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Theatre and War

Nandita Dinesh

4. What

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Novelty and Aesthetics

The fragile balance is kept between the pleasure of discovery, the unexpected, and the unusual, on one hand, and the pleasure of recognition, déjà vu, and the anticipated on the other. To upset this balance in either direction means threatening the success of the complex communicative interaction which constitutes the very life of theatrical performance (Marinis and Dwyer, 1987: 112).

1In the previous chapters I have suggested to the reader that a theatre-in-war practitioner-researcher might use their intention to hone in on a site of intervention, subsequently using that choice of location to assist an analysis of the victim/grey zone/perpetrator spectrum in that setting. With that information then — with an intention, a location, and an understanding of identity politics — arises the question of What. How might a theatre-in-war researcher-practitioner choose aesthetic strategies in the work that they create in a time and place of war? While there are various ‘types’ of theatre that are put to use in conflict zones — techniques that borrow from Epic Theatre, the Theatre of the Oppressed, and many others — the goal in this chapter is not to reduce the question of aesthetics to a justification of, or argument against particular approaches to theatre-making. Rather, I seek to explore the notion of novelty and through this consideration, offer some thoughts on how a theatre-in-war practitioner-researcher might refine the aesthetic frameworks that they choose to work with. I suggest that by considering how our co-creators and audiences in conflict zones approach novelty, we might find clues that will help us more carefully craft the aesthetic choices that we make.

2In the first instance, a theatre-in-war practitioner should be cognizant of the ways in which aesthetic forms might intersect with the structures that perpetuate the conflict itself. James Thompson (2009b: 75) has pointed out that especially when working with local performance traditions in a place of war, the practitioner-researcher would benefit from understanding how that local practice might be implicated within the war in question. For instance, my doctoral work in Kashmir highlighted the relevance of the local folk theatre form of Bhand Pather which, because of its use of satire, has become a tool for disseminating political and social commentary in a context that otherwise faces different kinds of censorship. Bhand Pather therefore, in its use of the Kashmiri language and very specific cultural codes, can be interpreted as keeping outsiders on the periphery — since someone without the necessary linguistic and cultural skills to decode the performance would be at a loss. An example might be seen in the use of devices like the ‘phir kath, literally twisted talk, style of dialogue; a rhetorical device that utilizes coded and cryptic idioms’, which enables ‘the folk performers to use ostensibly innocuous comedy to deliver pointed indictments of contemporary society’ (Menon, 2012: 163).

3In a region that has been invaded by different parties over the years, Bhand Pather might be said to reflect a performance tradition in which the lines between insiders and outsiders are clearly drawn. For me, respecting this line has meant maintaining a careful distance from Bhand Pather in my own interventions in the region. Given the risks of cultural appropriation, I have come to think that exploring the use of the traditional form of Bhand Pather is best left in the hands of local artists. As another example, my aesthetic affinity for the broad genre of Immersive Theatre has led me to consider the implications of using this aesthetic in a place of war when this form is also used in the creation of immersive training environments for United States’ soldiers being deployed to Afghanistan and Iraq. If Immersive Theatre techniques are used in armed forces’ training for the form’s ability to increase retention rates (Testa in Taylor, 2009: 1890), does the use of this form in non-armed forces settings simply replicate hierarchies that perpetuate circumstances (and stereotypes) as givens rather than as narratives that might be questioned? As a final example of how aesthetic choices might be implicated in settings of conflict, we might also consider the verbatim use of victims’ testimonies in Documentary Theatre interventions about places of war. In so doing, do these aesthetic efforts contain the risk of presenting a version of reality that must be accepted (a fatalistic view, perhaps); thus implicitly emphasizing defeatism rather than any type of social activism? The ways in which an aesthetic choice is made in a time or place of war therefore, is not simple and there is a deeper contemplation that must occur on how that theatrical framework might perpetuate or challenge the hegemonic structures that contain/perpetuate the conflict itself.

4There are thus many ways in which we, as theatre-in-war practitioner-researchers, can frame our exploration of aesthetics: through the intentions we have for our work, through the implications that come with particular choices of form and content, and through the demography of the audiences that we seek to share our work with. The lens that I have chosen to focus on in this chapter, however, is that of novelty: a concept that entered my frame of thinking when I began to develop my own aesthetic choices as a theatre-in-war researcher-practitioner. I first began my work in Rwanda with a strict focus on the Theatre of the Oppressed and created plays with both form and content that my co-creators and audiences were familiar with. However, I then went on in later projects (in Kenya, for instance) to the other extreme — of working with experimental form and unfamiliar content. While the Notes from the field in this chapter will provide more details about these evolutions in my aesthetic ideas, I began to find the former approach (of using familiar techniques and familiar content i.e., less novelty) to lead to predictable responses from co-creators and audiences. Furthermore, I also began to find the second approach (of using too much novelty in form and content) to cause anxiety rather than interest. As such, my work over the last few years has evolved into a consideration of balance. How can I balance elements of the familiar and the unfamiliar in the aesthetic strategies that I use in conflict zones? Furthermore, what might such a balance of novelty achieve, that too much familiarity or unfamiliarity might not? I initially made this choice instinctively — sensing, if I may use that term — that neither extreme levels of familiarity or unfamiliarity were working vis-à-vis my intentions and sites of intervention. It was later, when I was able to theoretically reflect on this instinctual choice, that my ideas around novelty developed further.

Notes from the field
The Question Mark (2008) was a Romeo and Juliet story. In our version Romeo was the son of a perpetrator of the 1994 Rwandan genocide and Juliet the daughter of a victim/survivor. The young people fall in love despite the historical animosity between their families and commit to getting married. When confronted with their love, the lovers’ families attempt to cajole and coerce them out of the love affair, citing their differing histories of the genocide as being irreconcilable. The play ended with the two young lovers at a crossroads, with their families at odds, asking the audience for solutions. Since I have already described the context of this work in earlier chapters, these notes function as an exploration of the aesthetic choices that were undertaken.
The Question Mark took a problem-solving approach and asked its audiences in the three towns of Rwanda to which the piece toured, what they thought the Rwandan Romeo and Juliet should do. Unfailingly, when this question was posed to our audiences, the ‘right’ answer was given to us — the family members of the Rwandan Romeo and Juliet must put their differences aside and work towards a reconciliation. While these responses from our audience members were really unsurprising, in retrospect it led to my considering whether our choice of form and content had predisposed our spectators to respond in this way — by form I mean the theatrical aesthetic with which the piece was crafted (a proscenium piece that was shaped by a linear narrative that led to a conclusion); by content I refer to the material that was generated by the youths to flesh out the aesthetic form. Our audiences knew what to expect from The Question Mark and, in this predictability, we had created an aesthetic endeavour that might have been… dreary.
The Romeo and Juliet conundrum has been posed by many works of art in post-1994 Rwanda that speak to post-conflict reconstruction. Not only that, we had depicted a situation where there was a ‘right’ answer given the current political realities of the nation. Who would say, in an open forum, that the families in The Question Mark were right to keep the lovers separated? Who would openly argue against reconciliation when such an argument could be seen as them propagating ‘genocide ideology’ and possibly lead to that individual’s arrest? And if we were posing questions through our performance simply to get the answers that were ‘right’, the answers that we wanted, what was our intervention actually achieving?
In The Question Mark we used singular identities of ‘victim’ and ‘perpetrator’; a singularity that has come to define much of the rhetoric surrounding the events of 1994. Our work reinforced a simplistic binary and sought to package or explain the aftermath of the genocide without making sufficient allowance for nuances. We gave our audiences a generic young man who had a generic perpetrator’s heritage, and a generic woman who had been a generic victim. The story was too generic, too vague, and we erred on the side of trying to explain what a generic Rwandan should do in the face of the huge questions that surround reconciliation. This generality led to the lack of an acknowledgement of the multiplicity of identities in Rwanda before, during, and after 1994. The generic, then, became akin to a performance of propaganda — propaganda that has very specific undertones in a context such as Rwanda.
Propaganda, simplistic propaganda, is said to have permeated in Rwanda before the genocide began in April 1994.
Propaganda that painted a simplistic binary between one segment of the population and another.
Propaganda that we might have been accused of replicating.
A propaganda for reconciliation.
A propaganda for how that reconciliation needed to occur.
Weren’t we perpetuating the same binaries and simplistic understandings of identity that had allowed the genocide to occur in the first place?
When my quest to explore the potential and limitation of theatre in places of war began in Rwanda in 2007, my thinking about what theatre could do revolved around ideas inspired by Augusto Boal and the Theatre of the Oppressed (1985). However, when I began to find the binary of oppressor/oppressed limiting — when I began to find the notion of ‘brainstorming solutions’ through the theatre to be predictable — I started to experiment with aesthetic form. As a result of this, while I continued in my belief that the content of a theatre-in-war intervention should be in the hands of the people for whom and with whom the performance is created, my work in Rwanda made me reconsider the aesthetic form that my theatrical experiments took. It might be said that the sheer incomprehensibility of the genocide in Rwanda led me to question whether presenting answers through theatrical work might oversimplify the causes and effects of the conflict. Thus, my experimentation with form began to veer towards strategies that did not end in the presentation of a message or in the discovery of a solution. I decided that, in my aesthetic choices, while there would be themes, there would be nothing akin to ‘resolution’.
Thus, from working with aesthetic forms that sought to find or propagate solutions for issues that audiences explicitly identified with, I decided to work with more ‘experimental’ forms that would present issues and questions implicitly. This focus on form further helped me in addressing my ethical positioning in the context, since the objective of my theatre-in-war workshops and performance was no longer to find solutions for a conflict. Instead the objective became about giving aesthetic form to content that was decided upon by the workshop participants.
What would be this form, though?
What did I have to say, as an artist, that hadn’t been said ad-nauseam by others before me?
What was ‘my’ aesthetic?
After Rwanda, I began to experiment expansively with form.
Documentary Theatre.
Immersive Theatre.
Site-specific Theatre.
Promenade Theatre.
Environmental Theatre.
Adaptations rather than original work.
Site-adaptive Theatre.
Experimental Theatre.
Where was ‘my’ voice in all of these forms?
Borrowing from one framework; stealing from another. Attempting to find ‘my voice’. Somewhere in my trajectory as a theatre-in-war practitioner-researcher, I realized, I had become more of a researcher than a practitioner. I had lost sight of the practice. Of the importance of aesthetics. I had focused so much on the ‘why’ that I had begun to ignore the ‘what’ and the ‘how’.
I needed to remedy that.

5Since encountering the idea of balanced novelty, I have been exploring the realms of cognitive neuroscience and psychology, seeking to understand if there might be elements to human behaviour that help explain why I find a balance between the familiar and the unfamiliar to be a better strategy than erring toward either end of the familiarity/unfamiliarity spectrum. While there are many ways in which this novelty might be considered, my primary focus in this chapter is on considering novelty in a theatrical performance and seeking to understand how audiences in places of war might respond to varying degrees of novelty. While I will also briefly address novelty in the context of the devised theatre process, i.e. for co-creators, the primary focus remains on my thinking as a theatre director whose concern is about crafting performances. I use ideas from cognitive neuroscience and psychology as a starting point, making connections to intentionality, positioning, and identity politics as I go along.

6The first concept that I would like to put forward as a useful point to draw from is Novelty Categorization Theory (NCT), an area of study that seeks to provide insights into how ‘people process novel information and when people perceive an event as novel in the first place’ (Förster, Marguc and Gillebaart, 2010: 736). It is useful here to look at some of the guiding assumptions of NCT. The ‘first assumption states that events are perceived as novel when they do not seem to fit into existing categories’ (ibid.). Thompson (2003: 22) puts forward the notion of ‘bewilderment’ to describe what happens in an encounter with novel events, speaking to how individuals who participate in or watch theatre for the first time might experience the impacts of ‘amazement, fascination and doubt’. While I agree with the premise of what Thompson proposes, I would like to build on his argument in a couple of ways. First, I would like to underscore the idea that not only can a theatrical experience be bewildering when theatrical activity is, in and of itself, novel in a particular context. Rather, I have come to think that using experimental/avant-garde forms of performance in a context that is only used to the proscenium, or including content about ‘grey zones’ when a context is only used to narratives of victimhood and perpetration, can be equally bewildering experiences. Novelty, and the bewilderment that results can therefore arise from multiple factors within a theatrical intervention. The second idea that I would like to posit regards the risks of causing bewilderment through an engagement with novelty. As Thompson (ibid.: 23–24) notes, the potential of bewilderment emerges from an engagement with that which is novel and can become ‘a process that reminds one of or recalls the familiar by recreating forgotten actions or webs of understanding’. That said, Thompson (ibid.) also proposes that bewilderment could cause ‘physical and emotional demands, that can dislocate bodies and disrupt accustomed patterns of behavior’. While I had initially thought about processes of dislocation and disruption as being generally positive, albeit uncomfortable, my work over the years has led me to consider the risks of bewildering experiences in contexts of conflict. In sensitive environments of war, where the general sense of fear and anxiety might be higher than in contexts of not-war, what are the implications of causing bewilderment through encounters with novelty?

7While my initial explorations of aesthetic form were framed by a naïve understanding that an encounter with novelty is always a positive experience, my experiences observing audience’s responses to novelty over the years have led to me consider the concept far more carefully. Speaking to the limitations of an audience’s response to novelty, it is useful to consider Pierre Bourdieu’s (in Shaughnessy, 2012: 166) conceptualisation of cultural capital, in which he cautions us that a ‘work of art has meaning and interest only for someone who possesses the cultural competence, that is, the code into which it is encoded… A beholder who lacks the specific code feels lost in a chaos of sounds and rhythms, colours and lines, without rhyme or reason’. Although it might be argued, as Heraclitus did (in Förster, Marguc and Gillebaart, 2010: 738–739), that ‘you could not step twice into the same river; for other waters are ever flowing on to you’ — that is to say, that even the most familiar event can be novel based on the lens one uses to view that event — it is equally possible that ‘almost anything can be experienced as old’. The multifaceted responses to, and repercussions of, an encounter with novelty takes me to NCT’s second assumption that ‘people want to understand novel events’ unless the level of novelty triggers (un)anticipated levels of anxiety which, as NCT’s third assumption postulates, gives rise to ‘self-protective motives’ (ibid.: 736). Ultimately, what we can draw from NCT studies as theatre-in-war researchers-practitioners is that, ‘novel events can be interesting’ and ‘increase curiosity’ and yet, on the other hand, novel events ‘can be threatening because they may carry some risks’ (ibid.: 738). Drawing from this proposition, my question about novelty becomes this: can we make educated decisions as to what kinds of novelty can be interesting and what kinds of novelty can be threatening when making aesthetic choices in times and places of war?

8The best-known example of the need for the familiar and the unfamiliar to coalesce in specific proportions in the theatre comes from Bertolt Brecht’s Dialectical/Epic Theatre. My reading of Brecht’s ‘alienation effect’ is that, for an audience to be alienated from a performance and to channel a critical empathy about the larger issues that are being theatricalised, the spectators must in fact be absorbed by the action in the play to begin with. For example, we will not be alienated by, and thus reflect on, Mother Courage’s actions and the insidious nature of war if we are not — at some level — drawn in by the narrative, characters, and the context that Brecht creates for us in Mother Courage and her Children (1966). In a novelty-based reading therefore, Brecht’s proposition of strategies like direct audience address, song, and titles for scenes, might be seen as predicated on creating a blend between the familiar and the unfamiliar, where the unfamiliarity and novelty of alienating strategies intersect with the familiarity (and reality) of the contexts that the play describes. If we are to take this Brechtian notion of the familiar and unfamiliar into thinking about the realms of form and content in a theatrical performance, Brecht’s strategy might be thought (however simplistically) to use unfamiliar formal elements in conversation with familiar content — content that reflects the socio-political realities of its spectators.

9A theatre-in-war practitioner-researcher who shares my interest in balanced levels of novelty might be able to draw many insights from Brecht’s work. That said, while some of my thoughts in this chapter will resonate with Brecht’s, this chapter also seeks to push Brecht’s ideas in a different direction by asking how and why a balance of novelty works psychologically, for spectators. Although Brecht has articulated his own reasoning behind his aesthetic choices i.e., to give rise to critical empathy, I find myself more interested in the psychological and physiological affects/effects that might result from the presence of novelty in a theatrical work.

10Marco De Marinis and Paul Dwyer (1987: 111) draw from Daniel Berlyne (1960) to suggest that ‘some of the effects brought on by new stimuli’ (i.e., novelty) ‘do not achieve maximum strength with a maximum of novelty’, but rather with ‘an intermediate level of novelty’. De Marinis and Dwyer (ibid.: 111) take this argument further by suggesting that there needs to be a ‘fragile balance’ between the ‘pleasure of recognition’ i.e., an encounter with the familiar, and the ‘pleasure of the unexpected’ i.e., an encounter with the unfamiliar or the novel. This fragile balance between the familiar and the novel — the balance that Brecht might be read as arguing for — is one that I have found to be particularly useful when looking to implement theatrical interventions in places of war. This balance is important because, as George Loewenstein (in Förster, Marguc and Gillebaart, 2010: 738) has elaborated, ‘novel events may trigger positive and negative affect at the same time’. And when thinking about the potential for negative affect in ‘unsafe situations’, Jens Förster and Ronald S. Friedman (2001; in Förster, Marguc and Gillebaart, 2010: 744) suggest that ‘atypical alternatives’ might be avoided if individuals anticipate that the novel environment or topic in question may cause a bad situation to get even worse’. This is to say that in a place of war, where spectators to a theatrical performance are likely to be predisposed to a high level of anxiety (i.e., an unsafe situation), we might need to be extra sensitive towards the possible negative affects that could emerge from the integration of atypical elements (i.e., strategies of novelty) in our theatrical work.

Notes from the field
Trade Winds (2010) was a performance that sought to explore the conflicts between two specific Diaspora communities in Kenya and India: the Asian-Kenyan Diaspora in Mombasa and the African-Indian Diaspora in Ahmedabad. Designed as a project to evoke a collaboration between two groups of high school students in India and Kenya, Trade Winds was a Documentary Theatre piece that was conceptualized as a result of my own encounters with these specific Diaspora populations in Rwanda, Kenya, Uganda, and India.
In the first phase of this project the students in India interviewed African-Indian community members (Siddis, as they are sometimes referred to) in the city of Ahmedabad in western India, while the students in Kenya simultaneously interviewed Asian-Kenyans in Mombasa. The interviews were fairly unstructured and aimed for the students to gain a basic understanding of what these particular Diaspora communities experienced in their respective contexts.
In the second phase of the project the two groups of students from India and Kenya met in Mombasa. Drawing from the material that they had gathered in the interviews the students devised a piece of theatre entitled Trade Winds, referencing the trade-based relationships that are said to have established still enduring linkages between East Africa and the Indian subcontinent.
Audiences who entered the performance of Trade Winds were split into two groups: one group went on a voyage to ‘India’ while the other group went on a trip to ‘Kenya’. For their journeys audience members were given a basket to carry with them — representing their emotional and cultural baggage — filled with pieces of paper that said different things: ‘Language’, ‘Clothes’, ‘Food’, and so on; elements that had been mentioned in the interviews that the students had conducted. At moments in their particular voyages the audience members were asked to ‘give up’ something from their baskets. If they did not give up something, the scene would not continue. This particular element in the piece was designed so as to partially immerse the audience in an experience that both groups of Diaspora had described: what are you prepared to give up for your new life, for the ‘show’, to go on?
The two groups of audience members eventually came together in one location, at the end of the performance, where students from both the ‘India’ and ‘Kenya’ stops on the journey used techniques from Image Theatre to symbolically bring the two voyages together — attempting to get the audience members from the two different groups to witness (to some extent) the similarities behind the voyages they had experienced although each group had not had the opportunity to witness the journey of the Other. I’m sure the significance of this allegory is apparent to the reader of this book.
While this particular process and performance were, I believe, strong learning experiences for the student creators and us — the teacher-facilitators — I’m not entirely sure what the audiences took away from it. Actually I’m not sure what we wanted our audiences to take away from Trade Winds. Judging from facial expressions, body language, overheard comments, and other non-verbal cues from audience members who would never openly criticize a performance that had been created and performed by their children and friends, I had the sense that ‘something’ hadn’t worked.
This ‘something’ might have been the vagueness of our intentions; that we had not thought carefully enough about who our target audience would be and where the performance would occur.
This ‘something’ might have been the overwhelming sense of novelty that we had created in the piece; that our using Promenade Theatre and techniques of audience interaction with an audience that did not have much experience with theatrical events was just too much unfamiliarity; that our inclusion of material that was also unfamiliar to the audience — especially for the audience that went to the ‘India’ stop on the theatrical journey — tipped the scales of novelty even further.
This ‘something’, I came to decide later, was the overwhelming level of novelty in the piece.
While I cannot say that there were negative affects as a result of this extreme use of novelty, I must also admit that this might very well have been because Mombasa is not a conflict zone in the same sense as Kigali or Srinagar. Had we implemented this degree of novelty in an active war zone, it is entirely possible that we might have provoked unintended (and possibly, risky) levels of anxiety.
So, too little novelty didn’t work in Rwanda.
Too much novelty didn’t work in Kenya.
What was the balance?

11When speaking to how the safety or lack thereof of our surroundings might affect our responses to novelty, there are two factors that have been found to mitigate responses to novelty: mood and coping potential. Beginning with the former, studies show that people in positive moods are more accepting of the atypical whereas people in negative moods are less likely to embrace the atypical (Förster and Friedman, 2001). ‘There is a great deal of evidence that positive mood and emotional states facilitate creativity and/or that negative mood and emotional states undermine creativity’ (ibid.: 1010). Since the experience of living in a conflict zone can trigger negative moods or states of mind, how can novelty be negotiated in theatre-in-war interventions? Although it is impossible to ascertain with any certainty what spectators’/creators’ mood might be in a place of war, are there strategies that we might employ as theatre-in-war practitioners that could increase the chances of spectators entering our performance in better moods? Is there something that we could do, before a performance, for instance, that would predispose our spectators being in a positive frame of mind? Or do we take the safer route and given the likelihood of negative moods in a place of war, err on the side of caution by tempering our approach to novelty?

12Regarding mood, it has also been suggested that an individual’s coping potential is an important factor in determining how novelty might be encountered and processed (Silvia, 2005). Coping potential ‘refers to people’ s appraisals of whether they can understand the ambiguous event’(ibid.) and therefore, the implementation of aesthetic novelty in a place of war might benefit from taking into account how the people who comprise an audience tend to articulate their own coping potential. This is to say that whether or not a particular strategy might be ‘too novel’, depends on whether or not the spectators think that they can decipher that novelty. When an event or occurrence is categorized as novel, a person’s coping potential defines how they appraise their own likelihood of understanding that event. ‘Research in the psychology of art suggests that appraisals of coping potential affect interest’ and that ‘feeling able to understand art is associated with finding art interesting’ (ibid.). In various experiments across the realm of audience perception of the visual arts a common assumption was that ‘experts rated abstract art as more understandable and as more interesting’, and that ‘differences between experts and novices and between adults and children may stem from differences in appraised ability to understand art’ (ibid.). In this vein it has been proposed that ‘providing titles for abstract paintings increases the viewer’ s ability to understand the paintings’ and that by ‘[p]roviding extensive information about a painting, such as the artist’ s biography and the context of the work, has a large effect on both understanding and emotions’(ibid.). Extending these observations to the realm of theatrical performance therefore, seems to suggest that an interest in a theatrical intervention in a place of war might be ‘enhanced by increasing appraisals of coping potential’ (ibid.).

13So, in a context where theatre itself is a novel activity, the experience of being a spectator is less likely to be anxiety inducing, less bewildering, even, if the audience that the piece targets considers themselves able to understand the event. Consequently, when conceptualizing a piece for an audience in a place of war that is understood as having low coping potential, it might be recommended for the theatre-in-war intervention to err on the lower side of the novelty scale. However, when creating the same piece in the same place of war for spectators who are observed to have high coping potential, or in a different place with high coping potential, it might be possible for more novelty in form and/or content to be seen as pleasurably bewildering rather than as anxiety inducing. There is no one-size-fits-all answer way to address coping potential, of course: I have encountered audiences in conflict zones that have high coping potentials and other those that do not. Sometimes, based on the demography of the audience, certain members of the same spectator group are likely to have more coping potential than someone else in the same audience with a different lived experience vis-à-vis the conflict.

14So my question becomes: how do we understand which audience members have what coping potentials? Are there particular pedagogical strategies that might foster higher coping potentials, thus enabling us to look at a context’s educational system to understand how an audience might cope? Are there particular social and cultural conditions that shape an individual’s understanding of their coping potential? While each of these questions will require context-specific research in order to be addressed fully, I have come to think that mood and coping potential are two concepts that can help nuance decisions about the place for novelty in a theatre-in-war intervention.

  • 1 The story that was initially told involved a goat that is eventually seen as a dog (as opposed to (...)

Notes from the field
Meri Kahani Meri Zabani (MKMZ, 2014) — My Story, My Words — sought to perform the narratives of ex-militants in Kashmir through a process that consisted of three steps: the first step was composed of interviews with Kashmiri ex-militants, the second step involved collaborating with a Kashmiri theatre company to weave material from the interviews into a performance piece, and the third step involved a trial performance of the piece for the interviewees and subsequent showings of MKMZ for small audiences of non-interviewees. While the interviewees were complimentary of the integrity with which their words were put into performance, many of our non-interviewee audience members reacted negatively to what they perceived as MKMZ’s misrepresentation of the ‘truth’. The non-interviewee audience members accused the ex-militants of lying in their interviews and as a consequence we, the creators of the piece, were accused of performing propaganda. This critical response put me, as the facilitator-director, at the crux of a conflict: the conflict between an ‘honest’ representation of the interviewees’ words and the misrepresentation that was perceived by the non-interviewees who saw the piece. This conflict between representation and misrepresentation lay at the heart of MKMZ and provoked insights that were as auto-ethnographic as they were ethnographic.
The Interviews
• If there were to be a play about your life, what one incident would you want to include about:
▪ Why you joined the militancy
▪ Your life during militancy
▪ The transition point — when you decided you wanted to leave the militancy
▪ Life as an ex-militant
• What are three words you would use to describe yourself and why?
• If you could record a message to someone who is completely different from you, whom would you choose and what would you say?
• If you had to create a three-minute movie about your life, for someone who has NOT had your experiences, what would you put in it? [The actors who accompanied me for the interviews were directed by the interviewee in an improvised performance.]
• If you could live anywhere in the world, where would you live and why?
The Script
Meri Kahani Meri Zabani involved:
• Four monologues culled from interview transcripts, encompassing the four main themes that emerged in more than twenty interviews.
• Symbolic pieces that used one phrase and one action from the interview material; inspired by Marina Abramović’s Art must be beautiful, artist must be beautiful (1975) where Abramović repeats this one phrase alongside the singular act of the artist brushing her hair.
• Creative strategies that drew from archival research, which sought to nuance the truth/falsehood of the verbatim text in the monologues.
▪ The use of poet-guides who recite couplets when leading the audience from one scene to the next
▪ The use of aesthetic elements like installations, sounds, and smells
▪ The inclusion of an allegorical ‘man with the hen’. Telling the very simple tale of a man carrying a hen who is ultimately convinced by those around him that he is in fact carrying a cat, the story of the ‘man with the hen’1 was shared by one of the interviewees as an allegory for many of the current realities of Kashmir — of what had happened to several militants, of what had happened to the rehabilitation process, and of what has/had happened in relation to many facets of the conflict. As such, the ‘man with the hen’, could be seen as a strategy of the ‘difficult return’ (Balfour, Hughes and Thompson, 2009a: 211) where a character represents ‘a form of memorialization’ in which ‘history is allowed to remain problematic and unresolved in the present’. The ‘man with the hen’ was characterised so as to ‘make provocative connections between past and present’ and to ‘demand critical interrogation of contemporary realities, rather than safely bracket off the past from the present’ (ibid.).
• The audience was led between different rooms — using elements of Promenade and Site-specific Theatre — encountering, in each space, either a monologue, a symbolic piece, or one of the creative strategies.
The responses
• Day 1
▪ “You are going to get an award for this work”.
▪ “Thank you for showing our lives and words”.
▪ “You used everything we told you!”
• Day 2
▪ “The only truth is the truth of the victims. I don’t know why you showed us this piece”.
▪ “Maybe she has some agenda for the Indian government?”
▪ “Please don’t make us the subjects of your research”.
• From my co-creators
▪ “We need to invite as many audiences as possible to see this piece. Especially students in schools. They need to see what we have lived through”.
▪ “Look, we need to be careful. If a militant sees me criticizing Pakistan in my monologue, you think he’s going ask me questions about what I mean? He’s going to shoot me before I have a chance to say anything”.
▪ “It was great to hear them speak. I didn’t know any of this about the militancy in Kashmir”.
While, initially, Meri Kahani Meri Zabani had come close to finding a balance of novelty between form and content, the feedback from our second performance forced me to reflect on why there were such different responses to the work. Although for the first audience (of interviewees) we had seemingly achieved a balance between the novelty of the form and the familiarity of the content, this clearly wasn’t the case for the second audience group that came to MKMZ. Not only was this audience comprised of non-interviewees, but these individuals were also civilians who had never been part of militant groups themselves — or, that’s what I was told. At first, it was easy for me to chalk up the fiery (and critical) responses that I received as being biased by the spectators’ own lived experiences. But while this bias was certainly one of the reasons behind the responses on Day 2, it certainly was not the only one (as I had thought at the time).
For one thing, while the material included in Meri Kahani Meri Zabani was not entirely novel to the spectators on Day 2 (in that narratives about the militancy are widely available in Kashmir), many of these audience members had (intentionally or not) stayed away from the ‘kinds’ of people who shared their thoughts with me during the interviews for MKMZ. By this I mean that our second audience member group was composed of Kashmiri intellectuals and artists who had friends or colleagues with some link to the militancy.
However, the ex-militants that I had spoken with were not necessarily the ‘intellectual leaders’ of the militant groups in which they had participated. Many of MKMZ’s interviewees had participated in the militancy as lower/mid-level fighters; fighters who were commanded by other men; commanded by the higher echelons of the militant groups; higher echelons that were occupied by the kinds of men and narratives that my second performance’s audience members might have been more accustomed to interacting with.
While I cannot deny the possibility that I might have been lied to by some of my interviewees and misled by others, I also cannot say that the misrepresentation that I was accused of after the second performance was solely because of my interviewees lying to me. I believe that the second audience reacted the way they did because, as far as they were concerned, a representation of the militancy through the eyes of ex-militants who ‘justified’ their actions was untenable. And given the novelty of that experience — given the novelty of ‘perpetrators’ in MKMZ who were explaining/justifying their acts of perpetration rather than simply revelling in their idealism or regretting their actions — well, that was just not a narrative that my second audience considered familiar. Or acceptable. In fact, given that some or perhaps even all of my spectators on Day 2 had had personal and negative experiences with militants over the years, I would go so far as to say that encountering material that ‘humanized’ / ‘victimized’ the ex-militants in MKMZ put our spectators in (understandably) negative states of mind and consequently, affected the audience members’ sense of their coping potential. They did not want to understand what they were bearing witness to.
I didn’t have the terms to understand this at the time. I remember being completely shaken at the end of that feedback session. I thought I had been so careful. So ethical. I had done my best to counter any bias in my interviewees’ words through the symbolic performances and the creative strategies that had been inspired by archival research. Instead, I had been basically called a spy. I had been told that my work was extremely biased. That I had been lied to. That I had been misled. I was accused of being a spy.
There was one individual in the theatre company that I created MKMZ in collaboration with, who had been involved in a militant group himself. And it was revealing, to me, to try and look at MKMZ through his eyes.
While the content was familiar to an audience of interviewees, the form was novel to them
While the content was unfamiliar to an audience of non-interviewees, the form was also novel to them (less so since the audience on Day 2 was comprised of artists who had had more exposure to the theatre than our first audience)
But to this colleague of mine, for whom both the form and content of MKMZ were familiar… seeing the work through his eyes was… surprising.
Until the second performance, this collaborator had been a big supporter of the content in MKMZ. He had warned me, during the process, about a few segments that might be controversial; but generally speaking, this collaborator was invested in the piece. So much so that when our first (interviewee) audience posed some questions about certain choices we had made vis-à-vis content, this collaborator was the first person to jump to MKMZ’s defence. He embodied an infectious positivity. In front of an audience of interviewees, ex-militants who he seemed to see as being on a ‘lower’ level than the position he occupied during the militancy himself, my collaborator was able to cope with any and all questions that came his way.
This took a drastic turn the next day though. After the first criticism arose, my collaborator’s mood was instantly negatively affected. This usually articulate man — in being challenged by peers that he considered to be more his ‘equals’ than those who had come to the performance the day before — he was not able to cope with the criticism. He didn’t seem to know how.

One of the most vociferous critics from our second audience group called me an hour after the feedback session on Day 2 and apologized for having lost his cool. He also came back to one of our rehearsals to offer more constructive feedback about the work. Taking his apology at face value, for a long while after Meri Kahani Meri Zabani, I thought the intense responses on Day 2 were simply a question of heightened emotions. After all, hadn’t one of our most intense critics come back to us once he had ‘cooled’ off?
It is only with time, once I began to study the notion of novelty and the impacts of audience’s lived experience on their potential responses to novelty, that I have found entirely different perspectives emerging.
Perspectives that I continue to explore as I develop my work in Kashmir.

15In addition to choices that might be made in the form and content of a theatrical performance, the above-mentioned ideas regarding coping potential and mood also become relevant within a theatre-making process. Let us take the example of a theatre researcher-practitioner implementing non-hierarchical, devised theatre methodology in a context familiar with a more traditional, hierarchical director/actor relationship. In such cases, the question of novelty becomes: are the non-hierarchical methodologies being implemented too novel as concerns the general mood and coping potential of the co-creators? For instance, if the theatre maker’s age/gender makes them anomalous in a given local context, might it be better for such a practitioner-researcher to begin their work with more familiar pedagogical methodologies in place, waiting for the co-creators coping potential/mood to shift before implementing a completely novel pedagogical approach? If a certain group of Mexican actors is more accustomed to theatrical/schooling environments where the director/facilitator is didactic, and this group is also more accustomed to these leadership positions being occupied by older men, would it be better informed for the young, female, non-Mexican workshop facilitator to begin her process with the familiar lecture-based didactic approaches before moving on to the use of experiential, action-based learning? Just as there is a case to be made for intermediate (rather than extreme) novelty in the aesthetic form that a performance takes on, could it be that a theatre-in-war practitioner-researcher might need to carefully gauge how much novelty might be ideal in the methodology of the workshop itself?

16Audiences and co-creators in conflict zones are already vulnerable in a variety of ways, and thus, inviting additional vulnerability through bewildering experiences requires a process of building trust. Speaking to the role of trust in arts-based exchanges Marina Bianchi (2015: 136) suggests that the ‘intention to accept vulnerability’ is often ‘based upon positive expectations of the [good] intentions or behavior of another’. As such, there need to be channels for such positive expectations to be fostered and developed for, when ‘the process is based on social interactions, people care whether the process has been conducted with fairness and reciprocity’ (ibid.: 148–149). What this suggests is that anything novel that a theatre-in-war practitioner-researcher seeks to do might be more likely to be acceptable to the inhabitants of that conflict zone if they trust the artist in question, and deem that the theatrical intervention has been conducted in a ‘fair’ manner. Furthermore, since ‘relational trust becomes an important factor’ in situations that contain social interactions ‘as is the case with art goods transactions’, this relational trust might be seen as developing ‘from repeated interactions over time’ that “give rise to positive expectations concerning counterparties’ intentions” (ibid.). While it is apparent that theatre-in-war practitioner-researchers who are ‘insiders’ to a particular site are likely to have this trust more easily available in certain situations, it is equally poignant that an outsider theatre-in-war interventionist — if seeking to do something that is particularly novel — would need build this relationship over time.

17Since moods and understandings of coping potential can influence whether or not novelty causes anxiety, NCT suggests activities like ‘framing’ or ‘priming”’ to address these concerns (Förster and Friedman, 2001). In a theatrical context, these notions of framing and priming point toward an interesting question for spectatorship. Is there a way in which spectators might be prepared for the novelty in a theatrical experience, reducing the possibility for a negative experience of novelty? In exploring this question, I have come to contemplate the notion of a process-based spectatorship. Can audience members undertake a process — similar in pedagogy to a devised theatre process for co-creators — in which they are prepared to take on the novelty that they might encounter in a theatrical performance? By this, I do not mean that the plot of the performance is shared with spectators before the performance, or that the aesthetics are explained to them beforehand. Rather, for example, if Immersive Theatre is going to be extremely novel to a particular audience demographic, might a process of engaging spectators in roleplaying exercises leading up to their immersion in the performance become a useful way to frame the novelty for them? Since ‘a reduction of the novelty experience’ could ‘increase interest’ and possibly reduce anxiety (ibid.: 749), could the use of processes for spectators before a novel theatrical experience decrease the odds of creating aversive affects? While people usually ‘cling to that which we know because we find familiar types of stimulation pleasurable’ and research indicates that ‘we tend to ignore or forget, or attempt to discredit, information that does not match our beliefs’, the capacity of our brains to be flexible implies that ‘through repeated exposure’ we might actually ‘change our perception of the world’ (Di Benedetto, 2010: 17). Therefore, it might be useful to consider how an exposure that goes beyond the frames of the performance event (when speaking of spectators, in particular) might increase the odds of our intentions for an intended afterlife being realized, especially in cases where projects intend to provoke a memorial afterlife (be it tangible or intangible). As Leonard B. Meyer (in Gordon and Holyoak, 1983: 500) has pointed out, ‘aesthetic appreciation requires the ability to perceive structure in a stimulus’. As such, Meyer (in ibid.) suggests that once a structure in a stimulus ‘is internalized, it then becomes a kind of good form to which new and old stimuli can be related’; thus suggesting that ‘relating stimuli to a learned structure’ can be ‘pleasing’. It is precisely such an internalization, which reduces the possibilities for provoking anxiety in a place of war that process-based spectatorship might allow.

18A further argument in favour of process-based spectatorship might also be found in ideas surrounding information gaps. For instance, it has been suggested that, ‘the intensity of curiosity directed at a particular item of information should be related positively to its ability to resolve uncertainty (i.e., to close the information gap’ (Loewenstein, 1994: 88). Since ‘curiosity reflects a desire to close information gaps’, it becomes more likely that there will be a (positive) curiosity toward novelty in theatre-in-war projects when audiences and co-creators assume that becoming a part of that theatrical intervention will reduce their information gap vis-à-vis a particular theme or question (ibid.). So, for example, if a performance were to tackle novel narratives about the grey zones of a conflict, the spectators/co-creators who confront such narratives might be more likely to engage with those accounts if they believe that their theatrical encounter will reduce their information gap surrounding those particular grey zones. On the contrary, if the spectators/co-creators consider the theatrical experience as heightening an existing lapse in their knowledge (like Day 2’s audience to MKMZ, perhaps), they might be less likely to engage with the novelty that is presented to them. What the information gap perspective suggests is that, ‘people will not expose themselves to curiosity-inducing situations in which there is only a slim chance of satisfying the curiosity or in which there would be a long delay before the information is received’ (ibid.: 90). Therefore a process-based spectatorship might allow us to foster frameworks through which our spectators are able to understand their information gaps as closing because of their theatrical experience.

19It has been suggested that when dealing particularly with information that challenges a person’s held beliefs about an Other, ‘participants spend more time on inconsistent information if they expect to interact with a target because this increases the social relevance of the information’ (Förster, Higgins and Werth, 2004: 59). Building on this idea we might say that the novelty of encountering grey zone narratives in a site that is used to a strict victim/perpetrator binary might become more relevant if the spectators/co-creators believe that they will encounter the Others that they witness in a theatrical context, outside the theatre process/performance itself. Taking this idea back to MKMZ then, the second audience of non-interviewees to our performance might have been more likely to accept different accounts of the militant experience if they believed that a personal encounter might become possible with that ‘kind’ of ex-militant outside the context of our performance. However, since our spectators did not seem to think that they would ever encounter these voices outside MKMZ, their aversion toward/rejection of the atypical narratives that were presented to them might be better understood.

Notes from the field
In June 2015 my collaborators in Kashmir and I worked on an adaptation of Argentine playwright Griselda Gambaro’s (1992) play Information for Foreigners (IFF). A promenade, site-specific piece written in episodic segments, IFF asks its audience members to be guided around a two-storied house, led in groups by actors playing Guides. In Gambaro’s IFF, the Guides take groups of audience members to different spaces in an abandoned house; spaces in which episodes of torture and disappearance from Argentina’s years of the Dirty War are enacted for audience members. As much a commentary on complicity during times of war as it is an interpretation about the narratives of the disappeared in Argentina, Gambaro’s work was our point of departure in Kashmir.
Similar in form to Gambaro’s IFF i.e., in using the promenade and site-specificity, IFF: Chronicles from Kashmir (IFF Kashmir) was entirely different in its content and showcased particular episodes from the years of militancy in Kashmir (i.e. the 1990s). In addition IFF Kashmir sought to explore grey zones and as such, while the piece included dominant narratives about victimhood and perpetration to balance the novelty that came from the grey zones, there was a particular focus on highlighting narratives that occupied spaces between the binaries that are strongly entrenched in Kashmir. The material for IFF Kashmir drew from ventures that I had undertaken in the four years preceding this project.
These years of practice and research had taught my Kashmiri co-creators and me that we had to be extremely careful in choosing our audience for IFF Kashmir. Questioning if the content in IFF Kashmir would be too familiar for an audience that had lived through the militancy themselves and possibly cause too much discomfort and anxiety, we came to the conclusion that our performance might be best targeted toward Kashmiri high school students for whom the content would still be familiar, in that the narratives we were showcasing are still very much part of the public domain in Kashmir, but for whom there would be enough distance from the material and an exciting novelty in form that would create a pleasurable sense of bewilderment. Aware though, that the students that we had decided to choose as our target audience had only (if ever) watched theatrical performances in the proscenium, my colleagues and I conducted a pre-performance workshop — something that I pushed for having come to wonder about the potential of process-based spectatorships.
During the pre-performance workshop a colleague and I went to the students’ school a day prior to the performance and used a very simple exercise framed by the idea of a ‘Museum’. The young people were asked to create a ‘Museum’ of their school for us, showing different exhibits that represented elements of their lives at that institution. The students’ target audience was my colleague and myself i.e., an audience who knew something about their lives as students but did not know much about the particularity of that school. Once the students created and performed their ‘Museums’ for us, my colleague and I used their performances to talk about the performance of IFF Kashmir that they had been invited to the next day. We told the students that they were coming to be spectators in a piece that might be interpreted as ‘Living Museum’ of sorts; a piece in which they would walk around to different exhibits under the direction of a Guide; a piece in which each segment would represent something different about Kashmir.
We returned to the school the day after the performance and in a debrief with the students, realized that the pre-performance workshop had indeed functioned as a ‘frame’ or a ‘primer’ that had served to nuance some of the bewilderment and curiosity that they faced during IFF Kashmir. While our visit back to their school for a post-performance discussion was also linked to our intention — of our play being a work in progress that will, in a few years, be showcased in educational institutions across India (more on this in When) — the preperformance workshop and the ways in which it seemed to manage the student’s bewilderment at IFF Kashmir’s novelty was a significant insight that I took away from this project.
Before I started my work in Kashmir, I had come to a decision about my renewed intention with my theatre-in-war interventions: to explore grey zones across the victim/perpetrator binary in a performance piece toward catalysing an intangible memorial afterlife. Following this rearticulated intention, when I chose Kashmir as my site of intervention, understanding novelty became significant in how I decided to ease my school student audiences into and out of IFF Kashmir. While I am by no means suggesting that this is the ‘right’ way of doing things, I am offering IFF Kashmir as a possibility to the reader of this book — a possibility from an effort in which I believe I made better informed choices about dealing with aesthetics and novelty.
It is also important to mention here that the decisions made in IFF Kashmir have taken three years to develop. Every year that I have returned to Kashmir, I find that the trust established with my co-creators is stronger; that the relationship that I am able to create with my spectators becomes more nuanced. Although I have had different spectators over the course of the last few projects in Kashmir, the fact that I have kept returning has led to some of my audiences trusting me more now than they did before. I say ‘some’ and not ‘all’ since there are still spectators in Kashmir who question my intentions, my aesthetic choices; remaining sceptical about what a young, Indian, woman director is trying to say about their pain. But I don’t think that I will ever reach a stage where all my spectators in Kashmir — especially those who have lived through the height of the conflicts there — will see my work as fair and trustworthy. And yet, with every year that I return, I do see an evolution (sometimes, infinitesimal) in my own choices, in the level of trust with which I am met, and in my own ability to engage with that (mis)trust.
At some point in each of my projects in Kashmir, I have had a day in which I ‘break down’. Where a particular statement from someone in an audience or a particular failed strategy in the rehearsal room has brought me to tears. Every year this happens. And each time it happens I ask myself “Why do I continue this work?” I ask myself this question every time I go to Kashmir. But every time I leave, every time I think of going back, I realize that those ‘dark’ moments of questioning arise because my co-creators and spectators tell me — honestly and directly — when they find my decisions questionable. Kashmir and I have reached a stage in our relationship where I cannot take for granted what I will encounter next, and this uncertainty and anxiety with which I keep returning — the novelty from these interactions that continues to surprise and unsettle me — well, for me, that’s my fragile balance between the familiar and the unfamiliar. Between trust and (mis)trust. Between stagnation and development. A painful process that I would not recommend for everyone, but for those of us who, for better or for worse, find our calling in these grey zones… there is nothing else like it.

20In understanding how aesthetic choices might be better examined in a context of conflict, a practitioner-researcher might benefit from a consideration of novelty: working toward a balance of the familiar and the unfamiliar, understanding the moods and coping potential of audiences and co-creators, and, finally, assessing how information gaps, framing, and priming might be addressed through the inclusion of a process-based spectatorship. Given that each set of audiences and co-creators is likely to have different needs, I have come to see that my aesthetic decisions regarding novelty in places of war are honed by my previous decisions on Why, Where, and Who. While I consider each of these decisions in the theatre-in-war intervention timeline as building sequentially on each other, it is important to say that decisions about Why, Where, Who, and What intersect. For example, gaining a more nuanced understanding about the grey zones in a particular site allows me to rearticulate my intentions; understanding the implications of novelty in my aesthetic choices leads to a renegotiation of who my work might best speak to. These feedback loops between and across the ideas of Why, Where, Who, and What are finally underscored by an examination of When. How does the notion of time become an element with which we might refine our work as theatre-in-war practitioner-researchers? Are there certain explorations of time and temporality that might make our work more ethical and responsible? It is with these questions in mind that I move on to the final W in this book, When.


1 The story that was initially told involved a goat that is eventually seen as a dog (as opposed to a hen that is seen as a cat). However, since we wanted to include a live animal in the creation of a multi-sensorial environment, it was deemed more financially and logistically feasible by my collaborators that we use a live hen rather than a live goat.


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