By Yvette Hardie.
David Grieg said, “Theatre cannot change the world, but it can offer a moment of liberated space through which we can change ourselves.” How does theatre allow this change to occur? Through providing us with a space in which we are able to let go of our preconceptions and prejudices and where we can step into the experiences of those we may view as different from ourselves, in the process allowing us to have a change in perception. It is that crucial perceptual difference which can facilitate a change in behaviour, a change in attitude, a change in the way we interact with others.
Earlier this year in South Africa, we had an outbreak of xenophobic attacks, which deeply shamed me as a South African. 7 people were killed, many wounded and thousands were displaced from their homes. What started the waves of violence? There is deep-seated dissatisfaction within South Africa about our desperate state of unemployment, which affects around 25% of the population… The idea that foreign, African migrants in the country are taking South African jobs is a potent one, it is a perception that is held by many. “Africans come from other countries illegally to take our jobs, and our women” – is a viewpoint that is often heard. All it took for violence to erupt was for the Zulu King to say in a speech that they should “pack their belongings and go.” This resulted in an outbreak of violence in Durban, where Zulus are the largest ethnic group, and led to unrest in other parts of the country as well. Similar comments were made by the son of our President. Ironically, he is half Swazi and therefore in fact pretty close to being one of the foreigners he was asking to leave. Violence followed in the wake of these words. Just words – but they were so powerful…
This was not the first time that these kind of violent outbreaks had happened in our country. In May 2008 we saw a country-wide outbreak of violence, displacements and threats to the lives and properties of foreigners. In reaction to these attacks, theatre stepped in where most of our political leadership was afraid to go. Gina Shmukler created a very powerful piece about the xenophobic attacks, called “The Line” which in her words explores the “fragility of goodness” and engages with both victim and perpetrator. It asks what makes it possible for someone to cross the line, so to speak. How does a good person become a perpetrator? It is a piece of verbatim theatre in that all the dialogue is taken directly from interviews with victims and perpetrators after the attacks happened. The play has toured widely and performed at schools festivals in South Africa. ASSITEJ SA will be touring it into schools again next year. I believe that this is an important play, which speaks directly to our topic today, because it counters hatred, fear and suspicion with imagination. And it allows us to see “the other” – for a brief moment in time – as ourselves.
This is what theatre does. As Oscar Wilde said, “I regard the theatre as the greatest of all art forms, the most immediate way in which a human being can share with another the sense of what it is to be a human being.” It is this imaginative ability to feel oneself into the other, the alchemy of empathy, that is so needed in the world today, and that theatre more than any other art form, can give us. Not only does it present us with an imaginative encounter with the other, but it does this using real flesh and blood. What Athol Fugard calls the “carnal reality of the stage: “…the actual, the real, the immediate, there before our eyes, even if it shares in the transient fate of all living monuments. I suppose the theatre uses more of the actual substance of life than any other art. What comes anywhere near theatre in this respect, except possibly the painted using old bus tickets or the sculptor using junk iron and driftwood? The theatre uses flesh and blood, sweat, the human voice, real pain, real time.”
Why is it important that we see and feel and experience something in the same time and space, in the presence of the actors? What difference does this make?
Firstly it makes a difference to how we receive and remember the experience. In a study at the University of Arkansas, Greene, Hitt, Kraybill and Bogulski found that students who saw high quality theatre productions of playtexts, opposed to those who either just read the plays or saw them on film, demonstrated “enhanced knowledge of the plot and vocabulary in those plays, greater tolerance, and improved ability to read the emotions of others.” Interestingly in terms of tolerance, the study showed that those who had read the plays were no less or more tolerant than those who had not, and those who had seen the movies of the play were slightly less tolerant. And these benefits were tested some 47 days after the theatre event, which indicates that the results are lasting…
Secondly being in the same space and time as the actors, allows for theatre to become, in the words of Jill Dolan, a fleeting experience of utopia. She says, “I believe that theatre and performance can articulate a common future, one that’s more just and equitable, one in which we can all participate more equally, with more chances to live fully and contribute to the making of culture. I’d like to argue that such desire to be part of the intense present of performance offers us, if not expressly political then usefully emotional, expressions of what utopia might feel like.”
Dolan speaks of these as fleeting moments, but these are the moments that allow for crucial perceptual shifts.
What do I mean when I talk about perceptual shifts…? Our perception of events can be a prison from which we view the world. Our family, our context, our experiences all serve to create the ground in which particular perceptions take root and become fixed. If we perceive foreigners to be a threat, however nice an individual foreigner might be to us, they will always be seen as “the exception that proves the rule”. There will always be a part of us that remains locked into that way of seeing the world, and we interpret everything they say or do from that perspective. If we are able to shift our perceptions of a person or event, by seeing it from their point of view or from having a different insight into the circumstances, even just for a few moments, we are able to start to address our own entrenched attitudes and prejudices, which otherwise become the invisible walls that imprison us.
In my view, the fleeting experience of utopia is what theatre under apartheid in South Africa made possible – when audiences experienced a play such as “Born in the RSA”, in which black and white actors participated together, telling stories related to the very dark days of the late 80s, where there were states of emergency and state-sanctioned violence and oppression was at its height, it allowed them to imagine a society in which black and white had equal voices, were able to articulate the same vision and were united in a common cause. This “utopian” experience, made real by the real flesh and blood of actors sharing a stage, a story and the live and unique experience of the performance, allowed for a perceptual shift to happen, for an audience to recognise the possibility within what had previously been thought to be impossible.
Further, as Jill Dolan says, “The actor’s willing vulnerability perhaps enables our own and prompts us toward compassion and greater understanding.” Again, it is the living experience, which seems to be far more powerful in this regard. When we view the same actions on film, there is a part of us which may become convinced by the artifice of what we see. Or conversely we may be hyper aware of the fact that since this is a film, those tears could well have been manufactured for the camera. We no longer believe our own eyes.
On stage, our brains are confronted with both the artifice and the reality simultaneously. We know we are sitting in chairs watching a fiction. We know those actors are illuminated by artificial light… But at the same time, we are watching real actors, whose sweat and tears are not manufactured artificially, but which are reached through actual engagement with the moment of the performance. It is this “willing vulnerability” which opens up that crack in us that allows for a change in perception and for empathy to creep in.
The idea of “utopia” is not only about what we see on stage. Utopia can also be present in rehearsals and in the whole process of creating. Director Anne Bogart says, “I often see my rehearsal situation as utopian. Rehearsal is a possibility for the values I believe in, the politics I believe in, to exist in a set universe which is within the room.” She sees rehearsals as the moment of utopic expression in theatre, when a group of people repeat and revise incremental moments, trying to get them right, to get them to “work.”
When I was working on “Truth in Translation”, a play about South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which toured widely internationally and played to almost 60 000 people, many of them from conflict zones across the world, it became apparent that what happened in the rehearsal room was as important as what would be seen on stage. In this space of exploration, where actors bared themselves, made themselves vulnerable, the true architecture of empathy was being built, and when that was successful, then it translated to the stage very powerfully. The reconciliation which had to happen in the rehearsal room in order for the production to be made, and the difficulties of that reconciliation, were translated to performance in such a way that the play spoke to audiences across space, history, language, and context.
Theatre requires conflict generally in order to be successful as theatre; but simultaneously it requires co-operation – invisible and seamless, but nevertheless demonstrable co-operation… All theatre is an act of co-operation – between the actors, between the actors and director and designers and stage team, between the actors and the audience. The capacity to demonstrate and experience seamless co-operation is potentially healing, as it allows us to reconfigure our brokenness and our disconnection from one another. And in Truth in Translation this co-operation was most powerfully demonstrated through the use of song – song in complex and beautiful harmonies sung in many of the official languages of South Africa – sung together by people of all these languages and therefore of the many ethnic backgrounds they represent. Songs that carried the pain of experience, but also transformed it into something beautiful, in the process liberating the artists and the audiences through the singing.
As an example from this festival, yesterday I experienced the performance “Pss Pss…” Now for those of you who haven’t seen it, this is not a political performance. It is a clown show, with some acrobatics and trapeze work thrown in. But I would argue that the seamlessness of that performance, of the co-operation between the actors, and of their interaction with us, provided us all with a space in which we felt connected, to them and to one another. It provided us with a vision of a utopia, which left us feeling more humane and more human.
Is this important in theatre for children and young people? I believe that it is crucially important. We imbibe our perceptions and attitudes from our parents, schools, societies – and having spaces in which these can be challenged and where we can experience something different to our received perception of reality is crucial to our capacity for empathy and for understanding of the world around us.
One of the first projects that ASSITEJ SA embarked on when we started in 2007 was called Children of Conflict. Here children from the USA, Rwanda, Kosovo and South Africa engaged online, asking one another questions about their realities, sharing their stories and then creating pieces of performance, which could be shared and performed in the other centres by other young people. 14-16 year olds discussed politics, share their views on racism, music, power, life… What the project made apparent was that when they performed the work written by one another, there was a far deeper appreciation of the point of view, and perspective of the other country, than when they simply spoke about it… The act of taking on the stories of the other allowed for a deeper appreciation of the realities of experience that had been discussed. The ideas became embodied and therefore more fully understood and acknowledged by the children.
Looking back at my own growing up, I am deeply grateful that I went to a drama group where I was the only white child and where I was able to exercise my love of theatre with children with whom I would otherwise have had no contact in the context of apartheid South Africa. I am positive that this made a deep impression on me, which has ultimately been of huge value as I negotiate the complicated space, which is post-apartheid race relations in South Africa.
In 2016 we are hoping to bring a production from Cambodia to South Africa, which was created as a result of and as an extension from Truth in Translation. Global Arts Corps links the original theatre company with theatre companies in places to which the production travelled, as well as to other post-conflict areas, and aims to make work in countries emerging from violent conflict, to encourage communication between generations and to find ways to “forgive the past to survive the future”. This production is created in association with a group of young Cambodian circus performers of the school Phare Ponleu Selpak (Brightness of the Arts) based in Battambang. The school serves seven generations of local youth, many of whom were orphans or are growing up in extreme need. They themselves are second generation survivors of the genocide, and they want to explode the traumatic legacy of silence using their world-class circus skills to tell their story. They have been working for three years in workshops to develop the piece, which will share their perspectives. I believe that young people in South Africa will find in this piece a mirror for their own experiences and hopefully will be able to view their own circumstances differently.
Being engaged directly with theatre processes and of course, seeing theatre allow children and young people a liberated and safe space in which they can engage with ideas or people which may seem threatening or alien, and allow them to think about how they wish to move forward. Children and youth have the opportunity to be the instigators of social changes; they may choose to repeat the established patterns of the past or they may choose to reinvent the world through new eyes. However, for many children and youth they are not given this choice, because they are not given the tools to deal with what they have inherited from those who have gone before.
One of the greatest disservices we do to children is to bequeath them with our hatred, shame, guilt or anger. When we look at the great conflicts of history we see how this trans-generational retraumatising does tremendous damage to the next generation of children, and in many contexts we see how former victims become perpetrators in cycles of violence, which seemingly have no end… When we were travelling through the Balkans with Truth in Translation a refrain that we heard often, and often from young people, was “but you don’t understand our history. You don’t understand what they did to us in 1995 or 1766 or 1389…” People were literally carrying their history into their present-day perceptions of the world. This
transgenerational transmission occurs not only in major crises but also in the domestic traumas that affect families – the loss of a child, for example, can affect the other children in a family in ways that they may not even be aware of.
Theatre has the potential to disrupt the versions of reality that we tell ourselves and become trapped in. Theatre is a door to understanding another point of view, of allowing ourselves a shift in perception which will ensure that we start to see whatever we consider as “other” as simply another part of ourselves…Theatre then becomes a space where we can identify what oppresses us (and here I do not speak simply about the literal oppression) and find potential liberation.
But to create this theatre for children and young people requires courage from theatre makers to tackle what are often taboos or no-go areas. It requires diligence and responsibility. It requires self-examination and reflection to unearth our own prejudices and fixed ideas and make sure that we do not replicate these in the theatre we make. It requires us to be respectful of our audiences and not preach to them or try to convert them to our own way of thinking. It requires the capacity to hold multiple truths within the act of theatre making, and to engage with our audience in dialogue during the making of the piece, as well as around its performances, creating a space for new communities and ways of being in and thinking about the world to be born
In these spaces that we create we have the potential to create hope for the future, the feeling of utopia – the feeling of the love and commonality that binds us together as all human beings – and which we violate at great cost to ourselves and to our futures.