The Catholic University of America

Nora Conley

Grad Student Shares Her Art to Help Others

On April 8 at Hartke Theatre, graduate student Annalisa Dias will introduce a documentary film that is close to her heart. The Salima Project tells the story of Dias’s weeklong “theatre for development” project in a small village in Malawi. In July 2013, Dias and a group of artists and educators used theater and storytelling as a method to empower people and help them share their stories, most notably the challenges associated with living with HIV/AIDS.

“Theater for development is a tool that uses theater to help people engage with social problems and to initiate solutions,” says Dias, who is studying for her master’s degree through the Department of Drama.

“The concept turns around the traditional idea of theater. Instead of a theater company putting on a performance for a community, we give the stage to the community, inviting them to tell their stories in a way that fosters understanding, healing, and change.”

Dias believes the arts can change lives. She says theater has been a central passion in her own life since she was a child. “From a very young age I loved to perform. I pictured myself a rock star. But it wasn’t until my seventh-grade English teacher encouraged me to enter the Pittsburgh Public Theater’s Shakespeare Monologue Competition for area middle and high school students, that I realized my passion was in drama,” says Dias. “I performed Constance’s monologue from King John. That experience illuminated for me the way that theater can create community.”

Dias graduated from Boston University in 2010 with undergraduate degrees in English and religion and minors in French and theatre arts. She knew she wanted to go to graduate school, but first wanted to commit to a year of service. Through AmeriCorps, she headed to Los Angeles to teach special education at a charter school. While there she started an after-school theater program.

“One of my seventh graders had a cognitive processing disorder; basically issues with her memory retrieval skills. We were working on monologues and she picked the ‘to be or not to be’ monologue from Hamlet. It’s long and she was struggling to remember the lines. So I gave her kinesthetic gestures to go with each phrase. By exploring movement with her and giving her something physical to do for each line, she was able to memorize the whole monologue,” recalls Dias. “Her teachers in other subjects were asking what I had done because her confidence had shot through the roof. She started showing improvement in her other classes. This was a student who thought she wasn’t smart and had quit trying. I had seen theater change people, but this was my first experience in which something I was doing played a role in transforming someone’s life. That will stay with me.”

While in Los Angeles, Dias applied to graduate schools and was drawn to Catholic University because she could pursue a master’s degree in theatre history and criticism “that is research and writing based — one of the few I found.”

In the fall of 2012, while a new graduate student at Catholic University, Dias got a phone call that started her on a journey to the southeast African country of Malawi. “My friend from BU, Genna Helfrich, is on a two-year assignment with the Peace Corps as a public health volunteer in the Salima area of Malawi. She called and told me the health clinic where she worked had started a drama group, but no one had extensive training in theater. So she asked me if I would come and run some workshops. I jumped at the opportunity,” says Dias, who had studied the concepts of theater for development, sometimes referred to as “theater of the oppressed.”

She was amazed at how easily the program came together when she started making connections. “People were so excited. It was as if one phone call led to another and another of people putting me in touch with others who could help.” Dias put together a team that included Verepi Madise of the Nanzikambe Arts Development Organization, Malawian health care specialist Mphatso Diyele, and acclaimed Malawian storyteller Masankho Banda.

Dias says she wanted to film the workshop because most of what she has learned about theater for development has come from reading. But she wanted to see it in action. So a few months before she went to Malawi, she trained with Theatre of the Oppressed NYC. “Not everyone can do that. There is a need for something on film,” says Dias.

So she called L.A.-based film producer Kelly Bumford, a friend from high school, and asked her to come along and film the week, with the goal of making a documentary. “We have some incredible moments on film,” says Dias.

The issues of HIV/AIDS became a core theme of the workshop, Dias says, because of the stigma attached to it in Malawi. “Everyone is affected. If they are not living with it, they know someone who has it or has died from it,” she says. While the government of Malawi has worked to reduce the rate of transmission in the last decade, UNAIDS reports that there are still about 180 new HIV infections per day in the country.

“In Malawi, the culture around these issues has become so taboo, people don’t talk about their status and they don’t want to get tested. If you are known to have HIV or AIDS, you will essentially be ostracized. This is the poorest country in the world. So in a community where you quite literally depend on the people around you for survival, being ostracized can be a death sentence,” explains Dias.

“At the end of the week, a group leader asked who of the participants was willing to get tested and they all raised their hands. We have it on film,” says Dias. “One of the participants said ‘if we are going to transform the community, we have to start by transforming ourselves.’ ”

After screening the documentary at CUA, Dias has plans to screen the film at other D.C. locations and in New York and Los Angeles. One of those locations is at the Theatre Alliance in Washington, D.C., where the screening is part of weekend workshop led by Dias on the concepts of theater for development. She is working with Theatre Alliance, a company committed to socially conscious theater, on a project called “I love D.C.”

Dias has also found success at other D.C.-area theater companies such as The Inkwell (a new play development company), the Folger Shakespeare Theatre, and the American Century Theater, working as a director, playwright, and dramaturg. This summer, Dias, who also works at CUA for the Office of Campus activities as a program coordinator, will direct two 10-minute plays for the Source Festival. After graduating this summer, she plans to stay in D.C. because there are so many opportunities in the theater arts.

“My work in the arts is a vocation,” says Dias. “God can work through artists to help transform people’s lives. I believe the theater artist’s soul is prophetic, tasked with the work of revelation. I don’t know where I’ll be in a year, but I’ll let that belief guide me.”

The Salima Project screening on CUA's campus is April 8 at 8 p.m. in Hartke 101. For more information contact or visit


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Annalisa Dias

Hometown: Pittsburgh

Favorite place on campus: The University Mall. “I love the view of the Basilica.”

Favorite Place in D.C.: The National Archives

Favorite book: Towards a Poor Theatre by Jerry Grotowski “I think I’ve read it a thousand times.”

Area of Research: American and cultural identity