Acting Out the Culture: The Making of Culturally Relevant Theatre, Papua New Guinea

Culturally relevant theatre in education in Papua New Guinea challenges, questions, asserts, transgresses, subverts, opposes, resists and negotiates with the demands of political and cultural relations. It offers new forms of representation and contributes to the process of destabilising and decentering the domination of Western processes of teaching, learning and performance.

Tok igo Pas
Papua New Guinea (PNG) is dotted with many unique and different cultural groups. Each of these groups has distinct languages, histories, political and economic structures, knowledge, beliefs and values which underpin their context and provide a sense of location and identity. Each of these processes is governed by the particular world view of the group. World view as a notion relates to the rules and regulations of a society, and to its understood and accepted ways of individual behaviour and social intercourse.

Over the last two hundred years or so many of these cultures have encountered very dramatic changes to these processes. The arrival of sailors, explorers, scientists, traders, missionaries, and government emissaries from the various duchies, kingdoms, and countries of Europe and later Australia, discovered the foreign lands and its people and claimed ownership of them. Following those proclamations they invariably set up their own structures and institutions and began to change the land and its people as they saw fit. Languages, beliefs and values and political systems were imposed without any regard for the local people and their ways of living and doing things. In fact the local ways were cast aside deliberately and systematically.

The result of these controlled and deliberate impositions has seen the gradual annihilation of many of the cultural groups. For many of the groups, their languages, beliefs, values, relationships, and their sense of place and identity have been denigrated to the point where these are almost non-existent. By and large the local people have had very little control over the changes because the dominant views have always assumed an inherent superiority of their ways. Crucially, such lack of power and control has brought about an experience of dispersal and fragmentation of people within PNG who feel a sense of loss of identity and belonging.

The full effect of such an encounter has led to the many and varied problems facing Papua New Guineans today. Within the political, social, economic, artistic, religious, educational structures and institutions, Papua New Guineans are wrestling and deliberating on the encounters. On the one hand there are the institutions and structures set up by Europeans based on their own world view. On the other hand Papua New Guineans come from rich and varied backgrounds and world views. The meeting of these two streams provide for complex processes of juxtapositioning and negotiation which lie at the heart of the many and varied problems.

Singaut long senis
There is now a need for a theoretical shift. We must build this country on values that are Papua New Guinean.
A course offered as part of an Expressive Arts teacher education programme at the Goroka Campus of the University of Papua New Guinea is centred on developing relevant programmes from within which gives recognition to Papua New Guinean values and beliefs.

Goroka Campus specializes in training secondary school teachers for PNG and the South West Pacific. Students come from PNG, Solomon Islands and Vanuatu.
In the course all participants kept a diary in which they recorded their experiences of the course. They related in particular to the workshop processes as well as the performances we held within Goroka.

Wei bilong lukluk na save long ples
I am from the Mogei culture in the Melpa area of the PNG highlands. Our world view is framed around the concept of Mbu and has meaning and significance through the concept of Noman which means to know, feel understand, think and remember. Both are bound inextricably in each person and known as Nanga Noman.
Nanga Noman is symbolised in Mbu. The Mbu concept is built around the notions of Mbu Iamb, Pulg Iamb, and Mbu Kola. Each of these are interrelated and overlap with each other. The Mogei view is that people have the capacity to look at the world, to question it, and thereby to locate their position in it. The knowable world is invested with meaning by the people.

Pasin singsing bilong mi
The mur dance is related to the exchange of goods, individual and collective political status, and the strengthening of old friendships and forging new ones. The significance of the dance lies not in its objectivity as a dance but rather in its symbolic purpose and meaning.

Ino blong lukluk na holim pasim
The mur in a general sense can be accounted as a courting and display dance performed in the exchange ceremonies called moka from the Melpa area of PNG. The basic movements of the dance are stylized actions of the Bird of Paradise. The dancers are adorned with leaves, ferns, paintings, oils, wigs and feathers. The feathers, which are of immense value and treated with respect, are placed most prominently on the wig resembling the plumes of the Bird. This process of make-up and costuming resembles the process of donning a mask. The mask of the bird in the mur is donned by each dancer but this does not mean that all the dancers become birds. The realities of individuals in every day life are maintained while at the same time participating in the realities of symbolic expression.
Spectators watch the dancers and experience and interpret the dancers. If the dancers are bird-like in their dancing: flighty, agile, colourful and decorative, they look with favour on the dancers and interpret that the clan will grow in prosperity and strength. On the contrary, a dancer who may look ruffled, heavy and immobile can spell troubled times for him/herself, the family or even the clan.

The movements are slow and elaborate, almost delicate, and are accompanied by a rhythm and songs which taper off in a cooing very much like the Bird's calls. Preparations for this ceremony can take up to four or five years of negotiating and planning and culminate over a period of two weeks.

The mur raises a number of significant points The mur with all its paraphernalia is not an entity or object but is ephemeral. The ceremony is not autographed or signed by the clan nor dated and stored for display at a later time. Notions of artistic objectification are immaterial.

Ologeta ikirapim
Secondly the moka ceremony is accomplished by the whole clan. There is no one particular person who is solely responsible for bringing about the ceremony. Particular leaders and people within the clan may be at the forefront with negotiations but it is understood that members of the clan will collaborate in the whole process for its effectiveness.

Pilai mipela iwokim long skul
In this particular workshop there were a total of twenty two students. All of them were Papua New Guinean and came from various parts of the country. In the course outline the class was asked to produce either a local or overseas play as part of their work for the semester. We decided to workshop some of the contemporary issues and ideas that were of interest to us at that time.

Laik bilong wanwan, tasol wok wantaim
One of the first and foremost difficulties encountered was the focus on the individual self. Western education and drama focus on the self in terms of knowledge and experience. This metaphor of the self is strongly advocated in drama courses where individual authentic self-examination is made, but the warm-up exercises and improvisation workshops that focused on the individual failed to find significance with the group. There was much reluctance to approach the exercises and workshops from the focus of the individual. Following this revelation the focus was directed more to group work.
Jim's reflections on his experiences of the project speak of this process:
There are a couple of important things that I learn from this project. Firstly I done some drama before but not in this way that we have done with taking ideas from newspapers and then all of us working as a group to come up with a drama. Before I learnt how to act and do lightings with someone telling me what to do. In our drama we work together. The other thing I learn is when we do the things and do the workshop we actually acted out in the small situations and added things and changed them.

Bung wantaim na rereim singsing
Collaboration does not lie with the making of the product. Instead it is the social collaboration which is of greater significance. Individuals were brought together and relationships, negotiations, exchanges, acknowledgements were important aspects in the collaborative exercise. Like the mur the event brought people together.

Similarly during performances collaboration between actors and spectators was an important aspect of the theatrical event. The spectators collaborated by way of laughter, clapping, cheering and sometimes jeering the performances. Many of the expressions were physical involving back slapping, hand clapping, rubbing shoulders, or just the body contact. This was particularly clear during the performance as Apati recollected.
Our performances . . . were really nice ones. Once the audience were laughing and cheering and happy about what we were acting, they make us feel good and encouraged us to do more and also make us do it well. Sometimes when they did not react . . . we thought about it ourselves, it was not good enough.

Wok singsing em ino samting, mining em samting tru
Mur is based on stylized movements of the Birds of Paradise. While the form of the mur may seem repetitive and almost mundane, for the Mogei what counts is the meaning.
The mur is more like a window into the state of affairs for the spectator and actor. How well a feather or headdress sits, the brightness or dullness of a facial paint, the youthful exuberance or haggard-looking dancers are interpretations hich can hold much information about the relationships in a family, the settling of a debt from the past and/or what may be in store for the future.

There were a number of ways in which we related the Mogei sense of impermanence and meaning in the workshops. Taking this as a basis the situations did not have a script. Much of the dialogue was created during performance.

Kali later recollected :

In this play I felt . . . most people saw it and make their own conclusions. I can still remember the performance. People got the message by looking at this production . . After the show most people came and were talking to us about this .

These initiatives in PNG provide for a political and cultural cornucopia that challenges, questions, asserts, transgresses, subverts, opposes, resists and negotiates with the demands of existing political and cultural relations. It offers new forms of representation and contributes to the process of destabilising and decentring the domination of Western processes of teaching, learning and performance.

The names of the participants have been changed for reasons of privacy.

This is a condensed version of a paper presented at the 9th World Congress of Comparative Education Societies at the University of Sydney, Australia, July 1 - 6 1996.