Free elections and a new constitution brought democracy to Paraguay in 1993 after more than 35 years of autocratic rule by Alfredo Stroessner. Still, citizens remain leery, if not downright cynical, about the country’s political landscape. Since 1995, surveys have consistently ranked the Paraguay people as more distrustful of their government than the people of any other democratic nation in Latin America. Young Paraguayans in particular tend to be politically skeptical and apathetic.
Despite those concerns, the emergence of a vibrant, open society in Paraguay has provided some positive results. One example is a project by the Fundación Arlequín Teatro, which began as a theater company in 1982 and nine years later became a full-fledged foundation. In 2005, the foundation submitted a proposal to the Inter-American Foundation (IAF) aimed at encouraging and empowering young Paraguayans through theater to take a more active role in their society.
The IAF awarded the Fundación Arlequín Teatro $132,700 a two-year grant in 2006 and then an additional $38,800 for a third year. The funds were earmarked toward helping workshop graduates find professional internships and developing theatrical presentations in communities with story lines that addressed local issues.
The Fundación Arlequín Teatro also contributed $98,916 of its own funds, provided $72,190 in in-kind services, and secured $5,100 from other sources.
Initially, the foundation trained about 90 teenagers from two municipalities in the nation’s capital of Asunción, with the most accomplished students learning how to reach audiences through plays as a means for social change.
Project results were collected and analyzed using the Grassroots Development Framework (GDF). The GDF measures results on three levels: the individual or family level; the organization or grantee level, and the level of the community or society.
The foundation met its goal by training 95 teenagers during the project’s first year and subsequently selecting 60 of those top students for additional training. Five years after the program ended, 92 percent of the students interviewed ensured that an important lesson they learned centered on personal responsibility.
They said they were taught to honor their commitments, comply with rules, and meet deadlines. Maria Rivarola, a graduate, said: “Before, I was mess. The project changed me.” It was a sentiment shared by most of her peers. Ninety-two percent of the students interviewed also credited the project for their staying in school with the hope of finding a better job after graduation. Blanca Bareiro, who was selected for a temporary internship by the foundation, said it helped her discover her passion for the arts and theater. She enrolled at the Fine Arts Institute after her high school graduation.
Of the students interviewed, 86 percent believed that the public also benefited from the program through theatrical presentations that reflected their community’s problems and priorities. Residents were encouraged to identify and debate issues to include in the scripts. The subsequent performances were well received by audiences at schools, public squares, and fairs.
At the Individual Level
The participants said their self-esteem improved because they were empowered to select themes that were relevant to their communities, write the scripts, and perform their plays on stage. They even raised money to buy costumes or the materials necessary to make them. The young actors said that they felt their voices were heard, and that they found the reaction from the public rewarding and encouraging.
In addition, the students said their involvement with the program helped them stay away from drugs and crime, common problems for people their age in low-income communities. Several graduates of the program said the program dissuaded them from smoking marijuana or joining a street gang. Many students said that learning theater production motivated them to develop new interests and finish school.
At the Organizational Level
There was no identifiable impact at the organizational level. The foundation’s project coordinator said that Fundación Arlequín Teatro is a well-established theatrical company and the social impact of the student project, in spite of earlier declarations, was not really a priority.
At the Community Level
The project helped teenagers overcome prejudices toward others in their communities. Project participants and their families, school staff, and neighbors had misconceptions about the theater and acting. Some thought it was a waste of time and that it was associated primarily with the upper-class and homosexuals. Those views changed the more the students and their communities got involved.
The foundation demonstrated high levels of expertise in staging theatrical presentations. As part of the project, students created and staged small theatrical productions that were performed in schools, community theaters, and other public venues. Staging their own plays by applying the skills they learned boosted students’ self-esteem and earned them praise from friends and neighbors.
What Did Not Work?
The foundation worked alone. Its staff did not engage with community leaders, school officials, grassroots groups, or the parents of students in the program. Staff members provided excellent training in theater performance and staging, but community outreach was not a priority.
Agreements between the foundation and partner schools lacked the commitment needed for the program to continue once IAF funding ended. Only the Stella Maris School continued with the program after IAF funding ended. The foundation was unable to find another financial partner to continue the program.
The Fundación Arlequín Teatro achieved excellent results with the teenagers who participated in the program, but it developed no lasting connections with the communities where the students lived.
The foundation acknowledged that its idea to help communities identify priorities and find solutions lacked a clear plan, but is nevertheless proud of the positive impact the project had on many young lives.