“My wife was unwell and she was at home while I went out for distribution of ration kits in my village. I wanted to be at home with her but couldn’t,” said Keshav, a frontline worker, during a forum theatre performance.
“I felt disconnected from myself and felt drained of energy. Losing community leaders to coronavirus felt like a personal loss,” said Rekha, a woman grassroots leader.
In southern rural Rajasthan, frontline workers’ battle with the social challenges was exacerbated by the pandemic. For more than a year, reaching out for relief and awareness, adapting to new technologies for work, and continuing to provide support amidst high risk has been a burning-out experience for most of them.
When lockdown relaxations began in July 2020, at Seva Mandir, we realized how spaces within grassroots organizations needed to be built to take cognizance of this burn-out. There was also a need to share coping mechanisms, focusing on personal as well as work struggles.
There was a need to understand the anxieties that frontline workers face in the ever-changing trajectories of the pandemic and our collective journeys. To do so, Seva Mandir used forum theatre as a tool to initiate conversations on the mental health of frontline workers. The theatre helped participants like Keshav and Rekha know they are not alone in their struggles and equipped them to deal with the situations better.
Forum theatre is a type of participatory theatre created by Augusto Boal. It is one of the techniques under the umbrella term Theatre of the Oppressed. It influences the spectators, making them engage with the performance as spectators as well as actors, termed ‘spect-actors’, with the power to stop and change the performance.
We have been performing in various places across Udaipur district. For better ambience and for physical distancing as per COVID-19 protocols, we perform the exercise in an open space. The play is performed in the afternoon. As a precursor, in the forenoon we arrange for theatre games to help the participants take their mind off the routine work, mingle with each other and become comfortable in the setting.
After the warm-up, the facilitator explains the concept, giving a brief history and the purpose behind the play. Extending an invitation before the play begins, the facilitator tells how each person has experienced the pandemic in a different way. Then she gives a brief about the story, inviting the participants to observe and interpret.
The facilitator is not part of the play, but appears after the climax, with questions such as: “Did you like how things ended? Did anyone here relate to this story in any way? Do we want to change this moment of pain and conflict between the characters?”
Tinku aur Tara ki love story was a forum play we wrote and performed for more than 200 frontline workers who work with severely distressed migrant communities. The frontline workers included shelter home caretakers, drivers, support staff and community resource people.
The story revolves around the stresses that a young couple working at grassroots face at home and at work. The oppressed protagonist Tinku is a young man struggling to manage the anxiety of losing his job, relationship and life while working. He does not have enough financial resources or work opportunities in his village.
The story highlights the struggle of the couple failing to communicate their anxieties and struggles in a changing pandemic world. The scenes present oppressions of power structures within organizations and gendered experiences of men and women around its expression.
Spectators turn spect-actors
The play does not end with a solution, rather ends at a dramatic tension between the couple. After we perform the play once, we ask the audience to become spect-actors and ask whether they would like to change the ending of the play. We start re-performing the play and anyone in the audience can shout “Stop” and ask to replace a character in the story.
Silence – a strong heartfelt one, was the first reaction of the crowd after every performance. While most of the interventions from the audience in the play were on fixing the personal struggles of the frontline worker, they helped us have real conversations on loss, pain, and sadness within our lives.
“It was like seeing my own story come alive. I tried to make everyone understand what Tinku was going through, but couldn’t do it in the play or my real life. But at least I know there are so many like me whom I can talk to,” said a spec-actor.
The stories that emerged were deeply personal, powerful, and told with fierce honesty. In many of our performances, audiences were internalizing their reactions and questioning suggestions they normally have around such themes.
While we encouraged more and more audience to not just be spectators, but also take on the roles of spect-actors and change the story, an excitement to change the ending of the play started building up.
“I realize how ironical it is, to work day in and day out around improving the lives of people in communities and be unresponsive to our own stories and our team members,” said a staff of a shelter home for women in distress.
“Forum theatre helped us to internalize our own reaction points. It was so refreshing to be able to laugh together, play, and get back to work,” said a block coordinator.
Learning for all
The facilitator of the forum asks after every intervention whether it felt real and whether it would work if the ending was different. The crucial part is played by actors who are facilitating team members trained in the methods of the tool.
It completely depends on how each audience member is able to work with different strategies with the actors and alter their behavior. Sometimes it works, many a time it does not but it always creates an excitement to try different interventions.
The play helped not only the frontline workers in other organizations, but those of us in the facilitating team too. It allowed us to move beyond work hierarchies and take solutions/coping styles from anyone in the audience. “I always prioritize work so much that battling personal struggles become the role of my partner,” said a senior member of our team, while intervening to change the scenes.
“Performing the play multiple times for different audiences taught me how I fail to see the need of strong allies or support systems around the oppressor and the oppressed. The desired change is easier through them,” said Seema, an actor of the Seva Mandir team.
Experimenting with forum theatre as a tool to have conversations on wellness and mental health for different audiences helped us document coping mechanisms that were personal and effective. It boosted our interconnectedness and humanize the fears we have as frontline workers.
It helped us rebuild some of the disconnect and disruption in peer learning that the lockdown had brought in. Participants repeatedly pointed out how peer learning is one of the strongest and effective ways of learning in grassroot development organizations.
Communicating about failures/struggles or showing vulnerability even in uncertain times is especially hard for men. Building programs that have deeper connections with communities also need in depth self-enquiry of our personal struggles in our teams and our homes. As a tool, it enabled us to raise questions that bring the focus on quality and thought across all levels in an organization.
The need to acknowledge the burnout, fear and well-being of frontline workers should be at the center of all program interventions or group meetings came out very strongly. Through replacing oppressor-oppressed characters we were empathizing with their limitations and became more patient with each other.
Names have been changed to protect privacy.
Anu Mishra is communication and training coordinator at Seva Mandir. Views are personal. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org