A re-consideration of participation and ethics in applied theatre projects with internally displaced and internationally displaced persons in Africa and beyond




Afolabi, Taiwo

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This research started as a quest to understand better the ethics of doing Theatre for Development/Applied Theatre with under-served, marginalized and vulnerable populations especially in post-conflict zones in the Global South. As a theatre practitioner-researcher from Africa who has lived and worked in post-conflict zones, I was interested in fostering appropriate ethical protocols for arts-based practices for social engagement, advocacy and social justice. Thus, in this dissertation, I focus on two concepts in applied theatre practice: participation and ethics. I examine how participation can be re-conceptualized in applied theatre practice and focus on the ethics around conducting research among vulnerable populations especially on refugees and internally displaced persons. On participation, I use existing case studies from various fields to argue that participation in community engagement and socially-engaged art practices can become a tool to reposition voices on the margin to the centre in order to unsettle centres of power. However, for this to happen, participation needs to engage a communicative action that is both epistemic and ontic in its approach. An epistemic discourse provides a way of seeing the world while an ontic discourse provides people with a way of being in the world. The former is a ‘theoretical’ discursive practice that is fundamentally epistemological, and the latter is an ‘embodied’ praxis that is fundamentally ontological. I examine the famous Ngugi wa Thiongo’s Kamiriithu Community Theatre project in Kenya and Michael Balfour et al’s refugee project in Australia to foreground this new thinking on verb-oriented and noun-oriented notions of participation. On ethics, I raise a series of critical questions around interventionist or humanitarian performances. It is hoped that these questions will deepen discourses in applied theatre practice and further challenge practitioners to rethink why we do what we do. Using narrative inquiry, I glean lessons from my field research facilitating drama workshop among secondary school students who have been internally displaced due to an ongoing socio-political crisis in Nigeria. I also reflect on my other applied theatre experiences in Canada and Sudan. I propose an ethical practice that is built on relational interaction. In the context of working in post-conflict zones or in places of war, I argue that precarity becomes a determining factor in framing the ethics of practice. The questions around ethics are raised to also draw attention to decolonizing ethical practices. Finally, I articulate the connection between participation and ethics in that participation becomes a tactic to ensure that applied theatre researchers/practitioners conduct their work in ethical ways. This is because through participation, concerned communities can challenge unethical practices and transform the research to create outcomes that are beneficial. Thus, as an example of reflective practitioner research, the projects in this dissertation offer opportunities to examine critically how participation has been conceptualized and the need for a decolonizing understanding towards ethics in applied theatre practice especially in post-conflict zones.



participation, ethics, applied theatre, internally displaced persons, refugees, performance, socially-engaged art, social theatre, devised theatre, decolonization, critical theory, autobiography, forced migration, theatre for development, postcolonial theory, drama curriculum