SCENE THREE. LIGHTS UP.
A puppet show performance in a rural village in India.
The audience is mostly children.
PUPPET BOY: Mr. Doctor, I don’t want to get a shot!
PUPPET DOCTOR: But it will make you stronger. Like your favorite super hero!
PUPPET BOY: Really? Will it make me like Superman?
PUPPET DOCTOR: Exactly. These shots prevent against polio, a very bad disease.
PUPPET BOY: Will it hurt?
PUPPET DOCTOR: Just a pinch!
PUPPET BOY: Ow. That wasn’t so bad.
PUPPER DOCTOR: You, and all your friends, and all of your brothers and sisters should get this shot. Superman will not get polio! And now, neither will you. The children clap.
LIGHTS DOWN. SCENE THREE.
Street theater has also been essential to health education in India—most notably, in the form of polio eradication. Polio was one of the most prevalent diseases on the Indian subcontinent at the end of the twentieth century, with very little hope of eradication. Thanks to a nationwide effort to wipe out the disease, it has been over three years since there was a single case of polio.
A major cause of polio epidemics in India was lack of awareness about the vaccine and poor sanitation. Although the vaccine was fairly common and not difficult to mass-produce, many did not know why the vaccine was necessary or its effects on their children. Additionally, poor sanitation was widespread and accounted for most cases of polio. The disease is spread through contaminated water, which was extremely common in India. Unfortunately, the marginalized communities that most needed this information were often the hardest to reach.
In the past, mass media outlets have driven polio eradication campaigns in regions that deal with similar poverty and sanitation issues. For instance, a television and radio campaign in Latin America “aimed at increasing demands for vaccines, especially in areas with a good health infrastructure and high routine immunization rates” (Achieving polio eradication: a review of health communication evidence and lessons learned in India and Pakistan, World Health Organization). As televisions are fairly common in Latin America, mass media advertisements were effective in spreading the message; however, the majority of the targeted Indian population did not have television access. Additionally, the low literacy rates in rural communities rendered pamphlets and written advertisements ineffective.
As a result, the India Polio Eradication Program took unconventional steps to fight the disease. The organization created local partnerships that raised awareness in geographically-specific, culturally-specific ways. Street theater, in its regional adaptability and face-to-face persuasiveness, was highly effective in spreading vaccine and sanitation awareness. It capitalized on local resources and could target “neighborhoods dealing with pockets of vaccine refusals, using their performances to educate parents on the risks of poliovirus and the safety of the vaccine” (Cricket stars and theatre troupes promote a polio-free India, Global Polio Eradication Initiative). For instance, the Kolkata Creative Arts Performers were based in West Bengal. They used street theater to target audiences and claimed to access “the remotest part of any village where no electronic media can reach” (Kolkata Creative Art Performers). The organization partnered with many NGOs, including UNICEF, in order to convince families the the polio vaccine would benefit their children. Their performances aimed to entertain children, featuring characters representing evil polio viruses and other bodily germs. Not only did the performances promote vaccines, they also encouraged healthy behaviors such as handwashing. According to a research report from Rabindra Bjarati University, the performances gained high levels of mass approval (Thakur).
Polio eradication is one of the few cases that political theater’s effectiveness has been empirically tested. Statistically, these performances both increased awareness and attendance at the vaccine booths. “Puppet/theatre shows, video vans and other folk media activities held in more than 3500 villages in Uttar Pradesh, contributed to a 20% increase in booth attendance.” (Galway, Communication for polio eradication: India update.) In its contributions to the polio eradication movement, street theater has proved its worth in a healthcare and social capacity and continues to work for positive societal change in marginalized Indian communities.
Galway, M. Communication for polio eradication: India update. In: Technical Advisory Group Meeting, Communication for polio eradication, Cameroon, 2005.
Global Polio Eradication Initiative. Cricket stars and theatre troupes promote a polio-free India. 2011. Web. December 29, 2014.
Kolkata Creative Arts Performers. “Kolkata CREATIVE ART PERFORMERS.” Blogspot.com. April 3, 2007.
Obregon, Rafael; Chitnis, Ketan; Morry, Chris; Feek, Warren; Bates, Jeffrey; Galway, Michael; and Ellyn Ogden. Achieving polio eradication: a review of health communication evidence and lessons learned in India and Pakistan. Bulletin of the World Health Organization 87-8: 624-630 (2009).
Thakur, Priyam. “Theatre for Development in Indian Context: An Introspection.” Global Media Journal- Indian Edition. 4.2. (2013).