Combatants for Peace: Deconstructing Borders Through Dialog

by David Dudley

in National Conference

Post image for Combatants for Peace: Deconstructing Borders Through Dialog

(This post is part of the 2014 TCG National Conference: Crossing Borders {Art | People} blog salon curated by Caridad Svich.)

(Photo credit: Clare Dolan)

Events in our century occur on a global scale. And the area of our knowledge has widened in order to encompass these events. Every day we can be aware of life-and-death issues affecting millions of people. Most of us close our minds to such thoughts except in times of crisis or war. Artists, whose imaginations are less controllable than most, have been obsessed with the problem: How can I justify what I’m doing at such a time?
-John Berger, from The Success and Failure of Picasso

In March of 2014, Clare Dolan (long-time member of Bread and Puppet theater, founder and proprietor of The Museum of Everyday Life), journeyed from the green mountains of her home in Glover, Vermont, to the stark desert landscape of Bet Zahour, near Bethlehem to conduct a workshop. In a huge, mostly deserted hotel, she sat, speaking with members of Combatants for Peace, a political action group who use theatre – among other means – to build community and awareness of their mission: to use non-violent means to end the Israeli occupation in Palestine.

Night had fallen; packs of stray dogs could be heard barking in the streets below. Dolan and her companions were unwinding after that day’s workshop. Among them, a Palestinian man, had come to open up with Dolan.

He seemed very serious, at first, but he had since revealed himself to be very agreeable – constantly smiling, joking, practicing his English. One wouldn’t imagine, though, the suffering he faced as a young adult.

His pleasant demeanor belies the kind of life he has lived, in Israeli-occupied Palestine. When just a young man of 21, he was arrested for an altercation with Israeli soldiers, and detained. In their custody, his head was covered with a putrid bag, and he was tortured for a week. When he was finally released, he couldn’t see, he was rendered blind. After a series of operations to reconstruct his face, he regained his sight. Today he embraces nonviolence, because he doesn’t want his children to face the same dangers in the future.

Just outside Dolan’s comparatively comfortable quarters, and up an adjacent, sloping hill, stands a chain-link fence, topped with razor wire: the border that separates Israel from Palestine. They worked out of the hotel parking lot, from which they could see military jeeps passing all day, and a large apartment building, from which Israeli children looked down upon the workshop, shouting, and waving at the participants. But they cannot cross the fence: the fence separates Israel from Palestine.

The purpose of Dolan’s workshop with CFP members is to share skills she learned from working with Bread & Puppet theatre; namely, using large puppets and visual theatre elements to reach the widest possible audience through demonstrations, parades, and pageants in the streets. The week-long workshop began on Thursday, March 6th, 2014 ; the action was planned for Friday March 14th, 2014. But working with this group in particular presents real challenges.

There are few places in history so rife with conflict as the West Bank. Likewise, there are few places where the borders are so blurred: The current continued expansion of Israeli settlements into the West Bank fuels a land dispute which is many decades old.

Many of the participants, and their families, are engaged in legal disputes. One young man, who lives on his family’s farm, is fighting the Israeli army in court to save his family from being evicted. The farm is presently surrounded by a fence, where a military guard monitors those wishing to enter, and those who exit. For a compound that houses nearly eighty people, there is a single gate.

The opposing armies – the IDF, and the Palestinian resistance, fighting to free their country from Israeli occupation – have engaged in a long, hard-fought battle. Though the individuals that make up these respective forces don’t know one another, there exists in each of them an ingrained fear and hatred of the other, which is largely the result of their respective leaderships. Or, the failure thereof.

This is the sticky stuff on which internal borders are constructed; such borders are, at times, more concrete, and thus impassable than those fences wrought with the intention to keep one group out, and another in. And yet – through the formation of Combatants for Peace, made up of former IDF soldiers, and their Palestinian rivals – these warring factions have withdrawn themselves from the front-lines of the militaristic stalemate, and united to combat the means presently used to settle this long-standing conflict: violence.

Discussions during the workshop reveal the complicated issues that arise between parties from both sides of the separation barrier. The Palestinians, for instance, wanted to make a puppet of Handala, a cartoon figure created by a Palestinian cartoonist Naji Al-ali. For the Palestinian people, Handala acts as a symbol: one with myriad existing associations that can quickly communicate complex ideas. Among them, Handala works to reach the common Palestinian people, to show that working with Israelis is not contradictory to the interests of Palestinians.

However, Handala also represents, for some, the Right of Return – a concept which is very difficult and problematic for the Israelis in the group. For the Israeli people, the Right of Return means expulsion of Jews from Palestine.

Such unpredictable disagreements and diversions will weigh heavily upon Dolan as the workshop progresses. She needs to guide everyone towards the big demonstration, which is set to happen in less than a week. But at this particular moment, it seems that nobody is working on the same project: they each have their own ideas.

Organizing logistics and efforts aside, Dolan and company face another adversary, more ruthless and unpredictable than the others: the weather. Heavy rains have destroyed puppets and materials thus far. Though some of the puppets and banners can withstand downpours without falling apart, most cannot. Moreover, the people who would typically occupy the streets during a demonstration, may need to seek shelter as the week progresses: an untimely series of storms are expected to saturate the land over the next few days.

One of the group’s leaders attempted to explain the fundamental differences between the Israelis and the Palestinian collaborators.

He believes “The Palestinians know that for the Israelis, the occupation is just theater. It is something they can pay attention to for a while, and then leave behind and go back to their lives, and forget about. But for the Palestinians, it is the day-to-day grinding reality, so the idea of making theater is not only foreign, but suspect, really. They are ONLY interested in showing reality, in demonstrating their reality in the most literal terms, so for them to even accept any kind of allegorical or associative imagery is incredibly difficult, not to mention the feeling that making theater in the street is too much like ‘playing.’”

This constitutes another kind of border: that made by the collective experience of the Combatants, and the subjective experiences of each individual member.

To be sure, the individual experiences among the Combatants are varied, the politics, complex, but CFP’s mission is straightforward: to end the Israeli occupation, which members of the CFP have cited as among the primary causes of violence between the Israeli and Palestinian people.

To help their respective communities envision a reconciliation between the Israeli and Palestinian people, a small faction of CFP members employ a Boalian-style of theatre, in which performers – and audience members alike – demonstrate moments (where they experienced oppression, suppression, injustices, etc.) from their personal experiences. After each moment plays out, the audience is invited to intervene, to participate in the performance, and to act out what they feel may be a solution to the problems presented.

Then, a dialog ensues. These dialogs are meant to foster understanding of one another, to provide a foundation for reconciliation, and to envision a future in which the Israeli and Palestinian people may peacefully coexist. Each side has wholly justifiable reasons to feel animosity towards the other: there are injustices committed by participants on both sides of the conflict.

The conflict itself is yet another kind of border, separating people, undermining our basic need to build community. This border – as with many others – needs to be demolished.

One night, after workshop, Dolan and company were watching TV. There played footage of an Israeli air attack on Gaza. Dolan asked the Palestinians why the Israelis made the attack. One responded: “You never know when they (the IDF) will do it.”

But the reality of the situation is this: the Israeli attack was in response to the Islamic Jihad launching 21 rockets at Israel earlier that day. The Palestinians struggle to acknowledge when their side initiates an exchange of violence, even though many have come to embrace pacifism. The rockets were launched in response to a previous incident, and that incident was in response to another previous attack, and so on. At present, it’s nearly impossible to place the blame squarely upon the shoulders of either party. And yet, the violence – the attacks, the retaliations – are seemingly endless.

Hence CFP members advocate through their demonstrations, and theatre events, both sides must desist in perpetuating violence against one another. Through this process, CFP endeavors to enact positive change in their respective communities.

Of course this is no easy task. It requires much dialog, and much of this dialog is geared towards healing. Accountability must be acknowledged, positive actions must be identified, and realized. Dialog, then, must act as a bridge between thought and action.

Dolan’s techniques are meant to empower CFP with imagery to accompany their dialogs, to raise awareness, and to encourage others to join them in their mission to end the present occupation. On one of the last days of the workshop, she revealed to the workshop participants one of the oldest, and most important conventions of the puppet theatre: that of the transformation.

Dolan attempted to show some of the puppets they built, and their possibilities. Among them, a puppet of the separation wall – segments of cardboard painted as wall on one side, and beautiful open landscape on the other. Dolan demonstrated the transformation of the wall into the open landscape on the other side (by simply flipping the cardboard over). Immediately the workshop was interrupted by a man claiming that “This is not our reality! – the wall doesn’t become open landscape, this is not correct!”

Dolan tried to explain the puppet as a tool, meant to communicate ideas quickly, simply, clearly, in the upcoming demonstration.

The stage creates another kind of border. A border that separates reality from fiction, performer from stage persona, the performers from the audience. Though it is rarely composed of fence and razor wire (with the exception of, say, The Living Theater’s performance of The Brig, by Kenneth H. Brown), this border is often absolute.

While most people in the audience make the journey from their daily lives to the fictional world portrayed on stage, they rarely take the notion to cross that implied border, physically. No matter how tense the situations onstage, no matter how high the stakes, they almost never intervene with the narrative. The reasons are myriad; but, perhaps the most prevalent, is that they are simply not invited to do so. To cross the border that separates performers from audience is taboo.

And yet this is the very premise of CFP’s performances. They are not simply entertainment, which allows – or, encourages – people to passively sit back and be given something. CFP invites the audience to participate. Through participation, they engender the possibility for enacting positive change.

It should be no surprise, then, that the audiences coming to see CFP’s shows have been increasingly growing (despite the inherent difficulties in these two groups – who live on opposites sides of occupied territory – coming together to share space).

Through inviting the community to get involved in a real way, CFP ensures their own place within it: Citizens invest their time and efforts into something that promises more than a listing in the evening’s program, more than a drink and a conversation with the play’s star, more than an autograph; they are instead working with artist/ activists towards solving serious problems that have made their daily lives difficult beyond belief. The talk-back becomes more than a post-show discussion group: it is instead a necessary part of the performance. These dialogs are not intended as discussions centering on aesthetic fetishes, or arguing over a given play’s “meaning,” or the artists’ intentions ; rather, they are intended to engender sociopolitical action.

What happens, then, if we decide to cross – and, perhaps, destroy altogether the border that separates audience and performer? Will we – like those who choose to cross borders, without permission – be denied a safe return home, a return to the status quo? Perhaps. And yet, what if in doing so, we should make the world a better place for those children (and mine, and yours)?

Why do we confine the audience – and ourselves – to those seats? If they are equally capable of addressing the problems we all face, and of working towards mutually beneficial solutions to those problems, why do we ask them to sit silent, and in the dark?

They have a voice. All they need is the opportunity to stand up and speak, to act, to cross the border that separates the spectators (those who watch) and the performers (those who act), to build communities, rather than audiences. In answer to Berger’s question, this is, perhaps, all the justification required by Combatants for Peace to make theatre, to generate dialog.

David’s plays have been performed in New York, Boston, California, Chicago, Arizona, and Vermont. His articles have appeared in American Theatre Magazine (TCG, USA), Contemporary Theatre Review (Routledge, UK), Conjunto Theatre Journal (Havana, Cuba), and PAJ (MIT Press, upcoming), and HowlRound (also upcoming).

He received a BFA in playwriting from DePaul University, with honors. He serves as a script reader for Steppenwolf Theater (Chicago); he served apprenticeships at Bread & Puppet theater (Vermont), and the Wooster Group (NYC). David resides in the Northeast Kingdom of Vermont, with his son, Ricky, and his partner, Anni. He works as a freelance journalist.