Breaking barriers: Actors and workers in an audience interact in a performance by The Health and Wellness Theatre Company. Picture: SUPPLIED
Breaking barriers: Actors and workers in an audience interact in a performance by The Health and Wellness Theatre Company. Picture: SUPPLIED

When a company has to tackle a difficult issue affecting its workers, sometimes it’s best to tackle it with laugher.

The deadly serious subject of HIV/AIDS might not seem obvious material for comedy, but The Health and Wellness Theatre Company is boosting the testing rate enormously through industrial theatre presented on the factory floor.

"The great thing about being an actor is that you can get away with saying anything. There are no taboos," says producer Lawrence Joffe.

"Often, things that a corporation might find difficult can be done with industrial theatre, because actors can say anything and address any subject.

"It needs to be funny to keep the interest of the audience, so corporates like it because it’s a quick and easy way to deal with issues while entertaining their staff, as opposed to putting up posters and sending out e-mails that no one reads."

Joffe and his wife, Michelle Douglas, write the scripts and their team of freelance actors translates them into whichever languages are needed. They can stage productions in an open-plan office, around the machinery in a factory or at a mine as workers change shifts.

One sketch involves a man drinking in a bar, with a condom tucked in his wallet in case he gets lucky with the woman he’s chatting up.

"It’s very funny and immediately the men are thinking, ‘That’s me, I’m out on a Friday night trying to get laid’. They go back to her place and he’s singing All Night Long but he’s so drunk, he forgets the condom and the audience is thinking, ‘Yes, sometimes I forget too’."

By the end of the sketch, the workers are laughing and joking and far more likely to take the HIV test the company’s healthcare service provider offers.

Telkom used to see a 34% take-up of tests after HIV/AIDS education sessions it devised, Joffe says. "When we rolled out a 15-minute show … the test rate rose to 80% because suddenly, people were being spoken to in a language they understood.

"People see themselves on stage and see the consequences of not taking precautions. So, we ask clients to have tests available instantly because by the next day, they may have lost their courage or try to black it out."

One of their clients is EOH, which runs wellness programmes for several large construction and mining companies through its workplace health and wellness division.

"The way they do their theatre creates a happy environment with a lot of laughter and gets people talking about stuff they don’t normally talk about," says Dr Grietjie Strydom, head of the EOH division.

"We use the theatre before we do a screening and the uptake is much higher – I’d say 100% higher. The relaxed and fun environment with people talking about HIV/AIDS means the stigma is broken and knowledge is spread. People watch the theatre and see something that resonates and go for the test."

The entertaining disruption to the daily routine also means the workers go home and talk about it, so information cascades down to their families.

After an initial show encouraging people to know their status, The Health and Wellness Theatre Company returns with six other sketches covering everything the workers need to know about HIV/AIDS.

One sketch has a man hitting on a woman in the factory, who rebuffs him by saying she’s HIV-positive. He refuses to believe her because she looks so good, which leads to a conversation about looking after yourself and staying on antiretrovirals.

"So, people realise they can still be healthy, they’re not going to get fired and it’s not going to end their life," Joffe says.

Another issue being tackled through industrial theatre is diversity. The melting pot of colours, cultures and beliefs in the workplace has the potential to boil over.

Diversity is an issue that companies are often too afraid to approach, Joffe says.

"They know they need to but it’s potentially explosive. By bringing in an outside company that specialises in it, the staff is prepared to open up because this creates a safe space to address the issues.

"It forces people to unpack their own prejudices, which they don’t think they have."

The day-long diversity and inclusiveness programmes are run by Five Star Media, which uses Joffe’s theatre company as well as professional storytelling. There is a session in which participants each tell a story about their own lives. Clinical and industrial psychologists discuss the issues that are raised.

"It’s not a black and white problem. It’s a race problem, a religion problem, a sexual orientation and a class problem," says Alan Roberts, a partner in Five Star Media. "The reason for its success is storytelling is part of African cultures and industrial theatre becomes an extension of that. Three people can play 40 characters and can change character at the drop of a hat."

One exercise sees everyone stand in a line, then answer questions by stepping forwards for yes or backwards for no. They are asked about their life and growing up, including whether their parents helped with their homework, whether they had books in the house, whether their parents had medical aid and how many times they moved house.

Roberts recalls how one immaculately groomed blonde Afrikaans woman was shown to be the least privileged in the room. "She’d never had an education and they had no money or books in her home, but she decided she was going to make something of her life and educate herself. Her answers were amazing, but people had already made a judgment."

The programme raises all the reasons why people don’t get on with each other for absolutely no reason other than their own prejudice, he says.

"We have had tears once or twice when people tell a story about their lives. It’s a way for people in a company to get to know each other on such a personal level that you’re not just seeing a face pass you in the corridor, you’re seeing another human," says Roberts.

"The sad part is that companies need to spend money on this at all. The team doesn’t like letting me near the clients because I ask, ‘Why are we spending money teaching people to just get along?’."

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