Theatre has fascinated people all around the world since time immemorial. On the one hand, the elite classes had their own theatre that told the stories of kings, queens, princes and princesses; and on the other hand, there was a tradition of street theatre that focused on the common man’s life and problems. The elite theater made heavy use of costumes, and other props with usually very large cast; while street theater was comparatively inexpensive entertainment.
The subcontinent of India and Pakistan has its own tradition of people’s theatre that is known as Notanki, Natak, or Rahs. The most important aspect of this traditional theater is its simplicity. Unlike theater in the proscenium, street theatre entails minimum use of lights, cosmetics/makeup, costumes and other paraphernalia. A character is established with a small but significant prop, e.g., a stick to portray a policeman, a stool/chair to represent a king’s throne etc. The actor achieves success with his acting skills such as voice control, body language and expressions.
This kind of theater was quite popular among the masses, and people thronged to its performances, which were held on melas or fairs regularly in every nook and corner of the sub-continent.
Its strong appeal to the masses makes it a most cherished tool for development workers, especially the ones involved in advocacy and awareness-raising campaigns. As the sub-continental version is more affordable and culturally acceptable, it becomes more important for awareness raising campaigns. There is no need to hire professional actors and actresses, as members of a community can themselves prepare short plays with minimum training.
Alex Mavrocordatos says, “The first step to development is a change of attitude, both individual and collective — and in that order — from declared helplessness to empowerment. This is culture in action, and theatre is a cultural tool.”
Theatre is a cultural tool that helps change people’s attitudes. When they prepare a play on a certain issue facing their community, they analyze its different aspects, and search for its causes and learn about its possible consequences. These insights lead to a change in the attitude of the people who are directly involved in the production of the play.
As these activists become aware of the complications of the issue, they can become the best advocates on the issue for the rest of the community, and their play can be the best way to convince other members of the community to take the issue seriously.
Furthermore, these people have continuous presence in the community as opposed to the advocacy campaigners who visit a community for a short time, and cannot have long term interaction with the community.
Another special aspect of this kind of theatre is that the play is produced by the members of the community, so it portrays their problems in their own unique context, which makes it more relevant to the viewers.
People start identifying themselves with the characters of the play, which makes them feel the agony, pain and suffering as well as joys of the characters. As a result, what characters of the play learn, is also learnt by the audience as well. It results in a change in the way the people perceive that particular issue, which leads towards a change in behaviour afterwards. Drama achieves what endless sermons cannot. Theatre remains an under-utilized tool in Pakistan. We need to make proper use of this powerful tool to bring about a positive change in our society.