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THEATRE FOR PEACE-BUILDING

  • Speech given by Yvette Hardie in Okinawa, July 2013

Right now, Nelson Mandela is very close to my heart. I left South Africa to come here on his 95th birthday; a day he spent in hospital, but also a day when people the world over celebrated his extraordinary achievements as a peacemaker…

What was it that he did that was so extraordinary? He saw the humanity in every human being. He thought counter-intuitively – where people thought he should be wary, he was bold; where people thought he should hold grudges, he forgave; where others thought he should remain remote or aloof, he revealed his humanity. He told the truth in difficult, painful circumstances, he surprised people… He was always aware of his own failings and never arrogant about his achievements – as far as he was concerned, he was a small part of a greater movement for change, not a messiah; and yet, what would our country have been without him? His personal capacities allowed those who feared change to accept it, for those who were angry to lay aside their anger – because he had done so, for those who wanted revenge to put their energies into rebuilding, and for those who were guilty of crimes against humanity to in some cases accept justice and in others ask for forgiveness. It was not so much about the words he spoke – although he spoke some great words – but rather his actions, which were so telling. His wearing of a rugby jersey for the world cup match – the jersey of the sport played by the oppressors; his going to visit the wife of the architect of apartheid for tea, and speaking Afrikaans with her; his inviting his jailer to attend his inauguration; his naming of his son’s illness that had cause his death – AIDS – at a time when Aids was not mentioned. It was these and innumerable other actions that set the example, that led the way, and that made him such a tremendous example of what it means to be a peacemaker.

What does it mean to make peace? Is this the same as to “not cause war and conflict” which were the terms used in describing the topic of this symposium… I believe they are not the same, but they are also not unrelated. Certainly you can’t have the first without the second, but the second does not necessarily bring about the first. While the first is about taking action, being proactive, the second is about not doing something, being passive. I will return to this idea later in my discussion of theatre, but first I would like to ask an opposite question:

If we were to create theatre for children, which had as its intent the creation of war and conflict between people, what might it look like?

  • It might cast people as types,
  • It might dehumanise certain people by portraying them narrowly or falsely
  • It might tell incorrect versions of history or versions of history which are slanted in very particular ways, or it might tell history with an intent to provoke revenge for the past, to increase the audience’s sense of victimhood;
  • It might ignore the truth – the truth of the oppression, or conflict, or culpability for the conflict – or the fact that there may be more than one contradictory “truths”;
  • It might attempt to arouse, or resurrect, prejudices
  • It might cast itself as being well-meaning, well-intentioned, truthful, reflective of realities – but it would not be; it would have an ulterior motive
  • It might come from a place of ignorance about the world and people’s places in it
  • It might entrench positions of victims and perpetrators
  • It might be self-referential, it would try to keep out anomalies or differences
  • It might endorse a sense of self which is self-congratulatory or uncritical

Now I don’t believe that there are many artists in the world who deliberately set out to create war and conflict, through the work they produce, but I think there are many artists in the world who unknowingly produce work which might ultimately have this impact… This is why we need to examine our own work carefully and interrogate it’s subconscious messaging… interrogate those things that we don’t necessarily know that we are saying. We particularly need to do this with an awareness of the context in which we are making theatre, since theatre while it might be universal, can’t pretend to be a-contextual.

Can theatre for young audiences be an active peacemaker?

I believe that it can be, and I think this because of the nature of the artform. It is a form relying on collective creation, having the capacity to hold different points of view in counterpoint to one another. It is a form which relies on action – which is composed of action – and therefore it has the capacity to be the example that Mandela was, without the need for explanations or overt teaching. It relies on the audiences’ perceptions, and has the capacity to change these by revealing things about characters or situations, which are unexpected, and which shift attitudes. It evokes and develops empathy, which is our capacity to feel with those most unlike ourselves. It is able to ask questions which leave an audience needing to talk in order to satisfy their own curiosity or dissatisfaction at a state of being. It is a collective experience in the here and now, which makes it immediate, and which allows for a community to be forged in the watching of a piece – a community which shares tears and laughter, rage and humour, delight and discovery.

In South Africa, where we have come from a past of racial divisions and where these divisions still exist in many forms, we need to find a way for theatre to reflect a new reality, a new possibility, a new way of being in the world, an integration which can exist, because it is being rehearsed by the company making the theatre. Theatre is about co-operation and exchange, and I believe that cultural exchange must occur first and foremost at home. If we seek international understanding and collaboration beyond our borders, but do not consider first exchange between the different cultures in our own homes, schools and church communities, indigenous and immigrant, local and foreigner, then we are to some extent inauthentic. Theatre reflects society – it can point out its brokenness or it can reflect its potential for wholeness – this is not about dictating answers for the audience, but rather about showing what is or what could be.

The theatre which for me is most relevant and powerful in South Africa today, is theatre first of all where the company mirrors the diversity of our society: companies like Ubom!, based in Grahamstown, Bonfire Theatre, which is part professional performance and part drama-therapy, and Magnet theatre based in Cape Town, or director/creators who deliberately seek out stories of our diversity and our need for reconciliation, such as Lara Foot Newton, Craig Higginson and as evidenced by new work, some young director/writers like Joanna Evans, Omphile Molusi and Daniel Buckland.

These companies and creators, whether they are telling fanciful stories, stories based in our current realities or traditional stories, do so with companies that reflect a diversity onstage, which children subconsciously respond to whether this is an overt part of the story or not.

But it can’t just be on the stage where these possibilities are reflected. Audiences also need to be more diverse and reflective of the society. In South Africa, where children tend to go to school where they live, and where our geographical boundaries which were created by apartheid have not changed sufficiently, many children do not experience the multi-culturalism of the so-called “Rainbow nation” in their school or home environments. So theatre needs to bring communities together across divides. This means getting creative with audience building. One of the things that ASSITEJ SA is currently working on is a model where a performance at well-to-do schools serves as a fundraiser for the school, on the condition that the school invites an under-privileged school to experience the piece with it.

Experiencing theatre together with those different from oneself is an opportunity for discovering empathy and solidarity. Laughter is very important, perhaps more so than tears – since often tears are for one side or the other, while laughter can be all-embracing… In the experiencing of this reaction, particularly if the play invites some kind of conversation or interaction with it, there is the possibility for overcoming suspicion and fear and making space for what our government likes to call nation-building, but which I see as building tolerance, empathy and a sense of shared purpose. If we are able to use the spaces around theatre to encourage inter-cultural and inter-generational dialogue, then we may be making a contribution towards building peace.

Some theatre-makers in my country say, “why burden children with the issues of the past. It is the past, they don’t need to know about it… they need to be living a new kind of reality.” I think this is a foolish approach, largely because there will always be intergenerational trauma, and children live with the consequences of the lives of the adults who have gone before them. Often children inherit conflicts from the older generations and act out in response to perceptions of “otherness” built over years, and even generations, that are not necessarily within their personal experience. Also, children’s realities today are directly linked to the past – not much has changed in our country, despite the fact that all are now free to vote. The concrete realities are still those of a divided society where whites still have far more privilege by virtue of the fact that they inherit these privileges from their parents and grandparents, while blacks are still often trapped in lives of poverty, a lack of opportunity, in a home and landscape which does not nurture their potential…

So some theatre for young audiences in South Africa needs to deal directly with these conflicts, exposing the tensions in our society, or dealing with the difficult past or present. In “The Year of the Bicycle” we see a simple and beautifully realised story of a relationship between two 8 year olds and the same children 10 years later, when the society has shaped them in certain ways to view one another differently…

Prejudice needs to be faced head-on, I believe. But in so doing theatre also needs to be careful not to make crude moral judgements, or to avoid the difficult issues by being politically correct. There are great dangers in political correctness, where politeness does not allow you to say anything meaningful, or to explore those places, which are most broken and difficult. Politeness does not bring peace – since we are always aware that there is something beneath the mask, which we may or may not be able to identify. Theatre is about exposure- showing the surface, but also showing the depth, showing the lies… One of the SA playwrights who consistently does this, although he does not work for children, is Mike van Graan. His capacity to show a fractured and multi-faceted society is exactly what I believe that children and young people need to experience in theatre. As a result, I have asked him to work with me in creating a piece for teenagers. I want to create a piece of theatre which will ask more questions than it will answer, and will lay bare the complexities of our country as it is experienced by young people, without any sugar-coating.

So to return to what theatre needs to do if it is to be peace-maker: It cannot simply give messages of peace. Saying something does not necessarily change anything. We KNOW many things in life, which we do not necessarily integrate into our lives. Ultimately moving from knowing to action requires something more, a real desire to change, or a recognition that not changing is more threatening than the way things currently are…

Theories of learning suggest that there are different ways of learning – hearing, seeing, doing, discovering… While some people have more affinity with one than another, these ways can be placed in a hierarchy. It has been said that if I hear something, I forget it; if I see something, I remember it; if I do something, I know it; if I discover something, I can use it. At least 75% of what we learn is from what we SEE, which is why Mandela’s acts of reconciliation were so important in our learning as a nation. And it is also said that if these ways of learning are combined, learning is more effective. I believe that theatre is one of the most effective learning mechanisms there is, but if the theatre allows us to hear, see, do AND discover, it will leave a deeper impression than theatre which simply tells us what to do or be.

I believe we have a duty as artists to be self-critical and to engage with what our work is saying both consciously and subconsciously. We must ensure that our work does not cause war and conflict, but more important than that, we must find ways to demonstrate and give children the experience of making peace as an everyday activity – with themselves, with one another and with the world around them.

Theatre can become a means of “rehearsing for peace” by developing curiosity about the other, by reflecting diversity and embracing that diversity in our working methods, by moving out of our comfort zones, by bridging divides using empathy and humour, by recognising and scrutinising our own prejudices, by engaging with our casts and our audiences in an ongoing dialogue, where the conversations after the play are an important part of the sustained value of the theatrical experience.

I don’t have any final answers, but right now, here are some of the questions I am asking: How can theatre surprise us with the unexpectedness of its thinking? How can it reveal the full extent of humanity so that we are able to empathise even with those who seem most unlike us or most unlikeable? How can theatre start a conversation between people who didn’t know that they wanted to talk to one another? How can theatre tell the painful truth about things fairly and without prejudice? How can theatre make us laugh at the things we fear and cry with those we hate or despise? How can theatre be more like Mandela?