When theatre offers health solutions

Isabelle Wachsmuth (Credit: Aylin Elci)

Artist Isabelle Wachsmuth and colleagues give centre stage to controversial issues at an interactive play at the Taking Care Together festival.

On stage, two actors play a foreign couple who wants to have dinner at a Swiss restaurant in the middle of the Covid pandemic. But they don't have a vaccine or recovery certificate, nor are they aware that they need one to enter venues. The customers vocally object their refusal.

Covid certificates, but also caregivers’ exhaustion and patients’ rights were the politically charged issues raised at an interactive play at the Taking Care Together festival, which took place in Geneva from 30 April to 8 May alongside the Geneva Health Forum. The event was organised by one hundred civil society actors proposing participatory ways of thinking about health. Nearly 100 activities were proposed to foster collective intelligence.

Geneva Solutions met with artist Isabelle Wachsmuth, who contributed to the “legislative theatre” along with other festival participants, and a member of the troupe Le Caméléon on 7 May at the Mamajah Gardens in Bernex, Geneva.

The concept takes its root in the Theatre of the Oppressed, which was invented in the 1960s by Brazilian director Augusto Boal – later elected to the Legislative Assembly of Rio de Janeiro. The concept uses interactive theatre to generate policy solutions to social problems. A first in Switzerland, the festival’s version tackles healthcare by reenacting real-life situations of oppression and proposes solutions to improve the political system.

“This concept should be a tool for the country's political process,” says Wachsmuth, and adds that “each commune could organise theatres ahead of votes.”

The topics chosen by the festival coordinator, Fabio Balli, were not at random. They echoed topics on which voters were recently invited to give their opinion, such as covid legislation and patients’ rights. One scene depicted medical workers putting their health at risk and focused on a pregnant woman who works at a hospital. Wachsmuth played the lead.

The scene was not performed one but three times in a row, in front of 20 spectators. The first performance sets the scene, while in the second one, the audience is asked to give their opinion about the moment that “makes them react”, and members of the audience are invited to go on stage on the third version, to play their proposed solution.

In another scene where a patient is misdiagnosed by his doctor who “just wants to go play golf”, a lawyer playing one of the characters took the opportunity to look for solutions in real law.

When theatre sheds light on the political divide

The experiment brings to the surface different views within an audience, even within a small group of 20 people. “Theatre allows you to step back, to see a scene from all its angles, and inevitably, it divides.” said Wachsmuth, admitting that the reactions of some of the participants surprised her.

“In a situation with no real stakes such as the legislative theatre, masks come off and skeletons come out of the closet.” For her, the division between “those who committed to democratic decision-making and those pursuing a political agenda” was clear, especially when personal freedoms were raised, with the much-discussed Covid certificate.

“The aim of this scene was to critically reflect on the centralisation of power and how a one-size-fits-all measure polarizes opinions and incapacitate the population” explains Balli who is also the former co-host of Eu vs Virus, a hackathon to develop innovative solutions and overcome coronavirus-related challenges at the European Union level. The organizer adds, “imagine 100’000 people collaborating online over a week, as was the case in early 2020, but instead of multiplying competing projects, they listen to each other, agree on common priorities, and give from themselves to build a minimal number of projects that benefit all – and can be enriched by all.”

The waking of awareness

For Wachsmuth, “legislative theatre” can awaken people’s conscience, to ensure coherence between one's actions and one's thinking: “You have to ask yourself 'where do I stand, how do I position myself? What is my level of awareness? Am I contributing to a more beautiful, more just society?’”

In parallel to her artistic activity, she works for the World Health Organization (WHO) and asks herself these questions on a daily basis. For more than ten years, she has worked on health policies and the training of political decision-makers. Her aim is to establish a dialogue with all stakeholders to solve “real health problems on the ground”.

“Some people will always find a way to justify their ‘perversion’ and manipulate opinions, even to the point of putting forward arguments in favour of the collective,” she says, regretting that this kind of subject is not debated in society.

For her, it is necessary to give a voice to people who do “extraordinary things but who are never put in the spotlight” she says, citing her own experience with events addressing patients' rights without any patient speakers.

Arts for Healing

The play was held under the “Arts for Healing” day-theme. According to the organisers, “art allows us to express our inner world, to value our resources and to be actors of life in community”. Other sessions focused on art therapy, and the regeneration of human consciousness.

In addition to the “legislative theatre”, Wachsmuth offered solutions with her art exhibition that included over 20 artists from all walks of life. “It’s the first time that an exhibition on global health through visual arts has been presented in such a place,” she says of Art to be alive, which was also presented at the Geneva Health Forum.

Another artistic element of this year's festival was the screening of Marie-Monique Robin's film Making Pandemics, starring Juliette Binoche. According to Wachsmuth, it illustrates the festival's message well: “We are interdependent on each other and if we don't respect that and take care of every living thing, we will bring about our own demise.”

The festival also put the spotlight on the importance of mutualizing resources to build commons: projects which can be used, reproduced, and enriched by every interested person, for a shared benefit. For example, a study found that open-sourcing imaging scanners could spare 60-140 million euros each year in Germany alone.

As it is presented by its organisers, the festival “invites the people of Geneva to become aware of the fact that we collectively have the resources to ensure that every human being can live a healthy and dignified life.” For Wachsmuth, debates on this subject are rare, but thinking about it together is “the beginning of a change in the way things are done”.

With the pandemic worsening social inequalities, the festival calls on participants to propose new approaches. For Wachsmuth, it is also a space that allows people not to feel overwhelmed by the lack of solutions or attention.

“The majority of people here are really caring and want to participate in something bigger than themselves,” she says, hopeful.


This article was produced for the Breathing Games Association, which organized the Taking Care Together festival, and Open Geneva, a patron of the festival, which took place from 30 April to 8 May 2022.