The majority of our students are the first members of their family to go into higher education. Many are also holding down jobs and supporting families while also studying for a degree - a fantastic achievement.
But, we also noted that when our students went for interviews for professional jobs or placements they often seemed to lack confidence. Students described feeling daunted and anxious about a process that plunged them into unfamiliar territory. As we know, job interviews for graduate-level jobs involve mastery of a complex set of codes and behaviours that are not always obvious. Their families, although supportive, lacked the experience of going for professional level jobs, so could not help in this area. The careers team felt that it was difficult to teach the subtleties and nuances of job interviews in a way that students would get without them feeling overwhelmed by information.
It was Careers Consultant Jacqueline McManus who first heard about forum theatre and had the idea of applying it to job interviews. Initially she used this approach to help young people on widening participation programmes, who were applying for places on highly sought-after HE courses. The UWL Careers team have been using forum theatre since 2017.
What exactly is forum theatre?
Forum theatre (part of Boal’s ‘theatre of the oppressed’) is a type of interactive theatre created by the late Brazilian theatre director, Augusto Boal in the early 1970s. In forum theatre the audience first watches a piece which shows an obvious injustice or problem taking place. The play is then paused while the audience is asked for its opinion on how things could be changed to remove this injustice. The scene is then re-enacted with audience participation on the stage. Boal saw this form of theatre as a means of helping those people he felt were oppressed to see these oppressions enacted onstage and to be able to react to them.
How can forum theatre be used for job interviews?
Our use of forum theatre involves a job interview with an ineffective candidate. First, the students watch a scene, acted out by the careers team. The interview they see is full of some of the classic errors that can be made during interviews. Students laugh at incidents such as the candidates’ mobile phone going off. After this, the drama is ‘paused’ while the students are asked to give their feedback on what they have seen. The students then suggest what needs to be changed in order for it to be a better interview. The interview scene is then replayed, using these suggestions. Sometimes, students participate in the re-played scene. Finally, there is a last feedback session where students can say what worked and what may still need changing.
Our presentation focuses on presenting problems, not solutions. It is for our students to work out between themselves what the best resolutions could be. Every group of students will suggest something different. This makes them active, rather than passive, participants.
And we’ve had fantastic feedback from students about our forum theatre approach. We recently carried out a study into the effectiveness of our approach (funded by the Higher Education Careers Services Unit). Students said after participating in our forum theatre performance they felt they had learned a lot about the subtleties of graduate job interviews, and the hidden traps to look out for. Students tell us that the sessions are fun as well as informative and effective.
More importantly, students attending these workshops have had far greater success with professional interviews than ever before. The majority of our students attending professional level interviews now get the job or the placement.
A principle aim of our forum theatre workshops is to challenge the ‘cop in the head’ (Boal’s way of describing the internal barriers in the minds of those suffering from any type of oppression). We had found that other methods we’d used for students attending interviews was overwhelming for them. In fact, a lot of these seemed to reinforce the feeling our students had that they ‘weren’t good enough’ (which we can put down as a ‘cop in the head’ thought). But with our forum theatre approach - where students can laugh at errors anyone could make at interviews - this feeling of being overwhelmed disappears. Interviews can be a nerve-wracking and stressful experience so here students have fun while they learn.
So with forum theatre, then, we are not taking a ‘deficit model’ approach, where we try to give students something they are lacking. We show students what the problems are and they themselves come up with the answers. We believe we are using a social justice approach, which draws on the theories of Boal (1979) Freire (1990) and Fraser (1997). We have adapted Boal’s method to fit with our needs, but we stick to his aims of it as a form of social justice.
In September 2019, we won the AGCAS (Association of Graduate Careers Advisory Services) Research Informed Practice Excellence Award for our work on forum theatre and interview performance.
In our case study for Enhancing Graduate Employability: a case study compendium we give more details on how we use forum theatre.
Jacqueline McManus is a careers consultant at UWL. She previously worked managing community careers teams for an inner London LEA, and as a widening participation manager in higher education. She has been a trustee of Tate’s youth arts programmes and is a Fellow of the Royal Society of the Arts.
Catherine Taylor is a Careers Consultant at UWL and HEA Fellow. She started her career as a nurse before becoming a mature student in higher education, then working for the Royal College of Nursing where she established their careers service.
Enhancing Graduate Employability: a case study compendium is an Advance HE member benefit. Download the compendium here.
Call for submissions: Employability Symposium 2020: Breaking the mould – colleagues are invited to submit an abstract for either a 20-minute presentation or a 45-minute workshop before 18 February 2020. Submit your paper now.
Supporting Enterprise in the Creative Industries is a webinar for Advance HE members only on 19 February. Find out more and book your place.
Boal, A. (1979). Theatre of the Oppressed. (C. A. and M.L. McBride and E. Fryer, Trans.). London: Pluto Press.
Fraser, N. (1997). Justus Interruptus: critical reflections on the ‘postsocialist’ condition. New York: Routledge
Freire, P. (1990). Pedagogy of the Oppressed. London: Penguin Books. (First published by the Continuum Publishing Company, 1970)