Workshop Planning

Shortly before leaving for Switzerland, I conducted an interview [1] with John Martin (hereafter JM) on the overall aims for his involvement in Act 2 and the challenges he faced in planning the workshop. The discussion covered aspects of structure, learning outcomes and continuity between events. I include the salient points here.

 

JM went over a draft copy of his workshop plan with me. His intention was to create a practice-based learning environment in which formal teaching was balanced with –even outweighed at times by – structures conducive to self-reflexion, experimentation and the sharing of ideas. The morning sessions would be devoted to Image Theatre work and late afternoon and early evening sessions would allow for creative exploration and information exchange. Emmanuel Jal would lead the early afternoon sessions, though it was still unclear at this point as to what the nature and content of his workshop would be.

 

One of the immediate challenges in planning the event was how to address the contrast between the short duration of the workshop and the wide range of backgrounds, experiences and needs of the group. Time constraints meant that the instruction of a specific applied theatre methodology would not be feasible, and yet there was still an implicit expectation for participants to leave Geneva with deployable skills.

 

JM’s strategy was to turn the group’s most prominent feature, its cultural diversity, into its greatest asset. For example, in the work on Image Theatre participants would focus less on grasping an overall theatre model, and more on re-thinking and recounting approaches to home-grown issues through a range of shared experiences. For JM the workshop had to be both ‘enjoyable and challenging’ in the sense of: ‘“Oh I hadn’t thought of that! Could I use that? How could I use that? What she’s doing in her country is interesting, could I adapt that here?”’ Through this practice exchange, the seeds would be sewn for a new knowledge network that would outlive the workshop; and indeed this would become one of the most valuable legacy factors of the entire project.

 

The second key challenge was to tackle the potential disconnect between the workshop and the conference. How would the workshop and its participants contribute to the conference and vice-versa? The relationship between the two events had been in continual negotiation from the start. In the early planning stages of Act 2, the British Council Switzerland had been keen to focus the entire project on theatre and its role(s) in post-conflict development work. The decision was taken later on to broaden the scope to ‘cultural relations’, thereby including an array of artistic disciplines and extending the potential reach of the conference to a larger audience in Geneva. This shift in focus made the matter of continuity between workshop and conference all the more opaque. It was only in the final days of the workshop that an agreement was reached to give selected workshop participants the opportunity to deliver short speeches at the beginning of conference panels. Through these speeches and JM’s panel contribution, aspects of the workshop would enter the discourse of the conference.

 

Given that borders and crossovers between artistic disciplines would be a likely topic for debate in the conference, I was keen to find out from JM what he thought made theatre an apt medium for use in post-conflict contexts. His response touched on a third key challenge for Act 2 – an ongoing one – which is to convince those governmental and non-governmental institutions at the policy and funding edge of humanitarian work that applied theatre has much to offer development in the 21st century. JM’s remarks in this regard were poignant and incisive and warrant inclusion here verbatim:

 

‘As far as I can see, most other art forms can be very good at bonding people, bringing people together, giving people hope; they can be good at awareness raising, they can be a reflection of things, but theatre is the only one in which a discourse can be started about how things can be different from the perspective of the community, not the outsider. When you are talking about forum, intervention, image, debating, discursive theatre, then you are talking about a form which can invite people to imagine themselves differently, to imagine alternative futures, alternative outcomes, to rehearse them in some way, whether that’s within their own brains or literally on the stage, it’s dealing with the future in a practical way. It’s very difficult to do in song, dance, literature, photography and fine art, very difficult to do, because these art forms can reflect sometimes very movingly on the situation, but they can’t of themselves be a debate. Someone might choose to use them to start a debate, but the form of theatre that we’re using is in itself a form of debate, it’s built in. So the hoped for “empowerment of people” to take their own decisions and to think their own routes is, as far as I can see, only existent in theatre.’

 

These were some of the sentiments leading up to the workshop and conference: a mixture of excitement and caution, of clarity and confusion. While opinions differed on the terms of the project remit, the overriding sense from all my exchanges with Act 2 organisers was of a collective will to create a unique event that would have a positive and lasting impact on all involved. The following account of the workshop is a testimony to part of that will in action.

 


[1] The interview took place on the 7th of September 2010 at the PAN Intercultural Arts office in London.

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