Changing lives through theatre
Engaging with marginalised multicultural communities has been an important part of the work carried out by the University’s Centre for Cultural Partnerships (CCP) for a number of years.
Its most recent success story is Theatre for Change – a forum theatre program which aims to work with members of Melbourne’s multicultural communities from new refugee arrivals, disengaged youth and those seeking to share stories and experiences from their homelands.
Head of the Centre for Cultural Partnerships at the Faculty of VCA and MCM, Sue Clark says Theatre for Change has proved to be successful for both the community members involved in the program and the Centre.
“The program works to deal with the challenges of settlement and the resultant personal issues and provides a platform for people to share stories and meet people in similar circumstances,” she says.
“It is an outlet for these people, who come from a variety of cultural backgrounds, to tell their stories through interactive, improvised drama processes that are part of story building.”
Ms Clark describes forum theatre as a well-developed program used around the world. It involves team-building and trust exercises, which then progress to a series of improvised theatre performances where the participants start to re-enact their personal stories.
“Part of the integrity of the program is to provide a safe and contained space where trust and respect is built,” she says.
Artistic director, writer and performer, and former Victorian College of the Arts Masters student Shahin Shafaei led the three-year Theatre for Change program.
Mr Shafaei’s affiliation and connection with refugees is apparent – he himself spent 22 months in detention after arriving in Australia as a political refugee from Iran.
He describes his involvement as artistic director of Theatre for Change as an opportunity to create a dialogue around the voice of the marginalised.
“It is very rewarding to learn from people in this space. It is all about personal growth and it gives these members of Melbourne’s multicultural communities a chance to take something away for themselves,” Mr Shafaei says.
“People come to participate for many different reasons. They might be interested in storytelling, want to improve their English language skills, or just want to meet new people in similar circumstances.
“If I can play a part in helping them become successful and fully integrated with the community, help them improve their language skills or assist with their dreams of working in theatre, then it is all worthwhile.”
Through the program, Mr Shafaei leads participants on a journey of self-discovery and awareness through a number of improvised theatre performances, with the final performance in front of an audience who are invited to interact with the production (intervene in the stories and participate in a safe dialogue with others).
It is a challenging and confronting performance, but one that raises awareness and highlights issues for both audience and participants.
Those involved with the program have glowing views of the program and its success.
Asal Rajaby, 29, from Iran settled in Melbourne only four months ago after spending 11 months in detention centres on Christmas Island and Adelaide.
Now living in Footscray, she says she enrolled in Theatre for Change to connect with others in similar circumstances.
“I have really loved this new experience. Through forum theatre, I learnt that I could trust myself, others around me and feel comfortable for the first time in almost a year.
“It has been great to find new friends and has made me think about what I want to do with my life here in Australia.”
Michael Piel, a 24-year-old Sudanese refugee who has been living in Melbourne for five years says the program has helped him realise his dreams of being involved in the theatre and acting.
“This is the perfect creative outlet for me. I love acting and would like to be involved in Melbourne’s creative arts scene,” he says.
Another supporter and participant in the program is 30-year-old Behrouz Harvasi from Iran. He says Theatre for Change has exposed him to new experiences.
“After participating in the program I feel so much more involved in the community. It has exposed me to something new and to new people, which has been great.”
Although the Theatre for Change program finished in 2011, Ms Clark says CCP will continue to work with local government, neighbourhood renewal programs and local schools to help young people when they are first settling in Melbourne and Victoria.
“Our partnerships with organisations like Adult Migrant Education (AMES) and various local councils is very important so we will continue building these relationships where CCP can provide an active and creative outlet for communities in need.”