CLA Through Theater: Engaging Ukraine’s Civil Society Through a Dramaturgical Sociological Approach
This blog was written by Christopher Russell (Strategy Policy Analyst, Pact Ukraine) and Lauren Serpe (Deputy Technical Director, Global Results and Measurement, Pact).
Collaborating, learning, and adapting (CLA) events commonly assemble partners, teammates, and donors at the midpoint of a project to reflect on lessons learned, to analyze data and findings, and to strategize for both the remainder of a project and a sustainable future. Integrating CLA events into the program cycle ensures coordination, knowledge sharing, and relevancy.
Creative approaches and lively engagement are often difficult to employ in CLA events, but it was front and center in the unique approach taken by Ukraine’s USAID-funded Enhance Non-Governmental Actors and Grassroots Engagement (ENGAGE) activity. As the Senior M&E Officer for Pact ENGAGE said, “Learning is like growing a plant: you need seed, soil, and an enabling environment.”
To maximize engagement and make learning active and fun, the ENGAGE team piloted a theater-based approach to its midterm CLA events, transforming its office into a stage for its civil society organization partners. Acknowledging the participatory and dynamic value-added by presenting learning through drama, Ukraine’s civil society actors opted to set aside PowerPoint presentations and instead become performers, entering a zone of inspired collaboration. This learning event was rooted in the “dramaturgical sociology” tradition, fostering creativity and learning from a fresh perspective.
The event gathered staff, partners, and donors, for a collaborative and interactive three-day event, wherein all participants performed a series of dramatic interpretations. The dramaturgical sociology tradition stresses the importance of how everyday social encounters can make us more conscious of the audience, actors, and our surroundings. With this in mind, performers portrayed the roles of key participants in civil society and tackled real-world challenges faced by activists, leaders, and everyday Ukrainians. The learning event was comprised of three main components:
- A traditional presentation of learning data with critical analysis
- A series of theatrical plays, displaying the success factors and challenges around key themes and
- Reflection via a ‘World Café’ discussion, and co-creation with partners for future action.
Ayder Khalilov (Senior Program Manager) sets the stage for civil society partners.
In preparation for the event, ENGAGE team members researched and wrote analytical memos centered around ENGAGE’s objectives of regional participation, anti-corruption, inclusion, and civic education. After reflecting on the analytical memos, groups comprised of the ENGAGE team, their partners, and donors, created performances presenting the findings and their implications for the future of their project. Rather than providing a traditional presentation of data with Q&A, the performances encouraged participants to imagine themselves in the shoes of various actors, all crucial to a civil society organization’s growth, membership, and viability—thereby better enabling critical reflection and learning.
The dramaturgical productions offered much more than an opportunity for entertainment. They translated learning and evidence from monitoring and evaluation into living color. For example, in one act, participants portrayed the barriers young Ukrainians face in rural regions—where they may lack information and support from family—complicating their involvement in local governance and civil society organizations. In other acts, citizens and journalists learned to hold elected officials accountable, to write petitions to create better access to public transportation, and how to become better citizens by adopting new education and learning methodologies.
Participant performances fostered comradery, humor, energy, and insight, creating an enabling environment for learning that allowed the ENGAGE team to foster trust between stakeholders. The events created a shared culture of learning and understanding for subsequent discussions wherein grantees provided valuable feedback on their work to the ENGAGE team in a ‘World Café’ style discussion. The World Café chats were informal enough to allow civil society leaders to feel comfortable in sharing their ideas; it provided them with a platform to voice their concerns about current and future challenges, and roadmaps to future sustainability, often difficult subjects to address. This direct interaction provided partners with the opportunity to discuss their approach to sustainability, their vision of Ukraine’s civil society sector, and how their project could best advance that vision.
ENGAGE’s theatrical approach to CLA and subsequent discussions set the table for the activity’s civil society leaders to interpret and analyze data from their projects, and then apply their findings for implementation into programming via action plans. Through a highly collaborative ‘all-hands-on-deck’ approach, the event sparked tangible user-centric solutions, serving the interest of civil society partners and their constituents—the people of Ukraine.
The theatrical approach to strategic collaboration injected life and energy into a learning event that marked an important inflection point for Ukraine’s post-Maidan civil society community. Above all, the event fostered a spirit of true collaboration—the partners felt listened to and like they were peers at the table with Pact and USAID. As one anonymous grantee remarked, “ENGAGE is the donor listening to partners in Ukraine.”