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Theatre and War

Nandita Dinesh


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I keep six honest serving-men:
(They taught me all I knew)
Their names are What and Where and When
And How and Why and Who.
Rudyard Kipling
The Elephant’s Child

1Why, Where, Who, What, and When are the five Ws that have guided my work in places of war and, yet, the ways in which these Ws intersect with one another has often come to me in retrospect: how to articulate my intention, how to use that intention to frame my positioning and my site of intervention, how to move from that choice of site toward exploring the dynamics of the victim/perpetrator/grey zone continuum in identifying co-creators and spectators, how to extrapolate from my spectators’ and co-creators’ demography in order to investigate the place for novelty in my aesthetic choices, and finally how to consider time and temporality within the different components of my theatre-in-war interventions. Given the retrospective quality to the auto-ethnographic sections in the earlier chapters, by way of a conclusion I would like to share with the reader my notes from a recent undertaking — an intervention that was conceptualized and implemented in concurrence with the writing of this book. These Notes address my work in Armenia, a context in which I was far more aware, in the present, of how the Why, Where, Who, What, and When manifested and intersected with each other. Alongside these notes I also reiterate the conclusions that are proposed in each of the preceding chapters, highlighting areas that might warrant further exploration when making theatre in places of war.

Notes from the field
I lived in Armenia between January and May 2015 in order to teach theatre at an international school in the country. Part of the reason I took this job was predicated on the history of Armenia and on my desire to understand the current repercussions of the Armenian ‘genocide’ in that country. I place ‘genocide’ within quotation marks to underscore the still contentious use of this term when referring to the events that have occurred in this nation, a nation that is sometimes referred to as being part of Europe and at others, as being part of Asia. Still embroiled in various stages of struggle with one of its neighbouring nations, Turkey — the nation that is said to have perpetrated the ‘genocide’ against the Armenians during the First World War, though its current government still shies away from the use of the term — Armenia is also embroiled in conflict with its other neighbour, Azerbaijan. The latter conflict has to do with the contested region of Nagorno-Karabakh, a region that is claimed by both Armenia and Azerbaijan. Armenia thus occupies multiple temporal zones of war: sometimes in active conflict (with Turkey and/or Azerbaijan); sometimes in zones of not-war-not-peace, when acts of violence are on hold; always in a state pre-conflict given the unpredictable tension on Armenia’s closed borders with Turkey and Azerbaijan.
In April 2015 Armenia was set to commemorate 100 years of the genocide, an event that the school I was at, a school that had opened its doors only the year prior and was home to students and faculty from over 50 countries, was aiming to deal with. In thinking about this event therefore, about the centenary of the Armenian genocide, and how the school might participate in the commemoration of the genocide, I took myself through the five Ws and attempted to further explore the strategies that I offer in this book. Since my ideas surrounding the five Ws often emerged when I was able to theoretically reflect on past work, being in Armenia was a time in which I was able to ‘look forward’ and apply the five Ws concurrently with my practice and research.
Choosing to go to Armenia was not a random occurrence. In 2013, in India, I was teaching in a school that is part of a global movement of international high schools and in 2014, this movement was set to open two new schools: one in Germany, and one in Armenia. While leaving the school in India was influenced by a number of reasons, personal and professional, in thinking about whether or not I would like to be part of one of the two new schools that were opening their doors in Germany and Armenia, I went through a process of examining my intentionality behind the move — both in terms of my work at the school and in terms of my own research into the use of theatre in places of war. Ultimately the choice to move to Armenia was shaped by many reasons; the reasons that are most appropriate to share here being my desire to stay within this particular movement of schools and to go to a context where I thought I would encounter new insights about theatre-in-war. Thus, Armenia became the next stop on my journey.
In turning to the first W, Why, I asked myself what my primary actions were going to be in the context of Armenia, and there were three actions that emerged as applicable: to teach (in the context of the international school); to research (existing theatrical interventions in Armenia that might address issues related to the Armenian genocide or the conflicts with Turkey and Azerbaijan); to test the five Ws and their applicability as a sequence in my Armenian theatre-in-war interventions. Given the action-related components to my work and given that I was going to be working within an educational institution, I honed my intention further and realized that while I was not looking to provoke a tangible memorial afterlife from my work in Armenia, neither was I looking to create work that would eschew any type of afterlife. Similar to my goals with IFF Kashmir, I decided to work with the intention of creating an intangible memorial afterlife by focusing on processes, performances, and post-performance outcomes… a decision that I began to hone once I made choices about Where, Who, What and When.

2The framing of intention presented in the first chapter, Why, offers three components to a theatre-in-war practitioner’s objectives: the primary action(s) that they seek to engage with, the points on the theatre-making/performance timeline that constitute the intervention’s primary focus (the process of creation, the performance-based product, and the post-process/performance outcomes), and what is sought to be achieved through the articulated focus and action. Through these proposals I seek to move the discussion about ‘why we do what we do’ away from the more established concepts of affect and effect. Instead, I suggest that we might consider an intention/response interaction in which the theatre-in-war researcher-practitioner might make an intentional choice not to aim for any particular kind of response; where the researcher-practitioner might intend for the creation of an intangible memorial afterlife; where the theatrical intervention might aim for the manifestation of a tangible memorial afterlife. By intangible afterlife, I refer to theatrical experiences that seek to be ‘educational’, to ‘raise awareness’ about a specific issue, or to foster a sense of ‘collectivity’. In such cases a specific kind of long-term response is desired from the audience, though this response is difficult to measure or evaluate. The tangible memorial afterlife, on the other hand, is one in which I consider an intention to create specific results that might be measured: a decrease in malaria rates, for example, or a solution to a particular issue found through the use of a strategy like Forum Theatre. In thinking about these three components to intention, I suggest that a practitioner-researcher might make more informed choices about where and how to intervene.

3When speaking to the notion of memorial afterlives, while demarcating a line between the tangible and the intangible can be a useful point of departure, the reality is that after-effects or long-term traces of theatrical events often contain components of both categories. For instance, if we were to revisit the example of ex-child soldiers in northern Uganda who undergo theatre-as-therapy in rehabilitation centres, the intangible afterlife that is sought is for these children to better reintegrate into their communities when they go home after their years spent as combatants. Now, while there are some elements to this reintegration that will be intangible — such as the ways in which the children are treated in their homes and the impacts of their having been child-soldiers on their ability to form new relationships — there are other elements to the same issue of reintegration that might be measured. For instance, are ex-child soldiers who undergo theatre-as-therapy programs more likely to find employment due to an improvement in their communication skills from their participation in collaborative arts-based work? Since employment rates can be tracked by looking at the tangible components within the intended intangible memorial afterlife might allow an understanding of how the theatre-as-therapy might actually help the ex-child soldiers in the long-term. In practice, rather than looking at afterlives as being either tangible or intangible, it might be revealing to look at the tangible components to the intangible goals as well, the intangible components to the tangible goals. While the notion of assessment might irk those practitioner-researchers who believe that the strength of arts-based work lies in its catalysing the intangible, given the volatility of war zones, I have come to think that evaluations might become useful to us in a couple of ways. First, such evaluations might assist us in further understanding what our work accomplishes in different terms — since many of us are already attuned to the intangible outcomes of theatre-in-war work. Second, evaluations that lead to tangible articulations might also become a way in which to justify our work in contexts where theatrical activity is not well understood.

4In articulating tangible and intangible outcomes of theatre-in-war interventions there is one component that though I did not engage with in the chapter on Why, I would like to explore here: the question of assessment. In IFF Kashmir (2015), for example, I designed a very basic survey tool in which there were two questionnaires designed to assess the response of our student audiences: one that was distributed at the start of the pre-performance workshop and the second that was handed out at the beginning of the post-performance discussion session. Right before the pre-performance workshop that led up to their spectatorship in IFF Kashmir, the students were asked to respond to two questions:

1. What, according to you, are the three most important events that have taken placing in Kashmir? This could be a political event, social event, cultural event, anything that (you believe), has impacted Kashmir as a whole.

2. What do you think theatre is?

5The day after the performance, before engaging in a discussion about what they had experienced, the same students were asked to respond to the following questions:

3. As a result of the play, is there anything that you would like to add to your response to Question 1?

4. As a result of the play, is there anything that you would like to add to your response to Question 2?

5. Is there a particular element in the play that you would have liked to understand better?

6. Could we have done something different in the workshop that would have better facilitated your experience of the play?

6By using these questions and comparing the responses received before and after the performance, I was able to assess if the students had encountered new information in IFF Kashmir; if they had encountered too much novelty in the form; if the pre-performance sessions had provided them with a useful framework/primer for the performance itself. The responses suggested that while student audiences came across no new information in the content of IFF Kashmir, they generally found the novelty of the form to be striking and the pre-performance sessions to be helpful in preparing them for the piece. Looking at the students’ responses to these questions has enabled me to understand the content of IFF Kashmir in a new light. If the narratives from the grey zones were not seen as novel, could I experiment more with the content of IFF Kashmir in future iterations of the performance for this target audience? Also, since the students seemed to appreciate the preand post-performance workshops that were offered, how could I have better framed the representation of time in IFF Kashmir for them, so that they were less likely to interpret the piece as being a fatalistic view of Kashmir’s future? The surveys that I carried out for IFF Kashmir were very basic, and yet, they provided me with material from which I am able to revisit the work and more carefully identify areas for development.

7There are challenges to my approach to intentionality of course: breaking theatrical processes and performances into actions, points on a timeline, and intention/response interactions; looking for ways to evaluate and assess memorial afterlives present their own particular problems. My suggestions will certainly seem limiting, unnecessary, or counterintuitive to those who believe in the goodness of our intentions and in the unpredictable connections and ripples that theatrical interventions can generate. And yet, I keep returning to Ivan Illich’s (1968) speech to a group of United States’ volunteers who were aiming to ‘help’ poor communities in Mexico, with all the best intentions. “To hell with good intentions”, Illich says, making an eloquent plea for ‘us’ — outsiders with good intentions — to do our work within contexts that we understand, instead of forcing our good intentions on those who, because of historical oppressions or cultural codes, cannot simply tell us that they have no use for our interventions. While the position that Illich holds is possibly extreme, his incendiary words have often forced me to question my own intentions more rigorously. After having worked in the realm of theatre-in-war over the last decade, where I have often encountered and, indeed, made claims about ‘changing’ a particular status quo or ‘helping’ a context in some way, I have come to see that many of these intentions terrifyingly parallel age-old models of oppression where there are people who ‘know better’; where there are some people who are equipped ‘to empower’ others. Such rhetoric, encountered in theatrical activism, continues to disconcert me and it is from this position of discomfort that I advocate a close dissection of intentionality: a dissection that has led to the proposals that I make with regards to intention in this book.

Notes from the field
I was more outsider than insider in Armenia. From being one of the few non-Caucasians on the streets, to floundering immensely because of my inability to speak Armenian or Russian. Of all the contexts that I have been to, Armenia is probably the one that I felt most ‘outsider’ to; where I was unable to locate insider elements that put me on the hyphen. For in addition to these physical markers that put me on the outside, my outside-ness in Armenia also came from my working for a really privileged international school in a context that continues to face serious socio-political issues. Given that the school was based in a small town in Armenia (and not in the more diverse realm of the capital city) my being an outsider was marked more obviously. It wasn’t only race, nationality, and language that made me an outsider in Armenia; it was also class and privilege that put me on the elite end of the socio-economic spectrum in that setting. Given this positioning and my desire to create work that would provoke intangible memorial afterlives, there were a few decisions I came to:
I decided that I would be best positioned to work within the school community in which I was situated, instead of going to Nagorno-Karabakh or other parts of Armenia where I would probably encounter more ‘obvious’ narratives of war/conflict; where my outside-ness seemed like it would be more of a hindrance than anything else. Drawing from my work in Rwanda, where I had not thought carefully enough about which particular group within Rwanda I would be best positioned to work with, in Armenia, I realized that the school community would be the most ethical site for me to conceptualize projects that worked toward intangible memorial afterlives.
Furthermore, my moving to Armenia in January 2015 made the impending centennial in April 2015 an almost inevitable choice for the event around which my theatre work would be structured. From what I understood, April in Armenia — like April in Rwanda — is a time of public commemoration. And since 2015 was to be the 100-year anniversary of the event, every part of Armenia seemed to be abuzz as to how the day of national mourning would be commemorated.
Given the outside positioning of the school that had just opened its doors in Armenia, my colleagues and I — after a number of discussions — decided that the way in which we might best commemorate the event, as outsiders, would be to focus on educating our school’s community to issues surrounding genocide, in general, and the Armenian genocide, in particular. Furthermore, since we wanted to have these events open to the larger community in the town in which we were based, given that we were worried about linguistic issues, and given my own interests as one of the primary organizers of the event, we decided to structure our commemoration around the arts and on creating an arts-based commemoration of the Armenian genocide.

8This notion of intention is complicated by a consideration of where we, as theatre-in-war researchers and practitioners, might fall on the spectrum between insider and outsider. Rather than examining whether or not we are simply insiders or outsiders to a particular context, Where proposes that it might be far more useful to think about the hyphen between insider and outsider. When we enter a particular context of conflict, are we insiders in some respects and outsiders in others? Furthermore, how does the way in which we occupy the insider-outsider hyphen allow us to return to our intention and use that intention to make a better-informed choice about the sites in which we might intervene theatrically? Since each positioning on or across the insider-outsider hyphen comes with its own potential and challenges, how do we use the intentions we have carved for ourselves in order to make more ethical decisions about where we carry out our work? Choosing a site of intervention is a decision that is often made based on a multitude of factors: a ‘gut’ instinct to go to a place that has always remained on someone’s radar; a desire to go somewhere that other theatre-in-war practitioner-researchers have not been to before; a choice that is driven by personal reasons that have nothing to do with the work itself. I do not discount these options when it comes to choosing a site of intervention and believe that even if one has entered a place in a completely random fashion, examining the intersection between intention and positionality will nevertheless be useful in uncovering the layers to the conflicts that exist in that setting. The hyphen that I propose in the chapter on Where is therefore one that is predicated on understanding how particular forms of inside-ness/outside-ness benefit or inhibit the work that we seek to conduct. While there might be more philosophical ways to unpack these questions of positioning, analysing the hyphen between insider and outside becomes a direct and effective strategy when conceptualizing theatre-in-war interventions. Having moved around many parts of the world for the last decade, I would argue that I am outside most contexts that I enter, even when I go ‘home’. But there are elements of inside-ness that simultaneously exist everywhere I go, precisely because I have moved around so much, and it is in this interweaving between my intentions and how I am inside/outside a particular space that helps me further refine the specific site of my theatre-in-war interventions.

9Once the site of intervention has been chosen, the chapter on Who proposes a consideration of the victim-grey zone-perpetrator spectrum — a nuanced understanding of which might allow a theatre-in-war researcher-practitioner to create better-targeted interventions. When choosing co-creators and spectators in a place of war, I propose that a consideration of identity politics might feed back into intention and positioning in interesting ways. In addition to considering the victim-perpetrator-grey zone continuum, the chapter on Who also makes a case for working in the grey zones, working with those who might not so easily be classified as victim or perpetrator. Although I realize and acknowledge that listening to multiple sides in a war zone does not make the sides equal, or that seeking to understand ‘perpetrators’ does not imply forgiveness or acceptance of their acts, I must admit that that this poise is hard to strike in practice. When you see glimpses of the person behind problematic actions, it becomes difficult to balance the humanity of that engagement with a rational understanding of how those individuals might have committed acts of perpetration. The fragile balance, then, between the consideration of an individual’s acts of perpetration and an understanding of that person’s humanity, requires immense discipline; discipline that cannot be asked for or expected from those who have been victims to those perpetrators’ actions themselves. It is precisely because I have not been a victim to those individuals’ actions that I am even able to consider an engagement in the grey zones between victimhood and perpetration. While this murky terrain is a minefield to navigate in terms of its ethical implications, I have also come to think that this work (in the grey zones between victimhood and perpetration) might be a necessary component in unravelling the complex terrain that encompasses a place of war; a component that might best be taken on by a seemingly innocuous activity like the theatre; a component that might be best taken on by someone who has not borne the brunt of acts of perpetration themselves.

10In discussing the Who, in identifying the politics of victim-perpetrator-grey zone identities, it is perhaps worth considering some of the practical elements that such an approach entails. How might a theatre practitioner-researcher even begin to access ‘controversial’ voices — the voices of combatants and ex-combatants, for example? My own approach has involved relying on a snowball effect, where I begin by locating individuals and groups who have an online presence, or through friends of friends, reaching out to potential connections and hoping that those conversations will then lead to further contacts being made. Given the people-centred approach to making theatre, especially in a context of conflict, I have come to think that the set of voices that become available to me might not be accessible to another researcher-practitioner. Similarly, what becomes available to someone else might not be available to me. So, while my particular contacts and ways of being in Kashmir led to the ex-combatant and military contacts that I have, I wonder if a different theatre-in-war researcher-practitioner might have more luck in accessing armed forces narratives than I did; if someone else might have been better positioned to work with active militants than I was. Practically speaking, identifying collaborators can function as a ‘luck of the draw’, where all our systematic intentions and strategies might ultimately come to depend on the outcomes of interpersonal interactions.

11While the identity politics of ‘victim’, ‘grey zone’, and ‘perpetrator’ might be somewhat easier to identify when considering spectator demographics, these identity-based affiliations become much more difficult to navigate when identifying co-creators. For instance, it is only after three years of working with the same group of artists in Kashmir that I have come to a better understanding of how my co-creators are themselves positioned on the ‘victim’ - ‘grey zone’ - ‘perpetrator’ spectrum. It is only after work that has occurred over a long period of time that I have established a level of trust with my co-creators, after which I can ask the tough questions, the ignorant questions, and better interpret the ways in which their silences, gestures, and words both reveal and conceal what they are saying. That said, this ability to understand the complexity of identity politics born of having spent more time in a particular context, becomes at the same time more biased the additional times one returns to a place of war. The more time I spend in Kashmir, the more personal bias that I take with me about what is happening in the region. And while I still cannot ‘pick a side’ in my work, as I am often asked to, and while I am often judged for not picking a side by some of the Kashmiris I meet, I cannot deny that I return each time with more personal expectations of what might happen in the work. So, while building a project over time might allow a trust-based relationship to evolve and might enable one’s ability to understand the nuances of the ‘victim’, ‘grey zone’, ‘perpetrator’ continuum, maintaining a longstanding relationship with one particular context of conflict could also become problematic in its own right.

Notes from the field
Given the chosen site of intervention in Armenia (the school), our co-creator and spectator demographic was composed of students, teaching, and nonteaching staff at the institution. The students and teaching faculty came from over 50 countries, while most of the non-teaching staff were from Armenia. In going about thinking of identity politics then, about the ‘victim’ - ‘grey zone’ - ‘perpetrator’ spectrum, there were certain considerations that emerged.
It seemed, to me, that commemoration in Armenia is usually a time in which Armenians (in general) are represented as the ‘victims’ and Turks (in general) are represented as the ‘perpetrators’. Given that we had a student body that included both Armenian and Turkish students, I realized early on that we had to be incredibly careful about how these conversations about victimhood and perpetration took place. I remember, when going to create a theatre piece with a group of young people in the town that the school was based in, the nervousness of one of the Turkish students on my team. “Should I tell them I’m from Turkey?” he asked, “What will their responses be like?” Given that many Armenians had probably never met someone from Turkey, this student’s nerves encapsulate the wariness that might be said to exist between those who belong to these particular sides of Armenia-Turkey conflicts. How would we tackle this grey zone in our school’s arts-based commemoration? How could we, as outsiders, commemorate the Armenian genocide without implicating our Turkish students in governmental policies and histories that they had nothing to do with?
Another grey zone in this intervention manifested in my thinking about ‘nationalism’. While, like most international schools that have a liberal bias, our student body was (generally speaking) anti-military, how were we going to navigate the patriotism and nationalism that we encountered amongst some of our Armenian students? Since Armenian young men are expected to enrol in the army when they are eighteen, and given that we had young Armenian male students who were training to be part of the army, how would we negotiate many of our student and faculty’s tendency to be critical of armed forces’ interventions across the world in the context of conversations around war and genocide? Given that Armenia’s focus on their armed forces is tied to legacies in which their victimhood is manifest, how were we going to speak to narratives of violence in the context that we were in?
Furthermore, we also had to acknowledge that the school itself occupied a tenuous grey zone in Armenia. As our student population came from over 50 countries we had students who had been at different points on the ‘victim’/‘perpetrator’ sides of conflicts in Russia, Ukraine, Israel, Palestine, Armenia, Turkey… how were we going to work toward a larger idea of commemorating genocide that would speak to the conflict zones that many of our students were coming from?
With these grey zones and third spaces in mind, we went on toward articulating the What of our arts based commemoration in April 2015.

12Understanding the identity politics in which our collaborators and spectators are mired then allows us to make more careful choices about our aesthetic strategies in the theatre. I propose in the chapter on What that the notion of novelty might be an important concept to consider since too much novelty in a context of conflict might induce a sense of anxiety, while too little novelty might lead local participants to perceive the work as having little from which they can gain knowledge. Carefully balancing novelty then, as a consideration of audience and co-creator demography, can become a tool with which we might further realize our intention in a particular theatre-in-war intervention. While novelty has become a way for me to adjust my aesthetic approaches, there are certainly many other ways to make these decisions. For example, I have met many theatre researchers-practitioners over the years that explicitly choose the form of Theatre of the Oppressed in order to fulfil their intentions of solving problems in the context in which they are intervening. I have also met researcher-practitioners who have come upon their own aesthetic discoveries and use their theatre-in-war interventions to teach their particular approach to aesthetics to their collaborators in times and places of war. I do not advocate against any of these approaches; I simply suggest that even when particular aesthetic choices have been made, that a consideration of novelty might provide an interesting lens through which to understand the larger repercussions of our work. While this might seem more applicable to projects that seek some kind of memorial afterlife, I have come to think that the notion of novelty would also be useful for the artist who does not seek to induce an afterlife. I have come to think this because of the ethical dimensions to working in places of war, where the sensitivity and volatility of the context demands that we be more responsible for what might happen once we implement our particular aesthetic strategies. More so, if we are to leave the context after the project has ended.

13In the chapter on What I spent most of the discussion thinking about novelty vis-à-vis spectators and thus, it is worth mentioning here that novelty also might become an important element to consider when working with co-creators in a particular context. For instance, does the practitioner-researcher embody a novelty because of who they are and where they are from? And if so, how does this novelty become offset by a parallel novelty in their pedagogical approach? If the theatre maker themselves, and their pedagogy, already tend to fall on the extreme end of the novelty spectrum, what are the challenges/potential when the practitioner-researcher also experiments with a novel aesthetic? What calibrations of novelty become useful or challenging in terms of the co-creators moods, coping potential, and information gaps? This is not to say that extreme novelty cannot be effective. In fact, in my first project in Kashmir with the theatre company that has become my partner on the ground in subsequent work, I believe I implemented extreme levels of novelty: as a young woman running a workshop; in using non-hierarchical pedagogies in a context that was used to hierarchy; in creating original work when the actors were used to working with scripts; in experimenting with Immersive Theatre when my co-creators had only ever done proscenium work. While this extreme level of novelty certainly put me on the back foot with some of the older men in the group, given that more than half the collaborators were younger artists who wanted to experiment, my utilization of extreme novelty actually ended up being beneficial. While I do not say that extreme novelty cannot be useful, what I do advocate for is a consideration that I did not undertake carefully enough before this first project in Kashmir. Had I done so, I might have not been on the back foot with the older, male actors who, consequently, took more time to come around to trusting my work and me.

14Notions of novelty have also come to be related to time, as I explain in the chapter on When, where the idea of a process-based spectatorship and/or durational elements to facilitating spectatorship could have cognitive implications for the intentions of our work. In addition to this process-based dimension to spectators’ temporality and a consideration of temporal zones in relation to the trajectory of the war, temporal framing also intersects interestingly with the time that we represent in our theatrical performances. Are we talking about the distant past or the proximal future? Are we speaking to the recent past or the distant future?

15Since representations of temporal proximity/distance might have implications on how our work is received and processed by spectators, these considerations of time and temporality might have repercussions on the outcomes of our theatre-in-war interventions. That said, there is no denying that the proposals regarding temporality that I put forward in When need further refining and this is a direction to my research that I seek to explore over the next few years. While I was sensitive to the intersections between the realms of Theatre and Performance Studies and cognitive neuroscience while going into the process of writing this book, the explorations in When have only reinforced the possibilities that this particular interdisciplinary approach might afford us as theatre-in-war researchers and practitioners. The cognitive implications of temporal distance, for example, might allow us more ethical tools with which to frame our interventions in places of war; understanding the ways in which we represent time in our performances might allow us to mitigate some of the traumatized reactions that can be catalysed by commemorative performances like those that I witnessed in Rwanda; understanding how memories might be differently encoded in the long-term versus the short-term might reveal integral insights into the manifestation of theatrical interventions’ afterlives.

Notes from the field
A group of colleagues and I met one afternoon, with a broad idea in mind. We wanted to discuss the possibility of creating an artistic commemoration of the Armenian genocide. We wanted to create a weeklong programme in April that would commemorate the Armenian genocide in ways that would educate our own school community — which was primarily populated with non-Armenians — about some of the larger issues surrounding genocides in Armenia and around the world.
With these particular intentions in mind, the team (comprised of both Armenian and non-Armenian members) talked about the implications of our positioning in relation to the context. Could we go into the capital city for the day that huge audiences would gather at the genocide memorial there? Or would it be more sensitive and ethical to confine our efforts within the boundaries of our school? Could we create performances that involved our non-Armenian students working with communities outside the walls of our institution? Or were we better placed to foster stronger connections between the Armenians and non-Armenians on our campus itself? Furthermore, given our complex positioning in the Armenian context, would it be possible for us to tackle some of the grey zones of the genocide — was there space to talk about, for example, the Turks who sought to save Armenians during the years of violence? Was there a space to talk about the grey zones from other genocides and put those in conversation with the questions surrounding Armenia’s past, present, and future?
All of these questions tied into the aesthetic and pedagogical decisions that we finally made, regarding how we would tackle novelty about the topic of genocide for our students, while also being cognizant of the novelty that we represented in a small, homogenous town in Armenia. Could we tackle this novelty temporally i.e., by building up to the events of April in a way that ‘took care’ of audiences and increased the odds that the ideas being exchanged would be processed in way that facilitated possible long-term afterlives? While the temporal, preparatory quality to our work will be addressed later on in these Notes, the events in April 2015 were designed to occur as a weeklong commemoration that was structured as follows:
Day 1: Commemoration & Visual Art
This event took the shape of visual art installations in the campus’ black box space.
Day 2: Commemoration & Theatre
My classes of theatre students were split into smaller groups, each of whom was given the stimulus of ‘commemoration’ and asked to create a theatrical intervention of their choice. One of the groups created a piece that spoke to different perspectives of war: of a mother losing a child, of a wife losing her husband, and of intergenerational trauma. A second group created a piece that was inspired by the conflicts in Ukraine. A third group based their work on the shared suffering of non-combatants in Israel and Palestine. A fourth group created a Forum Theatre piece about anti-Muslim sentiments in the United States, following September 11th 2001. A fifth group spoke to power dynamics in times of war: of mob mentalities and invisible oppressors. A final group of students created a piece that took place in one of the student dormitories: of a young Armenian woman seeking to leave her country, only to be plagued by the nostalgia and patriotism that she has been cultural conditioned to take on herself.
Day 3: Commemoration & Film
As part of the film-making initiative, a group of students and faculty from the school worked with a local artist to interview a hundred year old Armenian woman who had the lived experience of the events of 1915 and had also lived through the following century of her country’s memorialization of the genocide.
Days 4 and 5: Commemoration, Music, & Dance
This particular group took on two projects. In the first project, the students and faculty organized a concert at a local music college, inviting students from that college and from our school to perform music that somehow related to the broad theme of commemoration. This concert culminated with a duet sung by an Armenian and a Turkish student: these two young women sang a song that was known in both Turkey and Armenia, symbolically singing in each other’s languages, and bravely putting aside their fears of being judged by the local community. A showcase on the school campus followed this off-campus concert the next day, an event that consisted of more musical and dance-based interpretations to commemoration.
Day 6: A commemorative walk to the local genocide memorial
Led by Armenian teachers and students, members from our school community walked to the local memorial, placed flowers and candles there, to mark the end of our commemoration period and to perform our solidarity with the town’s residents.
One of the additional theatrical projects that was undertaken as part of this larger week of artistic commemoration (and that also took place on Day 2) was an endeavour between a group of students from the school I was working at and a group of young Armenian theatre students at a youth centre in the town we were living in. The primary intention for this project was to get two groups of students who might not otherwise have had a chance to get to know each other — because of their studying in different schools and not speaking the same languages — to work on an aesthetic project that might enable them to forge a creative partnership. With this as our goal, the aim to create this (intangible yet tangible) spirit of collaboration, the next challenge for the youth centre’s theatre teacher and myself was to articulate a way in which we could deal with the theme of commemoration without asking the young Armenian students to perform the narratives that they thought they were expected to discuss (about Armenian ‘victims’ to the genocide). Therefore, we adopted a strategy in which we decided to let the temporal context of the commemoration shape the content of the theatrical work: we would not tell the young people that the content needed to be about the genocide, rather we would acknowledge that the performance’s occurrence during a time of commemoration would lead to implicit and explicit links being made by the young people themselves. We also decided to conceptualize the piece as a ‘Museum of Emotions’ where the theme was broad enough for those who did want to create exhibits related to the Armenian genocide to do so, but also with the space for those who did not want to reflect on Armenia to be able to explore other avenues. As a result of these devised, collaborative workshops, our ‘Museum of Emotions’ had multiple exhibits:
Exhibit 1 focused on fear, and while holding some resonances with the genocide, the young people in this group adopted a more symbolic approach.
Exhibit 2 focused on peace, sorrow, and rage with the young people in the group deciding to explicitly take a stand about the Armenian genocide and calling for a way in which Armenia might move beyond the darkness of the genocide to the possibilities of the future.
Exhibit 3 was focused on nostalgia: an older musician and poet from the town read a poem written by a poet from the Armenian Diaspora, while screening documentary images from the events of 1915.
Exhibit 4 was comprised of young people who decided to create their work as structured, non-verbal improvisation. Using a dimly lit setting that exuded reminiscence, the four student actors had different props around them and utilized these props according to a very basic script of entrances and exits that they had designed.
Exhibit 5 was an emotional mosaic that was informed by Marina Abramović’s piece Art must be beautiful, artist must be beautiful, where she repeats this one phrase alongside the singular action of combing her hair. Using this as their point of departure, each of the three actors in this exhibit was asked to choose one phrase and one action that they would do/repeat through the course of a one and a half hour time frame. The temporal limitation was the only real guide that the actors had to navigate their phrase and action, requiring them to use their emotions in the moment to respond to each other.
Exhibit 6 dealt with memories of food: the ways in which food links to our emotional repertoires. Three students shared food with the audience while talking about a particular memory and the role that food played in that memory.
Exhibit 7 was made up of some of the younger members in the group who had decided to work on the emotion of surprise and composed simple interactive exercises through which they sought to surprise their spectators.
The eighth and final exhibit took place in an outdoor space where two of the youngest girls in our group, who wanted to work on the emotion of happiness, had music playing and invited the audience to dance with them.
Aesthetically, there was a lot more work that needed to be done on our ‘Museum of Emotions’. But juggling the schedules of two institutions plus twenty young people between the ages of six and eighteen was not an easy task. The logistical challenges in mind, it is also important to state that intention with this intervention was not solely about the aesthetics (important as the aesthetics were for the youth centre’s theatre teacher and myself); the focus was on creating new forms of connection between two groups of students who, otherwise, might not have had the chance to get to know each other.
As mentioned earlier, the culminating structure of the weeklong events in April 2015 did not occur in isolation and there was a durational component that was included in our conceptualization. Given the intentions behind the event, to create learning-based memorial afterlives amongst our school community, the preparatory sessions for the week of aesthetic explorations began in February 2015 with weekly lectures and presentations that related to larger issues and themes about commemoration and sought to contextualize the Armenian genocide for our many non-Armenian students and faculty. As such, the first week of preparatory lectures in February 2015 included a session entitled ‘Defining Genocide’; the second week included my presentation about ‘Theatre & the Politics of Mourning in Rwanda’; the third week’s presentation spoke to the ‘Politics of Memory in South Africa’; the fourth presentation focused on problematizing the ‘victim’/‘perpetrator’ binary; the fifth and sixth sessions concerned the ‘Politics of Memory in Cinema’ and ‘Art/Music/Architecture before and after the Armenian genocide’ respectively. By beginning our preparatory sessions with larger, global issues that were further away from our Armenian realities both spatially and psychologically, the weekly lectures culminated with the preparatory sessions bringing the global to the local i.e., to the specific context of Armenia. This durational component, of creating a two-month long process leading into the events of April 2015, seemed to have the desired outcome of a learning-centred memorial afterlife. Students and faculty often mentioned that the lectures had contributed to their being able to contextualize their thoughts about the Armenian genocide and had given them more tools with which to process other commemorative events that they had come into contact with outside the school.
The durational component to this intervention in Armenia was made especially viable since we were creating this project within a school environment, where we had a ‘captive’ audience. Having a school-going, residential group of spectators thus, allowed the durational component in Armenia to spill over in interesting ways. The evening lectures became material for lunch conversations the next day. A performance one evening, sparked a conversation days later over dinner. Furthermore, while my theatrical interventions up until Armenia had focused only on the use of theatre, in Armenia, through the conceptualization of a multidisciplinary aesthetic and pedagogical approach, I began to see the importance of different media when looking to create an intangible memorial afterlife. Given that each audience member has different preferences, different learning styles, different moods, and different coping potentials, the multi-disciplinary aesthetic events and the lecture-based preparatory sessions seemed to complement each other by creating environments in which spectators’ different learning styles could be accommodated. Taking this insight into my work with IFF Kashmir, I began to consider the value of making differently moulded aesthetic choices in each space that the audience encounters during the performance: a text based narrative in one space, an interactive visual installation in another, a media-based interaction in a third space, and so on. The potential that might come from invoking different pedagogical and aesthetic strategies within the larger durational component of an intervention is an important insight that I take away with me from the work in Armenia.

16I propose in this book that there might be a well-informed sequence in which a theatre-in-war researcher-practitioner might approach their work: by starting from intention and then moving on to analyses of site, identity politics, aesthetics, and temporality. But as I have also stated at other points in this book, I do not present this sequence of events as being prescriptive in any way. For the researcher-practitioner who is just beginning their theatre-in-war interventions and who might not know where to start, I offer the timeline itself as a strategy, as a way in which to think about making well-informed decisions when intervening in sensitive and volatile contexts that are in the clutches of violence. But for a more experienced reader who is already engaged in the practice of making/researching theatre in places of war, I hope that my proposals in each of the five Ws will allow researcher-practitioners to find their own way through the complicated maze of intention, positioning, identity politics, aesthetics, and temporality. Ultimately, the five Ws explored in this book might best be seen as intersecting circles; with the how being the particular trajectory that each individual researcher-practitioner chooses to take through those intersections.

17In writing this book I made a very conscious choice to use auto-ethnographical writing strategies to share my thoughts as they relate to the five Ws and this utilization of auto-ethnography has been significant in facilitating my own understanding of the analytical ideas that surround my work in places of war. Although I am slightly uncomfortable with the ‘binary’ that my chosen form of writing has drawn between the Notes and the ideas from my theoretical explorations, it is precisely the evocative quality that comes from reflecting on practice that enables me to engage with viewpoints from scholarship. As I develop my own writing though, I believe that future explorations will encompass a quest to find a less ‘split’ way of merging theory and practice; of finding different ways for the personal and the beyond-personal to come together more fluidly in writing about theatre in places of war. However, while I consider the form my auto-ethnographic explorations take in this work to be in need of further development, the process of writing this book has only served to reinforce (for me) the importance of auto-ethnography in dealing with theatre in places of war, especially as a practitioner-researcher who creates as much as they research; who practices as much as they theorize. The auto-ethnographical components to this book have often surprised me and have led to insights that I did not know I had about a particular project. That said, these reflexive components have only been bolstered by the theoretical examinations that surround them and while, in earlier stages in my work, I would have labelled myself as more practitioner than researcher, the two terms have come to co-exist symbiotically in recent years. The symbiotic relationship between theory and practice, between ethnography and auto-ethnography, between doing and thinking about doing, have only gained significance through my writing of this book.

Notes from the field
Through the writing of this book I have had the opportunity to look back on past work: to see where my projects lack and to see where they show potential. Since I hadn’t come to the articulation of the five Ws during many of the interventions that I write about, I look back now and view these projects through the lens of Why, Where, Who, What, and When — attempting to distil each experience further, in the way that one can only do in retrospect.
From my naïve beginnings in northern Uganda,
To slightly better articulations in Rwanda, Guatemala, and Northern Ireland,
To experiments in Nagaland, Kenya, Armenia, and Kashmir,
I have come to a more nuanced understanding about the role of intentions, positioning, grey zones, aesthetics, and temporality in my work.
Coming to these insights has enabled me to make new mistakes
New mistakes in
Moving past good intentions
Considering my place on the hyphen between insider and outsider
Exploring the struggles that come from working in the grey zones
Experimenting with aesthetic choices in contexts that are shaped by fear and violence
Articulating the centrality of time and the importance of returning
Making theatre in times and places of war.


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