Theatre for Dialogue in Ukraine

by Hjalmar Jorge Joffre-Eichhorn

in Global Citizenship

Post image for Theatre for Dialogue in Ukraine

(Roberta Levitow, Co-Founder of Theatre Without Borders, connected TCG with Hjalmar Jorge Joffre-Eichhorn, who is creating theatre work in the Ukraine amid the current political crisis. We sent Hjalmar a few questions about his work; for more details, visit the NITEnews report and Theatre for Dialogue’s Facebook page. Photo above by Joker Tsunami.)

GS: Please share a little about how you identify as a theatre person, and about the work you do.

HJALMAR JORGE JOFFRE-EICHORN: I am actually not sure whether I identify as a theatre person at all. I suppose I have always thought of myself first and foremost as a political activist with different types of interactive grassroots theatre as my main tools of action. Having said that, after nine years of using such incredibly transformative methodologies as the Theatre of the Oppressed (TO) and Playback Theatre (PT), in addition to the occasional writing and directing of more conventional theatre pieces, I am certainly happy to affirm that I regard the theatre as one of the most effective ways of working towards socio-political change.

Over the years, I have been privileged to work in many countries across the globe, often in places of violent conflict or its immediate aftermath. In such intense circumstances making theatre with as opposed to for communities and creating spaces for people physically and emotionally wounded by massive human rights violations to use the theatre as a way to reaffirm their most basic humanity, is often a painfully beautiful and immensely empowering process, in which everyone involved appears to at least temporarily expand on an existential level, thereby creating glimpses of the possibility of a better world to come.

GS: What was the genesis of Theatre for Dialogue? 

HJJE: The Theatre for Dialogue initiative was born as a result of a number of previous theatre activities that I had led in different parts of Ukraine since the summer of 2010. Largely focusing on working with the Theatre of the Oppressed, over the years a growing number of Ukrainian activists eventually became interested in working more regularly with the theatre as a powerful instrument of change.

It was some of these activists that I met in Ukraine’s capital Kyiv in the middle of January of this year. Reflecting critically on the situation in the country of what at the time had been six weeks of peaceful protest on the main independence square Maidan, my activist friends called for more creative, horizontal and participatory ways of discussing the increasingly intractable state of affairs, including a seemingly growing number of disenchanted and tired protesters.

Then, shortly after, the Yanukovich government passed the so-called anti-protest laws followed by violent clashes between riot police and protesters in which four people were killed. This serious deterioration of the situation reinforced our desire to promote a peaceful alternative using Theatre of the Oppressed techniques as the main tool.

Confrontations Kyiv

(Photo by Joker Tsunami. “Confrontations Kyiv.”)

We then began an international “Joker Tsunami” campaign, inviting a total of six international TO Jokers to come and join us in Ukraine and conduct six simultaneous four-day theatre workshops culminating in the same number of final public dialogue events in five cities of the country. The publicly invited participants were not necessarily pro-Maidan but rather concerned citizens committed to engage in peaceful dialogue about how to positively transform Ukraine from a grassroots perspective. Age-wise, the participants were between 16 and 60 with a majority of them being women and very few having any acting experience. In terms of finances, the entire initiative was done on a voluntary basis and money for local and international transport costs was raised via non-institutionalised crowdfunding.

In short, a theatre by the people, for the people and with the people of Ukraine.

GS: What have been some of the positive outcomes thus far? 

HJJE: The positive outcomes have been numerous and given that we are still in the immediate phase after the event, including a currently ongoing written evaluation with the 100+ workshop participants, we are hopeful to see more positive responses in the near future.

In general terms, the TfD initiative generated an immense interest and buzz among hundreds of Ukrainians looking for opportunities to discuss the situation in the country in a respectful and non-violent manner. Many of those who eventually took part in the activities described how after weeks of looking for their role in the protests, they finally found a medium that would allow them a more active participation, i.e. the theatre. Others described how their participation was a life changing experience in terms of becoming more conscious of their own powers to positively affect change in their personal lives as well as the community they live in. Yet others confessed how their involvement produced a strong healing effect given the intensity of the sea of emotions most Ukrainians have experienced since the protests broke out in late November.

Mourning the Dead Kyiv

(Photo by Joker Tsunami. “Mourning the Dead.”)

Plus, what was highly exciting is that we were contacted by activists from regions where for financial and logistical reasons we were unable to organize any events. They expressed their frustration of not being included and kindly requested for us to come to their parts of Ukraine very soon, suggesting that we were on the right track in terms of our faith in theatre-based dialogue activities in times of monologue.

Finally, the Ukrainian media, both national and regional, got highly interested in covering our activities and a great number of newspaper articles, in print and digital, as well as radio interviews were conducted throughout the duration of the project.

In fact, it might be the repeatedly demonstrated interest, expressed by a variety of stakeholders, in exploring ways to use the theatre to aid the ongoing transformation process in the country which is perhaps the most noteworthy outcome of the activities so far. The theatre as a powerful tool for change is now on many people’s minds and as far as we can tell, many Ukrainians want more of it and it is now up to us to figure out how to meet this demand in a collective and inclusive manner.

GS: What have been some of the unexpected challenges? 

HJJE: The only major challenges encountered during the implementation phase of the TfD initiative were security related and happened in those parts of Ukraine dominated by groups opposed to those protesting on Maidan. In Crimea, site of the latest confrontations since the overthrow of the Yanukovich regime, the local organisers decided to cancel the TfD workshop at the last second due to fear of potentially violent repercussions in case word got out that seemingly “Pro Maidan” activities were being organised in a largely “Pro Russian” bastion.

The second, unfortunately more serious challenge occurred during the theatre activities organised in the home region of ex-president Yanukovich, in the Eastern Ukraine. There, our activities were constantly interrupted including by indirect threats of violence and defamatory words directed against the international workshop facilitator in addition to acts of being followed and protests during the final performance. Ironically, those protesting against the use of theatre were in part people who had participated in a previous theatre workshop I conducted with the youth wing of Mr. Yanukovich’s party in 2012.

Luckily, nobody was harmed physically but the experience as such certainly merits a more critical analysis of the dangers involved when engaging in theatre activities in highly complex and sensitive circumstances.

Image Theatre Kyiv

(Photo by Joker Tsunami. “Image Theatre Kyiv.”)

GS: What work remains to be done?

HJJE: Given the growing popularity of interactive theatre techniques in Ukraine combined with the fact that there are currently very few Ukrainian nationals professionally engaged with using these techniques, one of the main objectives for the immediate to medium-term future will be to support those interested in doing so.

In other words, it might be time for a Ukrainian-led army of Theatre of the Oppressed and Playback Theatre professionals who can promote the methodology in a way that its results can be more impactful and sustainable. Hence, the first step for this to happen will be to start training Ukrainian activists and artists in the different interactive theatre techniques and possibly establish some form of local theatre company or non-governmental organisation that can host these trainings, implement future theatre activities and address the always challenging question of funding.

GS: How has this experience changed your outlook as a theatre person?

HJJE: To be honest, at this stage I am still way too involved in processing our theatre activities while also dealing with all the strong emotions produced by the recent events in Ukraine, including coming to terms with more than 80 people killed while we were in the midst of our final theatre workshop.

At the same time, the extremely positive responses our initiative generated among hundreds of people, strengthen my long-held conviction that the theatre in general, and interactive, community-based theatre in particular, are among the most powerful ways of authentically engaging people from all walks of life in the humanisation of themselves, the other and indeed humanity via bottom-up, community-led, embodied dialogue of words and action.

I therefore believe that the time has come for more concerted efforts on behalf of theatre activists from across the globe to engage in more regular, coordinated, sustainable and effective theatre activities, including a thorough engagement on a theoretical and intellectual level that will, among other things, better prepare us for the difficult conversations we will encounter with those questioning the general validity of theatre and/or those in the position to finance our actions but doubtful of theatre’s impact.

In times of crisis, the theatre is not a luxury. On the contrary, quoting a close theatre friend from Afghanistan: “The theatre can help us transform our tears of pain and hurt into energy to keep struggling for a better, more just, democratic and peaceful world.” La lucha continua.

Learn more about Theatre for Dialogue here.


(Photo of Hjalmar Jorge Joffre-Eichhorn by Oksana Potapova.)

Hjalmar Jorge Joffre-Eichhorn (Germany, 1977) is a German-Bolivian theatre maker, facilitator, script writer and director who uses different forms of interactive, participatory theatre to work with communities in conflict and create possibilities for bottom-up dialogue and a search for grassroots solutions.

Hjalmar has carried out community-based theatre initiatives in more than a dozen countries on all five continents including in (post-) conflict environments such as Afghanistan, Kyrgyzstan, Northern Ireland, Rwanda, Sierra Leone, South Africa, Tajikistan, Timor Leste, Ukraine and Yemen. He is the co-founder of the Afghanistan Human Rights and Democracy Organization (AHRDO;, a community-based theatre platform in Kabul, Afghanistan.

In 2013 he published ‘Wenn die Burka plötzlich fliegt-Einblicke in die Arbeit mit dem Theater der Unterdrückten in Afghanistan’, a book in German language about his experiences working with theatre in Afghanistan. Besides, his documentary theatre play ‘Infinite Incompleteness’ was recently published and produced in Japan with the support of the International Theatre Institute (ITI). The play was also published in PAJ, A Journal of Performance and Arts.

August Schulenburg is the Associate Director of Communications at TCG. He is also a creative partner of Flux Theatre Ensemble, winner of the 2011 Caffe Cino Fellowship Award. He is a playwright whose produced plays include Riding the Bull, DEINDE, Carrin Beginning, The Lesser Seductions of History, Dream Walker, Honey Fist, Rue, Jacob’s House and Other Bodies. He is also a director (most recently Ellen McLaughlin’s Ajax in Iraq and Sol Crespo’s Old Maid) and actor (the recent film, The Golden Scallop and the play Hearts Like Fists). He serves on the board of the Network of Ensemble Theaters. Learn more here.