On 20 September 2010, the British Council Switzerland will host a ground-breaking oneday conference in Geneva to explore how cultural relations can be used to address conflict.
The conference, ACT 2: The Role of Cultural Relations in Addressing Conflict: Reestablishing Normality, aims to identify best practice, explore specific case studies and identify potential roles for the arts in preventing conflict and in building peace in post-conflict situations. It will bring together a range of cultural, political and academic experts and practitioners. Among them will be Shakthi, a theatre for development group, initiated by the British Council Sri Lanka working with the Centre for Performing Arts, a local NGO, and using the expertise and experience of the UK’s Pan Intercultural Arts and Emmanuel Jal, former child soldier from Sudan and now international rap artist. He and Emma Thompson are patrons of Act2.
Shakthi, a remarkable group of young people, is at work on the east coast of Sri Lanka, an area deeply affected by decades of war. Shakthi was formed in late 2008, comprising participants from the Tamil and Muslim dominated areas of Sri Lanka’s east coast, some of whom had lived within the de facto borders established by the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, and from a war-ravaged borderland where Tamils, Sinhalese and Muslims lived and worked in close proximity. The members of Shakthi were not professional performers from outside the area, but “peer” performers within the community who knew and lived the situation.
They were eager for change, but needed extensive training to become facilitators of change and a cohesive group. At the end of their training many remarked that they had never met, let alone worked, or had fun with members of the “other” community. This was the first success of the project.
Week after week these young Tamil and Singhalese performers go into remote areas, performing for people like themselves about the social issues inherited from years of conflict. But they don’t just perform; they invite their audiences to enter an active discussion about how to alter their own behaviours to begin the change themselves, rather than waiting for others to come from outside their communities with solutions.
This is not a cathartic group aiming at making traumatised communities just feel good; it is peer-to-peer research into social issues, replaying them in such a way that audiences can recognise and analyse them and, crucially, can rehearse alternative futures. It is rough theatre played in open air spaces, in monsoon downpours in tin roofed buildings. When the audience arrives, the performance begins. When they need to go home because they are in the fields next day, the event ends.
The outstanding factor of Shakthi’s 18-month life is that it addresses the real problems identified by Tamil and Singhalese communities in this post-conflict society. These are not ethnic hatred and misunderstanding, rancour or even political inequities. The issues that the affected communities see as obstacles to change are those caused by education interrupted during the war; by broken income streams because farmland was mined and unusable; by the loss of a male in the war (to either side) which forces the wife to take up paid domestic labour overseas, destroying family infrastructure. An entrenched pattern of child marriages, which did not cease with hostilities, has denied education to thousands. Stories drawn from the group’s direct experience and recognisable to all the audiences are the material for Shakthi’s plays.
The plays follow a simple, stark format. A short play is performed, about a particular social issue, showing the worst case, but recognisable, outcome – a death, a crime, a loss. Everyone will recognise such incidents. The play is then performed a second time, but now anyone in the audience can stop the action, replace the worst affected character, and perform what they would say or do to avoid the tragic outcome of the original. Two facilitators “manage” these interventions, constantly asking the audience if the suggested behaviours are credible and if they do indeed suggest a different outcome. The audience is effectively “rehearsing” its own alternatives, so that they can transfer these to their real lives.
Members of the audience do interrupt and intervene, in their thousands. They do discuss and debate their issues, they do lead to change. One Shakthi member recounts that she was asked to visit a family living a situation identical to the role she was performing. As a result of her visit, a child marriage did not take place and a girl is back in full education with her future open to her. There are hundreds of similar stories.
During the week of 13 September, British Council, as part of Act 2 will also host a workshop for young people from other countries where there has been conflict, with the aim of introducing them to the skills that the members of Shakthi have put to such good use in Sri Lanka.
For further information about Shakthi, the
conference and the workshop,
please contact Caroline Morrissey, Director British Council Switzerland, firstname.lastname@example.org
or 031 301 14 73