Why theatre? We spend much of our time in hotspots around the world, looking to give marginalized people a voice and agency. Theatre uplifts, informs, inspires - it attracts, rather than coerces. Theatre is Creative Diplomacy. At a time when diplomacy is most needed, here are two stories to paint the picture...
A Play to Encourage Peace and Empathy... and Pass the Censors
We began working in Myanmar in 2009 while it was still a closed military dictatorship. Now its doors have opened to a fragile freedom... along with a dangerous nationalism, corrupt land deals, resource grabs, and the continued arrest of journalists.
The Open Society Foundations challenged us to create a program to encourage peaceful coexistence between the Buddhist majority and Muslim minority populations. With our partners, Thukhuma Khayeethe, we considered how we might address such a touchy topic while also passing the still ever-present government censors.
Our answer was "Swamped", an allegorical tale about how frogs and lizards have never managed to coexist peacefully in their muddy home.To enact the story with human characters would have been too dangerous, but everyone felt free to root for the frogs and lizards becoming kindly neighbors. Fortunately, censors don't "get" allegory. As Thila Min said, "Allegory has been our only way to avoid censors all these years."
After each show, we gathered youth to discuss the issue. The play illuminated the fragility of life and how cooperation benefits us all. It was also open-ended to allow the audience themselves to pose solutions - a great example of how theatre can be an attractive, engaging way to open minds and hearts.
Storytelling and Play in the Afghan Women's Prison
Our first project in the women's prison was in 2011. At that time, it was a barren, concrete block with barred windows and heavy metal doors. When we returned in 2015, the prison had moved to kinder environs where the women could walk freely between buildings and out in a sunny courtyard. In both places, our performances brought the relief of laughter and a sigh of recognition as we enacted stories mirroring their own.
The sound of children laughing and playing greets you as you enter the prison - this comes as a big surprise! Small children are with their mothers. Women wear their own clothing, which creates a more human environment. But all is not rosy. Most women are there for fleeing abusive home lives. As the women say: "Before, our husbands owned us; now the prison owns us. Our lives are never our own."
Our theatre games allow them the freedom to imagine their lives differently, and see a more hopeful future. Hope is an essential cure for their depression! Mostly, the women want to play children's games each day, over and over, because they missed having a true childhood.
We return again in the spring to continue our storytelling and play with the women, to heal, build self-esteem, and provide life skills to ease their reentry into society.
Guatemala-Mexico Border - We will be bringing a little joy and laughter to migrants at two shelters near the border where families are stuck in transit, escaping conditions in Guatemala or returning from the US border and wondering where to live in peace.
Cape Town, South Africa - In partnership with Rape Crisis Trust, we will be working with rape survivors to promote gender equality and illuminate the national gender-based violence crisis. We'll bring informative performances and workshops to schools, universities and community centers.