During the last week of the Summer Semester 2015 in the University of Innsbruck’s Master Program in Peace Studies, students were given the choice to engage in one of two workshops dedicated to the energetic aspects of peace. One, named Individuation of the Peace Worker, was dedicated to understanding the patterns of behavior in the peace worker’s personality in order to enable him/her to be fully functional in the working environment. The other, entitled Theatre for Living and the object of this article, introduces a unique methodology built on the use of theatre for conflict transformation.
Many enthusiastic students chose it with the hope of discovering new ways to bring the different layers of conflict to the surface. After one intense week of improvisation, exploratory exercises and shared emotions, workshop students invited their peers to a Forum Theatre event. This is an open participatory theatre that provides the audience with the opportunity to step into the scene and transform the performed conflicts by replacing one of the actors. The following article seeks to convey some of the feelings and emotions lived during that night from two different perspectives.
Making visible the invisible
I am part of a group of students eager to share what we have learned during the week-long workshop. We hope to be able to make visible the conflicts we want to represent through a play and although it is not an easy task, we have been working really hard. We know by now that the theater is a safe place where we can express ourselves with openness and transparency. Our faces reflect confidence, but at the same time fear of jumping into the unknown.
The two first plays go by. The first illustrates a family conflict and the second reveals a crisis situation in a working environment. Both of them generate wonderful responses from audience members who stare, laugh, suffer and intervene with proposed solutions and insights that come from their outside perspectives.
The play starts. A man walks onto the stage. He talks with a terrific sense of humor that makes everybody laugh, but with a seriousness required to express what is hidden inside his character. His words and marvelous expressions of his soul and heart are floating through the air as he shares a special moment with all of us. It is his wedding anniversary, a moment to commemorate the bond of love that united him and his wife. It is the first time he is making dinner for her, the first time he is setting the table. He even bought flowers. He is thrilled to share a magical moment with his wife, but she is not at home. He calls her and she says she is at the hairdresser. He waits, frozen in the moment until she is back.
Her face reflects anguish while she is walking into the room, but she knows she cannot change what she did.
She needed it.
The following scene revels to the audience, what the wife does not dare tell her husband: she is not at the hairdresser, but loving another man. After receiving the call from her husband, she decides to rush home to meet him. Her face reflects anguish while she is walking into the room, but she knows she cannot change what she did. She needed it.
They meet in the dining room. The tension is growing in the scene. You can feel it, see it and even smell it. He knows she is not coming from the hairdresser. Her hair is a mess. She is trying to change the topic, bringing the conversation back to their anniversary because she knows she cannot lie for much longer. He asks again and the tension explodes: “I was with another man!” she yells, as if that helps her get rid of that terrible burden. He breaks down as he sees all his world collapse around him.
The room is quiet, waiting for the next movement of the actors, maybe waiting for a happy ending. It will never arrive. The scene continues and the couple starts accusing each other of everything; everything that is happening in the moment that has happened in the past and that will happen in the future. She always wanted to become a mother, but he can never provide her with that pleasure. He fears she will leave him now that he knows there is another man. They are now revealing all that is inside them, all the small details that were destroying their marriage, all the ideas never expressed. They are revealing all the fears, the complaints, the solitude, the moments of desperation, all of the conflicts. The shouting continues until the scene comes to an unresolved stop. Both characters are frozen in the moment. She seems to want to flee and he is on his knees trying to hold her. Both are in search for something different.
The scene is over. We used our experiences and the space to share an honest moment; a moment that now belongs to everyone in the room. Now it is the audience’s turn. They have the unique opportunity to not only analyze the conflict from the outside but to jump into it, to actively seek transformation. They just need to say “stop” and replace a character. It is now their time for action.
The courage to yell “Stop!”
It is time for the third play of the evening. Eyes wide open in the audience, silence in the room. The play starts with a couple, infidelity, love, guilt and uncomfortable questions that culminate in a fight and a violent break-up. An overwhelming applause breaks the silence only to return to stillness before the scene is played for the second time. Again the scene unfolds: a couple, infidelity, love, guilt, tears, fighting, a break-up. Nobody in the room dares to shout, “Stop!” and intervene in the play. Giving ourselves another chance, the scene is played for the third time around. A couple – no “Stop!”. Infidelity – no “Stop!”. A break-up.
The room is immersed in an intolerable silence, as if the most minuscule noise has the power to turn the conflict into a real catastrophe. The growing tension is reflected in the eyes of the peace students contemplating the scene, themselves caught between the internal unrest caused by the fighting couple and the invisible energy paralyzing them on the outside. For some, that energy might be the fear of being judged. Some might be ashamed of halting the play, worried about not being able to provide an alternative to the struggle. Some may not even be sure of how to transform the situation. Others could be waiting for someone else to take the first step.
We used our experiences and the space to share an honest moment; a moment that now belongs to everyone in the room.
No matter what ran through our heads, the situation remained sealed: a fight and a break-up for the third time. It was a situation that could have been changed; an outcome that could have been avoided; a fight that could have been turned into a conversation; shouts that could have been lowered to hear real voices; possibilities that could have been turned into realities. A lot that could have been, but nothing was, because nobody made it be.
The scene became the mirror of the world, of our world, of my world. A mirror of all of those situations in which tension rises until words become screams and screams become weapons – and weapons hurt. Situations that are observed, talked about, analyzed and discussed by a frozen audience that does not dare to shout, “Stop!” and step into the play to turn all of those possibilities into realities.
That was the moment that the forum theatre became a life lesson for me. It was not a lesson on what was right or wrong, nor about what should or should not have been done. It was not a teaching on the different ways to intervene in a conflict. It became a lesson about all of those times in my life that I did not shout, “Stop!”; all of those scenes into which I did not dare walk. It is a lesson to remember next time I sit in the audience of the world that surrounds me. It is a teaching to give me the courage to stand up, to take that first step and to become an active part of the scene.
A lot that could have been, but nothing was, because nobody made it be.
Finally, someone dared to cut the overbearing silence, stepped into the play and created a new reality out of the same starting situation. This was when I realized that the world could see many of its possibilities turned into realities if more of us learned how to be that ‘someone’.
A magical night
The result of the forum theatre was a magical night in which the deeper layers of conflicts were made visible and students were empowered with the courage to intervene and transform the situations. We laughed, cried, struggled and lived the moment. The plays reached their end, but life still continues. Now, the power to use what we learned is in our hands – the power to decide when we will shout, “Stop”!