Updated 1 year, 8 months ago

Street theatre in Bogotá. Dramatic solutions

THE stage is a bus stop. The audience consists of bemused commuters. The actors are real theatre folk. The plot: a mother cradling a baby (played by a doll) boards a crowded imaginary bus. None of her fellow passengers gives up his seat. As the bus lurches, the baby slips from the mother’s grasp, bouncing from one inconsiderate passenger to the next. The lesson: be nice to mothers holding infants.

The impresario behind this pavement performance is the city of Bogotá, Colombia’s capital, which is using street theatre to discourage bad behaviour on its over-taxed transport system. There is plenty of it. Some 70,000 people a day ride the buses without paying; eight fare-dodgers died in accidents last year. More than half of women report suffering sexual harassment on the network.

In January Bogotá’s transport office hired three troupes of actors to fan out across the city daily to educate, cajole and in some cases shame anti-social Bogotanos. People who barge onto buses before others get off might be met with intimidating stares from actors planted among the passengers. In one skit, played out on an articulated TransMilenio bus, an actor on a mobile phone described how his cousin was hit by a bus as he tried to dash on to another without paying. After the actor hung up, two real fare-dodgers quizzed him about the fictitious cousin’s fate.

The misbehaviour of the moment sometimes calls for new material. Drunken revelry during the Copa América football tournament (played in Chile in June and July) prompted a skit about the dangers of drunk driving: a farcical match with a bottle of aguardiente, the local liquor, replacing the ball. “We want people to go home and think: ‘What on earth just happened to me today?’,” says Hugo Bancarel, of Asociación Lope de Vega, one of the transit troupes.

This is a revival of an idea first tried by Antanas Mockus, a mathematician who served two terms as Bogotá’s mayor between 1995 and 2003. To cope with the city’s gargantuan problems on a meagre budget, he used stunts and gestures—changing software rather than hardware, as he put it. He dissolved the deeply corrupt traffic police and replaced them with 420 mimes, who directed traffic and poked fun at jaywalkers. Drivers were provided with red and white cards to punish or praise other road users.

There is no real evidence that such tactics did much good, but they apparently did little harm. Bogotá’s murder rate dropped by 70% between 1995 and 2003 and traffic deaths fell from 1,300 a year to 600. Mr Mockus’s idea of fighting loutishness with theatre fell out of favour when he left office. But this year Gustavo Petro, Bogotá’s unpopular left-wing mayor, rehired the transport thespians.

The revival could have a limited run. Critics say it is a waste of money. Bogotá’s next mayor, to be elected in October, may bring down the curtain.

The Economist |