thinkpiece - let's make a drama out of this crisis - Peter Johnson

05 February 2019

The improbable intersection of Brazilian avant-garde theatre  and contemporary UK public service. 

Bear with me. I hope it will at least be interesting.

First: the Brazilian bit (but don't suggest any of this to current President Jair Bolsonaro)

Augusto Boal (1931-2009) was a Brazilian dramatist and, for a time, elected politician. His experience of traditional styles of theatre led him to develop the "theatre of the oppressed" which sought to change the relationship or power balance between players and spectators, giving audiences a much greater role in the conduct and outcomes of the drama.

In the mid-1990s he served on Rio Council and put his theatrical ideas to work in the form of "legislative theatre". His approach had originally been to invite the audience to discuss the issues raised in a play (would we call this "consultation" in public service?).

As a councillor, he used legislative theatre to invited them to intervene in the drama to act out their real-life problems, debate alternative ways of doing something about them and (importantly, I think) reach conclusions about potential changes that he could take back to the council.

So it wasn't just agit-prop or radical chic. It was a serious, deliberate, well-founded approach to:

  • find out directly from people what their real issues are;
  • generate ways in which they might be tackled;
  • debate and (roughly) iterate the options;
  • arrive at a potential way of achieving successful change.

Which brings us to: the public service commissioning and transformation bit

Isn't that bulleted list very close to what we do, or say we do, but certainly should be doing, when we commission outcomes in public service?

Those who advocate really adventurous and innovative co-production in public service recognise (and celebrate) that it involves, amongst other things a change in the power balance between professionals and citizens, just as Boal sought to free audiences from passive spectatorship and enable them to shape the drama and its outcome.

‘Co-production is a relationship where professionals and citizens share power to plan and deliver support together, recognising that both partners have vital contributions to make in order to improve quality of life for people and communities’.

Co-production critical friends group, 2012

And the New Economics Foundation's principles of co-production include:

  • Recognising people as assets: People are seen as equal partners in designing and delivering services, rather than as passive beneficiaries or burdens on the system;
  • Developing two-way reciprocal relationships: All co-production involves some mutuality, both between individuals, carers and public service professionals and between the individuals who are involved;

Does it work? Where has it been tried?

Andrew Robinson, political writer and author of a study on Boal's work, says:

"The thirteen laws resulting from this process mostly dealt with rights for people with disabilities, older people, mental health patients, and gay couples – for example, prohibiting discriminatory room-pricing for gay couples at motels, banning electro-shock therapy, and putting telephone boxes on raised platforms so blind people can find or avoid them. Boal rates his most important law as a witness protection measure. He also emphasises that the only law he formulated himself was badly thought-out, in contrast with the collective measures. He suggests that, in these thirteen cases, the theatre groups have made desire become law."

And experience of legislative theatre in New York drew these comments from participants

“ It’s such a brilliant format for community outreach, engagement and education. This process is an innovative and effective model for community-based policy-making that should be replicated.” — Natasha Lycia Ora Bannan, Associate Counsel, LatinoJustice PRLDEF & President, National Lawyers Guild.

“ Legislative Theatre keeps policy and legislative discussions from becoming disconnected from real people. It reinforces my belief that constituents should have a direct impact on forming policies, setting budget priorities and determining legislative actions. It also offers a practical experience for both the constituent participants and the elected or administrative officials present. We need to continue to increase the number of opportunities for elected officials, agency personnel, and City staff members to participate directly in Legislative Theatre.” — Carlos Menchaca, Council Member.

“The policy discussion in city hall can sometimes become abstract, but it’s so important to connect what we discuss in the abstract to the real. It was an important part of that Legislative Theatre performance that there are consequences to the laws we pass, and how they affect people’s lives." — Steve Levin, Council Member

Concluding thought

All of this is enough to suggest to me that there's a lot of common ground between what Boal wanted to achieve (and how he went about it) and what public servants serious about co-production are trying to do in prevailing conditions. Isn't there a good chance that drama can help in this crisis?


Peter Johnson