On one of my last days in Vanuatu, I had the pleasure to meet with Francis and Rik of the Rainbow Disability Theatre Group, part of the organisation Wan Smol Bag. I had been to a few of the shows and activities of the group before but did not know much about their programmes or impact. However, it soon appeared that this organisation, consisting of 22 actors with disabilities, is doing an amazing job at empowering both the actors and others through its social theatre. Let me share some stories with you!
Francis grew up in Port Vila and has been disabled since he was born, as about 12 percent of people living in Vanuatu. His mum and dad had always been supportive and encouraged him to obtain a degree in computer sciences. In 1995, he got his degree and started looking for a job which was rather challenging as the rights of disabled people are not always recognised in Vanuatu. However, one day, some members of Wan Smol Bag invited him to come over to the warehouses as they were looking to include people with disabilities in their organisation. That is when Francis took his chance and to his surprise got a full-time position with Wan Smol Bag.
Some years later, Willie Sablan, another disabled actor, and Jo Dorras, scriptwriter at Wan Smol Bag, founded a theatre group for disabled people to produce plays and radio dramas about the challenges, dreams and successes of those living with disabilities. At that moment, Francis was asked to join the Rainbow Disability Theatre Group and coordinate the first activities. The first plays were inspired by the personal experiences and performed in urban communities and rural villages on Efate, one of the islands of Vanuatu. Francis still remembers how both he and other members of the group were nervous about these first performances as many people, including families and friends, did not believe that disabled people could achieve much in life. However, the theatre group managed to challenge such social perceptions and build the confidence of the actors.
Since these first days, much has changed as the group continued to change the perceptions and improve the status of disabled people. Whereas most communities would be surprised and would question the abilities of the actors whenever they would start their performance, many of them would change their opinions during the play and congratulate all actors afterwards. Some of the performances are also accompanied by workshops and discussions with the audience which encourages a dialogue so people can learn more about the rights, dreams, challenges and achievements of disabled people.
Moreover, the Rainbow Disability Theatre Group now organises performances on many different topics as they no longer want to limit the focus of the play to the rights of disabled people. Nowadays, they also raise awareness on topics ranging from domestic violence to disaster preparedness, including movies and radio programmes too. There are many more plans for the upcoming year as they want to cover health issues such as nutrition and oral hygiene too. In addition, the span of their activities has increased as they also travel to other islands such as Epi, Tanna, Santo and Malekula, raising awareness and changing social perceptions on outer islands too.
On the other hand, the Rainbow Disability Theatre Group also has a positive impact on the disabled actors themselves. According to Francis, the actors became much more confident and significantly improved their overall capacities and acting skills. While some of them used to be very introverted and didn't dare to raise their voice, they are now much more spontaneous and dare to speak up in a group or in front of many people. The rehearsals became much more than just reading lines and are now a place where the actors can engage with and learn from others. Besides, because of their full-time job, they also managed to improve their living conditions as well as their status in the community and now proudly identify themselves as an actor of Wan Smol Bag.
It was a true pleasure to meet with Francis and Rik and learn more about their inspiring organisation and witness the positive impact the Rainbow Disability Theatre Group has on both the disabled actors and their direct and indirect environment. It is clear that they take outstanding initiatives to protect and improve human rights in Vanuatu and really make a difference in the lives of people with disabilities. A true example of a social organisation!