Grassroots Theater Initiative
The Grassroots Theater Initiative introduced theater founded on the “theater of the oppressed” methodology of Augusto Boal to Yemen. The initiative targeted rural and tribal populations, where oral tradition and storytelling are still important forms of communication, to help communities identify and discuss issues that lead to conflict. GTI operated mainly in the Hodeidah governorate, a relatively stable part of Yemen that experiences problems typical of modern Yemen. Hodeidah also had an existing cultural center and a small troupe of actors.
IRD partnered with the Palestine-based Ashtar Theater group, which provided a staff member to connect with the Yemeni theater community, identify potential actors and theater-based civil society and governmental organizations through which the program could be implemented, and provide training and mentoring. The team developed three plays, The Oblivious Bridegroom (about marriage problems, women’s exploitation, and gender-based violence), With Us or… (about family disintegration due to abuse and violence), and The Mouse and The Donkey (about renters suffering under landlord oppression).
The sketches were crafted to stimulate audiences to interact with the actors on social, political, and economic issues. Through audience participation, the sketches helped people voice solutions to common social issues. Local actors performed the plays and topics were based on the actors’ personal experience and on issues raised during the initial assessment. The project team followed up the plays with town hall and focus group discussions to gauge the effects the plays had on local communities and to refine the performances.
The object of GTI, testing whether the methodology can work in Yemen and serve as a messaging platform, appeared to be highly successful. During the focus group and town hall meetings, participants said the topics were appropriate and the plays effective in engaging people to discuss their problems. They preferred theater to lectures, because it is more engaging and spectators can more quickly absorb the information. Respondents said they noticed behavior changes occurring at individual, family, and community levels. For example, youth reported they had stopped associating with “bad company,” and young women said they had benefited from awareness of the risks of early marriage.
While this pilot could not measure systematic shifts in the drivers of instability in Yemen, the process did work well. Indeed, the approach to presenting social issues and eliciting audience solutions – not to mention gaining “soft entry” into communities – worked better than the partners had hoped. The performances provided a platform for communities to disseminate and discuss messages and ideas that can increase resistance to drivers of instability and reinforce the basic functions of civil society in culturally appropriate ways.
The Grassroots Theater Initiative was implemented by IRD with funding from the United Nations Develoment Programme (UNDP). The project operated from October 2009 through January 2011.