Kenya 2015 – curious arts

Jan Selman is leading a course in Kenya, June - July 2015.

Facilitating Performing Arts for Social Justice

Would you like to bring your curious mind and generous heart to Kenya this summer, to help create art and social change, while earning course credit for the experience? Drama professor Jan Selman is leading a course called Facilitating Performing Arts for Social Justice in Kenya this June and July.

There is one week left to apply to be among the UAlberta students traveling to Kenya to collaborate with Kenyan community organizations and artists to experience how the performing arts can contribute to social justice.

No previous theatre experience is necessary, as students will be guided by the most expert of facilitating hands. Jan is the interim director of the U of A’s Community Service-Learning program, with extensive experience working on interactive, community-based theatre projects. Her current research project, “Old Stories in New Ways,” is an interdisciplinary project with artists in Kenya, which taps into storytelling and performance arts as a form of social intervention.

Undergraduate and graduate students from UAlberta’s Faculty of Arts and Faculty of Education are invited to apply for this course by April 7, 2015. I caught up with Jan to ask her a few questions about this outstanding study abroad opportunity.


Q: How did “Facilitating Performing Arts for Social Justice in Kenya” come together? Which other UAlberta instructors are involved?

A: This is a course that three U of A professors created together: Diane Conrad from the Faculty of Education (Secondary Education), and Jane Heather and me from the Department of Drama.

We thought it would fill a gap in the curriculum by focusing on three things: 1. demonstrating how to utilize an artform in informal settings; 2. using performance arts with community organizations that want to get their messages out; and 3. looking at ways for community organizations to explore social issues with artists and how art might act as a social intervention.

It was also a way to promote the Arts as an engaged practice. It is very easy for art to sound like art for art’s sake and separate that off and have people pay 50 bucks to be a part of that. But this is the other end where art is for everybody. It is in the marketplaces, in theatres and other places where people can drop in and make it theirs. The community makes it theirs.

In this case, we are also interested in how to use theatre in an international setting to learn about that place, as well as to contribute to that place and its own development.


Q: Tell me about your long term and ongoing research project in Kenya, “Old Stories in New Ways,” and how it relates to the coursework?

A:  “Old Stories in New Ways” is a collaboration with existing arts groups in Western Kenya, near Lake Victoria, the biggest lake there is.

These are arts groups that work in both rural and urban settings. When I first went to Kenya, I wanted to get to know who was doing community-based art work and these are some of the people I met. They are the most outstanding artists — theatre artists, writers, musicians, storytellers, hip hop artists and rap stars.

For example, the first time I saw Lagnet Theatre, one of our community partners, they were performing just as a village market day was breaking up and closing down. Everybody was started to leave their stalls and wrap up their shopping to head home and suddenly, they were all taken aback because some comedy and music started up.

This huge circle erected around a playing area, just a little corner of the market. The sun was setting and these guys were doing the most hilarious play in a language I didn’t know but was I was getting translated. It turns out it was all about sex ed, as in “get tested, know about your health,” but it was done as high comedy. Absolutely brilliant comedians doing this work and I thought, “Whoa! I need to get to know these guys better.”


Q: What kind of projects have you collaborated on with your community partners in Kenya?

A: Some of our projects have included creating festivals to increase the community’s knowledge of the arts. The idea is to make a great big event where everybody performs their own stuff and lots of people attend. The first year of the three-year project, we did an indoor theatre-focused day with 500 to 700 people crammed into a converted movie theatre. We also did an outdoor festival which was huge with great big speakers in a huge sports field. There were easily 2,000 people that showed up. Is there an interest in the arts? Absolutely. And by collecting arts organizations together, it made everyone more visible.

I started wondering what would happen if we actually collaborated in the making of something together? What have I learned by being here and listening hard?

One of the things I have learned is that we need to start mashing up traditional forms of storytelling and dance with what the kids are looking at and engaging with on the internet now — hip hop, rap and everything in between. That’s the next step.


Q: Is that what you will be doing throughout this course?

A: Yes. We will be doing an interactive piece in rural settings in lots of different villages and a high tech, high-scale, multi-formed performance piece using music, dance, and traditional and contemporary storytelling in three different languages. I am really excited about all that.

Jane and Diane will do the first week of the course, June 1 through 5, on campus in Edmonton about using the arts in interacting with communities and how to make the arts part of an inclusive experience. The students will be applying art and theatre techniques and reworking them and rethinking them as a tool to lead community groups with.

Then everyone will travel to Kenya. Diane and I will be there but some of the teachers will also be the leaders of our Kenyan community partners and arts groups.

We will also take in a few travel excursions while in Kenya to see what’s there. It is an amazing country.


Q: If students are interested in taking the course, what do they need to do?

A: They should submit an application to University of Alberta International before April 7th, 2015.

To learn more about Kenya 2015: Facilitating Performing Arts for Social Justice:

About Old Stories in New Ways


“Old Stories in New Ways” is an interdisciplinary project led by Drama professor Jan Selman. Its goal is to preserve, sustain and transform the ways that stories provide foundational cultural power for local communities in Kenya. See the Work of Arts blog feature story:Social Intervention through storytelling

About Jan Selman

Jan Selman

Jan Selman

Jan Selman is a professor in UAlberta’s Department of Drama and coordinator of the MFA Directing Program. She is also interim director of UAlberta’s Community Service-Learning Program. Jan is a dramaturge and director of new theatre and performance, working with playwrights and theatre teams. Jan specializes in participatory and community-based theatre as a facilitator and director, and publishes based on this long-standing practice.

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