Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Acting Together on the World Stage


Contributed by guest blogger of the week, David J. Diamond.

There was a time I came to Ellen Stewart with an idea for a project when she again said, “Yes” immediately. It was less than two years ago. The project was a conference bringing artists from around the world together to discuss theatre and peacebuilding. The idea came from Roberta Levitow and her colleagues at Theatre Without Borders. She was speaking on the subject at a TCG (Theatre Communications Group) Conference breakout session. She had been working with Cynthia Cohen at Brandeis University on a documentary film highlighting case studies of theatre and peacebuilding going on in conflict zones in several countries. The documentary was on its way to completion and case studies to publication. She imagined a Conference where the film would be shown and the case studies discussed. When I heard the idea, I immediately thought of La MaMa. What better place could there be to showcase international artists and their work changing lives in the most challenging environments in the world? Ellen had visited most of the places where these companies were struggling to survive: Serbia, The Sudan, Cambodia, Israel/Palastine, etc. She was committed to sharing and supporting their work.

Working with Theatre Without Borders – Roberta, Daniel Banks, Catherince Filloux – on this Conference, changed my life yet again. I was consistently inspired by these three remarkable artists. We stepped into unknown territory together. We started with the premise that we wanted to invite everyone we knew who was working in theatre and peacebuilding; we wanted companies to come and perform, artists to speak about their work, artists to conduct workshops AND we had no money to pay for any of it. Zero. Nada. Bupkis. Thus began the roller coaster that became the ground-breaking convening: Acting Together
on the World Stage: Theatre and Peacebuilding in Conflict Zones

Natalya Koliada, Artistic Director,
Belarus Free Theatre
It has been said that when you commit to something, suddenly resources come to you from places you hadn’t expected, doors open, people respond. We didn’t have the right to expect anyone would respond to our invitations, our pleas. But then something wonderful happened. People started saying, “Yes” to us, over and over again. First it was Ellen Stewart who generously offered us the use of La MaMa’s theatres in New York City, the week before the La MaMa season was to begin in September, 2010. Cynthia Cohen and the Coexistence Project at Brandeis became a major collaborator. They would present the premiere screening of the finished documentary. Support came from all over, from 651 ARTS/Africa Exchange; Brandeis University; Nathan Cummings Foundation Arts and Culture Program; Fordham University; The Public Theater; The Romanian Cultural Institute of New York and others.

Leng Sithul & Chhon Sina came from Cambodia to read a moving play by Morm Sokly. Belarus Free Theatre brought their production of  Discover Love; Serbia’s DAH Theatre presented Crossing the Line and the Albugaa Theatre from Sudan culminated the weekend’s events with their Theatre of Festivity, which is typically performed in refugee camps in Darfur. Everyone figured out how to get to New York for a 

Conference that wasn’t paying for anything – just offering a venue to share their work with colleagues who were facing similar challenges, doing theatre in conflict areas. As the Conference unfolded, the electricity in the Ellen Stewart Theate was palpable. We had a sense that something extraordinary was happening.

We learned about theatre in Iraq and Afghanistan, Pakistan and Belarus, Burma and Kenya, Ireland and Zimbabwe. In all, we had representatives from over thirty countries, at an event that was sold-out with over 300 participants. Dr. Barbara Love from University of Massachusetts at Amherst spoke about strategies for transformation and healing. She inspired us to start the process of forgiveness by forgiving ourselves. James Thompson of the University of Manchester (UK) gave a performance/lecture on the Bindunuwewa child soldier massacre in Sri Landa in 2000. He made a strong case for understanding how our “good intentions” to help people might be manipulated by governments for their own ends and challenged us to look closely at who we are affecting by our actions, no matter how noble. What responsibility do we take for the actions of those whose independent thinking we inspire?

As a result of my personal involvement with the Conference, I met extraordinary artists with whom I hope to collaborate in the coming months. I have become interested in the struggles of a
small theatre company in Lahore, Pakistan (Ajoka Theatre) who work for social change in a place where “social change” itself is subversive. I began a collaboration with a Kurdish artist I hope to visit this summer.

Protest against Belarus oppression 

I became closer to members of Belarus Free Theatre. Their struggles have become major news stories across the U.S. and internationally. Protesting their government’s recent election at a peaceful rally in Minsk, Belarus, many members of the Company were arrested. (They were scheduled to come back to New York to present a different play, Being Harold Pinter, at La MaMa as part of Under the Radar Festival in January, 2011.) Released from prison, but being harassed by the authorities, we had no idea whether they would be able to leave the country. Thanks to the ingenuity of their colleagues in the U.S., particularly Mark Russell, producer of the Under the Radar Festival, they were smuggled to Moscow, so they could fly to New York from there, arriving just a couple of days prior to their opening at La MaMa. Evidently, after they left Belarus, the KGB ransacked their homes.

The New York theatre community was a major player at a protest held in support of the Belarussians that took place near their embassy. Key speakers included playwright Tony Kushner, Belarus Free Theatre Artistic Director Natalya Koliada and The Public Theater’s artistic director, Oskar Eustis. Theatre companies acted in solidarity with the BFT by presenting readings of Being Harold Pinter at cities around the U.S. at the same time it was being done in New York. We were speaking out not just for the artists of Belarus, but for freedom of speech for all people. The theatre company has experienced first-hand what happens to those who raise their voices against the status quo. It is still unclear when they will be able to return home.


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