How our theatre workshops
are empowering migrant
women in China
Arts is a force for good, our workshops show how participation can turn them into tools to develop confidence and leadership skills
I was born and brought up in Hong Kong and studied theatre at university. Growing up, I was passionate about the potential that theatre has to make us think differently about the world around us and inspire us to create change. My degree at Lancaster University enabled me to discover the work of theatre practitioners who have used their art as a force for good, bringing transformation to society. On graduating, I went to China to explore how I could apply those techniques.
When I first arrived in 2003, I started using theatre as a way to explore the challenges and opportunities faced by young migrant women at a migrant woman's shelter in downtown Beijing. More than 260 million migrant workers have moved into the cities, coming from rural areas of the country to search for jobs in the construction industry, factories and the hotel and service industries. They are on the fringes of society, have little access to housing, healthcare and education for their children, suffer poverty and discrimination and experience abuse of their human and legal rights.
The workshops I ran enabled the migrant women to explore issues they faced and to use theatre as a tool to develop creativity, confidence and leadership skills. It also allowed them to "rehearse" for real life alternative solutions to workplace harassment issues, marital difficulties, poverty and social exclusion.
The growth of the workshops resulted in me foundingHua Dan in 2004. To date, Hua Dan has worked with over 25,000 women and children across China and we have a model of training the migrant women themselves to deliver the theatre programmes. We are a hybrid social enterprise and also work with corporations, training their staff in leadership, creativity and communication, also using a theatre methodology, to help sustain our work.
I lived in China for seven years, and my typical day involved travelling to migrant neighbourhoods in the outskirts of Beijing to run workshops, find partners and identify new recruits for the organisation.
Conditions were always difficult and, as our work grew, we started working in more remote parts of China, especially in the Sichuan earthquake region. Workshops were often run in school playgrounds, up treacherous mountain roads, or in slums. We had extremely limited resources, especially in the beginning, and our small young team learnt by trial and error. My day also involved putting together budgets, writing fundraising proposals, recruiting new team members, training volunteers and managing the inherent challenges of development work, from our small office in a traditional Beijing hutong.
Since relocating to Europe a few years ago, I am now working on building a replicable model for our work through Hua Dan's sister organisation Scheherazade and I have also recently founded The Global Arts Impact Agenda, which enables government and business to unleash the potential of the arts for human development. I still travel a lot, mainly to China but also to other parts of the world. My days are focused on fundraising, speaking and writing about our work and working with my team on the growth of our model.
At university, I was particularly inspired by the work of Augusto Boal, a Brazilian theatre practitioner who would go into the favelas of Brazil with a team of actors, to perform plays about human and legal rights abuses under the military dictatorship at that time. At the point of crisis in the drama, he would stop the actors, and invite audience members instead to take the role of the protagonist in the drama and encourage them to think of solutions to the problems the characters were facing. He called this technique "Forum Theatre" and these audience members “spect-actors”, because they were not passive recipients of the drama unfolding before them – they had the potential to be active agents for change in their lives and the lives of others.
The best part of the job is going out to the migrant neighbourhoods and seeing the impact our programmes have on the lives of the participants. Just a few weeks ago, I was back in China, and the joy and enthusiasm on the faces of the migrant children, was so special to see and made me realise how much colour our work can bring to communities of need.
It can be hard for some to understand why theatre is such a transformative force, as the common world view is to invest in material resources to aid people in poverty. I have seen first hand that, with some notable exceptions, people don't actually need more stuff, but they do need a renewed sense of self, the courage and confidence to live their lives with dignity and self respect. They need to overcome trauma, and to collaborate with others, leading their communities with inspiration and action. Theatre is a wonderful enabler to open up that side of ourselves that fears to be bold, overcomes our fear and forces us to grow.
I like to let the stories of the women we have worked with and the experience of being in a theatre workshop lead people in supporting our work and I find that, once they have experienced the "Hua Dan effect", they are lifelong converts.
The above interview with Caroline Watson first published on theguardian.com in Nov, 2015.