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The everyday resilience of theatre students in Ghana

What are the chances that a creative degree will get you a job? What are the chances that that job will be financially rewarding? These are questions often hurled at those with ambitions in creative careers, who decide to pursue creative programmes at the University in Ghana. As certain degrees tend to be associated with ready employment while others, like those within the arts, are not, people who ask these questions often do so with well-meaning intentions. However, no matter how well-intentioned, these questions from family and friends become the bane of the existence of students pursuing creative programmes, especially the performing arts. Such students often suffer ridicule in school, while battling career uncertainties and exploitation in their attempts to make a viable career out of their art. As a result, the very decision to pursue an art programme becomes an act of resilience. 


In this paper we explore the everyday acts of resilience employed by performing arts students and recent graduates at the school of performing arts University of Ghana. Defined generally as the ability to bounce back from some form of adversity, resilience is a crucial resource for this group of young artists who must fight for their right to pursue their programme/career of choice. To examine the lived realities of our participants, we used devised theatre; a collaborative method of theatre-making that organically produces a performance out of participants’ shared experiences. We then used Cindy Katz's (2004) typology of resilience, reworking, and resistance, for studying young people's responses to marginalization and crisis, to explain the specific ways in which these young artists practice resilience. However, we modified her typology by framing our participant’s responses to marginalization and exploitation under the umbrella of resilience, encompassing the practises of coping, reworking, and resisting.


Our participants practised resilience by coping with the challenges of their creative career choices to get by each day. We found that performance was a coping mechanism for some of these young artists, as it served therapeutic purposes by giving them a space in which to deal with a wide range of emotions. Another way they coped was through their shared struggles. The feeling that ‘I am not alone in this’ helped them to cope because they felt understood, at least by someone in the same situation.


However, they went beyond coping by taking necessary steps to find a way around their challenges through the practice of reworking. They took practical steps to respond to their challenges of lack of clear-cut jobs, exploitation, and the problem of funding their creative pursuits. Such steps as starting a poetry club on campus to create an opportunity where there was none, asking for contracts to avoid exploitation, skill bartering when there was no money to pay a talent, and pooling of skills through collaboration, were the various ways in which our participants reworked their challenges.


Finally, our participants practiced resilience through resisting. Resisting is an act of pushing back against any form of oppression and exploitation. Due to negative perceptions about the usefulness of arts degrees, the very decision to pursue the performing arts programme was an act of resisting for some of our participants. From defying parents by enrolling in the arts programme, to switching majors when in a different programme, our participants resisted the wishes of their parents in pursuit of their own passions. It was in this resilience practice of resisting, that the method of devised theatre proved potent. It allowed our participants to practise resisting by demonstrating, through performance, a resolve to not allow acts of ridicule to put them down, their refusal to condone acts of exploitation in the industry, and by expressing the need for the performing arts programme to include business skills to equip them for the industry. It was a rare opportunity for them to speak to their professors about how they felt as performing arts students and graduates, and to communicate their needs and desires for the future.


By combining devised theatre with other data collection methods like focus group discussions, individual interviews, and participant reflections, we were not only able to uncover the challenges of performing arts students and recent graduates, but also their shared vision for a different future. In this vision, performing arts would be valued as a worthy programme of study at the university, the programme would be comprehensive enough to include creative business skills to prepare them for the industry, and their skills and efforts would be financially rewarded so they could make a living pursuing their passions.


By Rashida Resario, Robin Steedman, and Thilde Langevang

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