What a good Idea

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 15 July, 2007, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 15 July, 2007, 12:00am

For Dan Baron Cohen, theatre is a lot more than just putting a play on stage. He says it has the power to heal and can cultivate the courage to dream - even in such an inhospitable environment as recently war-torn Bosnia.

The president of the Inter-national Drama/Theatre Education Association (Idea) witnessed this transforming power when he conducted theatre and drama workshops there last year.

'Often in conflict or in war people become numb,' the 50- year-old says. 'You can develop reflexes of hiding your emotions or of self-protection but they're there in your eyes and in the stiffness of your body. Those are memories, trauma, danger and vulnerability that become locked into your body.'

Workshop participants were overloaded with memories they wanted to hide. 'They can't seem to get into the future because the past is so present,' says Baron Cohen. 'But they need to talk about it to change their rigid or defensive way of being.'

He says the challenge was to help them revisit their past so they could clear space for the present and the future. This is done through a process of celebration rather than mourning and the establishment of a workshop culture of solidarity, listening and asking questions rather than making judgments.

'With dance you can very quickly recover all kinds of history and capacity which may have been lost inside the body,' says Baron Cohen. 'The very restrictive gestures or movements you might make to protect yourself in your every- day life all get reorganised. All kinds of communication potential are released.'

The music theatre director, playwright and sculptor is in Hong Kong to attend the 6th Idea World Congress, which will start tomorrow and run until July 22.

Performances in myriad art forms will include tales of a Palestinian girl resisting an arranged marriage, a disabled artist riding down the most famous freeway in the US to pursue his dream and a young man from Hong Kong who's entangled in love and filial relations in a foreign land.

Also featuring at the week- long event are workshops, special sessions, keynotes and dialogues on how to apply theatre to empower people in communities and schools.

There will also be opportunities to learn a range of disciplines of theatre, from movement and dance to visual arts and music alongside a programme for young people to develop drama skills.

Founded in 1992, Idea boasts members from around the world. During the past 15 years its members have travelled the globe to promote arts education and host three-yearly world congresses. Next week's will be the first to be held in Asia and it will involve 339 performers from 24 regions.

Baron Cohen says one of his main roles is to advocate a broader way of thinking about the arts. 'Often you have to deal with a very narrow definition of the arts - narrow in the sense that only a tiny fraction of society is artistic and that the arts are events.

'We're not thinking specifically about theatre as in cinemas and museums. We're thinking about it as a human language and advocating that through images, case studies, workshops and examples of good practice.'

He says prejudices against the arts have been a challenge to championing a different kind of education. 'People think the arts are irrelevant. They think the arts are unrelated to employment or what they would regard as necessary learning like science, mathematics and information technology.'

But the arts have plenty to offer, he says, and drama and theatre can be a means of nurturing human development. 'You can study theatre as one of the languages for expressing imagination, identity and history and reflecting on ourselves,' he says. 'You can also use drama and theatre in schools and communities so that people develop communication and co-operation skills.'

In a society as competitive and materialistic as Hong Kong, Baron Cohen says the best way to encourage drama education is to reassure people that a different set of skills is essential to surviving in a rapidly changing world and that drama is an effective means of acquiring these.

He says people usually don't learn co-operation in the classroom, where competition for higher grades is the norm. 'It's often very deeply learned through making plays or music or dance. You're developing in people the ability to respect different ideas and build their final product by co-operating with people who think differently.'

Among Idea's achievements is the development of a new curriculum. 'We can provide the expertise, the training, the learning resources and the examination structures and syllabuses,' he says. 'We're ready now for any government that wants to implement this.'

Baron Cohen says this year's congress will be an exciting chance to start projects and make contacts. And participation isn't limited to artists, teachers and development workers. 'For anyone who has a week in the summer and who wants to meet the world, this is an opportunity to make friends and find out about their culture.'

6th Idea World Congress, Jul 16-22, various locations. Inquiries: 2582 0230. For programme details, go to www.idea2007.hk