(Photo: Bogdan Georgescu)
Continuing our series of interviews with the artists who participated in Theatre Without Borders conference, Acting Together On The World Stage; we asked theatre artists and peacebuilders Erik Ehn, Catherine Filloux, Bogdan Georgescu, Torange Yeghiazarian and James Thompson a few questions:
How do audiences respond to your work as a theatre peace-builder?
Bogdan Georgescu: The first community / active art theatre performance I did was called The Campaign. It was part of a 25 hours theatre marathon – Rahova Nonstop – in site specific, in the area of Rahova Uranus, Bucharest, realized by tangaProject – five directors and five perspectives of one community. In my piece, the mayor came to make promises to the evicted community and get some votes. The mayor was performed by a professional actor, but, when all started, the audience got so involved in the performance, that it got to the point where there was no boundary between the performers and the real community members, an event that was no longer just a theatre performance. Still, when the lights went off, they all started clapping and cheering. They never lost the sense of reality, of the fact that we were playing theatre, still, they participated in the performance as it would have been a real campaign, generating an exceptional event, beyond theatre, a purifying and refreshing way to let out all the negative aspects of their challenged life.
Most of the communities we’re working with experience theatre for the first time in their life and the reaction and the way the manifest during the performances – first because of recognizing themselves or their stories, second because of the joy such an event brings to their daily life – is similar to the reaction children have at puppet theatre performances.
In the photo above, in the top half, you can see a woman treating to put herself on fire. In the photo’s bottom half, there’s an actor, a week after the real incident, reenacting the fire real scene. The lady was in the audience, laughing out loud because of the situation. Seeing it in a theatre performance, she was able to take that step back, analyze the situation and move on. That’s when theatre becomes the real neutral “playground” for understanding and solving conflicts in a peaceful way.
Catherine Filloux: I told a friend, who is also a playwright about a recent trip I took to Haiti. I went there as part of my work on a new play about gender based violence, around the world. Like the violence the play is actually expanding in length day by day. It’s partly about a certain lawyer I know, a real-life female action hero. My friend said: “You know what’s most interesting to me, if I I’m objective, is why do you keep going to these places? Why do you want to see?” I answered in my mind: “I see that in fact each human being is endowed with the spirit of life even despite sometimes losing what I would interpret as almost everything. To hear a particular woman in Haiti say: “We have been oppressed all our lives. We cannot let this go on any longer. We cannot endure this!”–and to listen to that and know that in theater we are witnesses. I would imagine that audiences respond to my work as a theatre peace-builder by asking the same question as my friend: “Why do you want to see?” And they ask the same question of themselves: “Why do I want to see?” And they get different answers.
I keep another friend’s email in my wallet: “…It’s the folks whose stories you are participating in, whose lives you both represent and touch. When they are appreciative and moved, when they say, ‘This is just what we need…’ you can/should give yourself the credit you deserve.”
Audiences also have said to me, “I didn’t realize there’d be so much humor.”
Torange Yeghiazarian: The term “theatre peace-builder” is an interesting choice. It implies certain assumptions and brings up a stream of questions. At first glance, it implies that there are many categories in theatre, peace-builder being one of them. As if others who make theatre are but peace-builders. Perhaps the differentiating point is the idea of awareness. Those who call themselves theatre peace-builders actively and consciously move towards peace-building vis-à-vis their theatre work. This definition raises the issue of intent. Peace-builders are those who intend to build peace, versus those who create work without that specific intention. If we agree that peace-building is a good thing, then the assumption, I believe, is that if our intentions are good so will be the outcomes. I think we all know this is not always the case, perhaps we could even say it is rarely the case. Given this, what does it mean to be a theatre peace-builder?
In my mind, one must live life with an awareness of the complexities that surround us. Once you do this, you will find yourself making decisions differently. You will find yourself questioning things more. My theatre work is all about asking questions, questioning assumptions. This often makes the audience uncomfortable. It is not a peaceful experience. In fact, some times they feel attacked. They resent having their neatly organized lives, choices, decisions scrutinized publicly. I don’t mean a personal attack, of course. But when we present a play that questions an Israeli’s assumptions about a Palestinian’s right to live in Palestine, those who hold Israel’s right to exist sacred and exclusive of a Palestinian right to exist, feel personally attacked. When we present a play about an Armenian falling in love with a Turk, nationalist Armenians and Turks in the audience feel personally attacked. When we present an Iranian Muslim clergy on stage who articulately counters negative stereotypes that are dominant in the US, many in the audience feel personally attacked. You see now why I began by questioning the notion of peace-building from the start.
Theatre that stirs things up frequently leaves the audience feeling uncomfortable. But feeling uncomfortable is often the first step towards seeing a different point of view. It is more difficult to dismiss another’s narrative if you have never experienced them like a three-dimensional human being, in life or on stage. Going back to the original question, the most frequent response we get to Golden Thread’s work is, I had never thought of it that way, or, I had never understood that point of view until I experienced it emotionally watching your play. Then there are those who for the first time see themselves represented thoughtfully, as fully developed characters with a complex inner life. The response to this is often very emotional, accompanied by disbelief, some times even distrust. Why would you do a play about me? They would ask. Because by witnessing your story, I better understand my own.
Finally, the most important aspect of Golden Thread’s work may be bringing diverse audiences together to experience each others’ narratives in a safe and respectful space. This is not necessarily comfortable either but I have observed our audience growing accustomed to it, seeking it out. On a good night, the Israelis and Palestinians in the house would respond to the play publicly, sharing their fears and hopes for their shared future. In this way, the witnessing stirs things up and initiates a meaningful conversation. It is not easy, it is not comfortable and sometimes it is not even peaceful but more often than not, the audience is grateful for the experience.
What do you think has been your most satisfying experience as a theater peacebuilder?
Erik Ehn: Two examples:
Working with the Jesuits of Gonzaga on some Saint Plays, we rehearsed and performed in a soup kitchen, bartering labor for space. One of the plays featured an atrocity in a small Salvadoran village (based on verbatim testimony). Afterwards, we were approached by a tearful woman who shared that her uncle was named in the play… The intimacy of history came through.
I travel to Rw/Uganda each summer with students and art practitioners; a feature of our time there is the co-production of a performance festival in Kigali. Miraculously, we had work from Rw/Ug of course, along with pieces from Afghanistan, Belarus, and Mexico, along with new work from America. The diversity was remarkable, but best of all was local ownership… I didn’t have to do much!
Ideal audience: sages, scholars, and survivors. People who understand meditation and time and trauma, people interested specifically in the application of art to healing, and people whose stories we are inviting forward.
What are some of the challenges you face as a theatre peacebuilder?
James Thompson: I currently direct a project called In Place of War which researches and develops theatre projects in war zones. This project has now produced a major book (Performance In Place of War) that documents theatre and performance projects around the world in war zones – and offers a critical reflection upon them. In addition it has an online database of information, documents and photographs that is publicly accessible.
In Place of War now runs an artist network which brings artists working in war zones together to meet, discuss and share experiences. The 2010 seminar took place at the National Theatre of Kosovo and the 2011 meeting will be in the eastern DR Congo town of Goma. Please see www.inplacceofwar.net for more information.
One of the important parts of all this work is that we are interested in all theatre work that takes place in war zones and do not categorize it automatically as theatre and peacebuilding. There are many types of projects, some of which have peacebuilding agendas, but others might not use ‘peace’ as their organizing rationale. They may be concerns with human rights, justice, memory, reconciliation, education and so forth – and of course, we must acknowledge, there are projects that seek to encourage people to join military groups, fight oppression or even take revenge.
The lesson from In Place of War is that theatre can make claims to have some positive role but like all practices in war zones it can be a force for bad as much as a force for good. Part of the job of practitioners and researchers is to discover how projects work, what claims they make and how we can ensure the work that is done builds tolerance, understanding and a search for justice. My work in the past concentrated on theatre in Sri Lanka – where many different theatre organizations have played a range of roles in relation to the civil war – and more recently I have been working with a UK NGO, Children In Crisis, in eastern DR Congo developing theatre projects that promote girls rights and their access to education.
Bogdan Georgescu – artist, social activist. tools in use: playwriting, community theatre, video composing, producing, social intervention, project management. Open Society Inistitute – Sorors Foundation Fellow of UEP 2004. Cornerstone alumni of Institute 2. tangaProject initiator and stream founder for Active Art – the process of revealing the work of art in each of us and transform the everyday life into a collective work of art.
Catherine Filloux is an award-winning playwright who has been writing about human rights for the past twenty years. Her plays have been produced in New York and around the world. Her plays are published by Playscripts, Inc., and her recent anthology Silence of God and Other Plays is published by Seagull Books. Filloux is a co-founder of Theatre Without Borders. http://www.catherinefilloux.com
Torange Yeghiazarian is the founding Artistic Director of Golden Thread Productions where she has devoted her professional life to exploring Middle Eastern cultures and identities through theatre arts. Torange’s play Call Me Mehdi is included in “Salaam/Peace: An Anthology of Middle-Eastern American Playwrights” published by TCG in 2009.
Erik Ehn‘s work includes The Saint Plays, Heavenly Shades of Night Are Falling, Maria Kizito, No Time Like the Present, Wolf at the Door, Tailings, Beginner, Ideas of Good and Evil, and an adaptation of Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury.
James Thompson is Professor of Applied and Social Theatre at the Centre for Applied Theatre Research, University of Manchester. He is currently the director of ‘In Place of War’ – a research and practice based project exploring performance and theatre in war zones. He is author of a number of books including recently ‘Performance Affects’ (Palgrave, 2009) and with colleagues ‘Performance in Place of War’ (Seagull, 2009). James set up the Theatre in Prisons and Probation Centre (TiPP) in 1992 and worked as its director until 1999 when he started working in theatre projects in war and conflict zones. He has run projects with refugee communities in the UK as well as working on projects in eastern DR Congo, Indonesia, Rwanda and Sri Lanka. He is currently Director of Research in the School of Arts Histories and Cultures at the University of Manchester and Director of Research at the new Humanitarian and Conflict Response Institute at the University. He is currently working on a new book called ‘Humanitarian Performance’.