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The ZIPoPo Show: Community Theatre for Moral Education

by Neissan Alessandro Besharati


In this paper, I will be introducing the ZIPoPo as a form of community-based theatre used for moral education, and explain some of its key elements, features, and strengths. I will explain how the ZIPoPo tries to address the lack of ethical/moral consciousness in society, which is reflected in the numerous problems in the world today. The essay will compare and contrast the ZIPoPo with other forms of Theater for Development and with the work of Augusto Boal, and will place the methodology within the modern theories of community education. I will also touch on some notable ZIPoPo programs which have been implemented in Russia and Germany in the field of youth moral education, and in the Balkans in the peace-building arena.


Known also by the names of Happy Hippo Show, Stop & Act, Apelsin (Orange) Show, Nuestro Arco Iris (Our Rainbow), Apple Academy and People’s Theatre, the ZIPoPo was born in Russia, and its name is taken from the first letters of the words ‘Zaochniy Institut Pozitivnovo Povedeniya’, which translates as "The Academy of Positive Behavior" (Boyle, 2002). In 1994, a journalist from Kazan, Shamil Fattakhov, developed the ZIPoPo as a television show for young people which would explore conflicts, issues and dilemmas of their everyday life.  Fattakhov’s show very soon became one of the most popular TV programs broadcasted in the Republic of Tatarstan (4 million people) from 1994 to 1999 and in other parts of Russia, gaining popularity with both youth and adults. (ACME, 2004

Structure & Topics of the Show

In its basic structure, the ZIPoPo starts with the hosts welcoming everyone, warming up the public and introducing the topic of the episode. A group of actors start by acting out a scene from a common daily life situation experienced by the viewers. The drama gradually escalates and freezes at a crucial point of tension. At that point the audience in the studio (usually around 80-100 people) starts discussing the situation, facilitated by the hosts who, from time to time, interject relevant points, quote brief passages from literature, religion and science, receive phone calls from home, or invite an expert on the topic to contribute some ideas. All members of the public are invited to give their input on how to tackle the problem, and sometimes they replace the actors on stage and act out the ideas they suggest. The drama can resume a number of times with the actors performing different possible solutions to the scenario suggested by the public. The discussions always focuses on finding positive solutions, and gradually the audience reaches a general consensus on the highest moral/ethical considerations involved in the situation and the actors conclude the drama accordingly. The episode concludes with the hosts greeting the spectators and inviting them to take away the insights which have emerged during the show and apply them to their daily life. (gathered from Boyle’s article and from personal experiences of seeing the show in different places). Over 500 sketches have been written and performed (OSED-BIC, 2003), including topics as varied as suicide, the difference between sex and love, stealing, unemployment, divorce, running away from home, problems at school, finding a right partner for marriage, choosing a profession, homosexuality, rape, backbiting, peer pressure, and so on. (Boyle, 2002, & Fattakhov, 2004).

Outstanding programmes in Russia & Germany

Over the years, from the popular TV format, ZIPoPo as gradually moved into education-based settings such as schools, community theaters, kindergartens, youth centers, universities, and conferences (ACME, 2004). Many Zipopo-based projects have been designed for different target groups however some of the most remarkable achievements have been programmes with youth at risk. In 2003, Russian NGO ‘Azamat’ run a moral educational project based on ZIPoPo for youth penitentiaries sponsored by the Penal Reform International. (ACME, 2004) 30 discussion shows were conducted during the year, with young prisoners discussing moral issues in an honest, opened manner, touching subjects like drug and alcohol addiction, criminal behavior, relationship with parents, carrying weapons, youth and police, re-integration in society, etc. Similarly in Germany, the Offenbach local and regional educational authorities sponsored the ‘People’s Theater’, a German ZIPoPo project implemented by the NGO Forum e.V. As part of a municipal strategy for integration, violence prevention and crime reduction, People’s Theater has held over 500 performances in 40 schools in the region (over 4000 students reached). The project has received awards from the Federal Parliament and from ‘Startsocial’ as one of the 100 most promising social projects in Germany (reports from Forum e.V., 2003).

Linkages with other forms of community theatre

At first glance the elements and features of the ZIPoPo may not appear particularly innovative considering that similar examples of popular theater have been around for many centuries such as the ‘Comedie Italienne’ (17th Century), Jacob Moreno’s ‘Psycodrama’ (1920s) and the ‘Second City company’ of Chicago (1950s). Furthermore in the 1980s-1990s, many different community-based theater programs for education and liberalization have developed in Africa, the Pacific and other parts of the world (see Bjorkman, Fien, Fotheringham, Hamilton, Mlama, Mda, etc.). Zipopo, therefore, can be easily placed among the many forms of ‘Theater for Development’ which have emerged in the past 30 years, where ‘theatrical expressions are employed at the grassroots level in order to research and analyze development problems, create critical awareness and potential for action to solve those problems’ (Mlama, 1971). Throughout the essay I will be making more connections between the ZIPoPo and other theatrical practices and educational theories.

ZIPoPo vs Theatre of the Oppressed

One could argue that the ZIPoPo approach resembles significantly methods developed by Augusto Boal (1970s), such as the Forum Theater and Prometheus Project. In fact, both Boal’s and Fatthakhov’s theatrical educational strategies ‘reinact reality’, by facilitating audiences to examine the issues which affect their life, identifying the root-causes of the problems, and assisting them to find realistic and practical solutions to improve their situation - a process which Freire (1970) termed ‘conscientization’. Although Fattakhov admits that his work is definitely influenced by ‘Theater of the Oppressed’ (seminar notes, 2002), there are some key ideological differences between Boal’s approach and Fatthakhov’s one. While Boal (1979) tries to empower people to recognize and combat the oppression in their life caused by external factors (the exploitative system, the authorities in power, the institutions which perpetuate injustice and discrimination, etc.), Fattakhov’s methodology looks at the internal elements in all human beings (values, ethics, morals) which direct them to make the crucial choices which affect their life and, directly or indirectly, affect other people around them. Theater of the Oppressed targets more the social contests while ZIPoPo focuses more on the individual and his/her role. ‘The concept underlying Zipopo’, explains Boyle (2002), ‘is to present viewers with an opportunity to look at moral or ethical issues and to provide them with the means to approach life problems’. In Fattakhov’s (2004) words, ZIPoPo is an instrument for developing a culture of Ethic’ which ‘seeks to increase the capacity of its participants to reflect more deeply about moral issues and to learn to apply a high standard of moral principles to both personal and social levels of human interaction’(ZIPoPo: A Programme for the Moral Education of Youth, p. 1).

Imperative need for Moral Education

As a member of the Baha’i International Community, Fattakhov’s approach is underlined by the belief that different problems in contemporary society are frequently caused by the lack of ethical decisions on behalf of individuals in all fields of human endevour - from the family to the highest corridors of global power (Anello, 1992). Seemingly unrelated social issues such as the pollution of the environment, economic dislocation, prejudice and discrimination (to name a few) cannot be combated without a fundamental change of moral consciousness and behaviour (BIC, 2001). The application of legal, sociological or technological measures to the problems of the world need to be ‘coupled with a renewed emphasis on developing in every individual an inner guide, an ethical vision, or, as many commonly say now, a ‘moral compass’’ (BIC, 1997). The need for character building and attention for moral values in education was stressed also in a report from the UNESCO International Commission on Education for Twenty-first Century (1998) which read:

‘…the world has a longing, often unexpressed, for an ideal and for values that we shall term 'moral'. It is thus education's noble task to encourage each and every one, acting in accordance with their traditions and convictions and paying full respect to pluralism, to lift their minds and spirits to the plane of the universal and, in some measure, to transcend themselves. It is no exaggeration on the Commission's part to say that the survival of humanity depends thereon.’

Scepticisms about Moral Education & Popular Theatre

However, when we start to discuss ‘moral education’, especially in an age of humanistic relativism, we enter very controversial grounds. ‘Too often in the past, campaigns to promote morality have been associated with repressive religious practices, oppressive political ideologies or narrow and limited visions of the common good, as based on a particular nationalistic, cultural or ethnic framework.’ (BIC, 1997). In such light the concept of instilling values and ethics in students can assume even more dangerous dimensions within the theories of ‘banking education’ put forth by Freire (1970). Often times, popular theater programs have been criticized for only ‘appearing’ participatory and community-based, but in reality being pre-packaged and remote-controlled productions with clear ‘development messages’ created by outsiders who stay in the community for a few days and create a play around familiar themes and settings to that culture (Manyozo, 2002). Mulenga (1999) explains that when strangers come into an indigenous community and provide popular theater programs in order to interpret and reconstruct the lives of the people, there is a large danger of cultural imperialism to occur.

Andragogy of the ZIPoPo

Acknowledging the above concerns, the Zipopo tries to avoid the imposition of externally constructed values, but rather it takes a more andragogical approach encouraging the audience to apply in each situation their own set of ethics and morals which are drawn from the highest forms of their cultural, religious and community values. The Zipopo host, basically, functions in a very similar way to the ‘facilitator’ or ‘democratic teacher’ in the Freirian model (Shor, 1993), facilitating the community’s own learning within their social context, while still operating within a framework of universal human rights and global social justice. Through engaging in the ZIPoPo show, the participants are involved in their own education process and contribute also to the learning of the rest of the group. In some of the more advanced Zipopo projects, such as the People’s Theater in Germany, the andragogical approach is taken even a step further. When the People’s Theater facilitators enter a class of children, they ask them not only to suggest the topic that will be addressed, but also to create the characters and the story-line, which will be improvised by the actors in conjunction with the students (Forum e.V, 2003).  ZIPoPo, therefore, functions very much  in line with ‘Theater for Development’ theories (Mda, Bjorkman, Mlama & Kerr) where the ‘process’ of creating community drama is more important than the final production, and where theater is created ‘with the people’ not ‘for the people’ (Kamlongera, 1988). Fattakhov confirms that ‘Zipopo is a public forum method, based on an amateur drama, written by the public and conducted by the public’ (from an e-mail sent to me on 11/09/04).

The Modern Art of Consultation

In the ZiPoPo the contributions of all members of the public are highly valued and the host of the show tries to create a comfortable open, frank and loving learning environment where everyone can feel free to express themselves and share experiences. Fattakhov (2004) describes the process which occurs as‘a regular collective deepening of the understanding among members of our society… a ‘joint investigation on solutions to difficult life situations, drawing upon collective wisdom of humankind.’(ZIPoPo: A Programme for the Moral Education of Youth, p. 1).

Among other things, ZIPoPo hosts are trained in ‘the modern art of consultation’, which aims at always searching for positive and constructive solutions as well as fostering group unity and concord (Fattakhov, 2004). ZIPoPo hosts facilitate collective investigation of the truth about any issue or problem and assist the group to establish the highest agreed moral principle that governs the topic.  The ZIPoPo motto, in fact, is: Veritas Consensu Fundatur (Fattakhov, 2004)., which in Latin translates ‘The Truth is founded upon Unity and Understanding’. Unfortunately this paper does not allow us to go more into depth into the process and principles of the art of consultation, which hopefully can be discussed another time.

Flexibility – settings, formats & audiences

Because of its community-based nature, the ZiPoPo has been adapted to different cultures, settings, and strata of society. It necessitates very few resources; it is very flexible and can be applied through different mediums. Besides being implemented as TV program, in theaters, in penitentiaries and in classrooms (as mentioned above), ZIPoPo has been experimented also as a radio program, on the internet, in community centers, with mobile theatres, in newspapers, as a puppet show and there even has been discussions about creating interactive computer games (Fattakhov, 2004). Although youth and adolescence have been the most receptive age group, Zipopo sessions have been adapted and held successfully with many other social groups - teachers, policemen, journalists, businessmen, entrepreneurs, physicians, manual workers and social workers (Fattakhov, 2004 & Boyle, 2002) -  exploring more in depth the ethical issues related to each of these professions.

International achievements & recognition

Trainings seminars in the ZIPoPo have been delivered worldwide and over 2000 facilitators (hosts) have been trained in 62 countries in Europe, Asia, America and Africa (ACME, 2004).  ZIPoPo was officially presented at the World Congress on Women in Beijing in 1995, and at the Training for Human Rights and Peace Education (‘Building a Culture of Peace’) study session at Council for Europe in Strasbourg in 1999. In 1998, a series of ZIPoPo training seminars were held in the Balkan region as part of the ‘Royaumont Process’, an initiative of the European Community which aims at strengthening stability and good neighborly relations amongst Southeastern European countries through the civil society (OPI-BIC, 1999).  In 2002, with the support of UNICEF, IOM, UNMIK, GTZ and NATO, a multi-ethnic seminar was held to train youth leaders in Kosovo (GPDC, 2002). In 2001, the Zipopo received in Austria the GLOBArt Award for Innovation for peacemaking activities in the Balkans (ACME, 2004).

ZIPoPo for Conflict Resolution

The latest achievements worldwide highlight the strong role that Zipopo can play in conflict-resolution. The Zipopo provides a platform for dialogue between different conflicting members of the community (ie. parents, youth, authorities, teachers, etc.). It always addresses a conflict, dilemma, or tension of different kind - internal or external, intellectual-emotional-physical-spiritual (Fattakhov, 2004)). ZIPoPo shows have explored conflicts within individuals, within a family, between colleagues, with the authorities, between different social groups (ie. businessmen and environmentalists) and even racial/ethnic conflicts between nations, such as in the programs held in Israel, Cyprus and the Balkan countries. In Kosovo, for example, ZiPoPo trainings were held with youth from war-torn ethnic communities (Albanian, Serb, Roma and Bosnian). At the start of the meeting a lot of tension, fear, suspicion, hatred, prejudice characterized the relationship between the youth, but as the week progressed, important global and ethical issues were discussed, youth from across communities had to work in teams to produce and perform artistic material, therefore gradually barriers broke down and by the end of the training there was such a degree of love, unity and friendship among the participants that the donors and organizers of the project could hardly believe it (GPDC reports, 2002).

Prejudices & Desocialization

Some of the key universal principles upon which Zipopo is founded on include: regarding every human being as noble, cherishing unity in diversity, and the promotion of the equality of man and women (Fattakhov, 2004). Therefore, ZIPoPo endeavors to be an instrument for the elimination of all kind of prejudices, whether of race, religion, social class or gender. Through the creative methods of drama and discussion used by Fattakhov, people are encouraged to explore the attitudes, fears, and assumptions of what is right and wrong which are ingrained in the belief-system, norms, and traditions in the community.  ‘ZIPOPO not only clarifies the points of view of the participants, but raises up the unexpected hidden psychological layers beneath certain thoughts and attitudes.’ (Tribute from M. Shipilina, “Kazanskiye Vedomosti”, Russia). Freire calls this process ‘desocialization’, explained as ‘recognizing and challenging the myths, values, behaviors, and language learned in mass culture; critically examining the regressive values operating in society, which are internalized into consciousness – such as… hero-worship, excess consumerism, runaway individualism, militarism, and national chauvinism.’(Shor, 1993)

The Power of Theatre

Fattakhov has noted how the power of role models and positive examples, provided by characters in literature, history and movies, deeply affect human behavior (Boyle, 2002) and this is why his method capitalizes on the dramatization of real life situations. ZIPoPo makes stars out of simple and ordinary people, putting their life on stage, and exploring moral solutions to common dilemmas that are often not addressed in society (Fattakhov, 2004). It is a preparation for ‘unexpected situations of life’ (Fattakhov, 2004), in the same way that Boal (2004, TO website) describes his Forum Theater a ‘collective rehearsal for reality’. Theater is a very powerful instrument in educational processes because it provides a certain degree of intimacy and engagement of the audience on a physical, intellectual and emotional level. Approaches such as the ZIPoPo tap into the different learning styles of people – intra-personal, inter-personal, acoustic, visual and kinesthetic. Audiences learn not only by ‘seeing’ and ‘listening’ but also by ‘doing’. Theater is a ‘human language’ (Boal, 2004), therefore community-theatre educational programs allow people to develop their inner talents and capabilities, assisting them to express themselves in new forms. Even when communities do not have functional literacy, programs like ZIPoPo still allows them to develop a critical literacy.


Dr. Pesseshkian (2004) from the International Center of Positive Psychotherapy and Transcultural Family Therapy tributes the ZiPoPo to be ‘a well-thought-through educational system using up-to-date achievements of modern pedagogy and the performing arts as applied to the field of mass-media. It deserves high praise and deep esteem by virtue of its effectiveness as a sustainable process for the moral regeneration and transformational healing of society, giving to participating individuals a renewed understanding of universally accepted principles, and gently promoting the development of a conscientious attitude on the part of all participants towards the personal and societal implications of their own deeds.’ Considering where its origins and the fact that it can be easily applied in a number of mass media, which reach millions of people, underscores the potential ZIPoPo can have in large-scale community-education processes. The elements and features of the ZIPoPo are in some ways unique and in other ways very similar to the other forms of popular theater for education and development experimented around the world, but Shamil Fattakhov points out that ‘we shouldn't regard these different techniques and methods as competing or contradicting to each other. Rather they are a reflection of the urgent need of the contemporary society to depict the problems it faces and find positive solutions’(from an e-mail sent to me on 11/09/04)).

Appendix 1:                                                                                       Pictures of ZIPoPo projects


                                                             ZIPoPo puppet show in Kindergarten                    Azamat project in Youth Penitentiary

                                                                                        People’s Theater project in schools in Offenbach (Germany)



Reference List

* Anello, E (1992), Values, Institutions, and Leadership for a Sustainable Future: Towards a Framework for Developing Moral Leadership, BIC Statements Library doc #92-0608, Rio de Janeiro

* Association for Creative Moral Education (ACME) (2004), List of ZIPoPo events, activities and achievements, ACME, Kazan

* Association for Creative Moral Education (ACME) (2004), Tributes to the ZIPoPo, ACME, Kazan

* Baha’i International Community (BIC) (1997), The Imperative for Moral Education, One Country, Vol. 9, Iss. 1, April-June 1997, available at:

* Baha’i International Community (BIC) (2001), Century Of Light, Baha’i World Centre, Haifa (Israel)

* Bjorkman, I. (1982), Mother, sing for me: People’s Theatre in Kenya, Londan and New Jersey: Zed Books.

* Boal, A. (1979), Theatre of the Oppressed, Urizen Books, New York

* Boal, A. (1992), Games for Actors and Non-Actors, Routledge, New York

* Boyles, A. (2002), “Zipopo” or “Happy Hippo Show”, BIC website, available at:

* Evripidou, S (2002), Building Bridges through Role-playing,  CyprusMail 20/12/2002, available at:

* E-mail correspondence between Shamil Fattakhov & Neissan Besharati, in 2002 (Kosovo) and in 2004 (Sydney)

* Encyclopaedia Britannica, Deluxe Edition 2004, CD-ROM, Encyclopaedia Britannica Inc.

* Fattakhov, S. (2002), List of topics for ZIPoPo Show, ACME, Kazan

* Fattakhov, S. (2002), notes from ‘Stop & Act’ training seminar, organized by GPDC in Bresalc (Kosovo)

* Fattakhov, S. (2004), A Programme for Exploring Moral Choices: The Academy of Positive Behaviour, ACME, Kazan

* Fattakhov, S. (2004), Happy Hippo Show Training Seminar Methodology, ACME, Kazan

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* Forum e.V. website:

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* Global Perspective Development Centre (GPDC) (2002), “Stop & Act” Project Report, GPDC, Pristina (Kosovo)

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* Mulenga, D. (1999), Reflections on the Practice of Participatory Reasearch in Africa, Convergence, Vol. 32, Num. 1-4

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* UNESCO (1998), Report of the International Commission on Education for the Twenty-first Century “Learning, the Treasure within”, UNESCO, New York

* ZIPoPo websites: ,