Perspectives: Community Forum Theater Adds Realism and a Human Touch to Environmental Health Outreach
By John Sullivan
At the Armand Bayou Nature Center, an enthusiastic audience watched intently as the Walker family re-enacted the frightful day their family was poisoned by organophosphate emissions from a chemical warehouse fire in Pasadena, Texas. As the facilitator rewound and played this scene again and again, several audience members leapt from their seats to replace Mrs. Walker and show another way to possibly gain a measure of control over this situation. Some of these interventions went nowhere; some took-off and applause erupted. All provoked lively discussion, intense connections, and many personal stories. Ultimately, this forum segued into a discussion of health effects and local toxic exposures among audience members and Jonathan Ward, PhD, the deputy director of University of Texas Medical Branch’s National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences Center.
You might ask why objective science would ever jump into the deep waters of community beliefs and the pervading suspicion that most institutions seldom serve the needs of citizens. The short explanation boils down to the science / community disconnect, a phenomenon that is only gaining momentum: science has further specialized and communities with ever more urgent environmental needs may have little patience left for the gradual scientific processes of discovery and validation. To create effective environmental health links among communities, health-care providers and environmental health scientists, it is necessary to translate epidemiology and toxicology concepts into public speech and images. This process has crystallized around the concepts of Environmental Justice and Community-Based Participatory Research.
The NIEHS Center at UTMB in Galveston has created a Public Forum and Toxics Assistance Division within its Community Outreach and Education Program that deploys both scientific toxicological consultation and a unique, dramatic form of educational practice and public dialogue, Community Environmental Forum Theater. This embodied Forum is based on a system of applied social issue theater developed by Augusto Boal of Brazil.
In Forum Theater workshops, a multi-generational group of community members with little or no prior acting experience learns to represent and communicate concepts from environmental toxicology, risk assessment and environmental justice using interactive games and body sculptures. These exercises are reconfigured to create an ethnographic record of community beliefs and attitudes toward hot-button environmental issues, and to create an imagistic blueprint for building a healthier environment.
Ultimately, the workshop creates scenes that depict adverse outcomes of environmental assaults. These “toxic scenes” are left unfinished with a frustrated protagonist in an oppressive situation that begs for repair. When these vignettes are later performed on stage – as in the Walker’s story – the forum facilitator encourages audience members to stop the action, physically walk into the scene, replace the protagonist and show how they would change the outcome with strategic words and bold actions. The embodied proposals offered by these audience volunteers set the tone for further dialogue, discussion and solidarity.
As the Walker family folded together in a final image of mutual shelter from that toxic fire-storm, the poignancy of their situation became real and undeniable. And every Forum delivers this same core message: environmental health has a human face, epidemiological statistics are actually people in need. When science and citizens gather to represent our shared struggles as Forum Theater, these faces and their needs shine through the issues and the facts. And we all become more humanized in the process.
For information contact John Sullivan: (409) 747-1246, email@example.com, or Bryan Parras, Outreach Coord. at Nuestra Palabra: (713) 303-5811, firstname.lastname@example.org.
John Sullivan is the Co-Director of the Public Forum and Toxics Assistance Division at the National Institute for Environmental Health Sciences @ UTMB.