Forum Theatre: Liberating Youth
By Joviana Stephan
Ashtar seeks to confront and challenge every aspect of Palestinian society, constantly encouraging people, especially youth, to question all aspects of their daily life.
This quotation is part of Ashtar’s mission which shows the importance of the role of youth since they form the largest segment of the Palestinian society. After 15 years of hard work, youth continue to be the focal point of Ashtar’s activities. Ashtar started its first drama training in high schools and it gradually expanded its training programmes to include younger children, university students and teachers. We believe that part of our mission is to transfer the know-how to our target groups so as to empower their role in society and equip them with innovative tools to express themselves freely, share important community issues, take part in entertainment and challenging activities that stretch their knowledge beyond known limits. Since youth programming is a key focus in Ashtar’s various programmes, a significant accomplishment was identified in 1997 when Ashtar introduced the idea of Forum Theatre, ringing a bell on various social issues that are labelled “banned‿ such as incest, early marriage, violence in schools, honour crimes and others. Targeting youth and other marginalized groups, a forum production was carried out on a yearly basis with a local tour of 50-60 performances each. For the first time, youth were offered an open platform to enhance change for positive development and create social leverage that will affect all aspects of their lives. The programme moved a step forward when Ashtar passed the forum techniques to youth community groups in 2003 then introduced the Legislative Theatre in 2005 and regional forum theatre training in 2006. Empowering youth as engaged participants in Ashtar’s forum theatre programme is seen as both a process and an outcome. It is a process whereby youth are included in development as skilled partners rather than solely as recipients. It is an outcome when it leads to new behaviours and perspectives. We consider youth as the targeted audience of Ashtar’s forum plays whereby they are invited through role playing and debates to interact, express their opinions, and discuss issues from their point of view. At the same time, the programme was developed towards training youth in schools and universities on theatre and forum techniques, where they will have a unique opportunity to raise issues of their own concern in plays that target their colleagues and families.
By using this strategy, youth are not only equipped with innovative tools for free self-expression, but offered a new dimension of learning and knowledge. It is a chance to explore, express and reflect on their thoughts, feelings, beliefs and imaginative ideas through individual and group participation.
Since Ashtar highly believes that youth empowerment is an important part of childhood development and an essential phase of the transition to adulthood, we keep our antennas raised for every potential that emerges from our students. During this difficult period of transition, young adults often have many questions and issues. The family, the school and community organizations, therefore, should try to respond in a sensitive way to the specific needs of these young people. “We don’t feel like we are valued in the way we want; that is to be valued as mature, significant members of society,
Joyce, one of Ashtar’s students said. “I believe that adults value us, but they do not necessarily show it and we cannot recognize it,
Dima, another student, adds. Hence, one of the most common and beneficial ways is to give young adults increased responsibilities in their own lives to enforce their self- esteem and raise their capabilities. From here, the idea of conducting forum performances and training with youth, by youth and for youth comes as a priority, as it presents an open space for young people to think and to create, and forms a pool of future social change agents. Ashtar’s partnership with Care International, which started in 1999, was really the icing on the cake. Both partners believe in forum theatre as a social developmental tool, which enhanced Ashtar’s capacity to promote and expand its programme both locally and regionally, allowing it to reach a larger number of youth in the different areas of the West Bank. Since 1997, eight professional forum plays were produced, reaching more than 68,550 persons on a national level. During the last two years, more than 190 young people were trained in forum theatre techniques, whereby most of the training ended up with forum plays that were performed by youth and for youth. Joviana Stephan is the Administrative Director of Ashtar Theatre. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.