Reporter 397, 17 February 1997

Leeds lecturer gives Eritrean people a voice through community theatre

In the aftermath of Africa's longest war this century, when Eritrea was effectively cut off from the outside world for 30 years, drama in the country was little more than an import from a succession of colonisers. Theatre had been seen as a tool of the elite for propaganda, with ethnic drama seen as inferior and for the rural masses. Following the granting of independence in 1991 from brutally oppressive Ethiopian colonisation the head of arts in Eritrea, Alemseged Tesfai, was intent on developing a national culture. Through a chance meeting with a mutual Ethiopian friend, Dr Jane Plastow of Leeds University's Workshop Studies was invited to Eritrea to discuss ways forward for indigenous theatre. In the summer of 1995 a group of British theatre workers, including Dr Plastow, flew out to run a three month intensive theatre training programme with 57 Eritrean trainees - funded by a number of institutions including the University of Leeds.

For a number of years Dr Plastow had been working with community theatre initiatives in other parts of Africa, and her work in Eritrea has drawn heavily on experiences in Zimbabwe where performance work played an important role in politicising people. Eritrean theatre had long been forbidden to deal with political issues, so amateur groups had tended to put on romances and comedies providing the urban youth with uncritical escapism.

The intention of the Eritrean Community Based Theatre Project was to work with a variety of trainees to make issue-based theatre which could speak to all Eritreans, with major emphasis on the large rural peasantry. Three groups ran simultaneously - two in the capital Asmara and one in Keren, a town of some 50,000 people. In Asmara the project ran from a cinema originally built by the Italians as an opera house, and still boasting a red plush circle.

The trainees ranged in age from 16 to 53, and were desperate for knowledge of how theatre worked in other places; the British workers had to make clear they were not there as teachers but as enablers who wanted to work with the indigenous traditions. Warm-up sessions allowed the students to lead with work on local songs and dances. The big division was seen to be between formally educated urban students who saw theatre as hierarchical and playwright-led, and the rural trainees who wanted a more democratic mode of working and to create theatre relevant to ordinary Eritreans.

Trainees would say 'this is not in our culture' as a reason for not trying something new - frequently with women's liberation issues which was sensitive ground. Optimism was high, however, and while the trainees lived in considerable poverty in the war-torn country, there universal solution was 'we must work harder'.

Dr Plastow noted that while Eritrean cultural traditions were strong, they were also thin - the nation had suffered from a lack of the energy that comes with cultural cross-fertilisation. The consequences of war and isolation added to the repression of church and society in burying people's natural creativity.

In the final month, trainees suggested issues to be faced in production - housing, education, AIDS, women's rights and land redistribution were all proposed as potential subjects. After being devised by the groups, the productions were taken on tour where props and costumes were begged or borrowed, and generated floodlighting was the extent of any technology involved. Playing space was totally encircled in the open air venues, and while applause is not part of the culture, the audiences were extremely positive.

Financial assistance from NGOs such as the Rockefeller Foundation , the British Academy, the University of Leeds and the British Council made the initial project possible, but support has continued and Dr Plastow returns to Eritrea regularly to develop the work. In the future Eritrea wants to set up an arts college, but the immediate need is to continue with training. Given the extraordinary achievements of the liberation struggle and the commitment to building the nation shown by so many Eritreans, the prospects can be nothing but good.


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