I ran into Peter Walker and Jo Dorras, the founders of Wan Smolbag Theatre company, in town yesterday. They stopped and thanked me for the review I wrote about 40 Dei, their latest stage production. As she turned to leave, Jo said, “Nobody’s ever written that kind of a review on us before.”
Public commentators in Vanuatu don’t write nearly often enough about Wan Smolbag. Even when they do, their description of the work and its effect tend to fit them into the ‘development NGO’ straitjacket. That’s not entirely inaccurate, of course; Smolbag is a development NGO. But such descriptions are incomplete.
Woefully so, in my opinion. Once understood, the reasons for this misperception explain a great deal about the failures of many formal development programmes. (That’s programmes, mind you, not projects. But that’s an essay for another day.) The problem, ultimately, is our human incapacity to quantify, or even adequately to analyse, certain cultural inputs.
Now, given that Smolbag has been working with the softer tools of drama, dialogue, understanding and community awareness for twenty years, they’ve got the issue pretty well sussed. At least innately. If there are still tensions between what they want to do and what donors are willing to fund, they’re manageable, and it must be said that, from top to bottom, Smolbag staff know what they’re about. They’re are as good at demonstrating the value of their work to donors, partners and the public as anyone I’ve encountered in a couple of decades of part- and full-time advocacy work.
But the preceding is really just a digression – I need to say a few things about Wan Smolbag as an artistic institution, and the only way to get there is to indulge in a deliberate bit of hand-waving that runs the risk of belittling the dozens of non-theatrical activities they manage. There’s a small mountain of data out there expressing in very finite terms just how effective this group is.
My point, I guess, is that no matter how good that makes them – and they are very good indeed – there’s more to it than that. And that’s what I want to write about today.