Approaching Community through Theater

teatro de los elementos

After weeks of hearing about an enigmatic but well respected theater group tucked away in the mountains of Cuba, we finally fell upon Teatro de los Elementos (Theater of the Elements). If all goes well, we hope that the entrance flanked by now-in-season mango trees will be welcoming a group of Canadian and Cuban students in November. This exchange initiative is one Recrear conceived as a useful strategy to interchange knowledge between young people facing climate change on different sides of the spectrum. Where Canadian students bring theory and a Northern lens on climate change, young Cubans have engaged with environmental impacts at a more hands-on level.

Only a few kilometers away from the town of Cumayanagua, I find myself mentally and physically more at ease in the farmlands upon which the group has made a home for itself. A distant reality from the more boisterous streets of Havana, Teatro de los Elementos has provided a space for both thoughtful conversation and quiet reflection. More particularly, their approach to developing community theater reminded me that traditional research models and methodologies are not always sufficient.

When we first arrived on this rain-washed terrain, I was excited about meeting theater practitioners in Cuba and learning about the creative origins of their work. Theater has always been a dear treasure to me since I first came into contact with it in Tanzania. What drew me in, however, is the profound capacity of theater to investigate human behavior, both at an individual and collective level.  Evidently, this transforms theater into a powerful tool to understand community, and sometimes even to discover it.

For this reason, I have a fervent curiosity about this quiet but somehow widely known group and their rationale for starting a community theater group. You will find no belief in strictly performance arts here. On the contrary, to the actors, theater is a means to investigate, observe and interact with the complex tensions found in a community. Ultimately, the final product is a spectacle that brings different players from the area into one space to critically engage with the delicate dynamics underpinning the social fabric of their community.

Following my visit, I am restored with a conviction that research is not as a conventional practice as it is often thought to be. The use of surveys, questionnaires and interviews can be enlightening, but depending on the subject of interest these same tools are also inhibiting. More importantly, community research is a delicate matter and whenever we enter into a new environment we need to be conscious of the impact our presence has on community dynamics. This process can be a headache no doubt, and the task of being invisible is doubly unfeasible as a foreigner. Nonetheless, a lot can be gained both ways when we make the decision to embrace the unfamiliar and uncomfortable. This is precisely the glorious point about theater –  that it creates a safer space for individuals to explore the uncomfortable and even challenge it. With considerable effort and collaboration, we are challenging Recrear’s model of community research with youth followed by civil society consultation to be equally as provocative yet useful.

– Kirsten

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