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Using Popular Theatre as a Facilitation Technique

By Gillian Kranias, HC Link Consultant

This is the eight blog post in a series on facilitation techniques and approaches written by HC Link staff. This post focuses on using popular theatre for warmup/centering activities and even as a learning tool.

Without being an actor or director in any way whatsoever, I have pursued a lifelong passion for using popular theatre activities in community learning, community development and social change settings. These activities all value equity and inclusion, as well as a holism that engages creativity, non-verbal communications and full body awareness in our analysis, learning and organizing efforts.

Some techniques take a significant amount of time and are difficult to explain in writing. For this blog post, I am sharing few warmup/centering activities and the technique of image theatre, which can take anywhere from 5-90 minutes.

For more reading on popular theatre and theatre of the oppressed, try these titles:

Practical Books

Games for Actors and Non-Actors
By Augusto Boal. (New York: Routledge, 1992)

Educating for a Change
By Rick Arnold, Bev Burke, Carl James, D'Arcy Martin, Barb Thomas
(Toronto: Doris Marshal Institute for Education and Action & Between the Lines, 1991)


Playing Boal: Theatre, Therapy, Activism
Edited by Mady Schutzman and Jan Cohen-Cruz (London: Routledge, 1994)

In the right group, your courage to do things differently will pay off in surprising ways!

Centering Activities (5 minutes)

Source Augusto Boal’s book: Games for Actors and Non Actors

DSC 0507There are hundreds of theatre and improv games that can help “center” members of a group together, build listening skills, and exercise people’s timing in response. Here are two fun ones that I learned from Augusto Boal’s book. To choose games appropriately for your group, consider the lightness or seriousness of the gathering, how well people know each other already, as well as physical ability and language differences among group members.




“Name & Motion”

* Engages group members to listen, observe, and move

* Requires only limited “theatrical risk-taking”

* Generates lots of smiles and breaks down inhibitions


- Have everyone stand up in a circle. As the facilitator, explain and demonstrate how this introduction game works:

- Each individual, when they are willing, takes one step towards the center of the circle and makes a motion (preferably large) while calling out their first name. Everyone else must then together repeat the person’s “name and motion” two times (like an echo response).

- Allow time for each person to introduce their “name and motion” and be welcomed by the group through their “name and motion”.

“Pass the Clap”

* Engages group members to listen, observe, and move

* Focuses group members attention to one collaborative challenge

* Encourages a lighthearted approach to mistakes


- Seated or standing in a circle, the facilitator claps in the direction of someone next to them. This person is asked to pass the clap to the next person in the circle, and so on the clap will pass from person to person around the circle.

- Do this a few times around, so that the clap passes around the circle and past the facilitator several times. Then, while the clap is passing on the opposite side of the circle, the facilitator can begin a second (and later a third) clap that will travel in its own timing around the circle (so several claps will be circling at once).

- The facilitator can keep passing the clap through the circle for a while, and then eventually gather the claps (by not passing them past the facilitator) to close the activity.

- Variation: It is also possible to shift from sending the clap around the circle, and send it instead to someone across the circle.


Personal Style Reflection - What animal am I most like in a group? (5 – 20 minutes)

Typecasting by others can heighten conflict. Allowing each individual in a group to share their uniqueness and offer insight into the qualities of their “animal” creates an appreciative and collaborative dynamic. I learned and used this activity from colleagues at the Self Help Resource Centre.

* Engages group members to reflect on what they bring personally to the group

* Uses metaphor to convey complex ideas in a non-restrictive way

* Provokes laughter – being lighthearted about the strengths and challenges of our unique personalities


- Post pictures, or a list, of 6-8 different types of animals.

- Ask people to reflect on which animal they most behave like, when working in a group setting.

- Invite each participant to share which animal they identified with most, and why.

- With larger groups, the same question can be explored more dramatically/playfully by asking people to act out their animal, find others acting like them, and then sit together in their animal group to create a list of what they see as the significant qualities of their animal in groups.


Image theatre (10 - 90 minutes)

(Source: Headlines Theatre, Vancouver & Mixed Company, Toronto)

Image theatre is a wonderful technique! It is less intimidating than roleplay, and can be used on its own or as a warm-up activity before roleplaying. This technique is also known within popular education groups as “human sculptures”.

* Engages group members in holistic thinking and analysis, and learning

* Works equally well for multi-lingual groups

* Helps groups analyze patterns within shared issues or experiences

* Great for experiential learners


- Begin with people’s experience. In small groups, on a given theme, share stories or jump right into identifying patterns or key elements of a problem. Ask the group to create a frozen image (no words) to convey their perspectives. For example: How does inclusive leadership work? Or What keeps you [parent] from getting more involved in your child’s school?

- Each group takes turns “exhibiting” and “viewing” the sculpture of other groups. Encourage people to explore all sides of the sculpture by touring around it. If the image includes people playing specific roles, after the sculpture has been viewed, the facilitator can point to the people one at a time and ask each of them to say a few words about “what is your character thinking/feeling?”

- Another variation is to ask people to return to their groups and develop a series of 3-5 images – evolving from the first – that bring about a positive change. When these image series are being shared, the facilitator claps her/his hands to signal the group to change from one image to the next.

Augusto Boal’s book: Games for Actors and Non Actors has an entire chapter on different image theatre techniques and describes dozens and dozens of such games.

SPOTLIGHT –Organizations are using popular theatre as a learning tool!

Popular theater uses theatre as a tool for social transformation. It typically involves the “audience” as participants and invites groups to explore attitudes and social problems and imagine a range of potential solutions.

Reflet Salveo, an organization that promotes access of Francophones to quality health services in French, used the popular theater approach as a learning tool within a workshop context. They hired actors from a French language community theater group (Les Indisciplinés de Toronto) to role play and demonstrate a series of possible scenarios in the context of hiring people with various disabilities. They allowed for audience feedback and found this was a great tool to generate discussion amongst participants.


Companies in Ontario who work with communities and are using theater as a tool for positive change:

Mixed company theatre uses forum theatre (an interactive approach that involves the audience in developing real-time strategies for dealing with social and personal issues) to educate, engage and empower audiences in schools, communities and workplaces.

Sheatre uses issue-based theatre to find solutions to social problems. Artists and community members work collaboratively to express and explore a wide variety of issues that are important to their community.

In Forma Theatre aims to engage community members in meaningful dialogue through participatory theatre.

Branchout Theatre believes in the use of popular theatre as a branch towards social change by connecting and empowering individuals and communities to communicate and transform the world around them.





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Learning from Indigenous Helpers and Scholars

The more I learn about Indigenous world views and approaches, the more solidly energized I become about how much our work building healthy communities can benefit when we recognize and learn from Indigenous knowledge sources.

Because I grew up in Canada, I grew up learning about Indigenous people, not from them. And most of what I learned was misinformation. Thankfully today things are shifting. Powerful community movements and leaders within Aboriginal communities, organizations and scholarship have been willing to take on the challenge of better educating those of us from a settler (non-Indigenous) heritage. I have often taken up these new opportunities to learn. It has always been time best spent: a workshop at a conference, a youtube video, a cultural or political gathering, an effort to facilitate learning among colleagues at work …and so many good books!Below I will share learnings from a favorite book of mine. But even if you can’t read on right now, I hope you will move on with a new (or renewed) determination to embrace any opportunity to learn from an Indigenous person/group/community when it next presents itself on your path. 

Below are some quotes, and their impacts for me, from the 2011 book by Ryerson University social work professor Cyndy Baskin called Strong Helpers’ Teachings:


“Let me share with you one of the challenges I am having right now… writing about Indigenous approaches on topics of helping as though they are separate from one another... Within Indigenous perspectives, everything is connected... Should I include a disclaimer here?” (p. 77)

I kept in that last sentence because it shows how Baskin’s warmth and humour permeate the book as much as her intellectual insights and social change determination.

I am struck throughout the book by how much of what Baskin emphasizes resonates with my experience and discussions in healthy communities work. For example:

  •  everything is connected;
  • we must work with families and communities if we want to impact individual health; and 
  • “helping” is reciprocal (i.e. when helping we also experience healing, when teaching we also experience learning).
“A world view is a foundation that guides how one sees the environment/land, people, communities, challenges, causes of problems, and possible solutions…” (p.11)
In reading this definition, I am reminded of how often HC Link works to help people and organizations see and approach the environment, land, people, communities, challenges, causes of problems and possible solutions differently. We share evidence and conceptual frameworks that differ from the dominant world views. As I already noted above, there is lots of alignment between our evidence and Indigenous knowledges. There are also places where Indigenous knowledges offer something unique.
“Centering Indigenous knowledges … can be a part of decolonization in Canada and elsewhere.” (p.17)
As I read, I reflect on how I could take a more active role in this centering:  recognizing Indigenous knowledges as an equally valued unique source of theoretical frameworks and approaches for our life and work (e.g. recognition beyond anecdotal proverbs). I remember how this was done when I attended the Health Promotion Summer School in 2001 in London: at the pre-school day, Western academic, Indigenous, and immigrant community health approaches to health promotion were presented together – a trilogy. Because of this, the foundational reference avoided being euro-centric. We need to make this a norm, instead of an exception.
“World views can be learned as they are general. Cultures cannot be learned unless one is immersed in the particular culture…” (p.12).

I learned that there is a big difference between me taking and applying a holistic approach (which comes from a world view) versus me taking and applying a cultural practice, like smudging. Through Baskin’s book, I became more convinced on the importance of clearly referencing the Indigenous knowledge sources of commonplace community-building practices like arranging chairs in a circle, and using a “talking piece” to promote inclusion. Baskin uses clear explanations and examples, as well as citations of other Indigenous scholars, to teach us how to become allies in decolonization. I learned more about how subtle colonization is, and how impactful our own subtle acts of decolonization can be.

From spending time with this book, I nurtured a new relationship to Indigenous cultures and peoples. In this new relationship I receive strength and knowledge from Indigenous cultures and peoples and I deeply appreciate the generosity of those (in this case Cyndy Baskin) who share with us Indigenous wisdom and “collaborative process tools”. Through this new relationship, I learn and confirm important knowledge and approaches - and ways of sharing knowledge and approaches - that help me advance equity and achieve stronger impacts in my work.

I highly recommend you obtain a copy of Baskin’s book, and share it around. You might also consider requesting your local library to acquire it in their collection …now there’s a small act of decolonization any of us can take on!

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CKX challenge: 75 minutes to address a large-scale, complex social issue

By Gillian Kranias, HC Link

I recently participated in a hands-on learning experience that was totally unrealistic—and hugely valuable. Staff from the MaRS Solutions Lab led me and other curious participants through a series of collaborative dialogue and deliberation activities. This was all happening within the context of the Community Knowledge Exchange (CKX) Summit held in Toronto last month. I wanted to learn about the MaRS approach to partnerships for complex community change, since this is a common focus of my work at Health Nexus work and HC Link.

MaRS #CKX Solutions Lab: Systems Mapping on Youth Employment

Food, housing or youth employment—take your pick!

Each 75-minute session was built on the work of participants from the previous session. The activities were:

  1. Understanding Complexity (systems mapping)
  2. Designing and Prototyping for Change*
  3. Scaling for Change
  4. Scaling Deep - on Youth Employment
  5. Building Partnerships - for Youth Employment

*Note: Although I participated in both sessions #2 and #4, this blog describes my experience in #2— Designing and Prototyping for Change.

The Journey Map

mars2What drew me to the MaRS approach was the mapping – starting with large empty "journey map" diagrams and then mapping our thoughts and ideas onto them with stickies. This process generated dynamic conversations and the maps became a common visual reference for collaborative decisions. However, given this was a mock session our decision-making was rushed and perhaps artificially smooth since people did not press their viewpoints.

MaRS staff kept reminding us that the activities we were attempting to complete really take anywhere from several days to several months. That mantra of partnerships for complex change emerged over and over again: effective efforts take time.

Our chosen challenge: design and prototype for changes in food security systems

I sat down at one of the Food Security tables. Ryan, the warm-mannered MaRS staff facilitating our table, explained the systems maps on the walls around us that had been created by the previous session tables (see example above). After we had introduced ourselves, we rapidly set to task.


  • On blank stickies, we were asked to individually brainstorm ideas for interventions to address the key challenges highlighted on our Food Security system map.

  • Using a Fast Idea Generator worksheet, we then expanded on our favorite idea. First we were invited to elaborate: Who is the actor? Who is the subject? What is being done? How is it being done (quality)?... Next we went on to stretch our idea following a list of prompts that encouraged us to explore, play and invent through: inversion, exaggeration, extension, replacement, addition, differentiation, and integration. Finally we had to rewrite our idea in a maximum of 150 words.

  • The DFVI Analysis tool helped us each evaluate our intervention to address:
    • Desirability: what problem is being solved for the individual user?
    • Feasibility: what do you need to make the idea happen?
    • Viability: what opportunities can it make use of? Or what barriers will it face?
    • Impact: what potential impact will the intervention have over time?
  • The pitch process helped us share our ideas to our table members. After which we were instructed to collectively pick one idea that would move forward (i.e. for further evolution in the following session).

  • The choice came next. I am not sure we succeeded in selecting one. We joked about our unwillingness to "choose one". And I wondered about a proposal none of us had put forth: why not first fund a network coordination position to support diverse initiatives, each tackling the complexity of food security from their own interdependent vantage point? It was probably better we didn't make any decision, since our mock partnership did not include people representing a lived-experience perspective (i.e. someone living with food insecurity).

What I learned

Overall, this session was highly engaging, and I took home those stimulating questions for a future opportunity (a real one, with more time). It was noted by a colleague that the process relied heavily on individual writing, and that this could pose some inclusion problems. A real-time application of this approach could include the use of visuals and pair/small group discussions in the development of ideas to support effective collaboration among partners with different styles and approaches.

For further reading, here are the six "design principles" of the MaRS Solutions Lab approach:

  1. Start with the citizen, look at the system
  2. Create solutions with users and stakeholders, not just for them
  3. Look for the smallest possible intervention with the largest possible impact
  4. Always work towards scale, but start small and learn
  5. No action without reflection, no reflection without action
  6. Work to diagnose problems, galvanize change and deliver real improvements

Photos are from


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A powerful gathering of stakeholders, evidence, best practices and policy asks.

By Gillian Kranias, HC Link

This Tuesday, the Coalition of Community Health and Resource Centres of Ottawa launched: Bridging the Gap - Measuring What Matters: The Ottawa Community Wellbeing Report 2014. I missed the event but wanted to grab a copy of the report as soon as possible. I had heard about their work when filming some speakers at an AOHC event in July (HC Link blogged about that event and you can watch the videos here).

It was well worth looking at. It is storyful, data sensible, dynamic, and with purpose.

"Our hope is that the findings in this report will shape election debate and discussion in meetings and forums across the city" write the report authors.

Meaningful purpose and great design

The 47 page beautifully designed report includes:

  • a summary of the research approach and results;
  • sections following the eight domains from the Community Index of Wellbeing (CIW), each with data results, analysis and a showcasing (including short video links) of community initiatives that address gaps for each domain. (See pic below of the eight domains);
  • a special section on rural Ottawa; and
  • a final section presenting policy recommendations.

The policy recommendations were developed through an extensive community consultation process orchestrated by the Civic Engagement Roundtable of the Making Votes Count Where We Live initiative.


The diversity of report authors shaped the conversation in a refreshing evidence-based and story-rich way. The result is some useful data with lots of illustrative text and pictures, a balance of focus on challenges and strengths, and an emphasis on the foundational impact of public policies on the health of communities.

Using the Canadian Index of Wellbeing

As I already noted, much of this Ottawa report is based on the Canadian Index of Wellbeing (CIW), a framework for measuring "how are we really doing", with a focus on health equity and vibrant communities for all.

At HC Link, we are still engaged in learning (and sharing) more about the CIW: its domains and indicators, and the various ways community partnerships across sectors are experimenting with CIW.

Identified strengths of CIW include:

  • a common language for talking about community health,
  • a measurement tool aligned to "what really matters" (i.e. beyond GDP),
  • part of a growing movement to solidify more common measurements and shared data in our evaluative efforts across local, regional and national geographies.

I would be interested in hearing your thoughts and experiences with the CIW. The authors of the Ottawa report muse that CIW holds the promise to "Connect the dots between social aspirations, public policy and hard evidence". What is your perspective? Please use our comment box below, or contact me directly at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

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The story of a peer sharing about storytelling

By Gillian Kranias, HC Link

A peer sharing session is different from a webinar. I enjoyed my first experience of web-based peer sharing in early February when Robyn Kalda and I co-hosted the peer sharing session "Engaging the Power of Story" for our HC Link community.

Over the past ten years, I have been on a personal mission to build awareness and skills for using storytelling more in my life and work. I sought out opportunities to learn and practice, and talked with many colleagues - which highlighted for me how many of us share this capacity building interest. After joining the team of HC Link, I learned that we could support others; and at our conference last fall, the idea of a peer sharing event on storytelling and narrative approaches was born.

Although our initial intention was to keep participant numbers limited (to make for a cozy dialogue), we realized that the cultural roots of storytelling practice would not support turning people away (e.g. principles of an open circle, and "whoever comes was meant to be there"). So we ended up with 35 participants. Some of those participants were self-defined "listeners". But the majority brought experiences to share.

As the lead moderator, I tried to collect a sense of who might be sharing what in advance. It was exciting to discover who found out about this event (especially as it was not the same people and organizations I had crossed storytelling paths with in the past). For those who shared their experiences while registering, I gave them a call to look at how we could prepare examples on the web meeting platform.

On February 11th, it took a long time to get through introductions... but creating that web of connection to launch the peer sharing was important (some introduced themselves by phone, others by our chat box). The conversation was rich and varied, and took us in many directions. This reflected how the power of story can support our work in so many different ways. We did not record the session, but notes are available, as well as two documents with further resources – one developed for HC Link and one shared by a peer participant (view the resources here).

During over an hour of dynamic discussions, one enduring take-away for me came from participants' reflections on the experience of sharing their own stories: how this spawns both personal and community healing (amidst vulnerability); and how waiting for the right moment matters (we are not always ready to share – yet). That reminds me that working with the power of story involves important preparations and development, and we cannot control all our outcomes.

Other examples shared by participants were of their roles in creating those spaces and support for story sharing. One case was storytelling facilitated between elders and youth in the context of community planning discussions; youth learned about the history of community change, which encouraged all to reflect on the role that planning community change could play. Another case was the facilitation of youth groups where the entire program consisted of offering generative questions to facilitate story sharing about the youth's experiences with tobacco – no lectures, just dialogue and allowing the youth to ask informational questions of service provider when their "right moment" had arrived.

We also explored how to tell organizational stories: of our efforts, our work, and our mission/vision/values.

HC Link will continue to look at how we can support your work with Engaging the Power of Story. Click here for our current resources posted from the peer sharing. And don't hesitate to contact me with any questions, suggestions, or support requests.

Gillian Kranias, Health Promotion Consultant
Ext. 2247
416-408-2249 (1-800-397-9567)
This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

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HEIA part of broad health equity efforts, past and present.

By Gillian Kranias, HC Link

My work in healthy community projects has always been driven by a passion for equity. Through community collaborations, we work for change to transform the living situations of equity-seeking groups (to which we sometimes do/sometimes don't belong) for the benefit of all. At the local level, we draw links and we ask important equity questions, like "What differences among community members might cause some folks to be negatively impacted (or not reached) by our organizing, our actions and our programs? What steps can we take to remedy this?" Often enough, we make positive progress. But at the system-level (policies and large-scale services) change is harder to impact. Still, we stay committed and hope for more.

On a very hopeful day last week (November 26th) some fifty people gathered in a room at CAMH - with thirty others connected online - for an event titled: Realizing the Potential of Health Equity Impact Assessment (HEIA). The HEIA tool, developed by the province, is "a decision support tool which walks users through the steps of identifying how a program, policy or similar initiative will impact population groups in different ways." Among the presenters, not all spoke to the ministry's tool – there are other tools out there too. All of the tools hold a promise to enhance our efforts to advance equity through policy and service changes.

Here are some of the goodies I gained from the various presenters:

  • Ayasha Mayr Handel commented that taking a health equity focus can tap into a positive place for everyone.
  • Dr. Ketan Shankardass' research reveals that the use of health equity tools is making an impact in places where the tools are either mandated, or resourced (i.e. where a capacity building team supports implementation) ...wouldn't it be best to have both!
  • Erika Hanley highlighted that "understanding the culture of poverty" is a key competency for staff and teams implementing the HEIA tool. Her team in Simcoe-Muskoka used the Sudbury District Health Unit's video and resources Let's Start a Conversation About Health . . . and Not Talk About Health Care at All. And they are now creating a panel of folks with lived experience to assist in guiding and facilitating their HEIA work.
  • Dr. Corey Neudorf and his team at the Saskatoon Health Region decided to lead by example. Looking at glaring health disparities in local data, they are pressing departments to answer "what are we doing now?" and "what could we do better?" Their key message is: let's provide equal service for equal need.
  • Cynthia Damba noted that The Hospital for Sick Kids has an online learning module on Social Determinants of Health and Health Equity. I checked this out, and it's great; it emphasizes "asking the right questions" and guides health care providers to make the links, and to use their privilege to take action on health equity issues.
  • Karen O'Connor of the CMHA shared some of her organization's experiences using the HEIA tool and talked about the need for both top down AND bottom up action. She found the HEIA tool helped build transparency and intention.

Half way through the afternoon, a speaker from the floor representing a [mental health services] consumer group patiently appealed to the presenters asking "how can we reduce the gap between the talk about HEIA and related tools, and the work of groups [like ours] in the community". This contribution brought thoughtful commentary from the speakers, and sparked some dynamic insights during participant dialogues at the end of the session. Such as:

  • We need ground rules (e.g. "nothing about us without us") when we use these tools. Budget commitments need to support such ground rules.
  • It's important to acknowledge the work of those before us; this work is not new. History and context is important.
  • When we use the term "knowledge" in place of "evidence", it is easier to include people's lived experiences and qualitative data as contributing sources towards "knowledge-informed practice".
  • Organizational culture and providers need to break down the "us vs. them" dichotomy. To support this, participant dialogues referenced both the Ottawa Charter for Health Promotion and Paulo Freire's Pedagogy of the Oppressed.

This afternoon of learning and exchange was an event of the HEIA Community of Interest and Health Nexus was one of the co-hosts. I really appreciated all the efforts of the organizers and enjoyed meeting new people, as well as seeing a some familiar faces from our HC Link community.


This afternoon of learning and exchange was an event of the HEIA Community of Interest  and Health Nexus was one of the co-hosts. I really appreciated all the efforts of the organizers and enjoyed meeting new people, as well as seeing a some familiar faces from our HC Link community.

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