Drama in Conflict Transformation

Thomas R. Arendshorst

April 2005

This piece was written while the author was completing a Master of Arts degree in Peace Studies at the Joan B. Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies at the University of Notre Dame.

In late 2004, a group of graduate students at the University of Notre Dame faced the difficult task of understandably presenting the complex history of the recent Sierra Leone civil war, during which a variety of important actors shifted roles, even to the point of changing sides. Rather than rely on a cascade of words and the polished technology of PowerPoint, the students surprised their colleagues and professor with a dramatized narrative of the war's history, replete with costumes, character-identifying hats, and toy weapons representing active violence. Their presentation mixed comic caricature with a didactic analysis of the grisly Sierra Leone conflict, and left an indelible mental picture in the minds of their audience.

It is the purpose of this paper to explore the theoretical bases and practical use of drama and theater in conflict resolution and conflict transformation. Drama has the potential to open insights and avenues for learning for conflict transformation that the didactic presentation of information often cannot. Through drama, one can readily approach the precise problems that can lock people in conflict -- intolerance, the inability to perceive an adversary's point of view, and the blindness to one's own contributions to antagonism.

This essay will present the theoretical bases, history, aims, methods, and appropriate contexts for utilization of drama in conflict transformation, as well as potential disadvantages and controversies in its employment. I will draw extensively from the work and experience of the Amani People's Theatre, an eleven-year-old Kenyan initiative that has developed an exemplary record of success in educating and empowering grassroots and mid-level East African communities to live and deal with difficult conditions of marginalization and conflict.

Theory and History

Well-established theory provides foundation for the development of drama in conflict transformation. Paolo Freire's work and Augusto Boal's Forum Theatre introduced and developed the modern philosophical and theoretical foundations of theater for development (TFD). In The Pedagogy of the Oppressed, Friere argued the need for dialogic education as an essential element of emancipation from the oppression of hierarchical education laden with the presuppositions of prevailing power.[1] Boal, in Theatre for the Oppressed, says that theatre is the first human invention and also the invention which paves the way for all other inventions and discoveries.; Boal pioneered dialogic, interactive theater. Theater enables us to observe ourselves and by so doing to "discover what is not and imagine what we could become." [2]

The roots of TFD and of drama in conflict transformation (DCT) arise from considerations of the nature and uses of knowledge and the nature and uses of communication. Many cultural traditions include theater as celebration of indigenous narratives and as resistance to colonialism; the Kenyan people's theatre described by Thiong'o[3] is an outstanding example. The dominant "western" culture has typically considered knowledge in terms of scientific facts ("positivism") and has communicated education in hierarchical (top-down), synchronic (the learners synchronized with the teachers), and authoritarian/prescriptive terms,[4] effecting what Freire calls the "banking" of education"" and "cultural invasion."[5] In the advantaged-world's dealings with the less-advantaged world (both internationally and inside first-world countries), this approach has carried the added overlay of oligopolistic control, representing the interests of a few large corporate entities. The western cause-effect paradigm, particularly when presented from the "advantaged" viewpoint, is strongly controlling and repressive toward the investigation of root causes of social injustice.[6]

In contrast, the intents of TFD and DCT are to incorporate democratic shared control, mutuality of participation, dialectic generation of knowledge, and egalitarian communication.[7][8] In order to pursue and incorporate this alternate paradigm, TFD and DCT emphasize understanding through dialogue and the co-construction of new realities through creative co-learning.[9] In essentially all cultures other than those at the top of today's power ladder, knowledge and education have been traditionally developed and passed on via experience-respecting, community-based dialectic. Culturally, knowledge is understood as "know-how" rather than "know-what" or "know-why."[10] The prevalence of the dominant western paradigm, however, has imposed a conflicting culture of knowledge on the world's disadvantaged peoples, providing information and answers disconnected from their indigenous perceptions of understanding[11] and sometimes antagonistic to their own interests and well-being.

The evolution of drama for conflict transformation (DCT) from its origins in TFD has involved the continuing development of dramatic dialectic and specific indigenous modes of communication, the linkage of social injustice with conflict, and the application of the creative potential of drama to the cultures of powerless victimization and impotent anger that characterize communities in conflict. In the experience of the Amani People's Theatre, the importance of the narrative and techniques of guided interactive and improvisational theater have emerged as centerpieces of their DCT.


Amollo Amollo points out in From Playing to Learning to Change that people in developing countries (and, I would point out, in disadvantaged parts of the most highly-developed countries) are "being told to live within their means, to give up their grandiose schemes of industrialization and development of welfare states -- seemingly, [the] unrealistic dream of ever catching up."[12] Disadvantaged people face apparently impossible tasks of finding meaningful work, resources to fulfill basic needs, the means for healthy living, and hope for the future where none of these crucial assets are within reach. In many parts of the world, these stresses are amplified by pressures of government oppression and police or paramilitary danger. The results are lives of turmoil and communities of conflict, of violent contradiction between traditional identity and disempowered reality.

Drama for conflict transformation, then, must address the structural injustice and structural oppression that underlie people's misery and powerlessness, as well as the immediate manifestations of conflict in people's personal lives. DCT seeks a bottom-up approach to conflict transformation and peace by helping its "spect-actors" to recognize and name the forces that shackle them in ways that help participants to recognize the personal and community strengths they do have to create positive responses. Through their involvement in DCT, participants can discern and build on foundations for dialogue and tolerance. The stated mission of the Amani People's Theatre is "to provide the space and skills for individuals and communities to respond to conflict, in all its forms and in all levels of society, in a creative and redemptive way that reaffirms the sanctity of human life."[13]

Narrative story-telling traditions are an axis of drama for conflict transformation. Traditional idioms, myths, and values are contained and retained in oral media. Traditional narratives maintain a context of meaning and psychological protection for people, particularly when in difficult and even painful circumstances. In many cultures, story-telling includes imagery, song, and dance.

Drama provides unique opportunity to participate in conflict narratives outside the burdening constraints and risks of real-life. Actors and spectators both are enabled to step outside themselves, outside of their personal angers and insecurities, outside of their concerns and entrenched positions -- and into dramatic roles that may allow them to try different alternatives and even appreciate the point-of-view of "the enemy." The safety of "make-believe," the suspension of "reality," together with the safety of the facilitated group environment, empowers creative understanding and problem-solving.

Theater also provides a group venue for the operation of collective thought, judgment, and application of cultural values. Kenya's Amani People's Theatre (APT) works with communities of people who are disadvantaged, hurt, oppressed, and/or enmeshed in conflict. The APT employs carefully-researched dramatic exercises through which their community audiences can actively participate to understand their present difficulties and potential futures through their own collective pasts. The APT works in conflict areas to change the ways that people perceive, value, speak about, and act toward each other and the problems they face. Through their participation in dramatic workshops and presentations, participants gain insight into their own feelings and perceptions and community structures that inhibit positive change.[14] Amollo Amollo cites the power of a people-centered approach: "The more a community gets deeply involved in the creation and implementation of any form of development in their area of occupation, the more likely it is to receive the mandate of popular approval."[15]

By valuing and concentrating on the primacy of narrative, and by seeking to help people to realize their own strengths and to appreciate others' points of view, DCT combines powerful attributes of narrative and conflict transformative mediation.


Methods and styles of DCT are varied, in relationship both to its practitioners and the particular problems and needs of specific cultures and communities. Indeed, DCT must be tailored with care to individual situations, in order to access the cultural traditions and understandings of its audience and in order to clearly and sensitively address each community's specific conflict issues.

The following figure depicts the process employed by the Amani People's Theatre in crafting its DCT (see figure below). A particular DCT arises from the belief, first of all, that DCT is valuable and effective in helping people access their own creative resources and guiding them toward insights that they can then use to constructively transform conflicts in their own community and lives. Personal connections and relationships are central to the formulation of DCT. DCT design then addresses participants' idioms and meanings, their interests and experiences, and an interactive activity to discern unifying ideas. These unified concepts are then combined with the participants' interests to find meaningful points of entry into their lives and needs. Finally, relationships, unifying ideas, and points of entry are worked together into a specific DCT activity which participants can use to change their ways of perceiving, expressing, and valuing -- to transform conflict into tolerance and restored community. [16]

Central elements of DCT activities are:

  • comedy,
  • improvisation,
  • social interaction,
  • a problem that needs addressing, and
  • "rules of the game" accepted by all participants.

Well-designed DCT provokes spontaneity, and stimulates participants to transcend themselves by creating a sort of vacation from the routine of everyday life. Facilitators devise programs that use invitational language and that avoid "right" or "wrong" answers. Well-conducted DCT involves preparatory research, detailed planning, and multiple rehearsals before presentation. In many DCT productions, one or more facilitators take a "joker" role, representing complex, ambiguous characters who satirize antisocial behaviors while posing difficult questions and exposing community influences that inhibit positive change.[17]


Two examples of DCT can give an idea of its method. The first deals with a situation of dawn arrest and detention. Participants are asked to model their response to an imaginary hostile interrogation after Nelson Mandela's principled and courteous engagement with his wardens. A group is given 20 minutes to plan and then stage their "play" for the rest of the participants. The entire group then actively debates other possible avenues of response to the ruthless interrogators, who in the skit are pushy, unreasoning, disrespectful, intolerant bullies. The "prisoner" is frustrated by his inability to overcome the obstacles presented by the interrogators.

After this first presentation, the facilitators invite other participants to rise and replace characters in the play as they wish. This second group plans and performs its version, but in this second performance the audience is invited to stop the play at the moment they disagree with any choice the protagonist "prisoner" makes, and to replace the protagonist and try to transform the dramatic action. The dilemmas of the situation directly challenge the creative understandings of the participants. After being displaced for these interventions, the replaced actors resume their roles, attempting to successfully carry the new action forward. One of the DCT facilitators acts as the creative, often comic buffer between those on stage and those participating as the interactive audience.[18]

A second DCT example involves a presentation to a community living under the constant threat of the HIV/AIDS pandemic. In addition to treatment of affected victims and efforts to prevent transmission, communities struggle to overcome denial, which can render all other efforts useless.

In a dramatic training "game" called "The Envelope," all participants begin by standing in complete silence. They walk around in the theater space, then silently greet each other and sit again on their chairs. One participant, having been given secret instructions, moves around the room and surreptitiously scratches a couple of people on their palms. Each of those persons then quietly scratches one other person on the palm, whispering instructions to pass the scratch on.

At this point, after no more than one-fourth of the participants have been thus palm-scratched, all who have been scratched are asked to raise their hands, and they are separated from the others and seated separately. A leader informs this group that, by being scratched by the unknown in the crowd, they had had unprotected sex and become exposed to HIV/AIDS. The leaders allow10-15 minutes for the affected and unaffected parties to discuss their feelings, what the unaffected would like to tell the others, and what those affected would like to do (particularly about telling unexposed friends). This enables participants to gain insight into their partners' world and into community responses.

Leaders then ask the affected group whether or not they'd choose to get an HIV test. Those who decline and those who would be tested explain their reasons. The participants thus gain sensitivity to the plight and predicament of HIV/AIDS-infected people.

In a guided discussion, the leaders invite all participants to contribute thoughts and advice, exposing the participants to the difficulty of deciding in a state of predicament.

At this stage, leaders tell those who said they'd be tested that their test results are ready. Those participants tell how they feel at this point, what they plan to do with their results, and what they'd like to tell those who were exposed but refused testing. The aim is to provide ground for empathy and understanding.

Finally, the results are handed out -- some HIV+, some HIV-. Each of those "tested" explains his feelings after getting the news, and what he or she would like to tell those who refused the test, as well as others not yet exposed. The floor is opened for facilitated discussion.[19]

Applications and Limitations

Drama for conflict transformation, skillfully constructed and performed, applies well to any set of people willing (or inducible) to suspend their preconceptions and engage the process. It is inherently a group medium. DCT is especially appropriate for cultures and communities that traditionally value narrative and dramatic communication media: disadvantaged and marginalized people in all parts of the world, and youth communities. It is an excellent approach for conflicts related to underlying structural dilemmas, and as a means for stimulating "out-of-the-box" creativity toward new approaches to problems. Additionally, DCT can be very valuable in training situations. Training workshops in Boal-inspired and other methods abound.[20]

The Kenyan Amani People's Theatre's work is an excellent example of DCT that is employed in conflict areas to change the ways that people perceive, value, speak about, and act toward each other and the problems they face. Through their participation in dramatic workshops and presentations, participants gain insight into their own feelings and perceptions and social structures that inhibit positive change.[21]

In the western United States, ChuSMA performs an amalgam of"neo-vaudevillian", early Mexican, and 60's Chicano theater to bring comedy and satire to bear against crooked politicians and other pests.[22]

The Fountainhead Tanz Theatre of Berlin works to increase understanding and cooperation between individuals and groups dealing with issues of intolerance and discrimination.[23]

In Milwaukee, Wisconsin, the Center for Applied Theatre offers Augusto Boal-based workshops to assist schools, advocacy groups and communities in their efforts to confront their issues and to uncover and solve problems.[24]

Bridgework Theater is an American non-profit touring theater that addresses "real-life problems of young people, and models methods that empower youth to develop non-violent solutions to those problems."[25] Over its 26-year existence Bridgework has performed for more than two millions children

In Sri Lanka, interactive drama is being used in play therapy dealing with psychological trauma resulting from the protracted civil war, in which children have been abducted to be used as sacrificial soldiers.[26]

Zvakwana, an underground resistance movement in Zimbabwe, utilizes a blend of guerrilla theater and civil disobedience to hopefully undermine the authoritarian rule of President Mugabe,

In Kyiv, Ukraine, a conflict prevention radio drama for young adults models new ways of working together across social and ethnic lines.[27] Similarly, in Indonesia Menteng Pangkalan, Indonesia's first ever radio drama about conflict and conflict transformation, reaches a wide audience.[28] Search For Common Ground has found that radio drama is one of the best ways of encouraging positive behavior changes in relation to conflict.

One limitation of DCT is that it does not specifically aim to produce an outcome of resolution or agreement. DCT is episodic, not a continuous program of guidance. It may apply poorly to information-rich, sophisticated conflicting parties unwilling to suspend their developed points of view in order to derive new insights. Finally, DCT requires, as do other conflict transformation methods, particular training and expertise.


Drama for Conflict Transformation is a rapidly growing, highly successful avenue for conflict transformation in many community and cultural environments. Its creative stimulation and capacity for suspension of preconceptions makes it a particularly effective mechanism through which communities can address complex and highly-charged issues. Perhaps most significantly, DCT generates the potential for marginalized and disadvantaged people to find empowering creative responses instead of helpless victimization.

[1] Paolo Freire, Pedagogy of the Oppressed (London & New York, The Continuum International Publishing Group, Ltd., 1970)

[2] Augusto Boal, Theatre for the Oppressed, translated by Charles A. & Maria-Odilia Leal McBride (New York, Theatre Communications Group, 1985)

[3] Ngugi wa Thiong'o, Detained: A Writer's Prison Diary (Nairobi, Kenya; East African Educational Publishers, Ltd., 1981), pp. 65-71.

[4] C. Hamelink, "New Structures of International Communication: The Role of Research," ISS Occasional Papers, No. 87, (The Hague, Netherlands, Institute of Scandinavian Studies, 1981)

[5] Paolo Freire, Pedagogy of the Oppressed.

[6] Amollo Maurice Amollo, From Playing to Learning to Change: Theatre in Conflict Transformation and Peace Building, (Nairobi, Kenya, Amani People's Theatre, 2002), p. 6.

[7] Jurgen Habermas, Knowledge and Human Interests, (London, Heinemann Educational Books, 1978)

[8] Amollo Maurice Amollo, From Playing to Learning to Change, p. 4.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Ibid, p. 5.

[11] Ibid, p. 7.

[12] Ibid, p. 18.

[13] Ibid, p. 2.

[14] Ibid, pp. 13-17.

[15] Ibid, p. 19

[16] Ibid, p. x.

[17] Ibid.

[18] Ibid.

[19] Ibid.

[20] Applied and Interactive Theatre Guide: Boal Techniques, http://www.tonisant.com/aitg/Boal_Techniques/

[21] Amani People's Theatre, http://www.aptkenya.org/programs.html

[22] ChuSMA, http://www.chusma.com

[23] Fountainhead Tanz Theatre/Black International Cinema/The Collegium, http://www.fountainhead-tanz-theatre.de/

[24] Center for Applied Theatre, http://www.centerforappliedtheatre.org/

[25] Bridgework Theater, http://www.bridgework.org/

[26] Frances Harrison, "Sri Lanka's Rival Tackle Child Trauma," BBC News, February 9, 2003, http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/south_asia/2738359.stm

[27] Ukranian Centre For Common Ground, http://www.sfcg.org/programmes/ukraine/programmes_ukraine.html

[28] Common Ground Indonesia, http://www.sfcg.org/programmes/indonesia/index.html

Use the following to cite this article:
Arendshorst, Thomas R.. "Drama in Conflict Transformation." Beyond Intractability. Eds. Guy Burgess and Heidi Burgess. Conflict Information Consortium, University of Colorado, Boulder. Posted: April 2005 <http://www.beyondintractability.org/essay/drama>.

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