Making and Unmaking: War Stories article in Artes Sur 2004

Making and Unmaking: WAR STORIES by Jonathan Chadwick

appearing in Teatro al Sur, REVISTA LATINOAMERICANO Numero 27November 2004 published in Buenos Aires Argentina

When I entered the chapel fortress which stands on a hill near the small Transylvanian town of Cisnadioara my life began to change.

Built by the Saxons in the sixteenth century during the fight to defend the territory against incursions by the Ottoman it is now surrounded only by the utter peace of the Northern Romanian countryside. Inside there are memorial plaques bearing witness to the deaths of German soldiers killed during a battle nearby in September 1917. I felt the very strong presence of the communities who had used this space as a sanctuary. For a moment they could draw breath, safe against the surrounding war, their ordinary lives suddenly suspended. What stories would they tell? What knowledge would they thus gain? What feelings would they share? What wisdom and understanding would move between them?

In my imagination this community, in this space reminiscent of Boccaccio’s stories, became transformed into a company of actors coming from the four corners of the globe to make a piece of theatre from their shared but diverse stories about war. And there was another acting troupe haunting my mind, the one that turns up at Elsinore and provides Hamlet with a pretext to discover Claudius’ guilt. When I first encountered in all its metaphoric brilliance the extraordinary event of Shakespeare’s own company arriving in the middle of one of his plays it provoked the question: what use is theatre? What is it for?

Right from the first moment of conception the WAR STORIES project created what felt like a massive question. Will we get to know more about the causes and impact of war by acting out stories about it? Could this knowledge help human beings to change?

I began to think about how actors carry stories inside them. Our stories are inscribed into our bodies and we hold the living and dead memory within us. The whole human body is stressed with these stories and the precise location, whether in the heart, the guts, the groin of the forehead, may be notional. It is to this emotional structure which an actor creates access when she or he works on a character. It is illuminated by movements of sympathy and antipathy.

In this sense I realised that all human beings had in one way or another been touched by war. It had changed them and formed them however far they might have been from the centre of the conflict. This connected to a sense I had that when we talked about war ‘breaking out’ it must do so from inside us. To look for the sources of war we had to look to the same centres to which an actor goes in order to connect up the character’s story with his or her own. I remembered the expression which Hamlet uses : ‘They are the brief abstract and chronicle of the time’. So the tensions and characteristics of a human society at a particular point in time are distilled into the nervous emotional centres of the actors sensibilities and it is from these centres that the actor works.

I laid plans to bring together actors from all over the world. The resulting partnership was unmanageable. There were too many companies involved. This was 1998 and 1999 and events in the world were moving very quickly. The NATO alliance started bombing former Yugoslavia. Suddenly the structures of war were moving once again through my own immediate society. I brought together a diverse group of artists at the Tricycle Theatre and I directed a workshop. Everybody was asked to consider a personal story about when war had most profoundly changed them, when it had touched their lives. Then through a series of exercises they refine this story down to a central turning point moment. This moment is associated with a moment of change in the life of the key protagonist in the story. The focus is on the moment of highest intensity change when the exterior expressivity of the character is immobilised in favour of inner activity. Working at the image of this inner action we arrive at a description of the emotional movement at play. Once we have named this central moment in the participants’ stories we found a way of connecting them up by ‘placing’ the centres of the stories near or far from the epicentre of the theatre of war, the place where the killing and injuring is actually taking place. Thus we created our own composite image or map of the ‘theatre of war’. Developing further still these key ‘turning point’ images we animated them by using other participants to embody the figures in these stories.

The pattern of this workshop became a template which we have used at the Sibiu Festival (2000, 2001 and 2004), as well as the Just War Stories Workshops which we held at the Royal Court in 2002 and elsewhere.

In Sibiu 2002 we brought together the four companies: Meeting Ground (UK), Theatre For Everybody (Gaza/Palestine), Growing Up Theatre (Serbia/Yugoslavia) and Masrah El Tedj (Algeria). The project was beginning to transform itself. No longer were we trying to bring together performers from 10 or 12 companies from across the globe for a rehearsal and performance at Cisnadioara. We were more concerned to create a seedbed for productions and encounters on a longer timescale.

In Belgrade the Yugoslav/Serbian participants formed a new company called Bazaart and in July 2004 brought the project partners together again. This time due to frontier closures and visa problems the Palestinians could not join us. We had members of the Mostar Youth Theatre and two other Belgrade based companies taking part. We produced a half hour theatre piece based on participants’ stories.

Other things had happened in the meantime. The reinvasion of the Palestinian West Bank by the Israeli army in the Easter of 2002 provoked us to produce a piece of public theatre in London’s Trafalgar Square. Verbatim accounts of the impact of the invasion were read. During 2003 in the lead up to the invasion of Iraq we produced a series of events at the Cockpit Theatre called SHOCK AND AWE to which we invited the artists from all art forms to present work while our company explored techniques of acting out newspaper stories to activate people’s consciousness of events behind the media reports.

We have now developed a plan to present WIDOWS by Ariel Dorfman in Baghdad and London in collaboration with an Iraqi company as a cross cultural exchange and collaboration. When Ariel Dorfman became a supporter of our WAR STORIES project WIDOWS was one of the works he donated.

In the Spring of 2005 the partner companies will come together again in Algeria to produce a show which will be presented at festivals during the early summer.

In the summer of 2003 a workshop organised by Bazaart in Belgrade took place based on an exploration of the plays of Motokiyo Zeami. These extraordinary short plays with their dynamic spiritual space incorporate a theatre of psychological action and of witnessing. Their piercing narrative economy offered us a formal model. We started to plan the production of a series or sutra of short plays about war. These would be produced from different companies and played in any order but have a common aesthetic and philosophical foundation. In November at a new venue in the East End of London Az Theatre are presenting a short season of plays which will include one of Zeami’s warrior plays, a play about the Falklands/Las Malvinas from a contemporary English playwright and a new play by an Iraqi writer. This season will be accompanied by readings, a forum, exhibitions and workshop presentations.

Through all these activities we have become preoccupied by a number of ideas. We have become obsessed by the fact that key forms of modern warfare are carried out at a distance. We want to understand this distance which is composed from the fear and apathy of the populations of the West. How does what is happening to us relate to our governments’ actions? This is particularly important at a time when there have been radical breaks in this relationship. What structures of consent and justification become effective in the ‘selling’ of a war to a docile, scared and privileged population? What stories are there? How do they relate to other stories? So there is a strong element of self reflection in the work. How is it that people en masse can be so easily frightened and give their support to distant violence? How do they become passive willing spectators ? The predisposition for people to secure their identity by seizing on an image of ‘the other’ is primordial and atavistic. It leaves us open to manipulation. We have been careful to clarify that we do not consider war to be synonymous with violence or aggressive behaviour but to be a particular form of social organisation which channels and cultivates these human characteristics. We have therefore faced the question of how this tendency to militarisation can be dismantled. In answering the question: ‘where do you start to do this?’ we have concluded that the only answer can be: ‘Here and now!’.

Facing the consequences of the attacks on the World Trade Centre and the Pentagon on September 11th 2001 the project has become more urgent. We have been forced to ask wider questions about the nature of human development and what capabilities we have, what is the nature of our survival. For many of the world’s population militarism and organised systematic violence has come to be operated not through the state but through other armed groups acting illegally. Also we have witnessed state organisations willing to act illegally and behaving more like an armed terroristic gang. The focus for us has been to look with greater scrutiny at the capabilities of human beings. The outcome of the crisis of war will have consequences for the development of the entire species. What is the nature of human life? Can we begin to dismantle the culture of war? These two questions seem to be dynamically linked. Our starting point is that we should look at war activity as being capable of being abolished. This has been challenged and refined. We have taken up Primo Levi’s proposition that world history has moved in such a way that it is possible to talk about the ‘shame of being human’. We have seen the necessity of working through this shame in order to see clearly our responsibility. We have seen the devastation wreaked in our communal life and returned to look at the human individual with greater compassion, clarity and cruelty.

It comes back for us to the actor, ‘the abstract and brief chronicle of the time’, and how this spiritual explorer can tell us what is quintessentially human, how she or he can dive into the darkest aspects of our nature, can take to the limits the definition of humanity and relate these underlying sympathies and antipathies to the presentation of recognisable behaviour. This is why our project is an exploration of theatre and war, of destruction and creativity or in the words which form the title of Elaine Scarry’s brilliant book, ‘making and unmaking’.

10 August 2004