Looking for creative means of knowledge socialization: can art be the ultimate dialogue starter ?

By : Nadia Ben Ammar & Ghofran Ajimi

13 décembre 2022


UNDP, like many development organizations, supports the production of a great deal of knowledge in a quest to constantly reinforce the understanding of development challenges and continuously improve its strategic engagement and approaches.

In a recent effort to socialize Tunisia CO’s extensive work on trust dynamics in Tunisia as part of a more global initiative, deep demonstrations, our colleague Ievgen Klymynyk came up with a rather unusual idea: why not use Augusto Boal’s theatre of the oppressed to present the learnings extracted in the context of our work on trust, both to our internal UNDP audience and with our ecosystem of external partners. Boal used the theatre as a means of promoting social and political change putting “the oppressed” at the heart of this shift. He developed an immersive approach inviting the members of the audience to interact with the play as “spect-actors”, reflect on the issues at stake and become change agents.

The approach was, then, adapted to fit the needs of a socialization process and was further tested in two contexts: the deep demonstration and the SDG16+ spotlight report produced by key actors in Medenine, a region in the south of Tunisia with the support of the SDG16 team, who are always keen to innovate. In this first blog, we will present how we adapted and used this approach in the latter context, including the process, preliminary observations, as well as insights collectively gathered from those who took part in this experiment.

SDG16+ and the spotlight report

In the context of their work in the governorate of Medenine, in the south of Tunisia, UNDP brought together actors from key institutions such as municipalities, social affairs administrations, local security committees, civil society organizations, private and public labor unions, education institutions…etc, to analyze and document the region’s situation from the perspective of SDG16, by capitalizing on the knowledge and data produced across the SDG16 Portfolio individual initiatives. This is a first of its kind experience as it invites local actors who do not often meet around the same table, to collectively analyze and document how their region is progressing towards SDG 16 targets using existing data produced at national and local levels.

An immense feeling of ownership and pride can be sensed when interviewing every single one of these contributors about their work, to which they gave the title of the “spotlight report”. This report prepared entirely by SC actors and supported by UNDP uses data produced by public institutions to analyze progress towards SDG16 targets et the local level. This report contributes to the SDG 16 progress report, a more comprehensive account of how well Medenine is progressing to meet the targets.

Enter Art

When we first introduced the idea of presenting the results of the spotlight report in the form of theatre plays, to our stakeholders, they were taken by surprise. “I was not really sure I had heard this right” said one of our participants. A moment of silence was followed by a vibe of interest and curiosity. “I wanted to hear how this could be done,” said another. At this stage, we were robustly backed up by two “theatre of the oppressed” professionals, Saida Chelly and Mohamed Labidi who had organized several initiatives in Tunisia, some linked to development challenges.

The idea was to train a core group of partners to elaborate scenarios linked to the spotlight report results and perform them in front of a heterogenous local audience. Before asking our stakeholders to sign-up for the show, our professionals took time to explain the approach and we told them why we believed this method could help them engage the audience better than using classical presentation techniques. We had them hooked but they were still a bit reluctant. We left the billboard in the room and asked them to sign up in the next two days, as we needed at least fifteen volunteers.

A few brave ones dared to put their names down, and many more followed. Later on, during interviews, one participant reported “I was really reluctant but when I saw people writing down their names, I thought well, why not”. Many of our participants mentioned trust in the UNDP SDG16 team and commitment to the project as important factors which encouraged people to see where this path would lead. By the end of the day, we had a full list of participants. Excitement and anticipation were both palpable.


Let the art process begin

It was essential that participants immerse themselves in the theatre space. Exercises in the 4 days of training aimed mainly at creating an artistic posture and conscience, building group trust and cohesion, connecting with the creative side and grasping the concept of the theatre of the oppressed. In this sense, history lessons were a must in order to successfully elaborate the scenarios and create an immersive and inviting experience with the audience. Because participants were already very familiar with the knowledge to be shared, the first priority was mastering the theatre of the oppressed technique. Professional trainers were solicited for this and their role proved to be essential to the success of the experiment.


In front of the curtain

The day of the performance, a heterogenous audience gathered in in the center of associative resources in Djerba. Young people, seniors, stakeholders from various institutions and structures awaited a nervous and apprehensive troupe of actors. They were anticipating the reactions of the audience. “I was impatient to see how people will react, what will they understand”.

The first part of the performance was allocated to ‘Image Theatre’, a silent form of acting where ‘sculptures of real-life situations’ were displayed to the audience. To preserve the data and knowledge produced, each ‘sculpture’ was accompanied by a carefully selected figure/insight which was displayed by the actors who preserved a still posture. Members of the audience were invited to comment and interact with each sculpture and piece of knowledge. This was followed by a forum theatre where the actors further explained the findings by performing a series of short plays portraying real-life situations which demonstrated specific results of the report. The audience was then invited to discuss the portrayed situations and to play the role of the oppressed in the scenarios to further immerse themselves into the knowledge presented. A discussion followed facilitated by the ‘joker’, one of our professional trainers who facilitated the discussion with the audience.

What happened? Why do we think it happened?

Giving a voice to the most vulnerable

Our participants noted that women and young people from the audience were among the keenest volunteers to interact with the play. These two categories are often a priority for any development organization when enabling citizen participation. They are also often perceived to be the most excluded categories in society when it comes to political, social, economic life at both central and local levels. What has then been the driver behind their enthusiasm during the performance? One hypothesis may be linked to the category of art selected in this experiment. The theatre of the oppressed invites to the stage, well, mainly the excluded, the voiceless. Scenes portrayed showed how vulnerable categories of society could be oppressed, these were often young people or women. As such, it is possible that they felt most concerned about the process and related to the real-life situations simulated on stage.

We at UNDP, just like Augusto Boal, believe that people at the heart of a problem, are the most powerful agents of change. Unfortunately, mechanisms to invite the most vulnerable around the table are difficult to come by. Through the use of immersive techniques such as the theatre of the oppressed combined with statistics about those who are most threatened in a given society, can help us start discussions with those who believe they do not have a voice.


Data must act: Giving legitimacy to statistics

When we display data on slides, people have trouble connecting. This is a natural phenomenon. Abstraction belongs to the world of research and academia, and while many can make sense of it, human brains are more naturally inclined to grasp concrete facts, rather than abstractions. People are also, often natural skeptics when it comes to statistics. Any presentation you make with statistics will yield a proportion of people who find the numbers hard to believe, or that would contest findings. According to one of our participants, simulating real-life scenarios linked to the statistics displayed, reinforced their legitimacy. “When people looked at situations they encounter in their daily lives, data presented made more sense, it was believable, real” commented one of the actors who performed.  


Emotions give rise to sincere conversations

In meetings where local stakeholders are invited to look at a situation analysis, the risk of falling into political and well-rehearsed “strategic” comments is always present. Responses are anticipated and rational. On the other hand,  situations involving art and theater generally evoke a strong emotional response in the audience. People feel concerned, empathic and this gives rise to sincere conversations, ones which are seldom observed in data analysis workshops. Emotions are also well-documented memory reinforcers. One of our participants said that she still remembers the figure she was holding for display and that she was surprised that participants in the audience mentioned it several times even after the show was over. “People remembered, because they were touched, and this made the result stick in their minds”. One of our participants added “People chased us down in corridors, they were difficult to stop during the show and had it not been for the time, we would have stayed there all afternoon to talk about the problems identified in the report”.


The beginning of an adventure

For our participants, it was an adventurous experience, one of self-discovery, open-mindedness and very intimate conversations with an interested and sincere audience. While most participants reported being curious and hopeful at the beginning of the process, almost all reported being surprised with how powerful this experience can be, many of them already imagined using the methodology in other contexts and were keen to repeat it with other audiences to reach out to a larger group of people.

They all experienced a strong solidarity and cohesion among the actors and report bonding over the activity even after the show. Could this be the beginning of the use of art to generate more meaningful local dialogues? Moreover, theatre professionals were keen to repeat the experience as for them, we changed the theatre of the oppressed paradigm. Usually, real-life situations start a reflection on problems. In this case, issues were pre-identified and then portrayed to the audience which took the discussion to a different place, people generated abstract knowledge primed by portrayal of oppression.


Overall, the experiment was full of positive surprises. We initially hypothesized that people will be more curious and interested, we did not predict that interactions would reach this level of candor, passion and that vulnerable and often excluded categories of society would take the lead. People were genuine, passionate, and truly keen to discuss solutions rather than stick to diagnosing the situation.

In the second part of this story, we will tell you more about another socialization experience using the theatre. Stay tuned for our ‘Theatre of Trust’