Theatre for development (TfD) is a type of community-based or interactive theatre practice that aims to promote civic dialogue and engagement.
Theatre for development can be a kind of participatory theatre that encourages improvisation and allows audience members to take roles in the performance, or it can be fully scripted and staged, with the audience simply observing. Many productions are a blend of the two. The Theatre of the Oppressed, an influential collection of theatrical forms developed by Augusto Boal in the 1970s, aims to create dialogue and interaction between audience and performer as a means of promoting social and political change.
Hundreds, if not thousands, of organizations and initiatives have used theatre as a development tool: for education or propaganda, as therapy, as a participatory tool, or as an exploratory tool in development.
Theatre for development can be seen as a progression from less interactive theatre forms to a more dialogical process, where theatre is practiced with the people or by the people as a way of empowering communities, listening to their concerns, and then encouraging them to voice and solve their own problems.
For Kabaso Sydney (2013), as reflected in Theatre for Development in Zambia, the term describes "modes of theatre whose objective is to disseminate messages, or to conscientize communities about their objective social political situation" (1993:48). Penina Mlama, referring to the enterprise as "popular theatre", summarizes its aims as follows: "...it aims to make the people not only aware of but also active participants in the development process by expressing their viewpoints and acting to better their conditions. Popular theatre is intended to empower the common man with a critical consciousness crucial to the struggle against the forces responsible for his poverty." (1991:67)
Theatre for development may encompass any of the following live performance types:
Theatre for development typically endeavors to build awareness about critical topics within a political or developmental context, often using an agitprop style. Especially in oppressive regimes, it may not be safe or possible to perform overtly political plays. Apart from political issues, common topics are non-formal education, hygiene, disposal of sewage, environment, women's rights, child abuse, prostitution, street children, health education, HIV/AIDS, literacy, etc.
Forum theatre, one of the interactive theatrical forms developed by Augusto Boal as part of his Theatre of the Oppressed, begins with the performance of a short scene, often a scene in which a character is being oppressed in some way (for example, a typically chauvinist man mistreating a woman or a factory owner mistreating an employee). Audience members are now encouraged to not only imagine change but to actually practice that change, by coming on stage as "spect-actors" to replace the protagonist and act out an intervention to "break the oppression". Through this process, the participant is also able to realize and experience the challenges of achieving the improvements they suggested. The actors who welcome the spectator volunteering onto the stage play against the spectator's attempts to intervene and change the story, offering a strong resistance so that the difficulties in making any change are also acknowledged. By becoming part of the scene, participants dive into the situation performed, which makes the whole topic feel more real for the person who came in to change the situation. The technique provides an alternative process of problem solving, where creativity is asked for and different approaches are tried. Forum theatre functions as "a rehearsal for reality", as Augusto Boal called it.
Theatrical forms such as invisible theatre or image theatre can be performed in public spaces to be witnessed by passersby. Invisible theatre is intended to be indistinguishable from real-life, unstaged situations, so as to provoke thought or raise awareness among observing members of the public. Invisible theatre in the streets has the advantage of potentially reaching audiences who would never attend a workshop or watch a play.
It is very important for actors and organisers of the performance or TfD-project to get to know the community and the problems its people face. Therefore, the play that is going to be performed and worked with has to be developed with local people who know the cultural behaviors and social problems of the community. Moreover, it is very helpful to have local authority persons and opinion leaders in the team of a TfD-project, whom the community listens to and trusts. In this way it is even possible to take advantage of the knowledge that locals have about best dates for performances or even to advertise for the ongoing TfD-performance.