10 Mar Focus on Forum

By Wendy Harbutt, FInstLM

Forum theatre is a powerful form of roleplay that allows a larger group to work collaboratively on a chosen subject.  It may initially illuminate the matter for discussion and provide material to consider, before affording the participating audience the opportunity to interact and affect the outcome. 

Forum theatre originates from the work of Augusto Boal, who created the ‘Theatre of the Oppressed’, which used dramaturgy to encourage audience members to suggest different actions for the actors to carry out on stage.   This forum for teaching people how to change their world empowered those watching the action to change the outcome of what they were seeing.

The forum theatre used today in learning and development affords the same power to the audience.  An initial scene is usually played out to conclusion, or frozen during the action.  A facilitator then steps in to support the audience to share views and offer suggestions for the actors to carry out.  In this way the audience takes a coaching role and may collectively direct the actors when the scene is resumed or replayed.

Safety for participants is a key benefit of forum theatre, so too is collaborative working.  It is a roleplay intervention that can bring together a relatively large group of participants and focus their attention on a given subject, using an approach where only the actors are exposed to the outcome.

Forum theatre can be used for a wide range of subjects and by using content of relevance and interest to the audience it proves highly engaging.  When the audience is facilitated to direct the actors the discussion created provokes opinions to be shared, various approaches to be considered and the ideas of many to be heard.  In playing out the suggested direction, it is a safe ‘learning laboratory’ in which to experiment.  The actors can stop, pause, rewind, fast forward and act as instructed.  It is dynamic, instant and powerful for the audience that has invested its instruction in the process.

This approach can be used flexibly during a programme.  For example, the opening scene can be worked on again and again as learning is layered, or played differently to accommodate a developing level of understanding.

Forum may also be used as an introductory element within a programme to create confidence and comfort with roleplay as an approach.  Once participants have worked collectively via forum theatre they may well become more comfortable with one-to-one or hotseat roleplay work.

Case in Point

In a short performance management intervention for managers in a major manufacturing company, forum theatre was effectively used to illuminate the challenge faced, to provoke consideration of the subject and encourage the managers to work together to find approaches that would work towards the chosen outcome.

A parallel scenario was chosen in order to avoid any temptation for the audience to become embedded in discussion about the specifics of the business.  Instead, they were encouraged to focus on the behaviours of the characters – the manager and the direct report.

The initial scene created chuckles of recognition as the managers in the audience recognised the similarity with their own situation.  This lighthearted learning environment proved conducive to discussion, whilst the subject matter being talked through was entirely serious and treated with absolute respect.  Through a staged approach the audience directed the scene from landing a message to an underperforming subordinate, to agreeing measures for improvement and planning objectives.  It not only supported the learning content of the intervention, but gave the audience the chance to try new approaches in complete safety and find their own ways forward.


Whilst the example given highlights the opportunity for the audience to focus upon a character in a similar position to them and to coach that individual’s performance, it also prompts the participants to consider the position of others in the same scenario.  In this way it often illuminates perspectives that are lost or ignored and so the outcomes directed by the audience are typically well considered and balanced.

As a low-risk roleplay method that delivers an experimental space for an audience to work together to affect an outcome, to apply learning and find new answers, forum theatre is win-win-win. Kampranracarmi

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