TE’A: Theatre, Engagement and Action
What inspired your founding of TE’A?
I had experience using theatre as a tool of social change when I worked with the Star Program in New York, and again when I was a Peace Corps volunteer in Vanuatu. With Star and in the Peace Corps, I used theater to teach HIV prevention and I continued this type of work in other projects after I returned. I have to say though, it came together when I was a graduate student and had an internship with Search for Common Ground (SFCG); all of the things that I cared about–service, conflict resolution, and the arts, were being played out there. That’s what allowed me to see that TE’A was possible.
Here they were - in many ways a grassroots organization, but operating on an international policy level–and using the arts constantly in their work. This gave me the insight that using the arts for social change and peacebuilding was possible on a large scale and it was fundable, and I got quite excited by the possibilities. I wanted to combine the Insight Approach and theater to do conflict transformation and community building. One of the directors at SFCG told me about Intersections International; they were new, nimble and looking for innovative ways to do social change. I went to New York at the end of 2008 and spoke with the Executive Director, Bob Chase, along with Fred Johnson and Sara Reef, and did a presentation on what I could contribute. They became my founding partners.
What do you feel are of the strengths of the medium of theater in bringing about social change?
I think that with theatre, what happens is that the magic of being able to watch something on stage connects with people in a visceral and somatic way. It is different than other forms of conflict resolution that people in the field are practicing. With theatre, audience members can see and imagine themselves in various situations. Audiences are able to be active observers and engage in a way that doesn’t let their own narratives and threats get in the way. There’s a way the artists can show you getting insight on the stage that can allow you as an audience member to get insights about yourself as well. So theatre is super-translatable in this way. We live our lives in narrative — it’s all very relational. We live in relationships. We live in a world of meaning and we constantly come into contact with other people’s worlds of meaning. Theatre is mirroring that–the relationships and hardships and conflicts. If it’s constructed in a conscious way, you can play out so many things on stage where the audience can insert themselves in the situations and the cycles of conflict and transformation. You can see how people engaged in the dramas on stage are getting insights, or missing the opportunity to have an insight.
How does TE’A differ from other forms of theatre for social change?
I see a lot of theater that is message-based theatre and exposure theatre. However, TE’A is grounded in Bernard Lonergan’s Insight Theory and therefore, without being preachy, is trying to create a world of meaning and relationships to get insights to help change the way the audience views themselves, the world, and each other. We call it Insight Theatre. This is a pilot project of moving this theory out of the academy and practically applying it–the same way that Insight Mediation is taking off in Canada.
Our first TE’A Insight Theatre project, Under the Veil, told stories of being Muslim and non-Muslim in NYC post 9/11. I was overseas in the Peace Corps when 9/11 happened and when the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq began. I came back to a very different country and city, and I was really curious about the dynamic that had descended upon NYC—there was a very deep fear of the “other.” Of course there was reason–it was a very real thing. But the aftermath of fear was really detrimental to our communities. When we get fearful we’re not curious anymore. I wanted to inspire curiosity. I think theatre can help do it.
What is the process of creating Insight Theatre?
We gathered a group of artists and trained them in the Insight Approach. We then connected with people in the communities and conducted Insight conversations. Insight conversations are different than a typical interview in the sense that there are no preset questions. It is about having a curious conversation– staying open, present, and curious to wherever the person leads us. We stay curious about the person in their own terms.
Concurrently, I lead the Company in an interactive, collaborative process of theatrical creation that transforms the inherent drama of the experiences we learn about into the characters, concerns, and plot lines. The characters of our plays are composites; their challenges and triumphs are true to the Insight conversations we conducted with the community members who generously welcomed our desire to understand their experience in their own terms and to bring that understanding to the stage. As an audience member, you are witnessing collaborative theatre.
Tell us about TE’A’s latest project.
We decided to focus on our veterans, moving from Muslims to veterans, to look at this issue of 9/11 and the subsequent wars from a different angle. We were just really curious about another set of people in our community who are being affected by the aftermath of 9/11.
Guided by our Insight approach to community building and conflict resolution, the TE’A Company worked collectively to understand the issues facing veterans returning from their military service in Iraq and Afghanistan. In collaboration with various Veterans organizations, the TE’A Company engaged scores of veterans and their loved ones in Insight conversations, deepening their insight into the cares and concerns of these veterans and the decisions they made upon coming home. We began every Insight conversation with these questions: “If you could have a conversation with the American people, what would you want to say to them? And what would you hope would result from that conversation?” We asked them, “Who are you now? And what decisions have you made since you’ve been home–as a veteran?” The entire project took two years.
We are calling this show a site-specific theatrical performance. It ends and begins at a memorial for Scott Mathews, a solider who didn’t come home. The performance takes place in the sanctuary at Metro Baptist Church in NYC, so it feels like you’re coming to a memorial. It’s very small, only 38 seats per performance. There is a live band of four musicians that underscores the entire piece with original music.
Cadence: Home opens November 7th and nd runs for two weeks surrounding Veteran’s Day. Tickets can be purchased at http://cadencehome.brownpapertickets.com/
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The views and opinions expressed by the author do not necessarily reflect the views and opinions of Peace X Peace.