The OTHER Theatre

The OTHER Theatre : Gloss

“Extreme theatre” or the “Theatre of Other” is about audiences willingly putting themselves in situations of discomfort, to be challenged intellectually, morally, emotionally, and even physically, much like adrenalin junkies place themselves in danger in order to experience some kind of thrill.

This theatre may take any form – comedy, drama, satire, traditional observation, immersive theatre, etc – but it is essentially about one group or community challenging the values, ideas, perceptions of others. While it is not primarily about binary oppositions, examples could be a theatre piece created on behalf of the gay community for straight audiences, or black theatre-makers presenting a piece specifically for white audiences, or women for men, Muslims for people of other faiths, physically-challenged for the able-bodied, refugees for local inhabitants and so on.

The primary aim of this theatre is to allow audiences to confront, engage with, and overcome their ignorance and fears about “others.”

Imagine an “extreme” theatre of “otherness”:

  1. It must never be performed in traditional theatre-spaces. The spaces in which they happen – both the physical spaces and the geographical location – must themselves be challenging. So, for white audiences in South Africa, it might mean going into someone’s home in a black township; for straight audiences, it might mean going to a gay bar; for able-bodied audiences, it might mean leaving their homes and experiencing the performance entirely in wheelchairs.
  2. Audiences are never larger than 50 with smaller numbers – like 20 – being optimal. This is theatre that builds relationships, that seeks to humanize otherness, so that smaller audiences are obliged to be confronted by, and engage with, the otherness being performed for them, rather than being able to “hide” in large groups/audiences.
  3. The audience and theatre participants must commit to at least two performances/theatrical experiences, one performed by, or on behalf of, each group or community, and both these performances must happen within a maximum of four weeks. Each group/community has an opportunity to engage with the other through theatre. So, for example, in week one, a theatre performance on behalf of, or by women, is presented to an audience comprised primarily of men. In week three or four, the audience is comprised of the women who performed in the first week; now the men who watched the first performance stage a theatrical experience representing their fears, insights, responses to the piece they saw.
  4. The performances or theatrical experiences may either be created and performed by members of the different “groups” or communities, or – preferably – be created and presented by professional theatre-makers who devise a piece based on the input of each group. As professionals, they are also able to improvise, under the direction of the audience or a facilitator.
  5. No performance or experience happens without some discussion/dialogue taking place afterwards, under the guidance of a skilled facilitator. There is, however, a strict time limit (e.g. one hour) on this discussion so as to keep it focused. As the subjects and the theatre pieces might be provocative and intentionally challenging, it is imperative that the subsequent discussions – whether in smaller groups of with the full audience or both (depending on the subject and the audience) – is guided by someone skilled in managing conflict and in dealing with people confronting a possible major change in perspective. Traditional theatre leaves an audience to make of the work what they will afterwards; Theatre of OTHER seeks transformation, with post-performance dialogues aimed at reinforcing the learnings, the challenges, the alternate understandings.
  6. Engaging in such shared theatre experiences should ultimately lead audience members to build relationships with the “other”; the content of the theatrical pieces, the style of presentation, the geographical and physical spaces, the facilitated dialogues, and the creation of comfortable social spaces subsequent to the presentation of both pieces, should help to facilitate such relationships. Possibly, a toolkit could be created providing audience members with “follow-up” ideas, together with a database of the attendees (those willing to engage subsequently). Such “follow-ups” could entail communal dinners in each other’s homes, social history tours of each other’s neighborhoods, engaging in a voluntary action together such as painting a local creche, or developing a community garden.


About the Author

After the country’s first democratic elections in 1994, Mike Van Graan was appointed as a Special Adviser to the first minister responsible for arts and culture where he played an influential role in shaping post-apartheid cultural policies. His leadership roles include serving as Associate Professor in UCT’s Drama Department from 2015-2019, Director of the Community Arts Project, Projects Officer for the Congress of South African Writers and General Secretary of the National Arts Coalition, and Technical Adviser to UNESCO’s 2005 Convention on the Protection and Promotion of the Diversity of Cultural Expressions. He is the founding Secretary General of Arterial Network, a Pan African network of artists, cultural activists, creative enterprises and others engaged in the African creative sector and its contribution to human rights, democracy, and development in Africa. He is the 2018 recipient of the Hiroshima Foundation for Peace and Culture Award in recognition of his contribution to the fight against apartheid, to building a post-apartheid society, and to the study of the interface between peace and culture both in his home country and across the African continent. Van Graan is a prolific and accomplished playwright; he was Artscape’s Associate Playwright from 2011-2014 and he received the Standing Ovation award at South Africa’s 2012 National Arts Festival for his sustained contributions as a writer and activist. His works include Green Man Flashing (2004), Some Mothers' Sons (2005), Die Generaal (2007), Brothers in Blood (2009), Iago's Last Dance (2009), and Rainbow Scars (2013).