Workshop Day 1

OPENING REMARKS

 

Workshop leader, John MartinJohn Martin (JM) began the workshop by introducing the Act 2 coordinators and participants, and by explaining the remit of the project. The purpose of Act 2, as proposed by the British Council Switzerland, was to explore and demonstrate the efficacy of the Arts ‘as a tool to address conflict and re-establish post-conflict normality’. While an array of artistic disciplines were to be highlighted in making this case, including among others film, photography and music at the conference event, and music and spoken word at the Grütli Arts Centre, the four-day workshop would focus on the role of theatre for social change.

 

In addressing the workshop proper, JM stressed the importance of listening and learning from the diversity of voices and opinions amongst participants. He discussed the open structure of the workshop and the deliberate non-imposition of ‘rules’ or formal teaching, embedding the locus of learning within the group. The overall aim of the workshop was for participants to acquire new practical skills and new ways of thinking about social change. John’s speech, along with the majority of instructions and dialogue throughout the workshop, was translated simultaneously from English to Sinhala and Tamil or from Sinhala and Tamil to English for members of the Shakthi group. There was, therefore, a multiplicity of languages in use at all times.

 

BREAKING THE ICE

 

After the introduction, the group took part in a series of ‘ice-breaking’ activities to familiarise each other with names and backgrounds. The first activity was a mapping exercise in which participants were asked to pin nametags to their country of residence and/or origin on a world map. The map in question was an Accurate Area Map, which attempts a projection of the globe on a scale of equal proportions.

 

As the last few tags were put in place, several participants commented on aspects of land mass and geographic distance. One participant mentioned the fact that the majority of group members came from countries in the southern hemisphere. Another pointed out that aside from Sri Lanka and Jamaica, the two European countries represented in the group – Great Britain and Switzerland – were the smallest in scale. The map remained on display throughout the workshop.

 

The second activity was a simple ball game. Participants formed a large circle and passed a sponge ball around. The receiver would call out his or her name playing with rhythmic inflection before passing the ball on. Numerous variations of this memory game were used as warm-up exercises throughout the week.

 

DRAWING TRAJECTORIES

 

Marker pens and large sheets of paper were handed out and participants were asked to draw the trajectory of the journey that had brought them to the workshop. For the next half hour, the room entered a pensive state as participants set to work on constructing ideas and experiences. Upon completion, the drawings were placed around the edge of the space and the group was given the opportunity to view and discuss the results informally. While unmistakably idiosyncratic, the drawings contained several compelling structural and thematic similarities that I will outline here below.

 

The majority of participants opted for ‘flow diagrams’, in which key ‘scenes’ from individual journey narratives were isolated in circles or squares (see Figures 4 & 5). The tendency in this configuration was to present an overview of life experiences, ranging from scenes of conflict to scenes of celebration, often ending with a symbol of hope and prosperity in the present day (see Figure 8). A recurrent feature within the scenes was the depiction of the self in relation to family, friends and members of the community. There was a sense that the significance of the journey to Switzerland was of greater import than simple individual gain.

 

A second structural set could be discerned in drawings that substituted the chronology of the flow diagram for an emphasis on a specific theme (see Figures 7 & 9). The chosen themes were invariably of a violent nature, such as the chaos wrought on a community by a dividing wall (see Figure 7), or the symbolic depiction of confrontations between the powerful and the powerless (see Figure 9). In such cases, the tendency was to define the self either explicitly or implicitly in relation to the chosen theme, raising the question of the extent to which conflict defines personal identity.

 

The third structural set, and clearly a minority grouping, involved a conceptual approach to the idea of ‘trajectory’ (see Figure 6). Here, all elements of realist exposition were replaced by metaphor and encoded expression. Decoding the meaning behind these drawings became a popular activity in the viewing phase and incited keen dialogue between artist and observers.

 

(Fig.4. Participant trajectory drawing using a ‘flow diagram’ approach.)
 
(Fig. 5. Participant trajectory drawing using a ‘flow diagram’ approach.)
 
(Fig.6. Participant trajectory drawing using an abstract approach.)
 
(Fig.7. Participant trajectory drawing using a thematic approach.)

 
[one_half](Fig 8. Participant trajectory drawing using a ‘flow diagram’ approach.)[/one_half] [one_half_last](Fig 9. Participant trajectory drawing using a
thematic approach.)
[/one_half_last]

 

Whereas the world map activity had revealed instances of difference and similarity within the group’s geographic identities, and the ball games added peculiarities of movement and voice, the trajectories exercise brought personal history and psychology to the fore.

 

The act of drawing for an audience of peers at this early stage in the workshop was as much an act of exposing the boundaries surrounding access to personal identity, as it was the desire to share stories of provenance. The continual crossing of thresholds between difference and similarity punctuated group work throughout the week. It was within these interstitial spaces, the buffer zones between self-expression and the acceptance of others, that much of the practical learning took place. The potential to maintain the one and the other without the imposition of an arbitrary hierarchy is one of the most beneficial aspects of artistic practice, particularly in post-conflict development contexts where this balance is often rocked beyond recognition.

 

IMAGE THEATRE – GROUP IMAGES

 

Breaking with the pensive mode of the previous activity, the next task got participants moving around the space. The instruction was given to form groups and, without recourse to spoken language, to devise physical images or ‘tableaux’ in response to specific themes. For example, in groups of four, participants were asked to create the image of a boat. The space was quickly filled with conventional boat shapes using bodies on the horizontal to outline a hull, and bodies on the vertical for a mast and sails.

 

Participants were then told that their boats were out at sea. This sent a series of swaying motions through the space accompanied by soft whistling sounds to create a sense of sea breeze. The key concern amongst groups at this stage was whether the depiction of their boats and the surrounding sea was dramatically credible. The final instruction announced the arrival of a storm. With this, the images took on noticeable energy and purpose, and concerns of stylistic convention gave way to the collective will for ‘survival’. In the group I had joined, this was manifest in the tensing of muscles, the extension of limbs, withheld breathing and marks of anguish on faces.

 

For some of the groups, the invocation of the storm triggered a shift in performance tense from as if to as is, from the depiction of how one should behave to behaviour in action. Where this shift occurred, the sea, the boat and the storm were no longer of primary concern. What appeared instead, and still within the bounds of the simulation, was the collective expression of fear and the subsequent will to overcome it. It remains a point of conjecture to discern on an individual basis exactly how this ‘spirit’ of anxiety was produced. Was it drawn from a ‘reservoir’ of personal experience, from affective memory? Was it the result of a sense of obligation to perform anxiety as one of the ‘conventions’ of a storm? Or did it derive from mutual influence within the group? While it was no doubt a combination of all these factors, and still others besides, this example underlines a phenomenon that was present in much of the week’s Image Theatre work. That is, the frequent interchange, or blurring of borders, between the real, the simulated, and the simulation of the real.

 

It will become clearer in latter accounts of the Image Theatre work, as the exercises took on greater complexity, that this interchange is closely tied into the structures of performance and performance-allowing structures. Where those structures are permitted – communal time, space and desire – the simulation of the real can occur, but when an arbitrary force imposes itself on daily life, such as an armed conflict or a natural disaster for example, the real in its most visceral sense (the sense of survival) dominates.

 

It is on these fault lines that the question of the efficacy of Image and Forum Theatre lies: how far can the simulation take me in my understanding of the real? What preventative mechanisms can I establish through that understanding? Turning to Boal for guidance once more, his interest in Image Theatre was in its qualitative rather than quantitative use. Boal began using physical images to solve a practical linguistic problem for a group of people without a common ‘mother tongue’ and whose collective use of Spanish resulted in misunderstanding. The images did not replace words but they could not be translated into words either, they were, he wrote ‘a language in themselves’. In working with images, Boal noted that one ‘should not try to “understand” the meaning of each image, to apprehend its precise meaning, but to feel those images, to let our memories and imaginations wander: the meaning of an image is the image itself…all images are also surfaces and, as such, they reflect what is projected on it.’ [1]

 

Similar circumstances surrounded the Act 2 group. Although English was the group’s lingua franca, understandings of its usages differed from one participant to the next. The group image exercise was an effective means of creating a sense of community whilst still allowing the expressive voice of the individual to roam free.

 

WRITING STATEMENTS OF INTENT

 

Before the group broke for lunch, large sheets of paper were pinned to freestanding screens around the room and participants were invited to write short statements describing their aspirations for the future. Statements were written in a range of languages including Arabic, Sinhalese and Tamil, and translations in English were provided later on.

 

The statements varied in tone from the pragmatic to the ideal, and in topic from the political to the personal. The screens were on display throughout the week and served as a reminder of the plurality of voices, cultures and motivations within the group.

 

The following is a selection of those statements:

 

  • As an artist…empower people to make change.

 

  • I don’t want young people to be used as pawns in the game of politics.

 

  • I want the referendum to be conducted peacefully and that the choice of the Southern Sudanese is granted by the government of Sudan.

 

  • We are all dancers. When we are dancers, we can relax. When relaxed, we can forgive.

 

  • This is the time for us to plan for those who are planning to fail, failing to plan for peace.

 

  • Art is recognised as a way of changing societies.

 

  • When we work together, our dreams become true.

 

EMMANUEL JAL – “WAR CHILD”

 

Act 2 patron Emmanuel Jal (hereafter EJ) led the after-lunch sessions throughout the week. He began by introducing himself and his work. EJ is a former child soldier from South Sudan who has climbed to international fame as a hip-hop artist and human rights activist. He uses music and spoken word as a means of personal therapy and as a way of drawing attention to ongoing injustices in areas of conflict and deprivation. In his introduction, he mentioned his ongoing commitment to a strict fasting regime of one meal per day to raise funds for a new school in the town of Leer in South Sudan.

 

In each session EJ worked through a different set of ideas related to the themes of cultural leadership and the use of music to inspire change. In this opening slot he chose to screen the documentary film War Child, directed by Christian Karim Chrobog, released in 2008. The film charts EJ’s childhood, starting from his coercive recruitment into the Sudan People’s Liberation Army; his harrowing and near-death experience as a defector from the army; his survival, thanks in part to the late British aid worker, Emma McCune and her persistence in smuggling Jal out of Ethiopia. It goes on to cover elements his work outside South Sudan as a musician and human rights activist, before finally following him on his first trip back to South Sudan, to meet surviving members of his family and friends.

 

The group’s response to the film was overwhelmingly positive. When EJ paused the film to ask whether the group wanted to see it in its entirety, a unanimous ‘Yes!’ resounded in the space. Until this point, the majority of participants had been unaware of EJ’s life and work, but after seeing excerpts of his international music performances and listening to his childhood story, he became an instant role model for them; an example of how individual will can overcome adversity, even at the most oppressive fringes of existence. To listen to someone who has lived in the harrowing conditions that s/he is now committed to preventing, is an experience that any socially responsible person must witness.

 


[1] Augusto, Boal, Games for Actors and Non-Actors. Trans. Adrian Jackson. New York: Routledge, 1992. P175.

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