Written by Yao Zhilu and Antoaneta Pophlebarova.

One might assume that it is a no-go in China to perform plays on sensitive social issues such as oppression, sexual abuse and school bullying, and even more so to invite the audience to openly participate, improvise and discuss these topics.

There was so much uncertainty as to how it would be received. How would people react to the issues exposed by this play? Would the audience, consisting of mostly housewives, teachers, children and the elderly, be outraged or indignant? Who would dare to interrupt the play, express an opinion and come on to the stage to participate?

However, Zhilu Yao from Guangdong Youth Net, China and Antoaneta Pophlebarova from BalkanKids Foundation, Bulgaria, gave it a try. The project was supported by Stiftung Asienhaus as a follow-up activity of the 2016 EU-China NGO Twinning Programme. It exceeded all expectations, leaving a lasting impression on the participants and a flourishing ground for further development. 20 volunteers in the field of sexual education participated in the training over five days. The topic was “Forum Theatre and creative tools to discuss social issues in an interactive, community-based way.”

The training took place in the small provincial town of Heifeng – about 300 km south of Guangzhou.

Antoaneta Pophlebarova’s aim was to overcome language barriers and cultural stereotypes by involving them through a number of games and exercises. After introducing the background and basic principles of Forum Theatre, the participants then took on their first theatrical adventure, performing the morally controversial tale of Abigale.

A key moment in the training was the introduction of the rules of interaction with the audience who became SpectActors. SpectActors interrupt the performance and change the course of events by disrupting the behaviour of the characters. After they had experimented improvising and undertaking various exercises, they had to come up with the ideas of two final plays, based on oppression and sexual education.

Discussing and performing these sensitive issues was not an easy task for the Chinese community. Chinese culture is still very conservative and premised on traditional morality. Talking about genital organs is considered vulgar in public and would be laughed off in private. This societal attitude towards sex is mirrored in a rather conservative governmental approach to this topic. Sexual education is neither wide-spread nor very useful for those afraid to be considered “different”. It was therefore considered to be one of the programme’s greatest achievement of the training that the Chinese were so willing to take part.

Both plays were in Chinese, which was a rather demanding task for trainer and director Antoaneta who did not speak Chinese, but was overcome by Zhilu’s ability to coordinate and empower the two teams to develop two very interesting and provocative plays. One play was about a dominant mother who forbids her daughter to fall in love, with the daughter consequently running away from home. The other play was about a busy couple who leave their seven-year old son with a friend’s family, where he ends up being sexually abused.

Parallel to the process of rehearsals came the process of promotion – advertising the event in the local community. The event was not allowed to be reported on in the local media and had to rely mostly on WeChat, the community network and the 2000 leaflets that were distributed in the streets of Heifeng.

The play was performed in the dancing hall of a kindergarten. Some VIP guests attended, one of which was the Secretary of the Communist Party for the city.

There was so much uncertainty as to how it would be received. How would people react to the issues exposed by this play? Would the audience, consisting of mostly housewives, teachers, children and the elderly, be outraged or indignant? Who would dare to interrupt the play, express an opinion and come on to the stage to participate?

More than 70 people attended the show. Zhilu and Le Yi both explained very clearly the goal of the performance to the audience, which was followed by a number of warm-up activities with them.

Each play lasted approximately 20 minutes. Altogether, the Chinese audience stayed for three and a half hours. Clapping, laughing, arguing, discussing, coming up on stage, playing and replaying. Even the party secretary agreed to come on stage and perform. It was an amazing experience that exceeded all our expectations! The feedback was extremely positive and the participants of the training were very satisfied.

Meanwhile, the network of Forum Theatre in Guangzhou is growing. Zhilu Yao and the young sexual educators from Guangdong Youth Net performed multiple times to big audiences, including to the chief representatives of the Education Department of Guangdong province, Guangdong Family Planning Association, Guangdong Association for the Prevention and Treatment of Sexually Transmitted Diseases, Disease Prevention and Control Center of Guangdong and teachers from three different Universities of Guangdong.

This provocative presentation format is one of the most efficient ways to discuss and achieve awareness and find solutions for core social issues.

Antoaneta Pophlebarova is the President of the BalkanKids Foundation, a youth NGO working on projects of non-formal education, charity fund raising and active citizenship. Yao Zhilu is a graduate student of the City College of Dongguan University of Technology and joined the Guangdong Youth Net in 2016. Image Credit: CC by Stiftung Asienhaus

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