was right or wrong.  

 

The hope is that together everyone can create spaces in which they feel confident expressing themselves. This, in turn, leads to the desire for deeper levels of engagement. In the case of the children’s workshops, it was apparent that, as the children became more comfortable with each other, they were more able to focus on projects and games.  When suggestions were made to change a part of a skit, for example, it became easier for them to work together in their small groups to come up with a new idea.  In the end, the children presented skits to the whole group in a way that incorporated everyone – where as, in the beginning, many children had covered their faces or refused to participate at all.  In the case of the youths, many expressed the workshop provided them the opportunity to make new relationships and learn new things about themselves.  In the days following the workshops, it has been encouraging to see many of the participants, both youth and children, developing their own discussion groups, playing games and meeting together at Shikshantar and in the neighborhood.

 

The process of growing a creative community of empowered, respectful, engaged participants is one linked intrinsically to that of unlearning.  As people begin to challenge themselves, develop their own creativities and see themselves as part of a larger potential, they also begin to challenge the fundamental facets of schooling that limited them in these pursuits before.  Unlearning these traits becomes possible when opportunities to feel, see and live in new ways, through direct experiences, active participation, and with a supportive community, are available. 

 

Creative, community expression does not come with a formula.  Rather, it is built upon our motivation to reveal ourselves honestly, to be connected both to personal ideas and beliefs, each other, and to the world.  This foundation is supported by understanding people – seeing and respecting that each person has a profound collection of experiences, ideas, stories and connections that contribute to who they are, how they interpret the world and what they believe.  Once individuals begin to understand this vitality in their own communities, they can then make connections to the world outside their own communities and appreciate this potential in everyone. This can catalyze new types of cooperative living, in which people feel comfortable dialoguing about community problems, visions, feelings and ideas.  The circle of respectful communication and learning thus widens, as they move to uncover the infinite human potential, creativity and expression that has been there from the beginning.



[1] For further interest, see Vidhi Jain and Manav, “A Seach for Meaning: Udaipur as a Learning City”, in Unfolding Learning Societies: Challenges and Opportunities. Udaipur: Vimukt Shiksha, 2000.