Wan Smolbag, many tricks: how the Rainbow Disability Theatre connects communities across Vanuatu

For more than 10 years Vanuatu's Rainbow Disability Theatre have been spreading health messages and good vibes through performance and song.

Rainbow Disability Theatre in Vanuatu is responding to the COVID-19 pandemic in the way it knows best: through performance and song. Ricky Hinton, manager at both the Rainbow Disability Theatre, and the youth centre at the theatre’s not-for-profit parent organisation Wan Smolbag, explains how.

The most challenging part of my job is also why I love my job – it’s managing all the different things happening at Wan Smolbag at the same time.

There is always something going on. One day there will be a hip-hop showcase, then the next the whole youth centre will come together for a sports day.

Wan Smolbag Theatre was started by a small group of actors in 1989. Artistic director Peter Walker and writer Jo Dorras were inspired to start a community theatre group that would take plays on topical issues to schools and communities in Vanuatu. The Theatre’s first short play was about washing hands to prevent diarrhea.

While drama remains at the heart of Wan Smolbag’s activities, the organisation has expanded over the past 31 years. We now have youth centres in Port Vila and in Luganville on the island of Santo, as well as a community centre on the island of Pentecost.

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Rachel and Sio performing the toilet scene from "no leko skul" (don't leave school). Photo: Rainbow Disability Theatre
Junior, a member of Vanuatu Rainbow Disability Theatre, sits in his wheelchair near the beach at sunset.
Junior hanging out after a show. Junior stars in a short play about his own life and his parents' love for him. Photo: Rainbow Disability Theatre

We’ve grown into a large organisation with over 120 staff and many branches. Our aim is to create awareness, dialogue and empowerment in a range of areas, including governance, health, environmental and social issues. We do this though our plays, films and workshops, as well as our three youth centres and sexual health clinic.

I manage the Port Vila youth centre, a place where anyone can come and learn a new skill. It is aimed at young people aged 13 to 25 who have dropped out of school or are unemployed. Registration is the equivalent of $AUD1 for the full year, and people can join classes including sewing, dance, art, music, circus, literacy, computer studies – and more.

I also help put together short plays with Rainbow Disability Theatre, our disability outreach theatre group. The group is made up of 20 people with physical disabilities and their carers – all of whom take part in performances.

The Rainbow Disability Theatre began in 2009 – and has been a fantastic addition to the umbrella of Wan Smolbag.

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Rainbow Disability Theatre being welcomed by the Bay Omo community, South Pentecost. Photo: Rainbow Disability Theatre
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Sio warming up before a show in Ranputor Village, South Pentecost. Photo: Rainbow Disability Theatre

We were able to gain a grant through the Australian Volunteers Program’s Impact Fund, to help the Rainbow Disability Theatre group with our response to COVID-19.

COVID-19 has had a huge impact on our work. The whole organisation shut down for two weeks, then came back with social distancing in place. As there are no cases in Vanuatu at the moment, we started opening up and bit by bit and things are getting back to normal.

With the grant we’ll be getting messages out to schools and communities about COVID-19, social distancing, good hygiene and how the virus spreads. We will do this in the way we know best: through performance and songs to make the messages fun, entertaining and engaging. We’ll be taking our performance to urban and rural areas; to places that might not have easy access to the internet, radio and TV.

It will be exciting to have the Rainbow Disability Theatre touring again, and the group is a fantastic promotion of disability inclusion in Vanuatu.

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Jimmy and Oline performing "no leko skul" (don't leave school), a short play about the hygiene and the importance of staying in education. Photo: Rainbow Disability Theatre
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Some of the Rainbow troop relaxing after a day of shows by the beach in Pangi, South Pentecost. Photo: Rainbow Disability Theatre

By starting touring again we’ll be able to encourage people with disabilities, and other members of the community, to return to the youth centre, join a class, and learn a new skill. By meeting people face-to-face, we can help bring communities up-to-date information, while allowing the opportunity for questions and discussion. Regular, accurate information is essential, particularly during this difficult and unusual time.

Australian volunteers have been a big part of Wan Smolbag’s history. Volunteers have helped out on our film sets, and volunteer fitness instructors have kept our staff and youth in shape. Wan Smolbag has also received core funding from the Australian government since 2005 as well as from the New Zealand government and Oxfam.

Our work benefits the community in many ways and we believe that our Rainbow Disability Theatre team has the power to change perceptions: not only through performances and sharing messages, but also by being visible and confident.

To learn more about Wan Smolbag and their fantastic array of work, visit wansmolbag.org.