Democratic reform through the use of community arts

Open submission by Mohammad Issa, General Manager, Yes Theatre for Communication among Youth, Palestine

About Yes Theatre

Yes Theatre is a community theatre that uses artistic performances, drama and theatre workshops, performances and capacity-building training for teachers in theatre-based techniques, and activities of cultural exchange for community development. The overall objectives of Yes Theatre are to contribute to improving the psychosocial well-being of Palestinian children, youth and women through the use of drama and theatre, and to empowering rights holders to know about and claim their rights. Most of Yes Theatre's activities are undertaken in cooperation with UNRWA - the UN agency for Palestinian refugees - and the Palestinian Ministry of Education. Yes Theatre’s activities in West Bank annually reach an audience of 100,000 school students and hundreds of public audience members. Yes Theatre’s core programme is the Drama 4 All programme, through which the theatre runs the following long and short-term programmes: Play4Kids, Kids4Kids, Drama workshops, Puppets 4 Kids, Taking Detention out of Palestinian Children, Yes4Youth and Yes4 Future.

How it works

Palestinian society is living the result of a harsh political crisis. The combination of Israeli occupation and conflict resulting from internal political division has stalled democratic development and state building. While political and economic development locked in a downward spiral, cultural dialogue to foster critical thinking, creativity and conflict resolution seems the one possible way to move forward. Yes Theatre is a professional organisation that is working to contribute effectively to the empowerment of rights holders to know about and claim their rights through the use of drama and theatre. Its work is geared towards guiding and training women and men - and those women and men involved in all levels of work with them - to develop creative skills, engage in debates and find the power and possibility of cooperation, solidarity and humour in difficult times. New social cohesion is produced as a result. Structures for public exchange are produced in a way that connects to and fosters cultural identity.

In the past 10 years, Yes Theatre has developed and refined methodologies of drama and theatre. These methods were tested in scientific research that showed significant positive change of participants in accepting ‘the other’, and in willingness to participate in community tasks and forms of representation. Community participation, inclusion and gender equality have been high on Yes Theatre’s agenda. Even in Hebron, home to Yes Theatre, women flock to the local theatre for drama training, interactive performances and storytelling forums. As an answer to the present problems in Palestine, the central fields that frame the work of Yes Theatre are to support democracy and skills, and support their sustainability through investment in relevant sectors of civil society.

In order to promote a society of freedom, representation and respect for human rights, Yes Theatre works both at grassroots and policy-making levels to empower children, youth and women, while lobbying in civil society and government institutions for access for all Palestinians to cultural education and to institutions that engage them in free expression practices and democratic representation. The physical and emotionally liberating work of drama and theatre brings about empathy and produces social cohesion in its group dynamics: two elementary qualities for creating democratic attitudes and environments. Intense involvement with Palestinian cultural heritage through participation in Yes Theatre activities further stimulates the identification with and feeling of responsibility for a Palestine ‘of all’.

Palestinian children, youngsters and women, in schools and community centres during outreach activities, are deeply involved in the design and content of the work. In Yes Theatre’s plays, women share their stories and act as storytellers. Parents are involved in performance workshops. These workshops are implemented to gather public feedback. Civil society partners, the UNRWA and Palestine Authority ministries take part in awareness campaigns and are part of planning when general programme designs and schedules for work with schools, municipalities, villages, refugee camps and civil society organisations (CSOs) are discussed.

As a response to all of these challenges, Yes Theatre has designed a full programme with a lot of activities as a way to contribute effectively to democratic reform in Palestine. With Play 4 Democratic Reform, Yes Theatre offers Palestinians a unique opportunity to enjoy theatre, be encouraged to take a different view on daily life and to be inspired to build their own future. In this project, Yes Theatre creates a play with a social message, which is performed for school students by professional actors. The selection of the theme is based on the daily life of Palestinian children. They are themes relevant to the community or are based on or inspired by contemporary or traditional sources of Palestinian or Arab cultural heritage or literature. Themes come easily because we live in a society so full of bizarre and often unbearable problems. After several rehearsals, a play tour is carried out for school students who come to the Yes Theatre location by buses to attend the performances. At the end of each performance a small workshop is conducted with school students with a discussion about the theme of the play. A total number of 60 performances are carried out in cooperation with the Palestinian Ministry of Education and UNRWA.

With Storytelling Forums, Yes Theatre provides a platform where the individual isolation of women is broken, and solidarity and relief can be found, giving possibilities to women interest groups to represent women’s outcries on a political level. Cooperation with CSOs supports the community impact of the work. Storytelling - being the core of all theatre - gives women the opportunity to practise the right of free expression and speak about issues of deep context and emotion. The theatre venues offer a safe place for sharing and for finding calm and relief. The isolation of women in the families of their husbands makes it difficult for many women to speak out about situations of oppression and violence. Performances by actresses, based on stories collected among four generations of women (children, young adults, mothers and grandmothers) give audience women the impulse to share their own stories, and find solidarity and relief. The freedom to express themselves strengthens them to stand up for themselves in their personal and public life. CSOs specialised in supporting women legally, socially, or politically, are able to bring the expressed concerns to forums of political and community representation. These forums are implemented in marginalised areas. More than 100 women are targeted through this activity.

With Puppets 4 Democracy and Civic Engagement and Democracy, Yes Theatre produces a puppet play and performs for children in marginalised areas. This play is based on empowering children to know about and claim their rights. Twenty performances have been conducted and more than 400 children and youth targeted.

With Free Expression Outreach to Children, the participants of our outreach programme are children and youth from 6 to 18. The activities are workshops and trainings in drama and theatre. Ten workshops have been implemented and 150 children are targeted.

With animation workshops, Yes Theatre enables children to design and produce animated films about issues that concern them after receiving training in this regard. Ten workshops have been implemented with 10 different groups (each group included five children maximum).

Conclusion

The goal of Yes Theatre’s interventions is to enhance democratic values by affecting Palestinian children and youth through art and theatre. The programme includes different activities through which the basics of the democratic process are introduced and practised by the participants. Furthermore, the programme provides developed mechanisms necessary to advance youth and child rights, discuss their problems and participate in their community development. Yes Theatre also contributes to challenging the monotony of the systemised schooling system.

The impact of this project, following structural based activities and repeated experiences, is to find a generation of youth and youngsters that is aware of the values of civil liberties and human rights. Those youths are going to develop to become advocates who lobby for promoting the values of democratic actions in their society. This will contribute to the creation of a democratic society based on pluralism, and the valuing of human rights among its citizens.

The activities are varied, such that Yes Theatre can reach out to the Hebron governorate and the surrounding villages, with a special focus on Area C, according to its peculiarity as a neglected area due to being under Israeli occupation. Violations of human rights highly affect Palestinian children. They are deprived of a proper functioning civic society and quality education.

In addition, being raised in a patriarchal society has worsened the effect of youth and children’s opinions being disregarded, underestimating their identity and their healthy personal development. This target group in usually neglected in the discussion of democratisation as if their opinions don’t count. Educational methods remain stuck in a rote learning top-to-bottom style of teaching where children are looked at as empty bottles that have to be filled. School is a crash course preparing for tests and exams. UNRWA schools, with special teachers for human rights, don’t escape this routine. In the West Bank, travel restrictions and checkpoints regularly break the rhythm of the school week.

As a result of our Yes Theatre’s interventions, children and youth are given the chance to experience the freedom of expression in diversified cultural contexts and in teamwork, often as extra-curricular activities. The use of drama and theatre methodologies stimulates critical thinking and use of imagination to resolve conflicts. Yes Theatre not only provides a safe environment for this group to share imagination, ideas, fears, opinions and hopes, but also generates cultural pride and self-efficacy. In the action children and youth have the opportunity to explore the cultural diversity of Palestine in an innovative, interactive approach. The whole experience is a role model that needs to be studied by Palestinian and international CSOs. It is a smooth experience in which democratic values are concentrated in an easy way. It is all about democratic reform but without using difficult methods and concepts.