Theatre for Development is the innovative approach taken by the BEQUAL NGO Consortium to promote literacy and reading in Oudomxay Province. In celebration of World Theatre Day on 27 March, Australia and the European Union would like to shine the spotlight on this successful initiative.

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BEQUAL, a program led by the Government of Lao PDR with support from the Government of Australia and the European Union, is working to help more girls and boys, especially the most disadvantaged, to complete a quality basic education. To achieve this aim, the BEQUAL NGO Consortium (BNC) decided to try out the Theatre for Development approach involving young people for its literacy and reading promotion campaign in Oudomxay Province.

Hundreds, if not thousands, of organisations and initiatives around the world have used theatre as a development tool: for education or advocacy, as therapy, as a participatory tool, or as an exploratory tool in development. Theatre for Development is a type of participatory theatre mixing some parts that are fully scripted and staged, with the audience observing, and other parts encouraging improvisation and audience members to take roles in the performance.

The initiative is part of larger literacy program and started last year in March. BNC in collaboration with District Education and Sports Bureaus (DESB) from Houn and Gna districts in Oudomxay Province decided to use theatre to promote reading and train the community on how to encourage their children to read more.

A casting was organised in the two districts and 30 students from five secondary schools were selected to be actors. Then followed a 2-day workshop on theory and practice of key competencies in Theatre for Development, learning about what makes a good performance, the elements of a realistic drama, how to develop a strong story line and creating interesting characters.

With inputs from the workshop participants, DESB and BNC staff wrote scripts for four small plays, each one presenting a different aspect of reading promotion such as the importance of reading, the roles of parents, teachers and the community in promoting reading, and the organisation of reading camps. Each play lasted about 30 minutes. To ensure full comprehension and participation by the audience, the plays were performed in Khmu or Hmong in the targeted villages where those languages are spoken.

The actors rehearsed intensively for a month with the coach from the BNC and were ready to start touring the villages in May 2017 onwards.

As the targeted villages have no access to spacious facilities, electricity or water, the shows took place in the open air and were performed with very basic technical and logistic support. The remoteness of the villages also means little entertainment so the performances were welcomed very enthusiastically by the villagers.

Theatre proved to be an efficient way to raise the villagers’ interest and deliver the reading promotion messages to a captive audience. Moreover, as the script used real life situations, the audience understood easily.

“The drama activities were very successful. The communities are becoming more aware of the importance of education and are now joining reading activities more actively. We often got asked about the next performance when we visit the field,” said Mr. Manichanh Khounsanguan, Deputy Director of the Department of Early Childhood Education, Houn District, Oudomxay Province.

The plays were performed in 30 villages in Houn District and 10 villages in Gna District, Oudomxay Province. The BNC is now preparing a new drama performance to improve recognition of literacy issues in rural communities.