Applied theatre researcher Dennis Gupa wearing a traditional Filipino malong at a local beach in Victoria. (Credit: John Threlfall)

Applied theatre researcher Dennis Gupa wearing a traditional Filipino malong at a local beach in Victoria. (Credit: John Threlfall)

UVic researcher uses theatre to empower marginalized voices, fight climate change

Dennis Gupa looks to create new modes of expression, knowledge sharing

Dennis Gupa was 10 years old when he saw theatre for the first time. Growing up in a small community in the Philippines, Gupa said the only time people from different villages usually gathered together was for a funeral.

But one day a touring theatre group came through the area and people were drawn together to watch them perform. It was a pantomime, and Gupa was amazed at how touching and inspiring it was despite there being no words. It was then he understood the power of performance.

Now, completing his PhD in applied theatre at the University of Victoria, Gupa is working to harness that power to give a voice to marginalized communities like the one he grew up in and spotlight the impact climate change has on them.

Applied theatre, Gupa explained, is about making the medium accessible to everyone, not just professional actors.

“It’s the process of democratizing the art of theatre,” he said.

His hope is to teach people in marginalized communities to use theatre as a means to share their experiences with the rest of the world. Often it is communities in developing countries that bear the brunt of climate change and extreme weather events, despite contributing very little to the problem themselves.

But, Gupa said, these people are too busy surviving the everyday – rebuilding their homes from typhoons and feeding their families – to be critical of what’s happening.

A rural high school ‘glee club’ in the Philippines for a youth theatre project in 2015, co-directed by Dennis Gupa. (Credit: The Perfect Grey/ ASEAN Center for Biodiversity)

“I want them to become more aware of injustice that’s happening in our community,” he said. They have a deep knowledge of the environment, but they often don’t have platform or literacy to share their stories, Gupa explained.

Theatre can change that. It offers a form of communication that transcends differences in education and language.

“It will be our ‘publication’,” Gupa said.

Since starting his dissertation in 2015, he co-organized a climate change theatre festival in the Philippines, drawing together scholars, artists, policy makers and local government officials in collaborative performances with Filipino elders. He has also created numerous performances with Filipino-Canadian communities in Victoria, Vancouver and Winnipeg.

Gupa’s dream is to be part of a theatre institution that teaches young people from around the world to use the art form for social change.

“It’s about the social emancipation of people who have been marginalized for many, many years,” Gupa said.

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