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Limits, Failures and Ethics – Theatre and War

A Conversation between Kristin Flade and Michael Balfour

Kristin Flade

Michael, your recent work The Difficult Return is a work about the experiences of recently returned military personnel and their families. You focused on the impact war has had and is having on the relationships of soldiers – stories and experiences soldiers shared in the course of the project. Would you explain to me a little the process how you came up with this idea, and how you developed the focus on the personal, the individual ‘places of war’ that someone who returns from a war zone is facing?

Michael Balfour

There were two departure points for the research – first, during In Place of War I interviewed a Commander from KLA who was a sniper at the front. He talked about his experience: After being half-starved and half-crazed by fighting for months, he had a sudden idea that he wanted to put on a play. So he went back to camp, organised some other soldiers and they started to rehearse this play in a forest a few kilometres from the front. Every night they would return and they would have to re-cast because either someone had been killed or injured. Eventually he persuaded the officers that a morale boosting performance/concert should be staged for all the fighters – so they assembled a crowd and they staged a show. When I asked him why he had done this he said that the idea, the story, the production had ‘nourished’ him – had kept him human at a time when he felt utterly diminished. I was fascinated by why and how the military might turn to the arts. So I started looking into this seemingly odd relationship and exploring the history through various wars in different countries. I found a very rich seem of material that suggested a range of different practices – music, art, photography. Some of it was used as simplistic morale boosting – but others were designed to create counter narratives to militaristic propaganda.

The second departure point: When I got to Australia I started to talk to various people about contemporary issues facing soldiers/military personnel. This was 2004-5 so mid Afghanistan and Iraq – Australia was part of the coalition forces. I met a Vietnam veteran and he talked about this web site he had founded called Young Diggers. He had set it up because he knew a younger generation of service personal was returning with the same issues as the Vietnam veterans and nobody was doing anything about it. So at the age of 60 he said fuck it – where are all these younger guys – and someone said they isolate themselves but they do still communicate on the web. So he set up a site that aimed to support/advocate for the younger vets. Through him and the guys I met I became interested in the ways in which digital stories or films might help people connect and raise awareness of some of the Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)/transition issues they were experiencing.

That's how it started. I collaborated with a team of researchers – Professor Don Stewart, Public Health, Griffith University, Associate Professor Peter Nasveld, Centre for Military and Veterans’ Health, University of Queensland, and Professor Patrick Fuery, Chapman University USA, and the project grew into a three-year study involving digital films and songs, a documentary/verbatim theatre piece and a psycho-education program that uses enactments and role plays...


I find this notion of "the arts keeping him human" in the KLA-commander's account very interesting. It ascribes a lot of power to the arts, in theatre perhaps specifically. And it does connect to one of the remarks of the counsellor in the Veterans Transition Program (VTP) video for The Difficult Return – the way trauma resonates in a body, a human body, and how it resurfaces through language, through movement.

Would you describe how in your work (the theatre work, but also academically) the experience gets ‘translated’, how a person, a body transitions into civilian life, but also how they experience their stories on a stage (be it the actual stage, or the web)?


My observation – particularly with people with post-traumatic stress (PTS) is they are actually stuck physically and mentally in a story that loops round their mind/body. There is often guilt (survivors guilt) or helplessness in the face of atrocity or of witnessing something they couldn't control. Although there is a lot of psychological evidence to suggest that PTS is curable, my experience is that hope constitutes the ability to manage it better. So to that degree arts/theatre/song/dance can act as releases – not so much catharsis – because that suggests an end point or an ultimate release and freedom from the burden of an emotion. So the transition is an eternal one – a bit like Sisyphus stone. But time, treatment, and moments of release do slowly make the pain/trauma manageable. Before this project I was very sceptical of psychodrama and drama therapy – and I still am. Researching the VTP work made me question and re-question notions and prejudices towards applied theatre as therapy. The documentary show was more comfortable because the aim was to draw on interviews and work with ex-soldiers and performers to highlight, raise awareness and work with veteran support groups to encourage early intervention for people going through early stages. The theatre show was not designed to be a process of therapy for the cast – it was soldiers helping soldiers – embodying stories that might help others sit up and do something about the issues they are experiencing.


I imagine that must have been difficult at points, to work with their own stories, being affected, but then trying to give themselves and each other a platform, whilst also maintaining a sort of ‘authentic’ feel to it, that also the professional actors participating could relate to. It must be a very delicate, often precarious balance to seek, to allow an audience to connect with an experience but also to not delve too privately in some pain, particularly when it is people in the early stages of returning home. Were there limits? To the experiences shared? Or withheld from a public?


I was inspired by a National Theatre of Scotland production called Blackwatch – that involved the writer interviewing a group of soldiers about their experiences in Iraq. What I appreciated about this show (they didn't use soldiers in the show, just actors) was that while the play was based on interviews and included verbatim material the playwright had added in his own aesthetic. Working from the interviews there was a process of deepening and expanding on them through his writing. The end result was a play that is 'authentic' in the traditional verbatim sense – but not bound by the density of having to stick to interview text. The key to PTS is that its real impact lies in the silences and gaps of relationships: The loss of intimacy between soldier and partner, or soldier and their child. That surfaced in interviews but I wanted a writer that could also pick up on the nuances and take that a little further. The writer, Linda Hassall, is the daughter of a Vietnam vet and her first marriage was with a guy who served in East Timor. So she had very much lived the experience as well as being able to capture a very strong Australian vernacular in the piece. So Linda went to interviews, spent time with some of the guys, hung out, and then went away to write. We then had two stages of creative development with invited audiences of Defence Force, veterans, partners, and support organisations who gave us two rounds of feedback, comments, and suggestions. The cast also went through the script and added in/edited material. We spent two years on the process and it was essential in my view as it helped to get closer to some of the pain/difficulties. Apart from one vignette none of the cast were telling their own stories – again a very deliberate strategy to distance the cast from any therapeutic process. The play was staged and then followed by a detailed Q & A with psychologists and organisations that are out there doing incredible work with returning vets. The idea was to present a strong aesthetic physical show that 'told it like it was' but that was also followed up with clear pathways for what people/families could do next.

By the way one of the weird things in all this is that I was and still am vehemently opposed to the last two military interventions. It was odd to be working with people so closely associated with these campaigns. But I really learnt to respect the level of service and sacrifice military personnel undertake. The military culture is all about creating a unit and negating individuality – which is why the transition from military to 'civilian' culture is so difficult. Civilian culture is all about the centrality of the individual – and ex-military people just don’t get this – they are trained to form community units. Rehearsing with the cast was a dream. Soldiers make very good actors. Because they are trained to do what you tell them!!! And they are very good at logistics. Once the soldier cast members got over the terminology we all realised that theatre is very similar to military training. Rehearsals are like drills – rehearse a scene a hundred times to prepare for the performance of a scene that lasts minutes. Same as the army – rehearse the strategy again and again – so that in the field it is automatic.


When theatre is practiced in places of war, and applied theatre work deals with conflict, in that sense it also deals with conflicting parties. I recently learned about playback theatre performed in Israeli settlements in the Occupied Palestinian Territories, to allow for relief, for hope, for the building of a community that shared their experiences of living there in performances. I did struggle with this in light of the same theatre technique being used in facilitating community work in the same territory, but for Palestinians, for example in the Freedom Bus, travelling through the West Bank and performing the stories of villagers living with the occupation. In many ways I find it fascinating that the very same techniques – perhaps those that are meant to address the human in conflict? – are used by conflicting parties. I did wonder whether there are limits to how and for which political purposes theatre can be used.


It’s something that is important not to forget. Theatre can be used by any side, for any political reason. It can be used as propaganda (see the work cited in “Performance in Place of War” in Sri Lanka – where this is a question if the theatre/performance event doubled up as recruitment for young children into the Tamils) or it can be used as resistance. Just as likely it is used as escape and relief. All forms have their rationale and validity. Theatre is not pure. It does not escape the questionable or ethical. It is implicated. Always. I have had a bit of criticism (always important) about why work with soldiers with trauma rather than with those victims/powerless people where they served (Afghanistan, Iraq). For me it’s important to hear all stories of war/conflict – to hear about the impact of conflict – and its long history of devastation. It’s important to look in the hard places and to represent all aspects of conflict with aesthetic and ethical care. I am not sure I can walk away from the partner who talks about her husband coming back a different person. Broken. Unable to function. Does that mean I condone the violence he/she may have contributed to? Or support the (stupidity) of questionable war(s)? At the end of the day there are a thousand stories and a thousand perspectives and histories. I am not sure one is more valid than another. However each story is judged in its political context – so I understand why a play about soldiers might make some people nervous/hostile. I guess my intention here is to ask can a story dig at the scabs of contradiction. Can it deepen the paradox of getting close to something that you simultaneously want to push away? But yes, you are right Forum Theatre or Playback can be used by any political side – for recruitment, propaganda (see bad Theatre for Development?), aggravation and sedation e.g. Bread and Circus – or simply to pass the time in times of mundanity and doubt (see prisoners of war). Therefore carefully articulated intention is very important not just to theatre and war but to all applied theatre. However even intention is not enough – because even the most nuanced practice – sophisticated and alert – can in times of heightened political tension be read and misread and poorly interpreted.

You ask if there are limits. As with applied theatre there are always limits and constraints. And it is very important that practitioners/researchers acknowledge and admit to limitations in the work. There is not enough precision in academic discourse about how more often than not there are small but significant contributions theatre can make, rather than grand narratives of world change and empowerment. Writing about the qualities and texture of limits, failures, ethics is where the field needs to focus if it is to better understand itself.


Professor Michael Balfour holds the Chair for Applied Theatre at Griffith University, Brisbane, Australia.

Michael’s research expertise is in the social applications of theatre – theatre in communities, social institutions and areas of disadvantage and conflict. His current research interests are in developing drama-based projects with refugee new arrivals; creating new approaches to arts-based work with returning military personnel and their families; mapping performing arts programs in Australian prisons and understanding the efficacy of applied theatre practices for people with dementia in residential aged care facilities.

Together with James Thompson and Jenny Hughes Michael edited “Performance in Place of War” in 2008.


(September 2014)