There is not much use in doing research if its results do not reach those whose livelihoods are most impacted by the issues that we study. Yet, we typically spend more time and effort defining appropriate research questions and methodologies than designing a strategy to return results to participants and ensuring that these results make sense in the particular cultural or social context.
Dr. Jena Webb has explored the use of theatre and video as a disseminating strategy in the Andean Amazon where she carried her thesis work. One of her dissemination strategies was the making of the documentary "Zona cruda". Here is what Jena has to say about her team's experience:
"The use of performance arts as a recognized means of research and research dissemination has only emerged in the past few decades. Theatre is particularly well suited to health research because health is an inherently emotive topic. Despite the fact that the use of theatre is especially fitting when communicating research results to illiterate people, examples of its use in low and middle income countries are sparse. In my doctoral work, I made use of theatre and video to return the results of my study to local community members in the Andean Amazon.
My research determined the levels of mercury (Hg) in human hair and fish and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) and inorganic Hg in human urine in three biogeochemically similar rivers with differing land-use characteristics creating a continuum of deforestation and petroleum exploitation intensity: the Napo River (Ecuador), the Pastaza River (Peru), and the Corrientes River (Peru). We used the actionable message, ‘eat more fish that don’t eat other fish,’ as the cornerstone of our dissemination strategy. This is a positive statement that recognizes the benefits of fish and encourages people to eat more fish, while at the same time steering community members away from highly contaminated predatory fish. The theatre piece was designed to explain to community members how contaminants move through the food chain so that they could then implement the actionable message.
The core of the work in disseminating this message was done through workshops in five of the communities and to one of the Indigenous federations. The workshops, including the play and an activity for children, were designed in conjunction with an Ecuadorian public health care professional, Dr. Edy Quizphe. At these workshops, the dynamic of mercury and other contaminants was explained using theatre, the parts of oil well, tree, fish, and humans being acted out with costumes by community members themselves. The costumes were made by a local woman in order to capture local aesthetics. The costumes were also simple; this was the first time theatre had come to these remote villages and props and costumes that were too elaborate would have clashed with the setting. The workshops were held at the local communal meeting place. The workshops were animated by Dr. Edy Quizphe, in Ecuador, and by a Canadian biologist, Mr. Nicolas Mainville, in Peru.
A game involving children followed the play. We asked for ten children to come to the front and we gave them each a tee-shirt. The tee-shirts had the parts of plant, herbivore, small piscivore and large piscivore printed on them. We provided each of the “plants” with a couple of mercury props. We asked the kids to chase each other and “eat” that which was appropriate to its species, transferring the mercury each time. After the game we opened up the session for a discussion period.
A medium sized documentary for the internet (22 min) was produced by Mr. Delfin, a Peruvian filmmaker, while we were disseminating the results in the two Peruvian communities. The video, Zona Cruda, carries the message to a wider audience. Zona Cruda documented the theatre experience (to see parts of the theatre piece begin at minute 8:58), scientific information about contamination using a cartoon (to see the cartoon begin at 13:10), exchanges between researchers and community members, and the peoples’ voices. Mr. Delfin, as director, had artistic discretion and made decisions on the content of the video. As a Peruvian, this ensured that the video had cultural relevancy. The video launch was sent to over 700 people, including public health staff, managers and policy-makers. The video is hosted on our blog and in vimeo and has been viewed by over 2,000 people.
The use of theatre in knowledge transfer has obvious advantages. Through correct answers to our questions during the performance, pertinent questions and children’s comprehension of the game played after the play, our experience has shown that theatre is an effective way to convey a complex scientific idea and findings, especially with respect to bio-accumulation. We also learned that people were eager to engage. The recruitment of volunteers as actors in the play was seamless and they had no trouble following the instructions given by the narrators. This system heightened the participants’ involvement in information acquisition by directly involving some members of the community or by involving an individual’s family member (since in these tight-knit communities almost everyone is related). Finally, the simple act of returning the results to the research participants in a way that valued their participation, prioritized maximum understanding and took their enjoyment into consideration, contributed to building trust in a region where many local people complain of researchers gathering information that is never made available to the people who so laboriously provided it."
From left to right: Jena Webb, her then baby son Joakim Mainville, Mauricio Delfin and Nicolas Mainville