Forum Theatre on the Fly

Today was a manic, creative whirl through one of the most famous and rigorous applied theatre forms: forum theatre, which is part of Augusto Boal’s “arsenal” of Theatre of the Oppressed techniques and strategies. Forum Theatre highlights an injustice in the world through a short play. After the performance is finished, audience members are invited to replace the protagonist – the victim of the oppression – at key moments to try to change the negative outcome the character inevitably experiences.

Forum is a rehearsal for change in the real world, a safe laboratory for trying out ideas on intricate and often taboo subjects. The experience of forum can be transformative for actors and audience alike – but like any potion, its ingredients are only potent in the right proportions.

We split into small groups, with one CUNY student directing a group of five or six students from the University of Rwanda. First, we churned up ideas for problems, oppressions, injustices in the world. Nothing was off-limits, from corruption in business, to violence in the home, to sex trafficking to buy the next day’s bread. Each group settled on a topic that it was passionate about. In my group, we settled on forced marriages determined by economic necessity, not love and the happiness of the couple. Then the hard work began.

Crafting a forum piece is very exacting – it’s not just about making an arresting story, it’s about creating a tragedy that has the potential to be changed. Make the oppression too powerful or nebulous, and it’s impossible to challenge. Make the leading characters too strong, too active, and it is impossible for audience members to fight back any better than they already do.

As a group we tested scenarios and built scenes. Striking the right balance in the piece was a constant negotiation, over, under, and through language barriers. But the entire time, the passion and creativity of the URCE students was monumental. We pushed through fatigue and confusion, through translations and arguments, to arrive at a product that was imperfect, but alive. Each forum (we created twelve!) addressed a problem that the students identified for themselves. Tomorrow the pieces will be shared and fellow students will try to intervene in the imaginary but all-too familiar, unjust worlds. I don’t know how it will play out- but that is the joy and terror of drama and life and art – the relish of the unknown.

-Ben Prusiner

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Past and Present

Yesterday (Saturday) Helen, Chris and I spent the day with the upper-level students and some of the alumni at the URCE, comparing stories, refreshing their game-leading skills, and playbuilding. It was wonderful to reconnect and to learn that so many of the alumni are doing theatre in one form or another. Today (Sunday), a small group of CUNY students and I went to the Presidential Palace, the home and state house of Rwandan presidents from 1962-2000. An indeed palatial estate with beautifully manicured gardens, and an in-ground swimming pool, it was ground zero for planning and administering the 1994 genocide. The genocide began on April 7th, the day after a plane crashed just outside its gates. The plane was carrying both the Rwandan and Burundi presidents back from signing a peace accord in Arusha, Tanzania. Just who shot the plane down and why has never been proven. There are many theories. The crash was the proximate catalyst for the systematic murder of approximately 800,000 Tutsis and moderate Hutu. It was difficult to reconcile the life of luxury that President Habiyarama and his family enjoyed while the people of Rwanda did without electricity and running water, and how they instigated mass slaughter in such a peaceful and opulent setting.

Amy Green

http://museum.gov.rw/index.php?id=30

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A Trip to the Palace

Today, was the first day in Rwanda that we, the CUNY students, have been on our own together.

Today, we drove to the Southern Province of Rwanda, through farms and forests and rice fields—the scenery changing every few moments.

Today, we spent an hour on the bus trying to remember the words to an old Red Hot Chili Peppers song.

Today, we went to the King’s Palace, a significant place in Rwanda’s history.

Today, I met a cow with longer horns than the Texas longhorns I grew up with.

Today, we had a picnic beneath the trees in the Palace, sharing food, sun, and laughter with each other.

Today, we stopped to get special milk, available at only one place in Rwanda.

Today we sang the American national anthem and heard the Rwandan national anthem in return.

Today was a good day.

And yet…

It is impossible for me to think of this beautiful and amazing country without thinking of what happened in 1994.

While we were driving home from the museum today, I remember thinking that if I were knitting the story of Rwanda, the yarn would be vibrant and full of life: deep greens, startling blues, the vibrant and ever-present orange of the dust.  And then, woven into the backdrop of hills and suns, a deep, dark blood red that grows into everything; even as the colors become beautiful, the red remains as part of the background of what was.

One thing that has continually amazed me about Rwanda and the people here is the way they bravely face their past. Instead of hiding it, they talk about it openly.  Driving through the provinces today, I saw no less than three signs for different genocide memorials.   They were as much a part of the scenery as the trees, hills, rice fields, banana trees, and people that passed by the bus window.

From half a world away, it is easy to forget what happened here 21 years ago.  But here, it is present in everything we do.  Even today, the tour guide told us that the last queen of Rwanda was killed during the genocide.

And yet…

This country continues to move forward together, not by forgetting or ignoring, but by remembering, by creating places that memorialize those who were lost and teach those who come after.  It is as much a part of their history as the virginal milkmaids and beer boys who once served the long ago kings in their palace huts.

When I look at the gorgeous landscape that surrounds me, it is hard to believe that a mere 21 years ago, violence devastated this country.  Today, Rwanda is teeming with life, smiles, waves, and laughter.  Today, Rwanda seeks to heal their country by embracing their flawed past. And for me, one of the most important parts of this trip is the opportunity to learn about and begin to understand a small piece of what makes this country Rwanda.

I cannot express how important these cultural visits are to the work that we are doing here. I love the ways in which I have been introduced to Rwandan culture as we progress – eager to learn more about the community, culture, and context of the school and the country itself. One of the things I’ve enjoyed the most about my week here is the willingness of the Rwandans to jump in with both feet and work hard.  In our workshops, I was continually amazed by the things the students came up with and the bravery they demonstrated in sharing it. Outside of the classroom, I have watched and listened to survivors of the genocide as well as some of the history behind it.  I loved the museum’s oral history lesson of how Rwanda was formed.  I’ve loved working with the Rwandan students through our workshop process.

I cannot wait to start play-building next week with such an incredibly creative and smart group of students .

I cannot wait to continue to get to know the students better.

I cannot wait to continue to learn more about this culture, which is alive with history and context, this brave culture that does not hide from its history but instead embraces it—just as the students have embraced us.

~reesa

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Agahozo-Shalom

I rushed downstairs from my hotel room with just enough time to eat a hard boiled egg and pastry in the now familiar courtyard at the Civitas hotel.  The weather was perfect as usual, warm and breezy.  At 8:30, the bus arrived.  We hopped on the University of Kigali bus where we found all of the Level 4 students from URCE who we were going to be spending the day with.  Not even a milli-second had gone by before Ashkon excitedly took out his guitar, bought in the marketplace, and started strumming away.  I wish I could describe the energy of that bus in that moment, and how it all felt.  We all sang at the top of our lungs as we drove through the countryside toward Agahozo-Shalom Youth Village.  Villagers and children waved at us as we bumped up and down through the narrow, red dirt roads.

Agahozo-Shalom Youth Village is a residential high school for orphans of the genocide in Rwanda.  We pulled up to be greeted by dozens of students who we all partnered up with for walking tours around the village.  My tour guide was a second year there and very proud and happy to be showing me her home and her school family.  The school and village is built on one of the most beautiful sites I have ever seen.  Little houses sit in front of gorgeous stretches of land. These are the homes of all of the young people who live at Agahozo-Shalom, all named after heroes such as Mother Theresa and Alexander the Great, chosen by the students themselves. 

I was brought down a path between banana trees and casava plants to the end of the road where you can see the Rwandan mountains and a beautiful lake set between them.  If you look down, there is an outdoor amphitheatre for the schools performances.  What a spectacular backdrop for youth theatre!  A little further down the road was the farm where the school keeps their animals.  There were baby bunnies as well as hundreds of chickens from which the students get all of their eggs for meals.  They even have a hut where they grow mushrooms.  I was then led to the art center where students can practice their visual art skills, music skills and technical skills.  I was so delighted to see that these young people have a place where they can thrive and be happy.  They have a family and are part of a community where the learn, grow and create together.

The theatre program at the school, our own and the URCE program, then had an exchange of performances. URCE students had developed a piece on the theme of teamwork and coming together to create new ideas for progress.  Agahozo-Shalom showed us a performance they did last year in the main stadium at the twentieth anniversary of the genocide.  We performed our forum theatre piece,  Welcome To Your New Home, and the Agahozo-Shalom students were the spect-actors who intervened throughout the play.  Our  piece was extremely effective.  The Agahozo-Shalom students problem-solved enthusiastically and wisely throughout the intervention portion of the drama.

We then all headed to lunch which was in a huge dining hall.  As I walked toward the dining hall, I started hearing the beating of a drum and as I got closer the drumming became louder until I finally reached the dining hall where students were dancing outside rehearsing for a dance competition.

I sat with students I hadn’t met before at a long table in the midst of forty other long tables.  They were very generous and welcoming, especially when the food came to the table.  As I left after our brief encounter, one of the students said “I will miss you.”  I picked up some colorful banana leaves on the road back to the bus so I can always remember this day.

We then headed toward one of the many Rwandan genocide memorials.  After a wrong turn the large bus got stuck. A complicated u-turn was needed and some villagers helped us remove rocks from the road that were making it difficult for the driver.  This is the way of the people in this country, always helpful and always willing.

Moments later, as I walked down the hill towards the memorial site, one of the students told me how this beautiful piece of land we were on used to be a village with many homes and families.  He pointed out the places in the soil where the fences for the homes used to be.  These families were all killed and their houses destroyed.

At the memorial, we went down into the tomb where the coffins were.  Each room had a different family name.  It was dark, eerie and terrifying.  The next section of the memorial was a room that held collected bones, sitting on shelves against all four walls.  Over 26,000 people were buried at this site – and this is only one site.  Bodies are still being found, even today.

The president of the memorial committee responsible for the upkeep of this site told us his  story of what happened in that very village during the genocide.  It was difficult not to visualize events from his vivid descriptions.  I could hardly believe that I was standing on the land where so much destruction and hatred was enacted.

Today, there is such life, beauty and kindness in Rwanda.  The people here are so loving and accepting.  It is so painful to think about what they have gone through, what they must have felt, and what they still carry with them.

Thank you for reading.

Sarah Law

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Reflection

Today we had time to reflect as a large group on the theatre sessions we all worked on over the past four days. Reflection with a group of eighty people can feel overwhelming, if not impossible. If I’m being honest, at the beginning of our reflection I felt tired. We had come to the end of these sessions, I wanted a break.

Then the discussions started. The excitement and enthusiasm that the Rwandan students bring to everything makes it impossible to remain tired, and I remembered why reflection is so important to the work we do. Reflection makes us better practitioners; we are able to look at the work we have done and see the value in it as well as what needs to be improved. This is how we grow and become stronger. Listening to all of the feedback from the Rwandan students, all of the things they had learned and discoveries they had made, gave me a new perspective on my work. Many of the students mentioned the importance of fun and playfulness; this is something I sometimes forget and it was great to be brought back to this aspect of the theatre.

This focus on reflection also reminded me of what an incredible opportunity it was to lead four sessions in a row. Everyday we were able to reflect on our session and improve upon it. Our work grew stronger each day and we grew as practitioners. This time and space for reflection is not always possible. I am so glad that I have had this experience and have been able to work on and refine a session in this way.

Everyday the CUNY students reflect as a group; we discuss things from the day that have been significant or raised questions for us. Some days, I just want to skip this part and eat my dinner and relax. But this time for discussion is invaluable. I will try to hold on to and remember this feeling of wanting to reflect, of knowing that it is the part of the work that will allow me to grow stronger and become a better practitioner.

Thank you to all of the Rwandan and CUNY students for making the past four days so memorable, and I look forward to the work ahead of us!

Amanda

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Routines

I want to take a minute to talk about routines. In this morning’s session with Chris and Helen, the students from the University of Rwanda College of Education were introduced to the theatrical convention of ‘routines’, sequences of action that come in at least three repetitions and end with a change of some sort we call a ‘pay-off.’

Well, today was our third day with the Rwandan students and we’ve begun to establish a routine. We arrive each morning to the smiling faces of the Rwandan students and the noblest of efforts from the CUNY students to greet them with a good morning in their beautiful Kinyarwanda language. This morning’s usual routine came to a screeching halt when one of the Rwandan students informed a group of us that we were in fact using the wrong greeting when only speaking to a single person! We had been using the plural greeting to address individuals! We had a wonderful session of learning a bit of Kinyarwanda grammar and also enjoyed a good laugh together as a community.

I am realizing more and more throughout this journey that this trip is indeed about changing routines. It’s about understanding the joys of life and remembering the gift that is theatre and drama and why I fell in love with this work in the first place.

This afternoon, we visited the Kigali Genocide Memorial. We took an arrangement of flowers to place on the open grave there as a symbol of our respect and remembrance. This afternoon’s outing was a change in routine for our group as well. The Memorial was a much more somber experience than I have previously encountered in this vibrant country. As I found my way out of the exit of the Memorial, I stepped out onto a veranda that overlooked a beautiful amphitheater framed by the skyline of Kigali. Emerging from the Memorial, an important reminder of past events and a beautiful demand for this never to happen again, I was struck by the vitality, life, and joy I saw around me in Kigali.  This amphitheater was just host to a festival celebrating original Rwandan theater last weekend.  Life is going on; cars filled the streets, the flowers were blooming, the sun was setting, and children were happily skipping and even cartwheeling (I promise they were) down the sidewalks, beginning their journeys home from school, a routine they delight to partake in.

I was overwhelmed by the amount of hope I felt. This magical place has become a country of joy and laughter and one million smiles. The energy and atmosphere is one of overwhelming love and gratitude.

Personally, I was quite thankful that my routine was shaken up in so many ways today. I write this blog filled with the spirit of the beautiful Rwandan hillsides.  As for this third day of our trip and the change in routine, I can only say, “what a pay-off”  indeed!

Whitney

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Bevuye K’imukera

As I sat down at the Gorilla bar across the street from the local market, I felt a slight sadness wash over me. I was confused at first. After all, the morning and early afternoon had been so filled with joy. Perhaps that had something to do with it. I took a long sip of my beverage and began to recall the events of the day.

Our second day with the students at The University of Rwanda, College of Education had once again been an invigorating exchange of knowledge and ideas. After walking the thirty minutes down the main road it takes to get there–taxi-motos (motorcycle taxis) blazing by, the local people watching our not so inconspicuous group–we had arrived to the beautiful campus. Our welcome was warm, as it had been the previous day, however this time the enthusiasm was for reconnecting rather than making introductions. I felt more comfortable experimenting with new phrases. “Maramutze!” I said, Kinyarwanda for good morning. The students either replied back enthusiastically or laughed at my poor pronunciation, often both.

I later co-facilitated a session about Concrete Mime that explores bringing objects and environments to life through physicality and characterization. Though many of the techniques we were exposing the students to had been new to them, they picked them up quickly. The value of theatre as a tool for making connections and learning had never been so clear. Here I was, in a culture that was completely new to me, laughing and moving with people I had just met, all the while exploring the beauty and complexity of the world.

As we slowly attempted to make our way off campus, the conversations did not stop. I kept trying to learn more phrases in Kinyarwanda as the students laughed and taught me eagerly. It was not only the language they were teaching us, but also patience, generosity of spirit, and other behaviors that were so seamlessly being modeled.

Later that day we were exploring the beautiful crafts in the local market and a song was playing on the radio. I asked the vendor whether it was a love song and he confirmed my suspicion. “Bevuye K’imukera” he said. “From the heart.”

Forty minutes later we were singing together. Two local boys had helped me find a guitar, and as I played some chords in the marketplace, a crowd, including the young vendor, had gathered.

“In Rwanda! The land of a thousand hills!” We sang together and my heart bled.

As I sat at the Guerrilla bar, a sense of sadness washed over me. I had felt a love I never knew I was missing, and suddenly it was gone.

Ashkon

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