People's Theater from Germany goes international

20 January 2008

OFFENBACH, Germany — After six years of perfecting a technique that combines drama and discussion as a means to communicate with youth, a German theater group has gone international.

Individuals or agencies in four countries have commissioned People's Theater to give performances or offer training in the technique, said Erfan Diebel, one of the administrators of the drama group. In the coming months, the troupe also expects to perform in at least three additional nations, he said.

The technique involves a cast of young, amateur actors presenting a skit that highlights a common problem among youth, such as negative peer pressure, lack of patience with others, or backbiting. At a critical moment in the drama, the action is frozen and the audience discusses how one might respond to the situation.

In Luxembourg, officials at the Ministry of Education think the method shows enough promise that they commissioned People's Theater to train 17 staff members from various schools around the country, then take a tour of some of the schools to show the program in action.

"During role play, actual life situations are simulated and experienced," Patrick Wesquet, a social educator from the ministry, said of the program. "The player tries to act according to his role. He ... experiences the feelings and thoughts of the others, learns to accept them in their roles, and develops empathy."

After the pause in action in the skit and the audience discussion, the actors, with help from the students, try to act out some of the suggestions.

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"The young people ... recognize themselves in the role and whether or why their suggestion has contributed to the resolution of the conflict," Mr. Wesquet said.

Besides Germany and Luxembourg, countries where People's Theater is giving performances or providing training include Austria, Liechtenstein, and Israel. Additional shows are set for the United Kingdom, Serbia, and Switzerland, Mr. Diebel said.

Mr. Diebel and some of the others involved in the project are members of the Baha'i Faith and say part of their motivation is to put into practice the teachings of their religion about social justice and moral leadership.

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Mr. Wesquet of the Education Ministry in Luxembourg noted that the role of schools in the life of young people seems to be growing.

"More and more frequently, schools are no longer seen as being merely a place for learning, but also a place for living," he said. "The teachers and the staff of the school psychological services are able to assume an increasingly important role alongside the parents."

"The aim of this project is to promote the personal and social skills of young people," he said.

"During adolescence young people have to cope with a variety of challenges, such as establishing more mature relationships with their peers, developing an ethical system of values, practicing socially responsible behavior, adopting male/female gender roles, emotional independence from parents and other adults, preparation for marriage, family and a profession, and acceptance of their own physical appearance," he continued.

"The theater offers a great opportunity to try out these demands in a 'playful' way," he said.

Peter Schumacher, who was involved in bringing People's Theater to Austria, explains it this way: "Especially during puberty, teenagers tend to hide their insecurities behind a mask of coolness and arrogance. In a game situation, however, a young person is totally confronted by himself and his personality."

"Such an experience is very moving," added Dr. Schumacher, who is the head of the youth department the Tyrolean Chamber of Labor. The chamber sponsored a function where Tyrolean school directors were invited to see People's Theater perform.

Afterwards the school directors asked the chamber to have the drama group return to Austria for presentations at eight vocational schools, Mr. Diebel said.

Reaction

Mr. Diebel says there is strong anecdotal evidence that the program is effective. For example, the group heard from a teacher in Germany a week after People's Theater had done a drama presentation called "Apple Pie" that addressed the human quality of patience - the teacher said that afterwards, whenever the students behaved impatiently, she merely said the words "Apple Pie" and immediately they corrected their behavior.

"I will keep everything in my head," wrote a youngster from another school who watched a performance. "It's something that is easy to imitate."

Another youth described a personal response during the program: "I was contemplating a lot, and I also raised my hand a lot."

Still another student said, "I like that you stop the skit when there is a problem, so that we can solve it."

Mr. Diebel said one key to the success of the program is that the actors are very young - usually between 18 and 25 years old - making it easier for children and youth to relate to them.

"All of you are very cool," wrote one young fan to the troupe.

Background

People's Theater was started by in 2001 by Erfan Enayati of Offenbach. He got the concept of stopping the action to allow for audience discussion from a Russian television program, "The Happy Hippo Show," developed by Shamil Fattakhov, a member of the Baha'i Faith who lives in Kazan, Russia.

Support for People's Theater comes from foundations, schools and the City and District of Offenbach, along with a host of other organizations, companies and individuals, Mr. Diebel said.

The performers are young people who volunteer to be a part of the program for a year, he said.