Read Our Story: Global Empowerment Theatre

When I look back on my own education, I honestly don’t remember much of what was written on chalkboards. I do remember the moments when a teacher looked beyond the chalkboard and made learning more interesting and even fun at moments. I cherish today my memories of moments when a teacher engaged me or inspired me or helped me to use my voice."  

 -Jennifer Holmes, Ph.D
Our Story

In 2006, Jen was invited to participate in an educational theatre program at schools off the coast of mainland Tanzania in Zanzibar. The project was life changing and eye opening. At the schools she visited, boys were often called upon to answer questions, while girls sat silently. Many of the girls she spoke with talked about dreams of higher education and better opportunities, but lamented that, as women, these opportunities might not be available to them.

After speaking with teachers and administrators at the schools, she realized that many people were aware of the women’s lack of voice in both the classroom and the community. The Ministry of Education in Zanzibar put forth a number of policies to help bring more opportunities for women, and although there was a significant increase in the number of girls enrolled in schools, the culture in the classroom remained unchanged.

Due to colonial influence, imitation and repetition are a major part of teaching and learning in Zanzibar. In many classrooms, teachers spend class after class covering chalkboard after chalkboard with copious notes. This method of instruction is teacher-centered and offers little hope of active student participation or positive interaction between boys and girls in the classroom.

We wondered how the lack of a creative outlet in school—one through which students could express themselves and their ideas—affected the girl’s perceptions of themselves and their roles in society. We saw the potential of arts-based techniques to serve both male and female students by encouraging critical interaction. We were certain these techniques would inspire more responses and engagement from the girls in the class.

To combat the disparity between the voices of boys and girls in the classroom, we developed a program that blended applied and educational theatre techniques. We piloted the program in Zanzibar in the summer of 2007. By 2010, workshops were being conducted in India, Myanmar, the United States, and we were joined by two accomplished teachers, Maya Turner Singh and Ashley Olson.

When we first arrived in Zanzibar we saw a library that had been built years before but still had no books on the shelves. Generous donors from overseas had built a library but had been unable to or had forgotten to put books on the shelves. The villagers were so very proud of their library but wondered year after year when the promise of the library would be kept. When we returned the next year, our suitcases were brimming with books.

As Global Empowerment Theatre has grown, we have taught students to fill their own empty shelves with stories from their own lives. Each young person who learns from our workshops how to tell their own stories can fill an empty shelf. Each teacher we inspire to help their students use their voices and tell their stories can fill an empty library.

Many of us have a memory of a moment in our lives when we have felt powerful, as if we could take on the world and win. Without such moments, how can children envision success? How will they develop the confidence to achieve great things?
Global Empowerment Theatre provides children with opportunity to be heard, and for many it is the first time they have ever shared their voices. We can think of nothing more empowering.
Jennifer Holmes, Ph.D.                                                                          
Co-Founder & Board Chair 


6. Howlround: International cultural exchange is impossible…

This four-part series documents the experiences of a young, Fulbright fellow, avidly exploring theater and life in Bucharest, Romania.

"International cultural exchange is impossible…therefore we must try," is a tenet of SITI Company, one of the first places where I came in direct contact with a community of international artists.

Sitting at the other end of my nine months in Romania, I contemplate this statement with profound confusion. I want to believe that I’ve “figured” Romanian theater out, but I also know that honestly that’s nowhere near true. I am still trying to understand Romanian art or rituals, but I think that taking the risk, trying out another culture, learning from the individual is the key. Creating the connection is the biggest need in a time when nations borders are getting taller. Connection and community between people of different backgrounds is what I always hope for in my shows. I believe that it’s our call as theater artists to cross the borders of communities, be it a country across a vast ocean or a different neighborhood; we attempt to connect different people to the same story.

So, how can these connections be fostered? How can I serve these two countries and communities, who, while very different, are also very similar in their struggle for audience, relevance and funding?

One of my main projects of this year turned into a playwriting experiment. I commissioned four Romanian playwrights (Bogdan Georgescu, Eugen Jebeleanu, Maria Manolescu and Mihaela Michailov) and four American playwrights (Cory Hinkle, Andrew Kramer, Caroline V. McGraw and Alice Pencavel) to wri
te ten-minute plays around the same prompt, “My new jeans from H&M.” Commissioning playwrights is close to unheard of in Romania, writers’ groups are few and far between and writing around a prompt was generally regarded with trepidation.

These playwrights all wrote first drafts on their own, then were put in touch with each other and a Romanian director for the second draft. Some teams really connected, skyping with notes for each other, others had issues dealing with the time and language differences (similar problems that I experience even when working with collaborators of my nationality and in the same city). All of the plays were performed in a Romanian reading in Bucharest in May 2014, and they will all be performed in English in New York in the fall of 2014. (Videos of the Romanian readings are available here.)

What happens when you put playwrights in conversation through their plays? Can a cross-borders writing group exist on a virtual platform? What if the act of writing moves from an individual one into a process that looks more like devising? This experiment feels like the beginning of a larger project, exploring commissioning and writing across borders. I’m biased towards Romania and the US right now, but somehow these two countries feel like a perfect match. Romania is a melting pot of old customs and rituals, and added to it is the strong pull of America pop culture. The post revolution generation struggles to find their identity between these two extremes and the H&M plays reflect this dichotomy.

I sat in the first rehearsal of one of these shows and naively asked the Romanian actors, “When have you felt like you were the underdog?” Each actor answered in the exact same way, “ We fight against the system every day. I feel the pressure, the inability to do anything and I fight it in any small way that I can.” The “Man” in Romania looms large, the lack of funding, opportunities and jobs sends the young generation abroad, where they are looked on with disdain as the immigrants who come to steal jobs from the residents. But the artists who remain prevail, making work in a country and a culture that sometimes seems to set roadblocks at every corner. The art triumphs, in bars, apartments, theaters built in garages, basements and museum staircases. This comes from a need to fight the system in any way they can, a need to make work, to write, direct and act, and the hope of being picked up, promoted or supported a distant goal.

So what has this drive to make work in Romania taught me?

I learned that art that has nothing to lose makes for theater that is fierce and always has something to say. While the larger state institutions are funded and “guided” by the government, the younger artists use the independent theater scene to use their voice against this system. A new way of making theater seems to be growing here, one that is built from the bottom up, that strives for open economics, distrusts the state and works to make community among these other young companies. They are building the system they want to work in, against all obstacles.

The American standard of play development feels like a dream, in comparison to the scraps that emerging Romanian writers get, but the general comparison is that while American playwrights know the rules of structure, form and storytelling, they write safe plays. The Romanian writers, who are mainly self-taught, on the other hand, tend to be more daring. Chances are they won’t be produced anyway, so they might as well write exactly what they want to say. These writers stand out in their risk taking, in a culture that promotes fitting in with the crowd and keeping your head down to survive.

The young Romanian artists are trying to create a new structure of theater in any way they can and, I believe, that we, as young American artists and administrators, can learn from our fellow artists in Romania. We must try international cultural exchange, we must share ideas across borders and we must band together for the future of global theater. Who knows if it would lead to genuine cultural exchange, but the act of taking a risk is the biggest step.