“Tools. No Rules.”: An Interview with Roberta Levitow

By Aikaterini Delikonstantinidou*

Roberta Levitow at home in Santa Monica, CA. Photo: Mitch Greenhill

Roberta Levitow, theatre producer, director, dramaturg, and teacher, has directed over fifty productions in New York City, Los Angeles and nationally, with a focus on new work for the American stage. From 2004 to 2019, she was the Senior Associate-International with the Sundance Institute Theatre Program, where she co-designed and co-implemented cultural exchanges between the U.S. and East Africa, the Middle East and North Africa. In 2016, she and Kenyan musician Eric Wainaina co-created the Nairobi Musical Theatre Initiative (NBOMTI), which partnered with professors Deborah Brevoort and Fred Carl of New York University’s Graduate Musical Theatre Writing Program.

In 2004, she co-founded Theatre Without Borders (TWB). As director of TWB, she co-initiated, with Dr. Cynthia Cohen of the Peacebuilding and the Arts at Brandeis University, the TWB/Brandeis “Theatre & Peace Building Dialogue” and is a co-founder of “The Acting Together on the World Stage Project.” In 2011, as Theatre Without Borders, she designed a U.S.-Iraq-Pakistan artistic exchange, which helped bring artists from Iraq and Pakistan to the 2011 Theatre Communications Group (TCG) National Conference in Los Angeles and (in cooperation with Georgetown University) the 2012 TCG National Conference in Boston. In September 2010, at La MaMa E.T.C. in N.Y.C., she co-produced “Acting Together on the World Stage: A Conference on Theatre and Peace Building in Conflict Zones.”

She is one of the Creative Team that created “Benedictus” by Motti Lerner—a collaboration of Iranian, Israeli and U.S. artists. Other international work includes: Co-producer, Eti! East Africa Speaks!, Dartmouth College/651 ARTS/Martin E. Segal Theatre Center, Graduate Center CUNY, July 2008; Workshop Leader, New Writing in East Africa, TCG/ITI New Generations International Fellowship, October 2007; Project Director, After the Fall: Reality and the New Romanian Theatre N.Y.C., July 2006; Co-coordinator of the first California Institute of the Arts symposium Arts in the One World, January 2006. 

Awards and honors include being named the American Honoree at the 15th Cairo International Festival for Experimental Theatre in 2003 and the Alan Schneider Award in 1992 for directorial excellence. She received Fulbright Specialist teaching grants at Addis Ababa University (Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, 2018), Makerere University (Kampala, Uganda, 2007), the National University of Theatre & Film (Bucharest, Romania, 2005) and the Chinese University of Hong Kong (2003), and she was named a Fulbright Ambassador Emerita. Her accomplishments and writings are featured in The New York Times, American Theatre MagazineTheatre in Crisis? Performance Manifestos for a New Century, The South Atlantic QuarterlyWriting the World: On Globalization and RoundUp, a publication of the League of Professional Theatre Women in New York City. 

A graduate of Stanford University, she has been on faculty at U.C.L.A. and Bennington College. She serves on the Think Tank of The Laboratory for Global Performance and Politics at Georgetown University. 

Aikaterini Delikonstantinidou: Roberta, ever since I first learned about your work, I thought of you as a theatre creative and specialist. But the truth is your area of expertise, if I may call it that, is storytelling (verbal, visual and otherwise) more generally, and you’ve used many forms of expression over a 40-year-old career to make storytelling work, to make it make sense—music, paintings, teaching and so on. How have these other forms of expression fed into and fed off your affair with the theatre?

Roberta Levitow: I am a person of action; I’m a doer. I hope that in the long term my actions speak louder than my words. My words may not express what I hope my actions do. That being said, I’m struck by your question, Katerina. Recently, I have been reflecting on the connections between the work that I have done over my lifetime. Like you, I detected this link of storytelling. Apparently, you saw that, and I am touched by it. I see the power of narrative in human life. Nations tell narratives about themselves, and citizens of those nations take on identities carrying those narratives. It is so powerful to make alterations in narratives, whether it’s on the national level or the global level, or the personal level, the familial level, the cultural level and so on.

As a theatre person making up stories, I saw how malleable narrative is. As a dramaturg or director, I could see that an adjustment in one action, one scene, would spin out the narrative in a different way. And then the story would have a different meaning. I learned that stories are crafted and the meanings of those stories can be altered by even small changes. Once you have that insight, you can see that potential everywhere in the world. We construct societies as well as our personalities around narratives. Have you read Yuval Harari’s book Sapiens, which proposes that the identifying characteristic of homo sapiens is their ability to tell a story and convince other homo sapiens of that story, and then to get fellow homo sapiens to act accordingly? (Roberta refers to Harari’s Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind, published in Hebrew in 2011 and in English in 2014). I believe that, because I see evidence of it everywhere.

With students in a classroom, you’re creating a story. You can see that they have their own personal stories that determine how they receive or don’t receive information. You can see how they express their own personal narratives onstage or in their actions. In music, too, there are stories. Songs are stories. And all these stories predict values. I was raised in a very ethically oriented family. Ethics were very important, the meaning of life was discussed; that life had a particular meaning, that it was incumbent upon us to invest in that meaning. I continue to be a person who seeks meaning. I think it’s a combination of those two things: I can see that story is malleable, and yet I was raised to have kind of core values and ethics. Now, either those stories and those ethics and values connect, or they don’t. So, this is something I’m trying to get at, I guess, all the time, to have the story and the values coincide.

Especially now! Part of what we are struggling with, as societies that are living in very transformative times, is how to absorb changes across so many of the aspects of human life. I feel the desire, as an artist, to locate narratives that can encompass the change and still offer meaning.

Group photo of Sundance Institute East Africa Workshop, Zanzibar, Tanzania (participating artists from Kenya, Uganda, Rwanda, Ethiopia, Tanzania, Lebanon and the U.S.). 2013. From Roberta Levitow’s personal archive. Photo: unknown

Is there anything special about theatre’s storytelling capacity and about its sense-making powers that you find yourself gravitating toward throughout your career? Does it have the capacity to, as you said, shape narratives and present narratives that encompass change or at least help us make sense of change?

I think that is the struggle for the art of the theatre right now. The artform is also in a time of enormous transition. I am of a certain generation. I came up through the period of time when theatre happened in certain places, had certain purposes that were communally recognized, had mechanisms by which work got done, had subject matter that was considered appropriate or inappropriate, had forms that were familiar to the audience . . . There were all sorts of criteria regarding the “where,” the “how,” the “why” that were more or less commonly accepted. But I am not a young person making theatre right now. I can see from where I sit how much the theatre is struggling with “why,” “where,” “for whom,” “what” and “how” it is to be made. We have an artform that was born in your city [Athens] that had certain contours. I like to believe that theatre could be flexible enough to embrace all this change and still find its way to imbue meaning for audiences. The struggle for that to happen is very positive.

I am not necessarily looking for the theatre to guide us during this period of great transformation. And I am not being pessimistic, just realistic. Theatre might have been predictive in the past. By that I mean that theatre is built upon a certain kind of understanding about the human experience. Theatre artists could propose interpretations of human life that the audience would receive as a form of guidance for going forward. In this construct, theatre artists were “guides” for the audience because they had pre-thought what happens when this or that crisis happens; as if theatre artists were presenting scenarios of reality to an audience. But now those roles are so reversed. Theatre artists don’t know any better where we are and what kind of changes are going to settle—if we settle, when we settle.

Fifty years from now, will we going to be on the other side of Artificial Intelligence? We don’t know! There are so many changes going on in how we communicate and what we depend on to understand human life. Today, the audience sometimes knows more than the theatre artist. Theatre artists alone cannot know what’s going on; we can’t say come sit in our theatres and we’ll show you how life is or how it should be. I used to say in my dramaturgy classes, if you go play by play, or author by author, through a lot of dramatic history and literature, you can see in a slice of time how people understood human nature. For example, Henrik Ibsen understands human nature in a certain way, Arthur Miller understands human nature in a different way and so on. Dramatic literature provides slices of psychological and anthropological understanding of what a human is. And I think now we are so uncertain about that. A lot of theatre now is actually about humans’ interdependency with technology; some people are proposing that humans are becoming cyborgs, entities that don’t operate separately from our technology. In the world of people who do have daily access to technology, you have to have technology in the performance! You can’t have a performance without technology about people who live their lives interdependent with technology. This is a fundamental difference for theatre in the twenty-first century.

Today, many people in the performing arts are talking about ways to break through the proscenium box and make performing arts centers available to artists who work in multidisciplinary ways because the story can no longer be confined to humans onstage. Can you have theatre with just people on a stage in front of other people who are watching, like in Peter Brook’s The Empty Space? Yet, that is the definition of theatre as we’ve known it since ancient Greek theatre, isn’t it? It’s a radical time!

Going through some of your writings, I felt that trust, empathy, authentic connection are important values for you and lie at the heart of your theatre work/ings. With all these changes been happening, would you embrace a different paradigm for theatre-making to pursue these values? Are you willing, are you ready to find new ways of working, to replace old ways of working with new ones to build trust, empathy, connection?

This is such an interesting question, Katerina. I’m not sure how much more theatre I am going to be creating as an artist given my age, so it’s not for me to say where theatre will go; it’s for these coming generations who are going to tell us, and they are telling us where theatre is going. Young artists are embedded in these roiling societies. So, presumably they are—and I am content that they are—the people most knowledgeable to express their understanding of the worlds within which they are embedded. However, I think you bring up an interesting point, which is the value of the human connection and this process of identification.

I am not an ancient Greek theatre scholar. But I have valued the participatory ritual heritage of the theatre; the sense of community that is built through participatory ritual and the process of identification with another that takes place through the theatre—that Aristotle so well described. Both the building of community and identification with others has been essential to healthy human societies. Theatre artists have used those capacities of theatre to bind community and to break through the isolation of the individual. Do I value those things? Yes, I do. Do I think they are really essential to what it means to be human? Yes. Do I think they are invaluable to human societies, both small and macro? Yes. Do I think if we lose these capacities, we are going to be in trouble? Yes, I do! So, how do we maintain them, even as we are infatuated with innovations like social media and artificial intelligence, and as we are becoming isolated into our little cyberspaces? How do we? But I have a lot of faith that many artists younger than myself are also concerned about this. You are!

Well, yes, and my questions reflect that. In fact, my next question is about artist-to-artist and person-to-person conversation and commitment, which I know is important to you from a previous discussion we’ve had about the Theatre Without Borders community that you co-founded and currently co-direct. Conversation and commitment of this kind are important not only for contemporary theatre-making but also for peacebuilding through the theatre. But how can they be nurtured now when the circumstances are adverse for that sort of thing to say the least? And I’m not talking only about technology and how it affects theatre-making and peacebuilding, but also about the sustainability of that conversation and commitment in and through the theatre long-term (with resources being scarce, with antagonism rampant and so on).

You know, I have many quotations I collect, from old to new—there’s wisdom down the ages. One of the quotations that I’m fond of is by the Italian political theorist, Antonio Gramsci: “Pessimism of the mind, optimism of the will.” It’s one of my mantras: look critically at how bad things can be as long as, subsequently, you believe in the potential that your action can make a difference.

Yes, vibrant exchanges amongst world theatre artists face significant challenges now. It’s much easier to sail when you have the wind at your back. Over the past decades we’ve had the wind at our back for international exchanges because globalism was considered a positive—Theatre Without Borders is twenty years old. The past decades have been a more optimistic time because we were empowered by the potential of all these new connections that we could build, and some of those new connections were facilitated by technology. There was money and resources being appliedacross the spectrum of trade, culture and economics toward globalism. You and I can still feel the positive potential of making new connections, of building networks. This computer and the internet allow us to talk to each other this morning. You and I can feel like friends having coffee at a coffee shop in New York City or in Athens while we are very far apart. The fact that we can know each other speaks to that potential.

Unfortunately, as individuals and societies face challenges, for various reasons, they retreat to take care of themselves. So, there’s a lot of retreating going on, because we don’t feel we can be in a generous mode, because we feel we have to take care of ourselves.

“‘Acting Together on the World Stage’ is a multi-media educational initiative intended to document and strengthen the contributions of performance and ritual to social justice and conflict transformation.” Above, a scene from the award-winning documentary of the same name. Find more about this project here

I want us to tap into that: How can we use the theatre for peacebuilding despite this “urge” to retreat that is building up in the past decade or so—for example, in the context of an in-crisis community suffering internal friction, a larger population dealing with collective trauma, or entire peoples going through a war like the ones that’ve been raging in recent years? Can the theatre make a difference in cases like those? Can it equip us somehow to fight the urge to retreat?

Absolutely yes! Theatre operates across a spectrum of performance. My friend Josephine Ramirez, Executive Vice President at the Music Center in Los Angeles, and I often talk about this spectrum of performance. Josephine is very interested in what’s called, in certain contexts, the “informal arts” versus “formal arts.” So, formal arts would be like professional baseball or basketball teams. In U.S. athletics, the professional players, despite being paid bazillion dollars and despite being celebrities, still go visit sandlot ball in their neighborhoods. They go to a park or an empty lot where some kids are playing basketball with a broken hoop and no net, and they hang with those kids and play or do workshops with them. There is a spectrum, from the most resourced to the least resourced version of athletics. In the U.S., we have a pretty thriving professional to amateur, formal to informal sports spectrum.  People all along the spectrum love it, thrive with it, enjoy it, benefit from it. All kinds of learning lessons—related to people’s physical and psychological wellbeing, skillsets, attention and so on— are happening even at the most informal part of the spectrum, while we also have an admired expertise at the formal level. The problem for theatre in the U.S. is that this spectrum is not strong. Even the conversation about the formal versus informal arts has been divisive within the theatre community across the spectrum. So, you have professional theatre artists who look down upon the people who are in the community center, parking lot or a refugee camp making a play, which is absurd. We don’t always appreciate theatre artists making theatre with kids in elementary schools or in high schools, for example. Our eyes are too professionally oriented, too formally oriented, and we too are seduced by celebrity.

But, of course, theatre has a role; it has a phenomenal role! The less resources you have, the more theatre can do its magic because theatre really is just an actor on a stage in front of somebody. You don’t have to have lights, or a stage set, or any other resources, if you have one kid onstage telling a group of kids what it’s like to be that kid; it tells a story, and that’s theatre. We don’t value this enough.

The origins of our Theatre and Peacebuilding Program are relevant here (a signature initiative of TWB; see here). In 2003, I was one of a group of theatre artists who were working in diverse environments making theatre when we began to feel that our theatre training was insufficient for us to understand and interact with the communities within which we were working. Catherine Filloux (award-winning playwright and TWB co-director) was in Cambodia post-genocide, I was in Romania post-dictatorship, in Kenya, post-election violence . . . So, you have theatre artists who are trained in a specialty form. They know their artform, and they’re suddenly in the context of a group of people who have been traumatized or who are recuperating in the aftermath of a great trauma or in a conflict zone where the conflict is still live, and the theatre artist does not know what to do.

One of the videos expanding on the material presented in the Acting Together documentary: Catherine Filloux on “Reconciliation.” More material like that is available here.

One of the videos expanding on the material presented in the Acting Together documentary: Catherine Filloux on “Reconciliation.” More material like that is available here.

My friend Josephine introduced me to Dr. Cynthia Cohen, who was a professor at Brandeis University in the Coexistence Program. Cynthia’s particular interest and scholarship area was the arts and conflict transformation. We met each other and realized that there were a lot of people working—innocently or ignorantly—in conflict zones. As she was an expert in conflict zones and I was an expert in theater, maybe together we could do a study on that. Cynthia initiated together a seven-year academic study. She got funding from the university. She called it “Acting Together on the World Stage.” It evolved into a full research project, yielding two books and a documentary film, that looked with a critical eye into the work of—I think—25 teams of artists around the world (different conflicts, almost all the continents). Cynthia and the team of scholars asked the artists working in conflict zones, “What are you doing? Is it effective? What are your criteria? Are you doing any harm?” and so on.

Over those seven years, we artists were invited into the conversations of peacebuilders and into the language of peacebuilding and conflict transformation thinking. We learned that there are some tools we can use to help us. For instance, when we enter such a context, we need to assess the landscape. That’s what a peacebuilder would do—I don’t mean an artist; I mean a peacebuilder. You need to use some criteria to evaluate what’s going on, and you have to have your motto, “Do no harm.” You need to be careful about what you do as someone who is intervening in another cultural context. Your arrival is going to set off some ripples in the pond. Progressively, we informed each other, we learned from each other, and this was our theatre and peacebuilding process.

Eventually, Cynthia wrote a beautiful chapter about the capacity of artists to impact conflict transformation. It’s called “Creative Responses to Reconciliation.” In it, she elaborates on the tools that artists can bring into situations, such as Deep Listening. An artist can ask someone for their story and listen differently than many others, because artists are listening for something within that story, they want to hear something that is underneath what the person is saying—they’re not just taking notes and transcribing. Also, there’s the capacity to Imagine a Future. This is a capacity of imagination that artists can bring into a traumatized population no longer able to imagine a future beyond the trauma. Think of any conflict zone in our world right now. There are people in it who cannot imagine the future; they are too desperately inside their predicament. But an artist can help them imagine a future even if only briefly and fleeting.

Cynthia created a list of seven things that artists bring with them. Another is that artists can Embrace Paradox. Artists can show people—including officials, politicians, peacebuilders and so on—that populations on two sides of a conflict, no matter how terribly they behaved towards each other, can coexist. Showing that to people can have—and has had—beautiful repercussions. Sophocles’ Antigone, for example, is a play about two characters with opposing views, who refuse to coexist, but the playwright is asking the audience, “Is that right? Or must there be some place in-betweenthese two positions?” That’s what Cynthia means when she says that artists embrace paradox, and they can help others embrace paradox. Artists can help them see that two contradictory positions can be true. Two opposing sides can cause harm to each other, some day acknowledge the harm they’ve done to each other, and be able to coexist afterwards.

So, yes, theatre can be present and there should be more of it in contexts where there’s conflict. But, what I think, Katerina, is that life moves in waves; so, there’ll be interest in something and then it goes away and then it will be brought back, you know . . . And now we are in a period of deep conflicts in many places. Yet I feel very lucky to have been part of the peak of a wave, when suddenly we were very interested in theatre’s potential to effect conflict transformation. And indeed, it has tremendous potential. There are so many powerful examples around the world speaking to that.

Ashtar Theater, established in 1991, was the first theatre training organization for youth in Palestine. Their pedagogical and theatrical contribution, including their trauma-recovery work, has a markedly global perspective. Photo: Ashtar Theatre

Can peacebuilding theatre be politically provocative, aesthetically radical, but also allow theatre creatives to gain a livelihood?

Well, that is another question. And it is a good one, because people have to feed themselves and their families. Here’s how I think about it, which is not necessarily how it should be thought about. There are many paths to follow in the theatre world. There are many versions of how to make theatre work. Many communities want to have theatre for entertainment, escapism through the theatre, or an immersive theatre. There are plenty of versions of theatre. Many artists simply won’t be in a position to take the kind of financial and personal risks that might be required to work with children in a refugee camp, like Clowns Without Borders, or to do trauma-recovery work like Ashtar Theater from Ramallah. Not everybody is in a position to do that. And I don’t stand in judgement of people who need to care of themselves and their families.

However, for those who have the inclination, who can organize their lives to make it possible, where can they find footing to do this kind of work? Let me talk about work that is often referred to as community-based or Applied Theatre, which means taking the techniques of theatre and using them towards the greater goal of positive social impact and/or conflict transformation in a particular context. Individuals and companies who does this kind of work often seek grants from funders who are focused on positive social change. In one example, for several years the U.S. company called Bond Street Theatre was funded by the U.S. State Department to travel to Afghanistan to teach circus and storytelling to young people in villages. The final projects created by the young men and women were so joyful, and powerful on multiple levels.

The Bloomsburg Theatre Ensemble in Pennsylvania is another example of a group that worked for many years within their small community to do some amazing peacebuilding theatre. Their projects involved a group of professionals working with non-professionals. The professional artists said, “We are going to make our homes in this community, we’re going to live here, raise our kids here. We’re going to have lives here; we’re going to know the people that we are talking about and talking to. We are going to work with the community to tell stories about their experiences.” One of their plays was developed during a serious methamphetamine crisis in town. This is a very poor community. Desperate, some people set up meth labs in their garages. They knew that this drug was very bad, and everyone knew someone who became addicted and possibly died. They were good people caught in a terrible situation. Bloomsburg Theatre Ensemble created an extraordinary theatre piece where community members could give voice to their desperation, loss, shame, anger, guilt and remorse. It became a kind of participatory ritual and storytelling event where the community itself was performing for the community—acknowledging the harm done and seeking forgiveness. It was devastatingly beautiful.

Given what you’ve just said, what would you advise young people, emerging artists to do in order to contribute to peacebuilding theatre? Is living with the community they seek to address the way to go?

Certainly, in the twentieth century, even the nineteenth, artists could take a very external position to society. Many artists would claim the right to stand outside society as critic and moral conscience. Today, in many contexts, that role is archaic; we cannot presume to know what we don’t know. Being humble in the face of another person, another context, another culture in crisis is essential. You have to want to know what you’re diagnosing—you can’t diagnose a patient without knowing what the symptoms are!

The Dawar Playback Theatre troupe combines psychodrama workshops and playback performances to help refugee women overcome trauma. Image courtesy of Dawar Arts Facebook page. Photo: Egyptian Streets

This connects with what you said earlier about how important it is to assess the context, the landscape, the factors that make it what it is . . .

Yes, you have to assess the landscape, acknowledging that you are in an unknown land. And then, that’s just the beginning. You will also have to be trusted, to be a container or a conveyor of someone’s story. We live at a time when we recognize that people have a right to own their stories. We also recognize that people have nuances in their storytelling that we can’t imagine without patience and attention. So, we have to give space for the nuances of the way someone would tell their own story, and we have to listen deeply for what’s in that story and underneath that story if we are going to present it.

There are so many beautiful examples, Katerina . . . Here’s one: during a trip to Egypt, I was invited to attend a performance put together by the Dawar Playback Theatre of Cairo. This group of Americans and Egyptians use the remarkable storytelling technique called Playback Theatre. When we arrived at the old building in downtown Cairo, we found ourselves amongst a large group of Syrian refugee women in this large apartment transformed into a workspace. The women, several of whom had their children with them, wore scarfs covering their heads, long sleeved overcoats and so on, while many of the Cairenes and Americans present were more cosmopolitan in their clothing. It was a stark juxtaposition of women—Syrian refugees and theatre artists from Cairo and the U.S.

Here’s the process: in a private setting, each of the refugee women would tell the story of how she escaped Syria, in Arabic of course, perhaps in a story sharing circle, perhaps in a more intimate setting. Psychological experts, including trauma therapists, were present and available. The stories included great loss, often atrocities along the way, deaths . . . Each woman’s story would then be transcribed and translated by the performers, so that all performers (Americans and Egyptians) could go through the story. At this point, the audience would arrive for the “performance.” After some discussion amongst themselves, the performers performed several stories for the assembled group. However—and importantly—the theatre artists abstracted the essence of each story. They would present it poetically, in a very short—perhaps 5-minute—version of the story, even if the original story had been long and detailed like an epic. So, for example, the murder of someone’s husband would be presented through a gesture using a red scarf, the sand or the ocean represented as flowing China silk. Using this kind of poetic abstraction protected the woman from reliving the trauma of her experience. The 5-minute sequences were each very beautiful. At the end of each presentation, the original storyteller was then invited up on the stage and an Arabic-speaking member of the company would ask her, “Was this your story? Did we present your story well?” And every time I saw the performance, the woman would say, “Yes. Thank you so much!” and sit down.

You can imagine what it meant to those women that they were able to tell their story to somebody and then to have a community of people acknowledge and witness their experience. This is a kind of healing. Plus, to see it beautifully presented—because we know that beauty is what makes the unbearable bearable—this kind of artistic trauma therapy is so important! And that’s only one of so many different examples, each specific to situation.

Ali Mahdi and his Al-Bugaa Theatre Troupe offer to participants at the Al-Bugaa International Theater Festival an eclectic blend of theatre, dance, music, as well as communal rituals of ancient origin. Source: American Theatre. Photo by Emilya Cachapero

I need to give another example because it’s almost the complete opposite of how Playback Theatre works. Ali Mahdi Nouri, who is now Executive Council and Board Member of the International Theatre Institute (see iti-worldwide.org/index.html), is Sudanese. He is a man of honor and status in Sudan, which has been in a complicated situation for decades. Ali has his own ITI Theatre in Conflict Zones Committee, and he created something called “The Theatre of Festivity.” His company is composed of members of the over-a-hundred different ethnic communities that exist in Sudan—musicians, dancers, theatre artists, storytellers . . . For many years, the company traveled to Darfur to do a kind of theatre and peacebuilding. They would arrive at some open space wearing the colors and indicative pieces of clothing of the different ethnic communities. They would explain what they were about to do to locals and soldiers, asking for permission to simply sing and dance. Then, they would start playing the drum, people would sing, and members of the company would do cow dances for one ethnic community and agricultural dances for another, and they would shift songs from one ethnic community to the other and so on. People would get curious, they would gather around, and pretty soon you would have this entire area full of people who had walked over to stand and watch the spontaneous party. People who were fighting each other fifteen minutes ago would stand there and watch side by side. Soldiers would put down their guns to clap along. And as this progressed, Ali and other members of the company carefully invited people to join, “Come dance with us!” By the end, everybody is dancing together. And then, there is some kind of joyful culmination, everybody applauds, and eventually the company takes their leave.

Ali Mahdi’s theory is—and this is also pointed out in Cynthia’s aforementioned chapter—there has to be a Safe Space where peoples in conflict can practice coming together over a ritual event. This is something that is paratheatrical (a meal, a party and so on), not necessarily a performance; just be together in a ritualistic human experience. People don’t have to stay friends or heal old wounds; they just have to remember, “Oh that was such fun being all together again!” That’s all! The Theatre of Festivity creates a fascinating paratheatrical, quasi-community ritual invention that was apt for that place and situation. To return to the initial question, you have to know the context well enough to know what’s the right thing to do.

In your experience, do young theatre artists, those who want to make the world a better place through their art, find this enough?

That’s so interesting. I’ll tell you another example. I was teaching in Bucharest, working with students from the National University for Theatre and Film—this is the highest-level training program in Romania. It is Russian-style, highly selective and very rigorous. These students were really well-trained and brilliant theatre people. One of them, Bogdan Georgescu, decided he wanted to do a training program with the community-based Cornerstone Theatre company here in Los Angeles. After studying Cornerstone’s community-based philosophy and techniques, Bogdan pulled together a group of fellow Romanian designers and directors. They called themselves “The Generosity Offensive.” You see, this was in post-Ceaușescu Romania when people were still terrified and felt threatened by one another. Trust had broken down. In desperate times, people cannot be generous, and they are not always kind. And Bogdan’s response was, “People need generosity. They need to be able to see some safety in the other’s face and find a way to give and not just hold on and take.”

So, The Generosity Offensive went into a community to build a project. They talked with the community members and discovered that the local women were phenomenal sewers and made their own clothes. And the artists proposed, “What if we do a fashion show together?” With community enthusiasm, the artists encouraged the women, the sewers and the other women of the community, to design and make fabulous clothes. The entire community was engaged in this project together. The project culminated with the performance of a magnificent fashion show where the women of the community were the models and wore the dresses, showing off their work to an audience full of friends, family and neighbors. The Generosity Offensive honored all the women who designed, sewed and modeled the dresses. It was a community-building, participatory experience and event. The process of identification in this case was not, “I’m going to do a play about you”; the process of identification was: “We’re working on the same project. I’m working with you, and I identify with you because I want my thing to be good and I want your thing to be good now too.”

The potential here is enormous. We can break apart the pieces of the theatre experience and explore new ways of combining those pieces in new contexts. Didn’t Jerzy Grotowski do that when he created his seminal work in the twentieth century? Now it’s time for more reinvention. I think it’s so exciting. In my own experience, I don’t worry too much about how many people follow this path. I just want a couple of people to follow it!

I find this so encouraging and inspiring . . . And to bring our discussion to a closure, here’s my last question: Are theatre artists who choose to work in the ways that you’ve mentioned, in peacebuilding theatre essentially, few as they may be, able to shape the theatre of the future—even part of it?

Yes, I hope so! Don’t you? It’s an invitation . . . I think we can offer an invitation to young people. The invitation awaits them. Another one of my mantras is, “If you don’t see the reality, you can’t see the possibilities.” It’s good for young people to look bravely at this reality, difficult though it may be. That’s step one: see the reality. Because if you don’t see the reality, if you don’t see the pothole, you won’t see that the challenge is to fix the pothole; if you don’t see the tear in your dress, you won’t know that the solution is go get a needle and thread and then stitch it. You have to see it before you know what to do about it. Pessimism of the mind is tough. But if you don’t see a hard reality, you won’t be able to do something to change it.

So, the invitation is, “See the reality and then imagine the possibilities!” You’re an artist, imagine the possibilities; what’s possible? Now, in-between seeing the reality and imagining the possibilities is a gap. And the gap is, “What are my tools? What is available to me?” I see a tear in my dress, I can imagine it is possible to stitch it. But I have to know that I need a needle and thread for that to happen, and I have to know what a needle does and what thread does. This is the gap that we can help fill. We can say, “Yes, we need to look at the reality.” But we can’t just see it and then say to them, “Now, you go fix it!” This is what lots of young people are not happy about. They feel like, “I see the problem. You see the problem. And you just want me to go and fix it! You go find the possibilities!” We have to provide tools. No rules. But tools.

Theatre has developed with so many rules . . . We have the well-made play. We have Act One to Act Five. “If you do this, then you need to do that.” You have to have a protagonist and an antagonist. And so on and so forth. We have so many rules. And what we can liberate people with is, “tools, no rules.” Here’s a tool that works. The mimetic response is hardwired into our human nervous system. If you have a person crying in front of you, you will feel sad. Why? Because you have mirror neurons, and the mirror neurons will spark. That is a tool that you have.

So, we have to break down theatre into its component parts, into available tools, so that young people can rebuild theatre in their own fashion, according to their purposes. That’s the opportunity that they have. But if they don’t have tools, then we’re only giving them the responsibility without the capacity. This is how I look at it. The examples that I gave you are doing that; they are breaking down theatre, they ask, “What is the mechanism of theatre and what tools work for me? What tools are the most functional in my context?” In one context, some of the more conventional “Western” theatre tools might work. In another context, it’s the traditional, local performance tools that might work. 


*Aikaterini Delikonstantinidou holds an MA in American Culture, an MEd in Adult Education and a PhD in Anglophone Theatre Studies, the latter from the School of English, Aristotle University of Thessaloniki, Greece. She conducted her postdoctoral research on myth-based digital theatre in adult education in the Department of Theatre Studies, National and Kapodistrian University of Athens, where she is working as adjunct lecturer. She is also working for the editorial team of Critical Stages/Scènes critiques, the journal of the International Association of Theatre Critics, and as free-lance dramaturge. Her monograph, titled Latinx Reception of Greek Tragic Myth: Healing and Radical Politics was published by Peter Lang in 2020 (Dramaturgy Series). An edited volume on the interrelation of digital games and theatre, and on the sociocultural dynamics therein, is forthcoming by Palgrave.

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