(The following has been adapted, in part, from Playing For Keeps: An examination of arepp:Theatre for Life’s applied theatre pedagogy with regard to adolescent sexuality. Bilbrough, G. 2009. Unpublished dissertation, University of Cape Town.)
South Africa is a transforming and democratic society, within which young people need to understand that personal and individual needs have to be placed in a social context, and be encouraged to accept diversity, non-discrimination, and to develop a commitment to the processes of democracy and to the values and principals espoused in the Constitution. Before South Africa became a constitutional democracy in 1994, the natural rights of people were not protected. While South Africa has made great strides in this area, many individuals and communities still lack an understanding of their rights and how to access them, which results in innumerable human rights violations such as gender-based violence, child abuse and murder.
While the South African Constitution and its Bill of Rights highlight the fact that all people are equal regardless of gender, sex, pregnancy, marital status, sexual orientation, or age, the country still has extremely high rates of inequality, discrimination against, and subjugation of women and other minorities, and much violence is gender-based. The additional burden is that in Southern Africa more than two-thirds of all young people living with HIV are girls and women. While in many cases, male children, youth and adults, are the perpetrators of abuse, are more violent and sexually aggressive, and the ones more likely to pressure or manipulate others into having sex, isolating boys, blaming them, and destroying their self-esteem does not solve the problem. Males and females need to be targeted equally, to assist them to understand their cultural socialisation and to encourage boys and men to be part of the solution, rather than the problem.
The prevalence of HIV in South Africa further highlights the need for effective programs that target young people. The epidemic forms part of a complex and multi-dimensional web of factors, such as poverty, neglect, sexual abuse, community and domestic violence, gender inequality, poor education and substance abuse, all of which makes people, especially the youth, vulnerable to exposure and exploitation. Further, research has repeatedly indicated that while the majority of adolescents demonstrate extensive HIV and AIDS knowledge, slightly more than half feel that there is often nothing they can do about contracting HIV, indicating a massive gap between knowledge and a sense of capability and agency.
It is within the confines of this context that young people need to be equipped with the skills, knowledge, attitudes and values for positive, constructive life-styles and sustainable, informed choices. In order to make those choices they need to conceive and understand their society without prejudice, discrimination or distain, negotiating their own place within an equal but diverse society. This is particularly true in relation to adolescent sexuality, where many of the behaviours are initially conceptual, vicariously learned and as yet unperformed (or underperformed) and many of the behavioural determinants appear conflicting and at variance with changing internal feelings and thoughts. In addition, managing sexuality behaviours involves more than making personal behavioural judgments and choices, it requires managing interpersonal relationships. Young people have to exercise control and influence over themselves as well as, usually significant and, at least temporarily, highly valued, others. Managing behavioural choices in this environment requires having or gaining the skills and understanding necessary to engage with the self and environment before the situation is beyond the person’s control, and to develop a sense of personal agency and control over and within their situations, relationships and circumstances.
With the dissolution of family and community structures, due to migrant labour, informal settlements, the rising AIDS death toll, one of the best ways (in many cases the only way) to reach children supportively, is through the school system. Schools are a platform to influence behaviour, values and attitudes enabling young people to grow into confident and responsible citizens through both the curriculum and the school’s community. Youth and education are the building blocks of the future, and schools are the ideal platform to influence behaviour, values and attitudes, building communities and enabling young people to grow into confident, responsible and contributing citizens with a thorough understanding of human rights and democratic principals.
At the same time, however, the attitudes, issues and problems need to be addressed without threatening or destroying their intrinsic value to the individuals that hold to them, their communities or their cultural beliefs. They also need to be addressed as entertainingly and engagingly as possible, to combat and balance the morés and impressions gleaned and imbibed from such powerful influences as the media and social conditioning. It is the youth who have to learn to value themselves, their rights, their hopes and their society, and to believe in themselves, and their abilities, if they are ever to internalise and address these issues and make changes in their lives. This is particularly true for communities which have been historically disadvantaged with regard to education and human-rights, and thus find themselves, their beliefs and their values in seeming conflict with the changing democratic, rights-based society, and especially for young people in this context, where they often experience what they are learning or encountering in school and amongst their peers as seeming to be in conflict with their parents, their home or community.
The ability to engage with and make choices or change ones attitudes and behaviour in this context is referred to as self-efficacy. Self-efficacy is a person or a group’s feelings of competency and control with regard to specific issues, behaviours, choices, or change. Self-efficacy is developed through modelling, where the person judges and assesses their capabilities in relation to an observed model (like a peer, or a role model, or a character in a show) and with others, such as their peer group, or community. Self-efficacy is promoted by providing the person with information and understanding about the issue or behaviour, what influences it, and the expected outcomes. To learn to make a choice or change, a person requires opportunities and a safe environment to observe, imitate, experience and reflect on the issue and its consequences; the skills, confidence and self-belief to make a constructive choice regarding it; and positive reinforcement and encouragement to maintain it.
The experience of an applied theatre performance satisfies many of the main criteria for the development of self-efficacy through modelling and observational learning: provision of information; portrayal and highlighting of influences for comparison and appraisal; and the personalisation of the issues through narrative, identification and empathy. The experience of a show provides a safe means for the audience to experience (and so rehearse) the issues, without actually being at risk. The choices and their outcomes or consequences are experienced both individually and socially with peers in a context that influences them, re-enforcing outcome expectations and motivations. Once the performance is over, during the facilitated discussion, the shared emotional experience is internalised and contextualised by the audience in order for the issues and messages to be personalised and enabled; the emotional experience is supported by an intellectual, cognitive one to holistically enforce the learnings. The discussion provides an intellectual space for the experience to be contextualised and validated, facilitated by trusted peer role models (the performers), which allows for open, honest and personal communication. An environment is created which fosters debate and encourages participation and personal interaction with the issues. The audience feel able to engage in this discourse because they have identified with characters and shared the experience. Sharing their understanding now aids in raising their confidence and self-esteem, allowing the debate and dialogue to extend to the classroom, playground and home environment. The engagement of the audience encourages the audience’s self-reflexion, self-assessment and capacity to make comparisons. All of which contribute to building feelings of competency, agency and self-worth in relation to the issues and their choices and behaviours.
arepp:Theatre for Life’s applied theatre method combines the concepts of observational learning and modelling through a theatre show with the processes of experiential learning through a facilitated discussion to develop self-efficacy with regard to adolescent sexuality choices and behaviours. The theatre experience stands in for, substitutes and becomes a life experience for the audience which is then reflected upon, analysed and theorised, and where skills are imparted to understand how to problem solve, and make sense and meaning of experience.
The arepp:Theatre for Life method achieves this engagement via the processes of fostering identification, arresting empathy and precipitating cognition among the audiences, so that the audience experience ‘themselves’ reflected and refracted through the prism of the event. The experience becomes a life experience for the audience, which, in-turn increases the reservoir of life experiences and competencies that the audience has to draw upon when faced with and responding to real life situations. The more of such opportunities or experiences that a person has in relation to the portrayed actions or behaviours, and the more skilled and able they are to analyse and interpret them, the more they will have to draw upon to assist in shaping their actions and responses to actual life events, thus developing their resilient self-efficacy.
The close alignment of the presentations with the National Life Orientation curriculum further ensures that each performance occurs within, and supports and enhances, each grade’s syllabus work on these issues, providing an invaluable resource and reference point for their annual Life Orientation outcomes and assessment.