Theater as a tool to enhance communication ability, participation of children, youth

By Abigail Guanlao-Billones

(An abridged version of the paper the author presented at the International Symposium of Kijimuna Festa 2011: International Theater Festival for Children and Young Audiences held in Okinawa, Japan on July 25-29, 2011.)

The first time I facilitated a theater workshop with ECLIPSE in 2004 for a group of children working in the sugarcane farm (Batang Hurnal), I observed that a lot of them were timid and shy and had difficulty expressing their ideas and translating these ideas through body movements and other means of artistic expression such as music and drawing. At first, they struggled so hard in telling their stories, as they felt insecure they could speak Tagalog. They were able to express more comfortably in smaller groups using their native language, Cebuano. They particularly loved physical games but lacked the flexibility to move and stretch different body parts. We tried to simplify exercises based on the given capacities of the participants. We added more games in the three-day workshop program and also had an afternoon of bonding with the kids as we bathed in the river where we had to trek 40 minutes going there and 30 minutes going back. At the end of three days, the participants were able to showcase simple series of performances from tableaux improvisation exercises. The stories narrated their situation in their families, working as Batang Hurnal and their aspirations and dreams. At the end of the workshop, the kids told us that they would like to continue doing theater workshops because they wanted to play more. They said they were happy because they were able to tell their stories and perform before an audience. They would like to share their performance and their stories to more children and more people.

Faculty Experience Paper, Billones, Abigail, 2004

These are the actual situations that drove the PETA Children’s Theater Program (PETA-CTP) towards working with Filipino children in difficult circumstances. PETA began trailblazing its work with disenfranchised Filipino children with the objective of integrating theater/arts in various programs addressing child protection and development. In 1990, some PETA artist-teachers formed themselves as the Children’s Theater Collective and began working with child rights advocates, teachers and government workers conducting workshops and engaging these groups in developing performances reflective of the plight of street children and children victims of physical and sexual abuse, child labor and child trafficking. This partnership also grounded the PETA artist-teachers to the harsh realities confronting children and their families in various communities- poverty, marginalization, injustice and government and social neglect.

Through the years, the Collective transformed into partnership programs with child-focused non-government organizations (NGOs). Concepts such as Context-based Child Development, Children’s Rights, Resiliency and Child Participation were integrated in the workshops and activities of the program.  At present, the Children’s Theater Program enhances the development of creativity and community cultural consciousness through sustained artistic development and capacity building and engaging youth leadership in developing performances and cultural programs for children.  Partnership programs and activities are developed based on the following thrusts: 1) Theater for Children’s Rights Advocacy; 2) Creative Pedagogy Training for Youth Leaders and Adult Guides; and 3) Building Resiliency/ Theater for Psychosocial Processing.

Theater for Children’s Rights Advocacy allowed PETA to directly work with the children and youth beneficiaries of partner NGOs. Quality engagement and participation of children and young people were observed in the process of developing stories, play making, capacity building, and developing sustained cultural programs in their local communities.

How do these engagements/program partnerships aid children and young people to concretely communicate their messages to fellow young people? How do we translate advocacy statements to stories that children can easily relate to and understand? In consultation with the children and partner NGOs, themes for their respective plays were identified and served as basis for story development. Story Development Workshops served as the basic collective step towards play making.

For Tim Dacanay, the lead facilitator in developing the Story Development Module, the module is results oriented.

“It assures the facilitator of a complete story structure at the very start. Children and youth participants were introduced to concepts such as character, plot and theme. Wild mind exercises gave the young writers freedom to write, but still within the story structure. Tools such as the ‘story spine and extended story spine’ aided development of stories,“ according to Dacanay.

These workshops were integrated with Acting Improvisations and Production Workshops facilitated with other PETA facilitators and directors. From the simple Beginning-Middle-End tableaux exercise, participants improvise their dialogues and characterization through series of acting and movement exercises. Partner NGOs adult guides and PETA facilitators provide education and focused group discussion among the participants to enhance and sharpen their understanding on the issues (e.g. child trafficking, child labor, adolescent reproductive health, etc.) and be able to integrate this in their respective stories. After these workshops conducted with the partners, eight new works were authored by children and youth participants. Five of which were successfully mounted, performed and toured in the partners’ respective communities.

The members of the Inigmata theater group of ECLIPSE were mostly Batang Hurnal who were now in a scholarship program in high schools and universities in Ormoc Leyte. They decided to produce a play tackling adolescent reproductive health; based on their research in schools that one of the major problems confronting the youth is teenage pregnancy. One of the stories initially developed through the Story Development Workshop is the play “Si Kristine at si Paul” (Kristine and Paul). This play about family relations and teenage sex is being toured in various high schools and universities in Leyte .

Children become key players in story development and improvisation. Eventually, they assume as directors and managers of their community performances and tours. PETA’s Children’s Theater becomes both an artistic expression and developmental process for children as it allows theater to be instrumental to their self and artistic expression, learning life skills, capacity building, processing life experiences, advocacy of children and youth concerns in the community, participating and organizing towards addressing community issues and problems affecting children and young people.

In the current work of PETA-CTP, the use of art and creative methodologies were appropriated within the bounds of 1) age/ capacities of children and young people; 2) culture and language; 3) social, political and economic contexts of target beneficiaries. In so doing, the program has been successful in using arts and theater as a bridge towards developing the children’s imagination, faculty for communication and creativity. Moreover, the theater production and community tour have been effective as a strategy for community advocacy and education as they develop children and youth advocates’ self confidence and expression, enhance skills in performing, learn and internalize the issues through constant exposure and processing. They also enhance children and youth direct participation in the advocacy of the issues confronting them. Adults slowly recognize children and youth participation as an important element in community organizing and development.

These engagements have given birth to stories that embody the imagination, hopes and dreams of children. Theater provides the means of dialogue between the artists and the children, between the children and fellow children, between the children and the community. As the plays are performed with their audience, their stories have the power to move and transform people’s hearts and minds. The performance itself becomes a vehicle for children’s voices to be heard and empowers children to speak for themselves.

Gail Guanlao-Billones is the Director for the Children’s Theater Program (CTP) of the Philippine Educational Theater Association (PETA). Being one of PETA’s Senior Artist-Teachers, training and working constantly with children and young people have kept her adept with PETA’s work and advocacies concerning marginalized Filipino children- street children, children caught in abusive environments in the home, school, community & media, child labor and children amidst disaster & war conflict.      

About Peta Mekong

Mobilizing the arts community for advocacy in the Greater Mekong Subregion

Posted on September 13, 2011, in Home & Beyond, News & Events and tagged , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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