On facilitation in unfacilitated spaces by Akhila Khanna
I love knowing. Knowing what game I will facilitate when, gives me a great amount of comfort, joy and confidence in spaces where I otherwise feel intimidated. With the pandemic, I felt as if my desire to know had met the face of a child sticking its tongue out and yelling “I don’t know aannnyyythinggg!”. This metaphorical child was running around my room turning tables and chairs upside down and I was desperately trying to scold it, to get it to calm down, to force it to behave in a way that was familiar, predictable and within my control.
My love for knowing hasn’t emerged from thin air. I studied and worked for 5 years in the U.S. where I learnt to thrive within contracts and academic frameworks. These defined systems quickly created predictable patterns within which I was facilitating different spaces. For example — very often I would be asked to submit workshop designs with clear objectives, weeks before actually meeting the target participant group. This prepared way of working became my automatic expectation of myself and the schools where I would teach.
When I returned back to India and attended Aagaaz’s Drama Jams I (now literally) met children in a park who were running around loudly yelling “Tota! Pinjra! Toofan!” (Parrot! Cage! Storm!) I was trying to identify the facilitator of this game but instead I saw a flipchart filled with names of exercises in different handwritings. These were a few activities that the participants had mutually decided to play and were divided into three sections: tune-in, engagement and reflections. As I joined in, I witnessed the games facilitating themselves, each game whispering into the ears of the next and energizing the bodies that were playing it. I was itching to lead, to speak, to structure and to facilitate but somehow the games stopped me in my tracks so I played along. How was this line between structure and spontaneity emerging? More importantly — who was drawing it?
When the pandemic hit, I found myself asking similar questions — who is facilitating this strange time that we are (willingly or unwillingly) participating in? What games is our environment playing with us? My desire to know within the unknown was raging. I needed a familiar setting so I re-joined Aagaaz’s Drama Jams that were now taking place online. I was curious to understand how that same spontaneity which I had experienced in the park would translate to Zoom. Would there still be no facilitator? What would a virtual flip-chart of mutually decided games look like? What happens when someone’s internet crashes in between a game? Does every game then need to have a back-up game? Who decides what that back-up game is?
As part of Aagaaz’s Facilitators’ Collective we are reading chapters from Theatre for Change, Social Action and Therapy. At the beginning of the book, drama therapist Robert J. Landy claims that posing questions in various educational settings establishes dramatic contexts and deepens the students’ capacity to reflect on the experience.¹ While Landy’s claim is rooted in the student-teacher relationship (unlike the Drama Jams where such hierarchies are blurred) he expands on the value of inquiry in creating spaces for the unknown. After all — why would participants be compelled to ask questions if the dramatic space was familiar or predictable? Maybe that’s the magic of the Drama Jams. There is a sense of unpredictability in each Jam because the games emerge out of the participants present. The participants change every time. Glitchy internet connections add to the unpredictability online. Since none of the players really know what is going to happen next, the games lend themselves to purposeful inquiry which is then answered or further questioned by the next game.
For example — in Aagaaz’s last online Drama Jam, Kritika — a drama teacher from Chennai suggested a game called ‘Fortunately-Unfortunately.’ In this game all of us recounted our learnings over the past year beginning our sentences with “Fortunately in 2020…” followed by “Unfortunately in 2020….” After this activity our brains and bodies were full of stored memories of the year. “Why don’t we shake our bodies?” suggested another participant. This request led to us dancing our favorite lockdown gestures on Zoom. At this moment I wondered — are the games facilitating us? Or are we facilitating the games? How are these games so effortlessly posing questions whose collective inquiry is emerging out of the process of playing them? Had I pre-planned or facilitated this session, would this level of inquiry even emerge?
The online Drama Jams are not all spontaneous play. There is the invisible hand of a design that is supporting this collective inquiry. Arts-in-education expert Cecily O’Neil claims that “‘Process Drama is a structured improvisational activity in which teachers and students jointly contract to an imaginary world. It is structured so that participants take on multiple roles, not just one character throughout the drama experience. It is framed this way to allow participants to consider multiple perspectives. At the same time, Process Drama is a methodology that empowers students to take ownership in the meaning they make of any given topic. As the drama is developed, it takes on a reflective component that impacts the unfolding action, moving it more clearly into a conception of praxis.²”
In O’Neil’s explanation of Process Drama, structures like role-playing aid students and teachers to take on a shared responsibility of the drama. (Devika and I wrote about this in more detail in our last post). The design of the Jams — tune-in, engagement and reflection — is a similar structure that aids the spontaneity within and beyond it. The flip-chart of games, which online translates to a running google document, makes the space feel held and safe to play within. The last 30 minutes of the Jam are always spent on reflecting on our experiences of each game. Each of these ‘structures’ allow for a reflexive praxis which O’Neil mentions above. For Aagaaz I clearly see, this reflexive praxis is defined in a critical and creative pedagogy that rests on democratic values of inclusion.
So if structure and spontaneity are co-existing (and in fact supporting one another), how do I cohabitate with the rambunctious child that is 2020 without facilitating it? What then does ‘facilitation’ mean especially when I don’t know who is facilitating whom? I guess I’ll never know, despite all my efforts to blog my way towards an answer. Maybe that’s okay.
Landy, Robert, and David T. Montgomery. Theatre for change: Education, social action and therapy. Macmillan International Higher Education, 2012.
Akhila is an applied theatre practitioner from Delhi. With a passion for playing a game whenever possible, she designs and facilitates theatre-based interventions for corporates, government bodies, non-profits, schools and universities in India and the U.S. Akhila’s practice — which she blogs about like a mad person — stems from her training in the Theatre of the Oppressed methodology.
Illustration by Devika