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Still from video about magnet theater.

Magnet theater helps communities question social norms that may contribute to the HIV epidemic. Photo: PATH.

Interactive street theater spurs HIV prevention

Editor’s note: During the 1980s, PATH pioneered work in magnet theatre, a powerful way to engage communities, address harmful beliefs and behaviors, and improve health. The performances quickly became part of our innovation “toolbox,” and they remain an important component of our HIV/AIDS prevention programs. One early project in Kenya continues to inform similar efforts worldwide.

In Bungoma, western Kenya, before a crowd of 150 people, actors at an outdoor market demonstrate a young couple’s dilemma: she wants to go for counseling and an HIV test before getting intimate, but he feels like she’s questioning his manhood. Another actor stops the play to ask the audience, “Should this woman have sex with this man?” The audience responds with questions, suggestions, and lively debate. When the play resumes, they witness one possible ending.

To stop HIV transmission

PATH organized these interactive community theater performances to prevent HIV transmission in Kenya. Called “magnet theater” due to its power to attract a crowd, the regularly scheduled performances are designed to get people talking about how traditional attitudes may be fueling the epidemic. One mother explained, “I do not know how to talk with my children about such things, so I encourage them to go to the magnet theater.”

Man speaking to group of women, some carrying loads on their heads

PATH consultant Margaret Larson reports on magnet theater and its power to stop HIV. Read the story. Photo: Wendy Stone.

Each performance is anticipated and much discussed by the whole community. Subjects such as HIV and sex, once taboo, become regular topics of conversation, laying the groundwork for societal attitudes to change, for new social norms to take hold.

Moved to change his ways

When magnet theater performances began on the doorstep of a video parlor in a poor Mombasa neighborhood, Aziz, a young man who had dropped out of school and was involved with drugs, remained outside the circle of onlookers and heckled the performers. After several performances, Aziz moved into the circle. Eventually he began to participate and even to help gather the crowd for performances. Aziz finally decided to seek testing and was greatly relieved to find his test was negative for HIV. He returned to school and regularly shared his experience during post-play discussions.

“The regular performances give youth like Aziz the ability to interact with common dilemmas over time. It’s a deep learning experience,” said PATH program officer Oby Obyerodhyambo. “When they share their experiences, it starts a ripple through the community.”