Phan Y Ly

Theatre for development- from a vietnamese practitioner's view

Location: Vietnam

Born in 1981, Phan Y Ly is the first Vietnamese woman to study MA Theatre for Development. She has 4 years of experience in development work and community theatre with UNDP, international organisations in Vietnam and abroads. Ly is now a freelance consultant on using arts for individual and social transformation in Vietnam and a co-moderator of the Art for Development Vietnam e-list. Besides community work, Ly is also the founder of SameStuff Theatre, a contemporary theatre group based in Hanoi.

Wednesday, May 03, 2006

Kibera Youth Program - Continue

The group members had great passion for acting, with surprising theatrical and musical talents. However, despite of being together for 2 years, they have never had a theatrical training or team building workshop. Those with good English and imagination will write play scripts and the team would then rehearse. Theatrical techniques for them were as simple as speech, songs, and poems.
We decided to have an intensive training on theatrical and facilitation skills. While leading them through the exploration of different story elements, theatrical forms and techniques, the focuses were on team building, self-awareness, and improvisation. Setting a “holy ground” of Trust, Love, and Respect for working together, the training was carried out three days a week, each day 3 hours. Each day has a different objective but is built linked to one another, satisfying the following “principles”:
at least 1/3 content of the day has to be carried out by a volunteering member,
whenever possible, always emphasize the importance and different aspects of Trust, taking care of each other, or “respect others value”
Theatrical exercises are intertwined with personal life experience
There is no “impossibility”

At first, the actors were led through a series of discussion and exercises to open up themselves and start sharing their life stories in a safe and natural way. The exercises can be about sharing the most precious items and analyzing each owners’ reaction and emotion during the telling of the stories, or can be sharing moments of oppression while learning about the power of still images. On Valentine’s day the actors could have a discussion on Love, or “debate” on different conditions for Trust and link them with the trust they want to establish with the audience. Amazingly, the actors through the “excuses” of “discussion” and “exercises” were slowly announcing their personal value and sharing their life experiences. Shy members started to open up, theatrical exercices were opportunity for them to show they have talents too! After 3 weeks, Martin, an actor who has been with the group for 3 years, told me: “ It is amazing! Before if we asked the group to think of a play, they would say they have nothing to think of, or that they have no idea! Tell them to act and nobody would stand up! And now, after 15 minutes even the shyest members have a very creative play!”
In the second month, March 2005, we had 2 days of life story sharing, called “Life map”. From an impressionistic drawing of ups and downs in each of our lives, we then shared the story of those moments. One by one came up and tell the group about his/her life. SHOCKING is the word I would use to describe the experience. Everyone was brave, everyone was protective and trusting. Everyone was crying. The atmosphere was heavy and tight. The actors sat close and hugged each other, some looked far away, some covered their faces. For two years laughters and “work” were playing the duty of burying the painful truth in each member. As close as they were to each other, none had had a single opportunity to share a truth about what they went through in life and why they ended up in Kibera. It was shocking to discover how much strength they had, and it was more than shocking, to realize how well they have been keeping their lives as ‘top secret”.
With permission of the authors, the group chose 2 stories to build 2 plays, the authors did the casting and directed the plays as an exercise on the power of “truth” and “simplicity”. But, more than that, each actor gained insight about him/her as an individual and about the group as a whole.
Later, relatives and the group members shared with me:
“ She (an actress) said it was a very painful day, but she is so happy that the group was given that opportunity. She always treated herself mean and thought no one was as miserable as her.. But now she knows there are people with difficult life, and she has to go on, she is now very confident”
“ Now I know why XYZ behaved that way.., I didn’t know what she went through”
“It is so good that finally we have been able to speak it out and let it go”


Perhaps the one thing that is repeated most frequently in the training is “Respecting different values”. How would they (the actors) facilitate transformation in the audience, if their way of doing it does not show a real understanding and respect for different values the audience have? Everyday discussion on this topic had led the group to an agreement of not “lecturing” the audience through the performance, but simply creating a condition where the audience can debate and question each other’ point of view.

Meanwhile, the group was still performing “abstinence” plays for Population Service International in different areas of Kibera. They started inserting new drama techniques in these plays where appropriate. The interesting thing is, they had two contrasting “conditions” to compare and analyse. One is the lecturing plays with slogans given by the Population Service International that they were performing everyday in the community, other is the agreement to be “neutral” that they had in the training. The topic of “being a neutral facilitator” was a hot topic, spread over 3 weeks! Everyday a member would have a new concern for the ability to be “neutral”, perhaps this was drawn from their actual experience with the PSI plays.
Each day a volunteering actor would start the training by leading the recap and warm-up section, and end it by facilitating a 20-minute discussion on a topic given on the previous day. This way not just an individual member could prove him/herself independently in a safe environment, but also the facilitation was close and practical example for the group to examine and personalize their view of what a neutral facilitator should be. In the feedback session, group members also share practical tips to the facilitators, from body language, voice, eye contact, timing, arrangement of seating.. to questioning skill, conflict management, and neutrality! As they experienced their own view and formation of “facilitation”, analyses on the challenge and contradiction of a facilitator went deeper. “A facilitator can only mention fact and not personal opinion, but a fact can support one team and not other, how does s/he then still maintain the neutrality of facilitation?”, “What if the group comes up with “wrong” conclusion, should the facilitator “shut them up”?”, “If you nodded for the answer of this person then you should nod for the other person’s too!”
Without my knowing, the group employed this facilitation method to a section of KCYP called ‘Group Therapy” outside the training. During a group therapy, a facilitator volunteers and leads the group through a discussion on a given topic, for example “On what criteria will you choose your life partner?”.
At the same time, “Accepting each other’s ideas” was an important principle that we agreed on. This actually came out from the training on improvisation skill. “In order to make a story flow, you need to accept your partner’s idea and build on it”. From the “magic” of “accepting ideas” proved in their theatrical exercises, the actors applied it to the group etiquette. Even the shyest members now can respond: “remember? Accepting ideas!!!” whenever his/her suggestion is neglected. This was not easy for the actors, but yet they made a 30 minute play with actors having no ideas what was going to happen next.., and when asked “how did you understand your partner so well?” the actors proudly said “we just accepted the ideas and went with it!”.
This “principle” of improvisation was also accompanied by “always act as if on stage” to sharpen their professionalism and improvisation skill.

(Martin Oduor – group member)

The idea of “facilitator” was compared to the role of an “MC” (Master of Ceremony) in their performance. Their performance in the community was then compared to the discussion in the training. That was how “Forum theatre” in KCYP was formed. Before we could begin to build a forum theatre structure, the actors debated and requested everybody in the group to change the title “MC” to “facilitator”.

The actors had had their moments with discussion activity in the training, forming their own “model” of a “neutral facilitator” and were very happy with it. However, when it came to applying that to “forum theatre” where the audience could debate and actors are facilitators… everyone was a bit hesitant.
“We perform in the community where the audience are not settled like in a church or in a school, this kind of performance needs thorough participation”
“It requires the facilitator to talk a lot.. in open air..”
“You know this is Kenya, and the audience are adults, sometimes old people, sometime drunk.. we can’t just make them clap their hands and do games and ask them to participate”
“How can we act if we have not prepared beforehand?”
These concerns were converted into topics for group discussion, if one day per topic was not enough, we would continue it till whenever everybody was happy with the result.

My actual involvement in the training was less and less as the 7th week of the training arrived. Everyday for theatrical exercises the actors would divide into two teams and make a performance after 15-20 minutes of discussion, a new facilitator in the team would be “assigned” to lead the forum theatre. Each team would pretend to be the audience for one another. The actors mixed and matched and tested different theatrical techniques and through success and failure drew out their own forum theatre style.
A facilitator would be criticized if s/he tried giving hints to the audience on what is “good” and what is “bad” in the play. An actor would be commented as “less challenging” if his/her characters accepted the criticism and insults from the audience too easily.

“A facilitator has to challenge the audience to bring out what is inside them” said Martin.
From this point of view, the actors had formed a unique forum theatre style where theatre is a platform for dialogue to take place between the audience and the characters, among the audience themselves, and within an individual audience itself.

In an unrealistic setting like a dramatized play, it might be easy for audience to criticize or insult directly for example a female character who has sex with her boyfriend and having the audience’s thinking unprocessed. But not in this case where instead of accepting the accusation, the character would demand the questioners for justification, or explicitly and bluntly state her belief and point of view, as well as the condition she was in to challenge the audience for a deeper and more truthful discussion.

Often when a forum theatre is mentioned, people think of a play where audience could give thoughts and solutions. If not careful, the forum theatre can be a place to reinforce oppression and “superficial moral lessons”, because it is often much easier and faster to criticize something or someone based on a shallow, crowd pleasing view without much analysis involved. In the above example, it is easy to say the female character is spoilt and she should stay without sex until marriage. But, how easy is it to provide a comment when the character says she believes in having sex before marriage and that she would not marry at all?

Provoking, blunt, and honest.. are method that the actors adopt for their characters during hot-seating, this triggers the audience to think, and “force” the silence to burst out and wipe away superficial response.

The “result” or “a solution” is not considered to be a “must-have” achievement in this kind of forum theatre. The actors discussed and agreed that it is the process of thinking and reflecting in each person that is important, not the ultimate consensus solution, because “each person makes a different solution for him or herself”.

Each performance would start with a warm-up activity for the audience, can be dancing and singing with drums. The Facilitator then would introduce the style of theatre used in the performance and ask for audience’s support. The play is prepared by the actors before the show, and it would “freeze” on the “critical” decision making moment. The Facilitator then would ask for audience’s consensus on what happened in the play, , what they think was the “problem”, if it is something realistic, and whether they would like to have a conversation with each character. The audience will often choose the most controversial character that they “hate”, and most common questions are “Why did you do that?”. The characters would bring the audience to reality by giving honest and blunt answers on the reasons he or she did something. The audience often wants to know how the character feels and what s/he would do next. They would test the character’s reaction on certain “decision” that other characters would make.
Sometimes audience gets into argument among themselves and this is where the facilitator interferes.
After the audience is done with their “interview of characters”, the facilitator will ask the audience if they have any advices for who should do what to make the situation better and the actors would carry out the next scene.
A forum theatre show is often 1.5 hour long.

The first time the actors tested out this form of theatre is in a slum market. In contrast with their fear, the audience who were street vendors, school children, by passers.. were fully involved in the show, even leaving their “shops” unattended. The audience was laughing or having silence depending on the character’s reply to their question, and even argued with the characters on certain issues.

When asked if they would like to continue this form of theatre, Fred and the actors said they will change from typical message-driven play into an interactive one that involve the audience.
At the same time, the group members took on my role of designing and facilitating a training day and carried out the workshop themselves.
The bellowing letter from Fredrick would say more about KCYP’s future plan:

“Hi Ly,

I have gone through your mail and the only activity i can be able to take stalk of is the performances in the community, the increased willingness of people to take art as a serious thing, plans to make documentaries is becoming evident with the group.

Martin is submitting his application to Care Kenya to see if he will be taken as a trainer on TFD.
International Medical Corps had a meeting with us today with a view to engage us in using forum theatre to promote TB/HIV prevention here in Kibera.
We`ll be networking with them henceforth.

From the TFD training, participants are now taking another training on Filmming just to actualize the skills. Plans are still underway to get the routine inhouse training going on based on the TFD skills acquired..”


The group members come from different areas of Kenya like Lamu, Mombasa, Kisumu, Siaya.. and belong to different tribes like Kiisi, Luo, Kikuyu, Luiya.. Some of them came from countries like Tanzania and Uganda. Some were born in Kibera themselves. None of them have had an university degree.
Fredrick, one of the founders of KCYP is the general management of the initiative. He is currently the Director overseeing the Management Board`s functions and has been instrumental in creating linkages, program start up and design, communication amongst other day-to-day activities. Grew up in the Western part of Kenya and belongs to the Luhya tribe, came to Kibera after his completion of high school in Mombasa, and then the idea of forming an organization came up: “I have been a leader since my school days, on coming here; I found friends who were welcoming and we talked about many thing, it happened that we were all youth and the idea crouched in my mind that: there is indeed something we can do together as young people living in Kibera. There was a need for young people to express themselves, I saw lots of injustices being meted to young people in other projects and decided that i could not mourn about this but try my best to provide a solution, we joined hands with friends and the rest is history.” Living in a thatched house in Kibera and still manages to travel to work everyday on two clutches, Fred has been supporting himself and his family with different allowance he gets from volunteering “I have been doing some consultancy work though not as a profession, people ask me for ideas in disability and this gets me some merge income, there is some sorts of allowances that can be gotten from volunteering in different projects which I normally do including KCYP”. Like many other young people coming to Kibera in search of jobs and income generation opportunity, Fred sends money home to support his parents whenever he can spare an amount “I am in fact assisting with the education of my younger sister who has now come to Nairobi and she`s in High School and My brother who is in form 3 at home as well”. Planning to stay in Kibera “whole his life”, Fredrick said his dream is to lead a vibrant social movement that will stand the test of time. He wants the whole world know that indeed disability is inability, and said that would be his greatest achievement.
“You can dream, you can have the strategies in place,but with no money; things are just wishes. It has been difficult to find support for what you believe in, few people trust young people and what they have to offer” Fred expressed, to him, another challenge of the youth in Kibera is “Combining the publicity we have right now and translating it into support towards young people. Avoiding the aspect of being used by people who pretend and thing they know too much.”
Fredrick actually still looks forward to finishing his Diploma in Business Administration which he stopped two years ago due to lack of college fees.

Martin’s family moved from Siaya in Western Kenya to Kibera, Nairobi when he was a little boy. His father’s death in 2002 made him and his 3 brothers orphans, “but life has to move on”, Martin would say. His younger brother, a 23 yr old boy, gets up at 6am every morning to go and teach mathematic in a primary school in Kibera. One elder brother is married to a lady he met in Kibera, and they are now a little family with 3 children, their small and humble home is also in the slum, but with electricity! When I visited their home, Martin was teaching his nieces and nephew of 5 years old to count in Kiswahili and English. “Education is important” Martin said, and I could see that, on the mudded wall hung an old and broken piece of wooden board, with careful child writing of A,B,C..
Martin said it is not that he does not know the life outside the slum “My other elder brother owns a proper house not in the slum, I used to stay with his family”. When asked why he moved back to Kibera, Martin shrugged: “Well I have my own life too”.
Besides being an actor and group members of KCYP, where he gets the income of roughly 2000 shilling/ month (60 shillings can buy a meal in the slum) from contracted work with organizations like Population Service International, Martin is also a peer educator and are often invited to give speech on HIV/AIDS, Voluntary Testing..etc.. in universities. I followed him one day to find myself in disbelief; Martin was having a great time interacting with more than 200 listeners who are first year students in Nairobi Teacher Training College. No one, would then, believe that the talented and knowledgeable speaker had only graduated high school and is living in Kibera. Martin said he did the work for free because his friend – a formal student of the university- had invited him.
Martin’s ever dying wish is “to be back to school” and “learn what you are learning now”.. he told me. We actually sat together in front of a computer in an internet café and browse through different scholarship opportunities given by local and foreign governments. After 1 hour of screening every single word in every single documents online, Martin looked like he wanted to cry because all the scholarship for university are reserved for “government officers”.

Andrew .. is a bright young man who comes from Western Kenya. His parents and sister are back home, while Andrew came to the city to “be independent and find a job”. He has been in Kibera for 5 years. Kibera was chosen as his second home because it is cheap. Sometimes his father would visit him in Kibera and even give him some money, or else.. he would not have anything to eat or dare to go anywhere for weeks! Andrew has been supported by an American friend to study Computer Application in one of the very best centres in Nairobi. Showing me the exam results, Andrew expressed his disappointment of “getting only 98% for this paper.., because I was sick the day before..”, I told him that 98% is high but he shook his head “I know, but I am aiming for scholarship from this institute so I don’t have to pay..”

Andrew is passionate about media and design. He taught himself how to use a video camera, he came to me any time I was free so he could practice movie editing on.. iMovie! On the day I left Kenya, Andrew completed his first media product of a 2 hours film shot and edited by himself. The film was about the graduation day celebration of the first university student in Kibera. Andrew’s dream is to have his own studio where he can put his creativities in media and design.
Andrew also showed me many dozens of certificates on different short trainings (facilitation, rights, theatre, business ..etc ) that he attended as a member of KCYP and other organizations. “Why are you not applying for a job in an NGO or something? You have great knowledge and experience” I asked.
“Yes, last year somebody told my mom that UNDP is recruiting a … sweeper and the pay is around 15,000 shilling a month. It is a very well-paid job but by the time I got the news it was too late”.


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