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Theatre for development?

In this afternoon’s mail I got a copy of an international journal published in 2002, devoted to “Theatre for Development” in Africa, including an article about my struggles and failures in Lesotho from 1992-94. I wrote the article in the late 90s, while I was working in South Africa, and then forgot about it. Eight years later it has found its way to my mailbox. The article is good-humored and self-deprecating. In it I look back at my ideals as I first arrived in Africa and met the first of the theatre groups I was to lead. “From my book-learning I knew how to label what I was about to do: it would be theatre-for-liberation, not theatre-for-domestication, top-down theatre, or theatre-of-indoctrination. It would come from within the community it was meant to serve; it would be shaped and directed by that community, with skillful intervention from me…. People would flock to see it, would understand and enjoy it, and would be moved and liberated by it. We would begin with information-gathering, discussion, and script-development; then would come workshopping and performance, then followup.” Dear, naive, hopeful, idealistic young Kendall that I was, I really did think it would work.

Several pages further along in the article, after I’d spent months immersing myself in the language and culture of the people of Lesotho and more months of ensemble-building, bonding, trust-work, warm-ups, and earnest communicating, wedged between teaching classes and planning more research, the moment when I could begin “the work” with a group of African women finally arrived. I write about it with scathing honesty. “‘What are your issues?’ I asked. The room fell quiet. ‘What would you like to change, in your lives right now?’ There were a few half-hearted responses for the benefit of the visiting idiot who apparently could not see the obvious: more money, free schools for the children, more and better jobs. I suggested we create sculptures of how our lives are and how we would like them to be. I demonstrated a ‘sculpture’ and invited the twelve other women in the room to join me. Nobody stood up. I paused. ‘Well,’ I proposed, ‘what if we created improvisations about problems we’re having right now, and played with ways to resolve those problems.’ No takers…. At the next rehearsal, nobody but me showed up. The following week I went looking for them….” The whole approach I offered was depressing to the women in the theatre group. They wanted to wear makeup, put on men’s clothes, sing, stomp their feet, and clown. They wanted to laugh and have a good time.

Finally, I write in the article, I realized that clowning and cross-dressing was much more liberating for this group of hard-working African domestic workers, vegetable vendors, and secretaries than creating sculptures or improvisations designed to examine their problems. If there were solutions to those problems available to them, they would have figured them out. The solution they wanted was to have a good time. Eventually I got out of the fucking way and let them do what they wanted to do, do what felt good, do what delighted their audience. Getting out of their way was the best thing I ever did for them.

How I did strive, with every fiber of my being, to be of use; to take my theatre skills and book-knowledge and privilege, and to convert what I had, to some kind of spiritual currency that would improve lives. I was utterly useless. I’m glad I admitted that in print and found an editor with the nerve to publish it.

I page through the other articles in the book. They’re all written as success stories, but I read between the lines and find the truth: most of those projects are equally useless. There are diagrams and flow-charts. One shows the words “Listen & Hear” in a box, with an arrow to another box that says “Ask questions & Pose Problems” with an arrow to another box that says, “Search for Answers” and then a long arrow going up to the top box again, “Listen & Hear.” How much brain did that take? Another is a series of concentric circles: at the core is “Action.” The next circle reads, “Awareness.” The next is “Empowerment.” The largest circle is “Liberation.” Something in this nauseates me. There are sidelong admissions of malfunction: “Some of the actors didn’t show up.” “Most of the audience left before we could begin.” “The van had a flat.” “The discussion was less than enthusiastic.”

I scan the buzz-words: context-specific, grass-roots, participatory, intervention, conscientisation, empowerment, “indigenous artistic communication processes.” Wanking. We learned a language. We used that language to write grant proposals for ourselves. We flung our lives at the effort with varying degrees of energy and flair. But the African women were still stuck, when our grant money ran out and our projects ended, with drought, sick babies, drunk or missing husbands, and a beautiful landscape they could not appreciate because they were preoccupied by hunger.

We “facilitators” or “catalysts,” or “animateurs” (such pretentious titles) were otherwise unemployed theatre artists who wanted, in our dumb hearts, to be useful. We wanted to travel, to see Africa (or if African by birth, to see OTHER parts of Africa and then to write about the work and get job offers from countries that would pay in euros, pounds, or dollars), but NOT to be tourists, not even cultural tourists. We wanted to CONNECT and to be of use in a place where there is more need than can ever be told. Good-hearted Brits, Nigerians, Tanzanians, Americans, Ugandans: all of us wanted to rectify the ravages of colonialism while having our own adventures, falling in love or lust, and supporting ourselves and our families some damn way. We really did want to do something worthwhile–prevent AIDS spreading, communicate germ-theory, expand gender equity, prevent further deforestation and erosion, build roads or obstruct the building of roads, whatever we could do that the people wanted done. But what does it come to, finally?

I look at the whole field of so-called development studies, the whole academic approach to liberation and empowerment, and a great wave of sadness and impotence sweeps over me. We scurry along like ants, carrying our terribly-important crumbs onward and upward and murmuring to each other at conferences and between the covers of books like this one: context-specific, grass-roots, participatory, intervention, conscientisation, empowerment. Our work is more socially useful, I suppose, than opening factories that employ children who breathe lint and develop TB and die before they can reproduce so that Wal-Mart can sell shirts for $4.99.

Our work is as important as anything else we could be doing with our time, I guess. But it’s not nearly so important as we dream, or as we make it sound (anticipating that next grant application). What I think matters most, as I look back in love and sorrow, is that occasionally we middle-class highly-educated grant-funded do-gooders do get the fuck out of the way, buy somebody a head of cabbage or a box of tea, have a moment of real joy in the midst of a song or a dance or a laugh, and the “people on the ground” as they are so often aptly described, have a moment of fun too. Despite barriers of class, race, education, and opportunity, we do occasionally have moments of profound connection and love. Occasionally a new well gets dug, or one man agrees to use a condom once, or one kid plants a tree that the goats don’t eat. It’s not all a waste. It’s just so much less than we dreamed.

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21 responses to “Theatre for development?”

  1. h sofia says:

    As a person interested in theater, I started reading this post with interest. By the end, I felt a real appreciation for your honesty and humor. This is good stuff.nrnr

  2. admin says:

    Thanks. Humor and heartbreak sit right beside each other in my spirit. Given a choice, I’ll go for the humor and for deflation of the ego (my own before all others) attached to academic endeavor.

  3. Ally says:


    If you’re interested in continuing this topic, I’m writing a senior thesis on theater-for-development and would love to talk to someone who’s actually done it. What you said in this post didn’t shock me, though it did remind me of the reality of any development work. Hope to hear from you soon!


  4. admin says:

    Contact info sent privately. I’m glad to talk with you whenever you like.

  5. I read with this interest this article as i woke up today just to search for this kind of thinking along side my pespective of theatre within the african continent. i am quite young and having spent majority of my years in life doing theatre. ii like explaining that i was “doing theatre” for in my country, the used to be beloved Botswana; i am both a theatre administrator, activist, practitioner, leaner, trainer, producer, playwright, director, choreographer etcetera. largely due to the fact that here at home it is a very small industry or being polite enough; a growing field.

    I know why theatre from my country has not got attention as in South Sfrica and neighbouring Zimbabwe. that i why i want to write a book on the history of theatre in Botswana; a case study of Southern Africa.

    from myb years i have spent in theatre i have lernt from personal and non formal reserach why it has not attracted more attention and why it has failed to attract attention and perhaps the most shocking to me now as is racism ad social class discrimination that is rocking our once theatre halls.

    i love it when i read in the article about experiences in Lesotho. i know what it means, i know how theatre waas perceived when i grew up in my home country ; Botswana. i know what has changed this perspecvtive and fortunate enough no one said it to me but i experienced it myself. otherwise young as i am i still experience it. Here at home you make a decisin whether yoiu want to do thaetre or a career out of theatre. In have refused to choose one of the above but opted to choose all of them. for first came the love, passion which was followed by dedication and i acknowledge excitment. Growing up demanded that i pay utility bills, travelled to learn more, paid internet shops to get more equipped and otherwise thus all this demanded that i become one of the fierst few Batswana to commercialise thier artforms.

    funny enough, now i travel my country workshopping community theatre groups on commercialising their artforms. i have no full time job, i survive through theatre activism, i will be completing my Bachelor of Arts in Humanities this year which i could have completed in 2004 but could not since i was busy with workshopping high school theatre groups around the country. i will also sit for my Diploma in Public Relations and Advertising this December. i wonder why i have not enrolled for a formal theatre course. i know why; because i have seen the guys who have enrolled for such formal courses bringing too much theory which ordinary people like those at Lesotho will see boring and not interesting. i have that fear.

    I believe i was born to be on stage, put someone on stage or administer stagework, perhaps i have this perception because tyhe industry here is still growing but atleast the attitude has beared fruits.

    i will for sure communuicate more as i see this as a platform to finally open up, and i believe this will prepare me to write i book tjhat i shall leave behind as you shall be taking me to my grave. As i always say tjhat those responsible might not get me a piece of land now but i am certain they will offer me one for my grave. Theatre remains the mother of all arts.

    I AM;







    I will and shall not mind this commuhnication being shared to all interested. my conatcts are also available for all theatre lovers;

    P.O. BOX 569
    MOBILE: 09267 71886794 /

  6. Annie says:

    How refreshing to read somebody writing it as it is! nrnrGet out of the way, let the community run it, your on the sidelines for a bit of support and energy reinforcement, and maybe a bit of conflict resolution. nrnr People know what they need – most importantly you need to give respect, for their knowledge and understanding of their life and culture, their timelines. I’m tired of seeing people comming in and assuming with a university degree that they know everything!nrnrTHank-you!

  7. admin says:

    Thanks, Annie. What you say is what I have always taught, and it’s what the whole crowd of activists in the 70s taught, but when it comes to “experts” or “consultants” on the ground, it’s never what they do. In my experience. Thanks for adding your note.

  8. Ben says:

    A most interesting story! I really enjoyed reading your tale. Being a drama graduate from a South African university, majoring in Theatre for Intervention, many of your views were innitially shocking to me, as we have be taught to see things “from a different perspective”, that of Boal, Freire, Giroux, Heathcote, etc. But to tell you the truth, I kind of agree with you more at this stage, than with them. Only problem is that i’m doing a thesis on Theatre for development, and i don’t really believe it works. I have some practical experience, going out into communities, and doing workshops and programmes, but always, due to funding, these have been once off. Being fun, for all, but i think, once off for all too… Anyway, I really found your article refreshing and honest, rather than most of the other crap one finds out there, telling us how amazing it all is, and what a difference we can make.


  9. admin says:

    Thanks, Ben. I’m glad you enjoyed the story. Actually the perspective I taught, and from which I created theatre, was that of Boal, Freire, Giroux, Heathcote, etc., so it’s the same perspective, not a different one. To my knowledge there isn’t a different perspective; everyone who does theatre for community improvement pretty much operates from that same core group of assumptions. Does it work? Compared with what? Compared with doing nothing, it works. Compared with another silly Shakespeare comedy or another piece of improv theatre about a love triangle, it works. Compared with spending money for posters that say (in English) “Just say no,” or “Use condoms,” it works. That is to say, theatre for development or intervention or education works better than theatre for mindless distraction, and it works better than a lot of really stupid approaches to educating people and changing their behavior. If you get the people on the ground involved in the process of problem-solving, if they learn a little song and dance, if they have a good time: maybe they will act a little more responsibly. Maybe they’ll solve a problem here and there. I wouldn’t say intervention theatre doesn’t work. I wouldn’t say that being a catalyst is a waste of time. It’s better than doing nothing, better than being part of the problem. Some projects work wonderfully well. In Uganda, for example, when Museveni institutionalized community theatre groups to work on community problems, the results were pretty good. A large contingent of theatre people got paid for doing what they love, and a large number of communities became actively involved in finding solutions to their shared problems. There’s a multi-national project operating in Lesotho right now that is making an impact on many people’s lives. I’m just saying that compared with the high-minded self-congratulatory hype associated with theatre for community improvement, the results are, well, usually disappointing. I’m glad that some talented theatre people spend some of their time doing this kind of work. I just don’t think it’s quite all it’s cracked up to be. People everywhere are very reluctant to change their behavior and their habits, and theatre can provide education and involvement, but it’s still up to the people themselves to change their behavior. I completely agree with you that these once-off workshops and programmes are pathetic. They serve the people who do them, but they seldom serve the people they’re supposed to serve, because real behavioral change takes a deeper and longer-lasting commitment from the people involved. Ultimately the once-off things are a way to have a good time, and that’s about it. I’m not against people having a good time. I just think it’s hypocritical for those who are having the good time to pretend that they are SACRIFICING themselves to HELP OTHERS. That’s bullshit, in my opinion.

  10. RASINA says:


  11. Ephson says:

    Let us look at ourselves now. We are a product of every joy and pain you can emagine. The joy and pleasures of making babies as well as the pains assorciated with birth. That is life. Preparedness is the word that matters a lot in my opnion. We can only say “I am now prepared when you are aware of what your are prepared for. Awareness on its own is a process that requires time, compassion, space, sharing, learning, aims and etc. I lived in the UK for two years before I started doing work, using Theatre for Development as a plartform for engaing communities. But still, there is a lot of learning to be done because I am required to listen and understand everyday of my life in TFD. You have only stimulated be to boggle and waffle as a result of your sharing. I am sure you are doing more of this and best wishes

  12. Hans says:

    I am studying Theatre for Development and have become really disillusioned with the whole field. It seems to me that it is peopled by a load of pretentious, self-satisfied “do-gooders” who are constantly trying to justify their existence by creating intellectual, pompous language and giving things labels.
    It also seems to exist purely in the realm of the short term project. What good does this do? Even something that lasts three years will come to an end and then what? Some “facilitator” somewhere will feel smug about all the fantastic “cultural intervention” that they’ve done. And then they can write a load of articles about the meaningful things they did, and turn it all into theory and intellectual bollocks.
    I know that there is some wonderful work being done within communities which involves everything from drama to painting, but aren’t we just kidding ourselves if we think this is real change?
    This kind of artistic fun may be a short term respite for some communities, but if I as a white, middle-class Westerner goes around thinking I’m really changing other people’s perceptions of how their whole society works by helping them do forum theatre then I’m an idiot.
    TfD and all that just seems to me to be the worst kind of woolly liberal, do-fucking goody-ness. Its pretentious and insubstantial, and courses like the one I am on are created to give those wishy-washy, frustrated drama queens among us an excuse to ponce about, pretending we are helping the world.
    Right! Rant over! Thanks for the opportunity to vent. I needed that.

  13. Lisa says:

    As someone who did theater for social change work in DC, I couldn’t agree with you more. There are far too many people who learn the TfD techniques and don’t get that live performance can only work as a tool of transformation when it comes from within a community. TfD development agents not the only “do-gooders” who come into a community with their own expectations and figure the locals will just open up and greet them like saviors. Theater without other kinds of fundamental change is just a bunch of navel gazing. Thanks for going there!

  14. shadunka shepherd says:

    greetings and hope you are all right?i always red your articles on tfd and find therm humorous and entertaining.would you be able to send me any theatre magazines that would be of benefit to my school/ 660417

  15. Kathryn says:

    Thanks. I suppose I’m all right. I’d love to be able to help you out, but I got rid of most of my books when I moved from South Africa to the USA (I didn’t have enough money to ship them), and then I got rid of the rest of them when I moved from Texas to Oregon (same problem). I have no theatre magazines left now. I’m just curious–in what country is “monze”?

  16. oheneba (ziggy) says:

    oheneba is my name , graduate of the University of GHANA,who specialized in Theatre for me me on (

  17. Katrin Pettersson says:

    Hi, in all honesty, I suppose my interest in theatre for development is mostly a self-centred wish to experience something other than the pros. arch shakespeare stories. I would like to see africa, meet the people, learn from them and do theatre at the same time. I don’t think I can change much around me, and what I’d do would probably be a drop in the ocean but I think I’d have a good time, maybe even become a better person (whatever that is) and hopefully make some new friends, who also will have a good time and in turn learn from me. It’s what happens when you interact with others, it’s the human way I suppose. But that’s just it; it’s the people that interest me. And if they have a problem and wanna talk about it, I’m all up for it. If they wanna have a good time, sing and dance, hey I’m the first one on the dance floor. So again, I suppose I am selfish in that sense, but hopefully whoever I meet during my travels/theatre endeavours will get as much out of it as I will. And maybe when others hear about it, they’ll add their drop in the ocean.

    Thanks for a good article!


  18. Kathryn says:

    Well-said, Kat! I love your spirit. It’s the self-important rhetoric that makes me sick. You’re honest and clear. You will do small things with great heart, you will bring joy with you, you will do no harm, and you will listen. Each of us, our drop in the ocean. You go, Kat! Thanks for stopping by. If you write anything about your work, please let me know. If TFD were always done by people like you….

  19. Janet says:

    Thank you kendall for sharing your experiences and knowledge.I love theatre and want to kick start a career in that field.

    I am currently persuing a degree in Business Information System at University Of Botswana.I want to get started but i dont know how and where to begin.

    Thank you………..

  20. Field says:

    I am engaged in TfD and hence i will need your assistance. I have appreciated your material and i wish to keep receiving such type of materials in my mail box.

  21. Kathryn says:

    Thanks to all of you. I have written individual emails to each of you and wish you great luck. I am retired now, so there will be no more from me in this line. It’s your turn, now. Do the work. Document what you do. Publish, blog, recruit others, support each other. Take over and let the world know what you’re doing.

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