You showed me this picture of Sho Kman – What Else? Did you see this performance by the Freedom Theatre in Jenin?
No, I didn't have the chance to see the full performance. I just saw the material that the Freedom Theatre made available on YouTube and their website. But that material was strong enough to make me use this image in one of the presentations about my research.
The Freedom Theatre writes that “the performance takes audience members through the contradictions, circumstances and rhythms of life that forces young Palestinians to ask the question, Who are We? An important milestone in the struggle to break free from the many layers of chains that imprisons them. The final goal being freedom …”* – In which way does this relate to your research?
I am looking at issues of identity construction and how it relates to space. If we think about identity as something that is constructed, enacted and repeated, then the Palestinian case is very interesting. Since Oslo, the everyday rhythms of the Palestinian population have been dramatically determined by the different technologies of occupation – when someone has to cross a checkpoint every day in order to get to their house, daily actions become marked by this situation of spatial restriction, identity cannot move freely –, repetition is not always possible; with Sho Kman – What Else? the Freedom Theatre is, in my opinion, presenting this dilemma.
Yes, perhaps it addresses the question of the freedom in imagining and enacting one’s identity. I completely agree with you, that these technologies predetermine much. Sometimes I wonder how and where the potential to imagine freely – free of mental checkpoints, if you will – where such a potential can come into being.
Ben Rivers recently gave an interview for Al Jazeera, where he said: “Our humanity is awakened through art – that is, art that involves the group or community. By engaging in participatory, creative processes, we experience a transcendence of our aloneness.”**
Sometimes I do wonder where the threshold would be between marked spaces of life under/with occupation and art under/with occupation.
You just raised a very important point. It is the connection of the individual and the collective, through art. This is something that I want to look at in my research as well.
In theatre, the body on stage can represent at the same time an individual story and – through ‘art’ in the sense Ben Rivers is saying – it can make this story part of a collective narrative. Before the play, during the creative process, during the representation to an audience ... the ‘event’ of theatre is collective. In my opinion, this ‘collective’ aspect of theatre is the one, which can create a change by using a limited space – the one of the theatre – to represent unlimited options of life, and even to challenge this spatial finitude in which identity is constructed.
Yes, this can be the case, particularly in the form of a representation, I agree. One could, however, argue, that this representation is then limited to the time and space of a specific performance. Do you think that the forms of Playback Theatre that Ben Rivers among others is doing with the Freedom Theatre reach out more intently into the lives of people and seek to more permanently open such imaginative spaces for thinking freely?
Absolutely! Playback Theatre has a very powerful ‘unconscious’ aspect. It aims at touching the audience in a very emotional way.
I am wondering, too, how this point you are making about a collective narrative and an individual, how this theatre then works with, even for the individual. Do you know what I mean? I am asking this because of the not unlikely potential of then using theatre for any form of ideological representation.
The interconnections of individual and collective are not always easy, and I think that the link between personal experience and collective consciousness is not straightforward. In my opinion, Palestinian theatre has experienced an ‘Individual Turn’ in the last decades. And this is not because the collective aspect has disappeared – as we were talking about Sho Kman – What Else?, it is there, clearly – but the individual is central, or better: the individual is the point of departure. In my opinion, in a ‘nationalist’ theatre the features that are primarily represented are the bounding symbols of the collective; after this ‘Individual Turn’, Palestinians talk about their individual experiences, and from this point of departure a more collective sense to these experiences emerges.
This collective sense then, is fostered within specific communities – that are so very heterogeneous, I would say – but these representations also travel, perhaps most prominently in recent years with the Freedom Theatre, travel everywhere. And they do speak to many audiences, don’t they? I think you make a good point in this regard: To start from a specific experience, also from this one specific body. And theatre then might help translate these experiences? So many performances ‘speak’, but not necessarily in spoken words, but bodily movements.
Of course, and the embodied dimension of theatre is the most powerful, in my opinion. It is through the perception of these bodies that we can get to empathy, to understand what a person is going through. Recently, the Freedom Theatre performed Fugard’s The Island in New York. Can you imagine? A Palestinian troupe performing a South African play in a US theatre! Of course you can perform in English, and thereby to create a common language. But, I think that the actual common language were the bodies and the embodied community of performers and audience.
Also, look at this image of Sho Kman – What Else?, I do not want to say that it is speaking a universal language, but the body can convey sensations in a way that is, I would dare to say, unique.
Yes, absolutely. And, when we talked earlier, you brought up the question of authenticity. I sometimes get such a sense of being overwhelmed by these capacities. And sometimes, then, particularly when these performances are so strong – I wonder what they want from me, from any audience member? You know, to which extent it might actually be considered activism? And then I get a little bit nervous thinking about all this power, and whom, which audience it meets. Many Palestinian theatre makers speak of their work as a way of resistance. I like the element of empathy that you mentioned in this regard. And, at points when I am less pessimistic, I think that this is already quite something.
Yes, I think you just phrased one of my deepest concerns. When we talk about authenticity I am always quite reluctant, as if authenticity was just a label as much as resistance can be. Do you know what I mean? I think that there is no way of evaluating authenticity, but we could argue – and here you made a very clever connection – that a play is ‘authentic’ when it manages to create the ‘collective event’, this is not to say that all the audience members look at each other and think “We are all Palestinian”, but that it is not merely entertaining, that it demands a certain degree of engagement from the audience. I am also reluctant towards using the word ‘resistance’. It has been quite overused. And when I say ‘engagement’, we could say this goes hand by hand with ‘empathy’.
I think that we have seen and experienced a lot of these moments. But then, perhaps as a last remark, who then is this we, you know, the we of international aid workers, researchers, theatre makers? I am sometimes a little overwhelmed with drawing which lines. Perhaps Ben is right when he says that our humanity is appealed to through art, and then it is quite appropriate to recognize it empathetically. Maybe even necessary ...
I feel the same way you do, I have been in Palestine both as aid worker and as researcher and, for me, it was difficult to know what my position was, which we I was supposed to belong to. There is an increasing international community in Palestine and the potential of this encounter, the potential of this “awakening of humanity” necessarily depends on this empathy we were talking about, and the permanent questioning of possible power relations that might be created by the internationals that go to Palestine. It is not easy though ...