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Wan Smolbag Theatre: Working with Communities through Drama

In several island regions, participatory drama and theatre provides a means for promoting greater understanding of development issues,

as well as providing sources of income for performing artists and building bridges between local populations and technical communities of various kinds. Performance education is now being recognized as an effective and cost-efficient toll for interacting with local populations and for disseminating information on issues related to environmental awareness and resource use. The approach may be particularly useful where there is a tradition of popular theatre, where illiteracy rates are relatively high, and where access to radio and television is poor.

An example in the South Pacific island nation of Vanuatu is the Wan Smolbag Theatre,* created in 1989 by a group of part-time actors to work with communities on social, health, human rights and environmental issues. With only one small bag to carry a few costumes (‘Wan Smolbag’ means ‘one small bag’ in Bislama, pigeon English), the troupe was ready to produce plays, drama sketches and participatory drama workshops and travel to the most remote villages.

The theatre has been a big success with communities. The theatre has also triggered much interest from government agencies, non-governmental organizations and development programmes and projects. They asked the Wan Smolbag Theatre to produce and perform short plays and dramatic sketches to bring essential information about sustainable development to the remote villages located on more than seventy islands. The mainstay of the group's work are short (20- to 50-minute) theatre pieces and videos on environmental, health, human rights and population issues. Many of the plays and videos have science-based messages – such as the life cycle of turtles, how the body works, and immunization -- and combine dramatic sketches with audience participation.

Catchments and Communities River Play. Among recent activities, Wan Smolbag has worked with another group of performing artists (the Haulua Theatre Group) and the UNESCO-IHP regional project on Catchments and Communities, in developing an awareness-raising ‘River Play’. The script was developed in close collaboration with the government agency responsible for water resources, the Department of Geology, Mines and Water Resources.

The play’s main message is that it is important for communities to look after their rivers and streams. The government can offer guidelines and advice through projects such as Catchments and Communities. However, the ultimate responsibility resides within the communities to determine how best to manage their resources

Initial performances of the River Play have been well received by village audiences in a number of locations, which were concerned with reductions in water quality and quantity and associated resources such as aquatic life. Lively discussions followed each performance of the play. These discussions served to highlight some of the factors that had led to deterioration in water resources, such as logging close to water courses, loss of respect for the authority of chiefs and erosion of customary practices for ensuring the availability of resources over the long term. Most important has been the intention expressed by villagers to take an active role in future preventive and restorative measures, such as tree-planting along streams and rivers, and community involvement in the monitoring of catchments.

* For further information on Wan Smolbag, see http://www.wan-smolbag-theatre.org or http://www.comminit.com/drum_beat_232.html. Or for more specific information on UNESCO cooperation with the Wan Smolbag Theatre in the Pacific, contact Hans Thulstrup, Science Officer in the UNESCO Office in Apia (hans@unesco.org.ws)

Start date 04-10-2005 2:00 pm
End Date 04-10-2005 2:00 pm





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