STANDING with head bowed under the blazing sun, the prisoner listens as an old farmer talks excitedly to the crowd. 'Look at him, lazy good-for-nothing.' The farmer jumps up to shake a wrinkled black fist in the prisoner's face. 'His own cattle die because he can't be bothered to take them to the borehole - so he steals mine. I say we should hang him.' Seated beneath a thorny acacia tree, the crowd - old women wrapped in blankets, young girls lounging with babies on their backs, men in ragged shirts and felt hats - chorus their agreement. The thief glances around in alarm. Then, eyes white with panic, dashes from the clearing with the crowd chasing him.
The thief - an actor - escaped. And the crowd - an overenthusiastic audience - returned shamefaced but laughing to watch the rest of the play. In Botswana, drama is brought alive by a popular theatre campaign called Laedza Batanani (literally: 'Wake up! Let's work together').
The power of the medium lies in its familiarity to the audience. Lectures just do not work - they're dull. Films and television are more fun but they lie in the realm of high technology. And so the power of drama has been rediscovered by development workers. Once despised or overlooked as being, amateur, folk theatre is now a by-word in appropriate development communication.
And its success seems dramatic. Sistren - as in 'brethren' - is a theatre group of women street cleaners from the slums of Kingston, Jamaica. Formed in 1976 by the government's Women's Bureau as part of a job creation programme in a city where women's unemployment is 44 per cent, Sistren was intended to educate participants as well as their audience. Their first play, 'Belly Woman Bangarang' - about mother-daughter conflicts - won national and international awards. Today members of the group are literate and articulate and skilled in organisation and theatre techniques. Their productions highlight women's struggles in Jamaican society and their success encourages confidence and hope among other women.
But the very effectiveness of communication by popular theatre means it has been co-opted by governments and big corporations. In India the Life Insurance Corporation hired a team of puppeteers to tour 600 villages in two years 'educating' the rural masses about life insurance. This powerful advertisement persuades peasants to start paying premiums which they can never afford. After six months or so, with the puppeteers long gone, the gullible give up their insurance installments. With no refunds, all the money is lost.
Used in this way, popular theatre no longer means participation or a catalyst for discussion but becomes instead 'an extension arm of the mass media' - just a powerful propaganda instrument for transferring a message from sender to receiver. However 'appropriate' the medium may be, the message itself flows in one direction only - from government or employer to performer, to audience.
A step in the right direction is to make at least the message worthwhile. But for popular
Money raises the most obvious barrier to the two-way flow of information between people and performers. Even the most committed actors may be gagged and bound if they have to rely on salaries or grants from official sources. In Peru, a drama group's play prompted villagers to discuss how their co-operative have been undermined by the government. 'All the things we fought for are now controlled by the government,' observed one of the audience angrily after the performance. 'We had little food when we started. And look at us now - we're still starving.' But because they were under contract to the government, the actors were afraid to pursue the discussion. It petered out and the villagers never regained control of their co-operative.
Sistren, too, was begun under the auspices of Michael Manley's progressive government in Jamaica, which recognised the importance of women in development. But the group is financed by grants from the government's Women's Bureau, the United Nations Decade of Women, the Canadian University Services Overseas, and other bodies. Its survival depends on the continuing benevolence of the new conservative administration. And Prime Minister Seaga's belt-tightening economic strategies seem likely to make it a prime target, for educational cut-backs.
Another obstacle to audience participation can be technology. Many people can act, sing or dance. But far fewer know how to operate a complicated lighting or loudspeaker system. At an Asian folk dance festival in Chattisgarhi, Indian, last year, a group of educated Indians were roundly criticised by visiting theatre groups and accused of undermining the essence of popular theatre by using coloured slides and microphones to portray peasants' misery to the peasants in the countryside.
Advocates of folk theatre tend to be purists. But, to be fair, commercialised entertainment, performed with the help of high technology props, is clearly not popular theatre. Performer and audience are set apart from each other and, more important, the audience is encouraged to sit passively consuming the play as though it were a plate of mealimeal. The audience must reverse this flow of information, involve themselves in the performance and make the play enact their own message.
Actors and audience learning from each other - or consciousness raising - has been put into practice by Ross Kidd and others in Botswana's Laedza Batanani campaign. Following the ideas of the Latin American educationalist Paulo Freire, Kidd believes that before people can change their lives they need to analyse their own problems and learn to see themselves as people with the power to alter their circumstances. Used appropriately, theatre can restore that precious sense of confidence and power. It does this because, as Kidd says simply: 'people are good at it'.
Laedza Batanani began as an experiment in 1976 and is now a nationwide education movement. Plays are performed by the Laedza Batanani team with villagers on topics chosen by the villagers. Discussions afterwards centre on action that could be taken to solve problems portrayed in the play. At this stage local extension workers- nurses, agricultural demonstrators, community organisers - advise on solutions that can be implemented by the villagers without government help.
Popular theatre - that which reflects the needs and interests of the people, that listens to its audience, that can be performed by its audience - is a liberating experience. And it is a growing communication movement in the Third World. Encouraged in some countries, co-opted in others, it can be full of artistic pretensions or a platform for angry zealots. Occasionally, however, the alchemy blends into something formidable. Perhaps the real success of so-called popular theatre can best be measured by its unpopularity with regimes that thrive on the perpetuation of inequality.
For fuller details of the campaign consult the excellent Laedza Batanani booklet, from: