Forum Theatre in Adult Learning

March 08, 2017 8:28 AM | Laura Chartier (Administrator)

Written by SEWI-ATD Guest Blogger,  Alexis Fielek

Anyone who has ever developed and delivered soft skills training has probably considered role-play as a way to engage audiences.  After all, people learn by doing, right? 

Yet many people hear “role-play” and cringe, roll their eyes, or simply come up with an emergency schedule conflict. Why? Sharlyn Lauby sums it up nicely, but role-play can be intimidating.  Not everyone loves to stand up in front of a room full of their peers and risk feeling foolish.

Role-play can also be stale, canned, and boring for anyone not in the hot seat; usually it involves two people acting out a scene in front of an audience, who, if they’re lucky, get a chance to comment on what their peers did wrong after the scene is done. Fun for all, no?

But what’s the alternative?  Put an inexperienced caregiver in front of a volatile patient and hope he “learns by doing” without either party getting hurt? Make the new job-seeker flounder through interview after interview, on the chance that she figures it out before making bad first impressions on every employer in town? Throw a newbie trainer in front of a class of busy, impatient professionals and spend time and resources repeating material because the audience wasn’t engaged in the first place?

Clearly, this isn’t the best path.

So, how can we create a safe space for learners to practice key behavioral skills without lasting, real-life consequences?

In the early 1970s, political activist and theatre director, Augusto Boal, was probably not thinking about the challenges of corporate trainers and L & D professionals.  Yet the techniques he created to raise awareness of and combat oppression can, in fact, address our challenges too.

Boal’s creation was called The Theatre of the Oppressed; it strove to make audiences see the oppression in their society, identify and analyze its root causes, work as a group to identify solutions, and finally to act to change the situation in the larger world.

I first discovered TO during my undergraduate studies of Theatre Education at Western Michigan University.  I was part of a group that used the techniques to help high school students talk about bullying.  Today, I use my favorite Theatre of the Oppressed activity, Forum Theatre, to engage whole classrooms in solving real-life problems that are relevant to their jobs and lives.

Forum Theatre is different than role-play in a couple of important ways.

  1. There is no audience.  Instead there are spectACTORS – through discussion and acting (only on a volunteer basis), the entire room engages in fixing a broken situation.

  2. It’s not intimidating.  The only people taking risks (unless they choose to volunteer) are the actors, who have prepared in advance, and the facilitator, whose role is critical to ensuring the conversation is real, the situation doesn’t get fixed “by magic”, but by changes that would have a similar impact in real life.

  3. No one knows how the situation will change or if it will resolve.  Because the whole room directs the scene, neither the facilitator nor the actors know for certain what will happen.  Kind of like real life, huh?

Of course, there are pros and cons, challenges, ways I have seen it go horribly wrong, and some tips I’ve picked up for avoiding that outcome in the future.  However, this is a post, not a novel, so I’ll save the details for a future article.

In the meantime, if you’re interested in learning more:

  • Or message me on LinkedIn – I’d love to talk further!

About the Author

Alexis Fielek, MLIS, CAWC, CC, CL, is Senior Operations Training Specialist, at United Heartland, has 20 years of experience in education and training, and is an SEWI-ATD Member. Alexis has earned her Master's Degree in Information Studies from UW-Milwaukee; Bachelor's degrees in Theater Education, English, and German; is a Certified Authority in Workers’ Compensation; and has recently acquired her Competent Communicator and Competent Leader Toastmaster's designations. Her passion is engaging adult learners by any means necessary, including relying on her Theatre Education background to bring new ways of learning to her audiences.

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