The ultimate goal of the Institute is to empower both student and community participants with the tools and resources necessary to create similar theatre projects in their own communities and lives. To date, WSI has included students and faculty from: the National University of Lesotho; the State University of New York, Empire State College, New York City (US); the University of Sunderland (UK); and the University of the Witwatersrand (RSA). The Institute's primary theatre work takes place every two years in sub-Saharan Africa, with residencies, research endeavours, fund raising, and performance projects in participating countries during the intervening period.
Since its inception, the Theatre for Development (TfD) focus of the Winter/Summer Institute has been a response to the community health situation in Lesotho. "Along with most of sub-Saharan Africa, Lesotho has a staggering HIV infection rate – currently estimated at between 29 - 47%, and disproportionately affecting young women between 18 and 24." As part of addressing the pandemic, WSI examines the ways in which complex social issues impact the spread of the virus. In 2006 WSI looked at how gossip and silence, in Lesotho and in each of the other cultures represented, could lead to disempowerment and danger in the face of the most significant challenges of modern life. In 2008, participants explored the effects of stigma and denial in regard to getting tested for HIV, along with the potentially dynamic role played by concurrency – networks of simultaneous, ongoing, committed sexual relationships with a small number of people.
The collaborative process of the WSI is set in motion months before the multinational group of student actors and faculty facilitators gathers in Lesotho. Through the use of a variety of shared resources and materials (books, films, articles), Institute participants begin to investigate the agreed-upon focus. Once everyone arrives in Africa, the exploration continues via presentations by Basotho (Lesotho) colleagues, community organisers, medical personnel, non-governmental organisations (NGOs), and people living with HIV (PLWHA). This enables WSI to establish a shared platform from which its multicultural group can work to create fresh, actor-driven, visually dynamic theatre. "WSI strives to be the opposite of 'message' theatre, building our performances through an improvisational process that weeds out anything that doesn't make us laugh or pull us in or cause us to think."
In 2008, WSI's primary preparation sources were South African journalist Jonny Steinberg's book Sizwe's Test: A Young Man's Journey Through Africa's AIDS Epidemic (also known as Three Letter Plague in the RSA) and New York science writer Helen Epstein's The Invisible Cure: Why We Are Losing the Fight Against AIDS in Africa. Steinberg's book looks closely at questions of stigma and denial in relation to why people refuse to get tested for HIV. Epstein's book highlights "concurrency", a greater tendency for African people to have simultaneous, ongoing, committed sexual relationships with a small number of people at a time. (This pattern contrasts with the "serial monogamy" common in the West, or the casual relationships that occur everywhere). With concurrency, people are at high risk from HIV even if they aren't promiscuous in the usual sense of the word. HIV might be introduced into such a concurrency network if only one person has unprotected sex with a casual partner who is infected, or if one of these stable relationships breaks up and a new partner is linked into the network. The Invisible Cure doesn't advocate imposing Western sexual lifestyles on Africa, or attempting to dismantle concurrent networks, but it does encourage making clear the risks involved.
According to organisers, for the 31 participants in WSI 2008, Epstein's work was provocative and potentially highly theatrical and, therefore, exciting. Most people doing AIDS-related work in East or Southern Africa can attest to the number of largely ineffective public campaigns focused on attempts to change individual behaviour; unlike efforts that acknowledge concurrency, they are perceived to be out of touch with the realities of people's lives. To that end, WSI's first speaker, once the group had gathered in Lesotho in June 2008, was Dr. Molotsi Monyamane, co-founder of the country's People Living Positive with HIV. His presentation, "Choices We Make with Regard to HIV/AIDS Testing: The Situation Now in Lesotho", ended with these words: "We like to point the finger at prostitutes and transient laborers, those unlike ourselves, as the ones responsible. But the truth is we must look at how we live our everyday lives. You know, you're out with your girlfriend, and she wants to use a condom, and you say, 'No, come on, it's okay, it's just you and me...and my wife...and your boyfriend...'." Shortly after his talk, the group watched a video of Helen Epstein presenting her work on concurrency.
Then, the improvisational theatre work began, as WSI performers and facilitators began to experiment with staging overlapping, interlinking, concurrent relationships. The resulting performance, "It's Just You and Me...and My Wife and Your Boyfriend", revolves around a concurrency scene meant to be a comically chilling event: a network of lovers coming together, then unraveling in the wake of HIV. "We were careful to construct our theatrical concurrent network using immediately recognizable characters. The first link in the chain is the sanctimonious married man in the village who claims to be devoted to his wife when everyone knows he's been sleeping with her best friend for years - his wife takes one extended arm, his girlfriend the other. The audience bursts out laughing, elbowing each other and hooting at the actor playing the sanctimonious man. 'That's how it is!' a villager standing at the front of the crowd, wearing a traditional patterned Basotho blanket, exclaims: 'That's just how it is!' The wife of the sanctimonious man offers her unattached hand, and her lover, a retrenched miner, comes swaggering forward into the chain to claim it. The miner is followed quickly by his other long-term girlfriend (his high school sweetheart), who has also been carrying on for several years with her boss at the bottle store. Moments after the miner's girlfriend and her boss and her boss's wife join the chain, the principal from the primary school comes forward and attaches himself to the boss's wife while extending his free hand to the slinky, seductive young intern at his school. The increasing hilarity of the entwined network has the audience in hysterics - their comments grow louder as the chain becomes more complicated and intermeshed. It continues to grow, until the final link appears in the character of the Visitor. He takes the free hand of the last lover in the chain and introduces HIV - the virus symbolized by yards of brilliant red silk whisked in, out and around, infecting the entire network. The audience falls silent and reflective. The next scene begins in a graveyard."
"It's Just You and Me...and My Wife and Your Boyfriend" was performed on the National University of Lesotho campus in Roma and at the Maseru Sun Convention Centre in the capital city of Maseru. A WSI faculty member facilitated a post-play bilingual discussion with the audience. WSI then traveled to the impoverished mountains of Lesotho's Malealea Valley and, after being revised and rehearsed (to translate as much of the play into Sesotho as possible), the show was performed for a Sesotho-speaking audience of villagers in front of the community health clinic where HIV tests are given.
The performance was the first step in community dialogue and collaboration with village residents. Post-performance, there was again a facilitated, bilingual audience discussion with the audience. Then 30 participating villagers began work with the Institute actors and faculty. After dividing into three groups, each with enough Sesotho/English speakers to translate, the next five days were spent in rehearsal sessions. During this time, facilitating and directing roles were largely passed from faculty to Institute actors, who in turn then worked with village actors to improvise scenes based on villagers' responses to the performance.
In both 2006 and 2008, WSI's final performance took place at The Malealea Festival, an event co-sponsored by WSI and the Malealea Trust (a community development organisation) and the Malealea Lodge. The event draws people from the surrounding villages. In 2008, WSI actors along with village performers presented "Its Just You and Me..." for an audience of more than 600 villagers and two chiefs.
WSI did not hold a full Institute in Lesotho in 2010 because of the World Cup, but will return in June of 2011.
HIV/AIDS, Youth, Women, Community.
Following both WSI 2006 and 2008, the National University of Lesotho contingent continued to perform the shows on campus regularly, and were featured at both World HIV/AIDS Day and United Nations (UN) Day in Lesotho's capital, Maseru. They also took both shows to the Intervarsity Games in Swaziland and participated in the Southern African Development Community Artists AIDS Festival in Harare, Zimbabwe. In addition, in the mountains of Malealea, the village women and men who worked with WSI in 2006 formed their own theatre troupe they call Khalemang Bohlasoa (Eradicate Negligence). The troupe worked with the Institute again in 2008, has an ongoing workshop relationship with the South African branch of Clowns Without Borders, and has been creating and performing issue-based plays for surrounding village communities.
According to organisers, WSI's impact has spread beyond Lesotho, inspiring students from a variety of countries to get involved in service learning and community development projects. "Another important part of WSI is what happens to the student performers from every culture involved in the programme - not just those from South Africa or Lesotho, but the U.K. and New York. They're transformed when they do things they didn't know they could do or that they never imagined themselves doing. Former WSIers have been engaged in some remarkable endeavors – from creating a project for urban garbage pickers in Argentina, to using WSI methods in rural music schools in South Africa, to running a youth program in the Bronx. WSI seems to encourage a level of self-esteem and confidence along with a desire to build and create projects that serve community."
Supporters include: The United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), Art Matters, The Aber D. Unger Foundation, The Billy Rose Foundation, Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS, The Durst Organization L.P., The Heidtke Foundation, The JKW Foundation, The Margaret Reuss Trust, the National University of Lesotho, the State University of New York Empire State College, the University of Sunderland, and the University of the Witwatersrand.
WSI website on August 15 2006 and February 23 2009; and emails from Katt Lissard to The Communication Initiative on July 1 2009, July 11 2009, and March 28 2010.