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India: Using theatre to create awareness on child survival 13 Nov 2015

Save the Children India has been using the innovative stage of theatre production to create awareness among public on the issues of child survival.

Written & Directed by renowned theatre personality Arvind Gaur, the play - ‘I WILL NOT CRY’ - is a solo act by Save the Children campaign champion Lushin Dubey. It is an exceptional blend of theatre and multimedia, highlighting the issue of child survival through satire and music excerpts. The play will bring alive the sad truth of millions of unnecessary deaths of children in our country.It hopes to evoke our collective responsibility, as a nation, to act together. 

We spoke with Pragya Vats, Campaign Manager at Save the Children India to understand the concept and what they set out to achieve.

Tell us about this play - I Will Not Cry? 

 

It was year 2011 when we organised Mother’s Day event that brought together 14 leading women from different walks of life – politics, theatre, art and literature, fashion and media. Save the Children reached out to respective representatives to pledge one thing they could do to carry forward the agenda of child survival.

Lushin Dubey, well-known name in the world of theatre, was among the 14 women present at the event. She “pledged” to do a play on the subject and one thing led to another and there we were with the premier of the play ‘I Will Not Cry’ in the national capital on 23 Nov 2011. 

What worked beautifully well was the actor-director team. Lushin teamed up with director Arvind Gaur – a name synonymous with theatre on issues of social relevance. The duo wrote the script. An issue as grim as child death needed a treatment that was different and yet impactful – serious overtone would not work. The play is an exceptional blend of theatre and multimedia, highlighting the issue of child deaths in India. Through satire and music excerpts the play aimed at bringing alive the sad truth of millions of needless, preventable deaths of children in our country.

The objective of this production has been not just to stir and sensitize the audience to the staggering and shameful number of child deaths in our country, but to also alert them to introspect on their social responsibility as educated citizens of this country. Through satire and largely the truth on this subject, the piece carries both the elements-entertainment along with hard hitting and insightful thoughts.

Gaur and Dubey have teamed up twice earlier to churn out productions like “Untitled” and “Bitter Chocolate” both of which again had societal overbearing like the plight of women across borders and child sexual abuse.

There are enough people, Lushin feels, who are doing known writers' plays but what works for her is to seek out subjects that are topical and relevant. “For me the process is as exciting. It is so self-educative and you can share so much and make people aware.”

The play as a medium has worked very well as a tool to engage public on an issue from public to the policy makers. I feel that works because it has an emotional and moral appeal that jolts you to a reality that you are often oblivious to.

What changes in perception/feedback have you seen among audience since the play began touring? 

You cannot measure the impact in tangibles but there has been many wins and successes along the way. Following the premiere we had a panel discussion with some of the well know people – economist Jean Dreze, member of the Planning Commission Syeda Hameed, well know actor and social activist Shabana Azmi,  Save the Children India Board Chair Harpal Singh moderated by TV journalist Amrita Tripathi. The play had moved people, it sure did.

Syeda Hameed who watched the play and later joined the panel wrote to the Chair of the Lower House of the Parliament and the President of India saying

“Nowhere in the world I have seen a more effective and sensitive advocacy for children. Having seen this play, no one can ever be the same again. I feel that all the country’s decision makers should spare an hour for this riveting experience.”

The play so far has had 12 runs across Delhi, Mumbai, Kolkata, Jaipur, Patna and Lucknow.

A few significant ones included the Premiere in Delhi in November 2011; World Breastfeeding Conference before the gathering of 900 delegates from across the world; Save the Children Leadership Summit on child survival  in Lucknow before the Chief Minister, Health Minister, government officials and representatives from civil society and NGOs and media.

So starting 2011 Save the Children has created or used an opportunity year on year to keep the issue alive among the public and advocate with the political leaders and policy makers.

Why did you choose to use ‘theatre’ as a medium to reach the target audience?

Engaging public on the issue of child survival wasn’t easy. I would say it was challenging especially so as there is a certain ‘otherness’ about it.

People feel it doesn’t happen in their life so it doesn’t exist and 2 million children dying remain a mere statistic which doesn’t have a face.

So one had to demystify the reality choosing a medium which is innovative, using an idiom that general public is familiar with and receptive to.

Apart from this, one had to be creative in presenting a reality which was so grim. Use of satire, humour interspersed with hard hitting data and characters that bring alive different facets around the child survival. One of the most fascinating facts about the play is that it is a solo performance with one woman playing nine different characters – journalist, bureaucrat, social worker, socialite, celebrity, doctor, a woman from the village in Bihar who loses her child, a boy affected by urbanisation in a big metropolis who sees his baby sister die on the streets.

The different characters give a nuanced insight into a complex issue of survival whether it is the absence of healthcare or the lack of political will or at best how the issue emerges in the comfortably numbed armchair discussions but there is a hard truth that there are millions who have to pay with their lives. 

If you had to share 3 learnings with campaigners in other countries, what would they be? 

  • Engaging champions – We all do and have engaged celebrities and public figures in the course of EO campaign. But one learning we had was to engage not just them but their craft too. At the same event we had an author Jaishree Mishra and we worked on an anthology together that brought together 21 writers called ‘Of Mothers and Others’. At another ace engagement with ace photographer Raghu Rai gave us through the journey of 3 years a photobook called ‘Outside the Margins’. With actors and other celebrities we have engaged with them through events, opinion pieces, media quotes to name a few. It is all about sustaining the engagement and keeping them abreast with the campaign they endorsed
  • Event and beyond event – While events are integral to campaign but we must stop, think and reflect on the linkages and follow on. Essentially one must have a rounded strategy where the outcome is marked out, we are able to plot advocacy and campaigning as complementing each other in that journey. 
  • Build and nurture relationships – it is not just enough to engage but important how we nurture every contact we build through the course of our efforts whether it is your celeb champion, agency you have worked with, our grassroots partners and networks and coalition.