Reclaiming Hope with David Diamond

David Diamond as he appears on the January issue of Many Peaces Magazine

David Diamond as he appears on the January 2016 issue of Many Peaces Magazine

‘Hope is a verb’, says David Diamond, the founder and artistic director of Vancouver’s Theatre for Living. As the company celebrates 35 years of creating award-winning, interactive community theatre, Diamond reflects not only on what it takes to keep hope alive but also on what has effectively become his ‘life’s work’.

‘Nobody is more surprised than me,’ he jokes as he recalls the loose beginnings of the company in 1981 when it was ‘a group of writers, actors and directors frustrated by the housing problem’ who created theatre that toured the country addressing that issue.

35 years later Theatre for Living (formerly Headlines Theatre) has a remarkable body of work of over 550 projects and trainings not only in Canada but also throughout the world, addressing complex issues such as climate change, globalisation, rampant consumerism, endemic violence, substance abuse and addiction.

Influenced initially by the radical pedagogy of social educator Paolo Freire, Diamond later trained with Augusto Boal, adapting Forum Theatre and other Boal methodology.

Boal called Diamond’s work ‘extraordinary and groundbreaking’ referring in particular to his adaptation of Forum Theatre for TV and the Internet and most notably, his highly acclaimed work with First Nation communities throughout Canada.

Diamond, who, among many awards, has received an honorary PhD from the University of Fraser Valley, the Otto René Castillo Award for Political Theatre and the City of Vancouver’s Cultural Harmony Award and the Mayor’s Award for Culturally Engaged Art, attributes some of the success to the company’s approach when working with communities.

‘We are not engaging with those community people because they are broken and we are going to fix them…they have expertise that nobody else has and we are employing them, paying them for their time…this is not therapy’Important too, is the premise that he makes about those who enter the space of the theatre, both in the audience and on the stage. In his book Theatre for Living, Diamond explains his break away from the binary of oppressed/oppressor of Boal’s approach and what he feels is the responsibility that interactive theatre has to ‘represent the complexities of life.’

At the same time ‘we have got the responsibility to make the best art that we can,’ Diamond stresses from Vancouver where he is preparing for the next project Reclaiming Hope.This is a series of ten events across Vancouver that will be asking audiences ‘how are you being asked to be afraid?’ He explained that the project aims to make visible the ‘voices of fear that are encouraging us to do things against our value systems … to change our relationship towards those voices so that we can reclaim hope.’

The work is being hosted by different organisations including a joint Jewish, Christian and Muslim organisation and environmental groups. For our North American friends you can find more information on www.theatreforliving.com.

Later in the year Diamond will be joining the Faculty of Medicine at the University of Alberta in Edmonton, where he has been asked by the Dean to help change the culture of the teaching environment using the Theatre for Living approach.

At the same time fund raising has already started for a large 2017 project that is examining the reality behind ‘reconciliation’ in Canada, ‘what does reconciliation really look like in today’s society?’.

David Diamond rejoices in what he considers a great privilege ‘ I get to have crazy ideas and do them…and work with incredible people in intimate and interesting ways!’

LEADERSHIP and TRANSFORMATION – unpacked

At two recent ACT OUT workshops with government organisations, leadership was one of the main issues explored using theatre for transformation.

Transforming existing cultures within organisations, especially large, bureaucratic organisations that act as functions of the government, is a real challenge requiring strong leadership and resilient self-leadership. There are scores of books written on the subject, and most of them refer to MIT business scholar Edgar Schein.

Schein, like Peter Senge, sees organisations today as having to be constantly learning and innovating. He identifies certain qualities he considers essential in leaders of organisations today and in the future:

1. Perception and insight – not only into what is not working well in an organisation and what is happening in the world; but also into her own weaknesses and strengths.

They require a high level of objectivity and distance so that she can recognise when their own ways of managing challenges may be hindering change and preventing others from being effective. Likewise, objectivity about her organisation is needed to enable them to call a spade a spade and see the cultural limitations within the organisation.

Another important quality is to be able to admit she does not know the answer or that she has made a mistake.

2. Motivation – to sustain the energy and effort it takes to intervene; to get the message across and ‘unfreeze’ aspects of the organisational culture that are hindering movement forward. He must be motivated enough to endure the pain of learning and growing.

3. Emotional Strength – change and transformation may bring high levels of anxiety. A leader must be strong emotionally to be able to tackle the criticism that may come they challenge the cultural status quo that is hindering progress.

Similarly, some actions may involve risk and she must have the strength to take risks and support others in doing the same.

4. Ability to change cultural assumptions – to open up the organisation to the future and the reality of the world. There may be aspects of the culture that are going to hinder the organisation’s survival or wellbeing, a leader needs the skills, perhaps new skills to analyse and ‘sell’ new visions and concepts to the rest of the organisation.

5. Ability to create involvement and participation – Schein talks about ‘cognitive redefinition’ about the culture in the organisation, this redefinition has to take place not only in the mind of the leader, but also in that of others. This requires a leader to be able to listen and involve others.

Organisational Culture and Leadership by Edgar Schein, 2004, Jossey-Bass Publishers

Forum Theatre’s Positive Impact on Self-Esteem and Conflict Resolution

Forum Theatre is the creation and performance of a play dealing with particular issues pertinent to the audience and its community. The play does not have a conclusion; instead, scenes portray the various struggles faced by the protagonist. The play is performed once right through; then it is performed again, this time ‘spect-actors’ from the audience can stop a scene if they think they could offer the protagonist alternatives that would have better results. The ‘spect-actor’ is then invited on stage to perform their suggestion. With this is mind picture this short scene in a play:

A salesperson has trouble resolving a customer’s problem with a mobile phone. The customer does not have the time to wait for the administrative steps necessary to replace the faulty phone. The shop assistant is growing more and more frustrated – he wants to do the best for the customer but must follow protocol.

The spect-actors getting up on stage to replace the frustrated salesperson in trying to positively influence the client are also not having much luck. The client is not happy and wants a result NOW.

This is one of the scenes performed in a project, Communication and Conflict Resolution in Working Life, conducted by theatre practitioner Rikke Gjærum and psychologist Gro Ramsdal between 2005 & 2006. The project combined the Forum Theatre pedagogy with Psychological Dialogue Analysis to train employees from 5 regional industrial enterprises from a variety of sectors. These included transportation, mobile phones and electronics, petroleum, logistics and manufacturing. The goal was to measure the success of using these tools in improving self-esteem and responding to conflict by developing more positive communication strategies.

Participants used real event from their working lives, creating 23 dramatisations which fell under 4 different themes.

The practitioners established a context for participants to analyse conversations – for this project it was that the maintenance of self-esteem and the protection of identity are key components in communication.

The customer, participants were reminded was buying the phone for his wife, ‘his identity as coping husband could be threatened is he failed to buy her a proper gift…’, moreover, he would also have to deal with his self-talk about the reaction his wife might have.  When the spect-actors returned to the stage their new interventions reflected a ‘new identification with and understanding of the customer’s problem’. Solutions that involved how he might take care of his wife were now offered too.