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David Diamond – Activism of Insights

A Conversation with David Diamond

We’re at the end of an intense three weeks for David: one week of teaching at the Innsbruck peace studies program, one week at the International Institute on Peace Education, one week in a workshop on Rainbow of Desire and Cops in the Head. Next, he is headed to Spain to do a week-long training. We’re all tired, but we decide Chinese food might help us talk about Theatre for Living and peace education on this last night in Innsbruck.

As we talk, we realize that Innsbruck is only the most recent stop on a wonderful journey David has been on. “I’ve been very lucky,” he says. “I discovered theatre. Fell into it, really. From the time I was a very small child, I’ve also recognized that things just aren’t fair; and that turned into a real interest in human rights. So I get to combine these two things that I love: the theatre and human rights.”

Does David see his theatre work as a form of activism? “Oh, absolutely. And what an amazing place to land.”

David is as surprised as we are about how things have happened for him. “It’s never been about building a career,” he says. Instead, one thing led to the next, quite naturally, to make him a facilitator of insights.

First, there is his childhood: “I grew up in an environment where I needed to be really alert, or you got hit, you got yelled at – all kinds of things could happen.” That made David an excellent observer.
A few years after co-founding Headlines Theatre (now called Theatre for Living) with some friends, this quality also made him probe further into the possibilities of his theatre work and search for ways to do it “with” people, not “at” them. Picking up a book one day, David learned about Paulo Freire, whose pedagogy happens to be foundational to peace education as well as to Augusto Boal’s work. That led him to Theatre of the Oppressed and to eventually become a close friend of Boal’s.

Peace work is community health work.
They’re the same work.

“And then there are my encounters with Indigenous communities in Canada. They really challenged me to adapt the [Theatre of the Oppressed] model so that it didn’t demonize or criminalize people in their community who were doing hurtful things, as a result of colonialism and residential school. There was a desire for a project on family violence issues in which rather than an abuser being portrayed as a ‘monster who needed to be locked up’ we would recognize the character’s humanity; a person who needed healing, in a family that needed healing, in a community that needed healing. Families were already hurting enough without being shattered by a mechanical, and Eurocentric, Canadian justice system. That really challenged my own images of my childhood and the way my politics functioned – but the people making the request of me were right.”

David’s longtime interest in physics led him to a similar place. “As a child, I was going to the library and I was devouring very basic books on physics. Then, later in life, a dear friend clued me into Fritjof Capra. My insights into the terrible results of reductionism and the invitation from Indigenous communities – these are connected insights. And so these things made sense to me from two different directions. I’ve been really lucky.”

David’s humility and gratitude are combined with his determination to pursue his interests. Listening deeply, and having respect for and being responsive to the feedback he was getting, his work evolved very naturally. And thus it seems it was the qualities of a peace educator that helped make his work what it is today.

But does David ever think of his work as some sort of peace education? “Well, I didn’t until I got an email from Wolfgang Dietrich, who said, ‘Do you want to come and teach at the faculty?’” David then tells us a story that helps us understand how he sees his work’s relationship to peacework.

“Years ago, I got an email from a woman from the [Indigenous] Passamaquoddy Nation on the East Coast of Canada and the US. She wanted to do a project on language loss and reclamation, because Passamaquoddy was disappearing. We talked for a couple of hours on the phone. At the end of it, I said, ‘You know, I think what you’re talking about [is] a community health issue. She said, ‘That’s exactly what’s happening.’ And I think this is the same thing – that peace work is community health work. They’re the same work.”

In fact, health seems to be the image David refers to time and time again to focus the intention of his work. A healthy relationship to the issue, or to ourselves and one another in the context of that issue, always seems to be the objective. And health makes sense as a paradigm if you look at everything as part of an interconnected organism. Also, because “health” is subjective, this leads to dialogues inside the work about what “health” really means to us – whether it is at the expense of others, for instance.

In his work with healthcare professionals at the University of Alberta at Edmonton, Canada, David says that the change he hopes to contribute to by working there is to have “healthier medical professionals, because they’re in a healthier learning environment.”

So, what is the kind of learning that David hopes that would make for healthier professionals? “You know what’s happening? They’re seeing each other as human beings – ‘cause they’re in a[n] [otherwise] hugely mechanized system.” David tells us a story of a workshop with medical interns, where an image of trauma came up. That spurred one young woman to tell the others how she dealt with that, which was by locking herself in the broom closet to “fall apart and get [her]self back together.” Everyone then realized, “it’s not just me.” And this led to monthly meetings about trauma.

In his workshops, David brings out the human issues that need to be addressed, so that people can see how common and important they are, and can find ways to create healthier environments and relationships. For David, change comes from “having the courage to engage in a process that doesn’t have a goal – a specific, pre-determined solution. Because if you’ve got a specific goal, insight is really hard.” One might say that the goal is humanizing people, and letting the insights generate ideas on creating healthier relationships and environments.

For David, it is important not to be educative or instructional but to have regard to the fact that people have knowledge and experience to share. We thus ask him how it has been for him to be teaching Theatre for Living as a methodology at the Innsbruck Peace Studies program. “You know, I think there’s a difference between me trying to teach people a technique – so I need to be educative to give them the technique – and in the doing of that help[ing] them understand not to be educative in practicing the technique.”

While navigating that paradox may be a challenge, David is very good at modeling the way a Joker or facilitator needs to be. What are the qualities a Joker needs to embody in order to facilitate learning and insight into the complexity of life? “Well, I think there are things that I consciously model. Vulnerability, for instance. When I say I don’t ask people to do stuff I’m not prepared to do, I mean it. Being present. That is sometimes really hard work, but – being… present. Keeping track of the time is an important job, so that you [respect people’s time] and the day has a beginning and a middle and an end. Vulnerability, time, being present – [and] being present contains seeing and hearing. I think you [also] need to understand that you get answers to the questions you ask. And so you frame your questions carefully, because they’re going to generate answers.”

Essentially, David is talking about paying attention and respecting people’s needs.

And sometimes respect for someone’s learning comes in the form of gently “poking” them, as David says, which means throwing people off balance so that then, in the process of getting back to an equilibrium, they go through a transformation, a learning process. We are used to equating teaching with guiding, but in peace education and in Theatre for Living, the Joker or facilitator is sometimes better seen as a provocateur of sorts, stirring up insights. David reminds us that Boal used to say, “Don’t be a facilitator, be a difficultator.”

How does one do that? As David puts it, “This is about being observant, and listening to what people are saying and reading their faces, and seeing all of it as theatre. This is something Boal used to talk about a lot – realizing that, in a way, everything around us is theatre. And that makes it possible to analyse it in a different way.”

Being a Joker in Theatre for Living, or a peace educator, one needs to be first and foremost an observer, a listener. That means having regard and respect for what is happening, for others, for elements unknown to us. And that is a skill.

Perhaps “peace education” is not a term David would use to describe his own work. But a keen sense of observation and a keen sense of justice combined to create theatre that awakens us and what he calls “living communities,” giving us that same awareness in life. David’s on a journey, one of creating insight, making human dynamics, trauma, needs and intentions – and the potential for transformation – visible. Couldn’t we call this peace education on a stage?