“What does a right to food look like, in practice, in Scotland?”
This was the question posed to participants at the end of last week’s Scotland’s Foodscape Symposium in Edinburgh. Rather than starting a discussion on the topic, however, we presented them with a piece of theatre – and then challenged them to change the course of the action.
Forum theatre is a technique developed by Augusto Boal in 1970s Brazil as part of his wider Theatre of the Oppressed movement that aimed to empower those alienated or victimised by socio-political structures. Evidently, oppressions we face in Scotland today are of a different nature but Boal’s methods are universally effective. Forum theatre is a means of actively inquiring into a complex issue.
Indeed that is where the Edinburgh theatre company that partly inspired this project, ACTive INquiry, takes its name. Having seen their piece Resilience twice, with quite different audiences and outcomes, I wondered how forum could be used as a step towards systemic change in food and, more specifically, in informing Nourish’s Right to Food campaign. In both cases, inspiring people to develop from passive food consumers into active food citizens is key – so we need an active approach.
Our play presented a protagonist, Sally, an overworked mother, struggling to overcome the barriers to accessing adequate food – financial and geographical barriers but also of time, knowledge and confidence.
The 10-minute piece was developed by the cast of seven, a mix of food activists and theatre-makers but concerned food citizens all, who brought our combined experience to bear in creating the most powerful and accurate representation possible. The process was fascinating: at times cathartic, at times humbling. Boal’s guidance is to veer away from dialogue and instead build images of oppression, so we began rehearsals by building an image of the food system around the food consumer, each actor adding a sound and movement to his part of the picture; what emerged was felt by all to be such a striking visual representation of the tangled and oppressive food supply chain that we kept it unchanged as the opening to the play. Such is the power of imagery and intuition.
We aimed to present the play in such a way that the audience could respond in kind – with intuition and bold action, rather than thought and analysis. Another repetitive image showed the conflicting messages around food that Sally’s child was met with at school; a later scene had Sally in the supermarket bombarded with unwanted comments, advertising, her family’s voices in her head. It was in this scene that all seven of us felt unwavering recognition of the character’s situation, all the barriers to good food seemingly erected at once in this illusion of convenience.
We explained to the audience their role: in the second performance, you may shout “STOP!” at any time you want something to change and come to replace Sally on stage in order to seek a better outcome; if nobody intervenes, the family will still be eating the 2-for-1 takeaway at the end of the play. Wary at first, our “spect-actors” soon got involved: various family discussions ensued, as well as a showdown with the supermarket manager about special offers, and action at the farmers’ market to make produce more affordable.
There were ideas here; this was an audience of food professionals and activists, and therefore a sympathetic one to our first performance. But it wasn’t, perhaps, an audience directly acquainted with Sally’s difficulties – notably her lack of confidence. “Start a petition”, “make a lasagna”, “lobby your councillor” were all excellent suggestions but suggestions that it would take the character a lot more understanding and time than she had to enact.
It was exciting to put the piece in front of an audience after a very short devising and rehearsal process – how could we productively rehearse without the help of an audience? Each intervention adds another voice to the development of the piece and, although there is work to be done to improve the piece, the next step in this nascent project must be to find different, mixed audiences and to give each one longer to build solutions.
Here we had little over an hour; frustration was palpable and discussion more animated just as the session had to close, but this was perhaps a suitable ‘conclusion’. By this point, after a plaintive “Sally can’t deal with this on her own!”, we had started to allow other characters to be replaced, but ultimately this must be an exercise in empowering Sally and the audience to do just that – make change, not necessarily alone, but definitely in spite of the system oppressing them. Forum theatre, in Boal’s words, must be “a rehearsal for reality”. In reality, change has to come from all of us, as active food citizens.
Charlie Hanks is a director of The Real Junk Food Project Edinburgh.