Israel/Palestine: What do we do now?

Personal, Theatre

(Words of explanation: in April, I directed an interactive theatre project about the Middle East conflict which toured the UK; I’ve also been a Palestinian solidarity activist for the past couple years, although that theatre project spoke/questioned from a more neutral, explorative position.)

Directing Israel/Palestine gave me a deeper insight into the Middle East conflict than I’d had in years of working as an activist: I began to be able to grasp the conflicting narratives and gain an understanding of why things are as they are; it even helped me think more and better about how I and we (my social group? my actors? my country? my society?) could positively act. That’s also what I hoped our audiences gained: if nothing else, then a better understanding, and a more focussed attention on the issue — a willingness to understand, a desire to be involved.

But one of the anxieties of live performance is that it’s quite difficult to keep track of what happens to your audiences afterwards. Immediately following the show they can let you know how moved they are, how much they want to engage better with issues — but what about days after? Weeks after? Months after? I was thinking this a lot as yesterday’s terrible news unfolded; these were my first reactions:

@HarryGiles:

Whenever Israel/Palestine news breaks, I look at my theatre project and think: what did we achieve? Do our audiences now pay more attention?

Of the 200 people who came along, are they really now more empowered to engage with events? Do they care more? Do they ask more questions?

And what about me?… faced with the appalling news of the #FreedomFlotilla attack, do I react differently? Can/will I do more than tweet?

A good friend of mine replied “the ramifications of discussion are not a precise science. It is not a chess game, it is a gesture of hope.” That’s encouraging and partly true, but a part of me still wants to know whether or not my work as an artist-activist is effective, offers practical results.

On another level, I started thinking about the new perspective on the conflict the project had enabled me to have. More than anything else, I now see the war as a war of competing narratives: so much of the work we did involved discovering why people thought as they thought and delivering their own versions of events. We’re dealing here with sides who have competing historical understandings, competing visions for the future, and for every new series of events there is a new narrative division. As news breaks, every news source suffers (often justly) accusations of bias from both sides — every word is loaded with meaning, every reader extra-sensitive. It’s never clearer that there is no such thing as an objective fact. Understanding what happened becomes difficult, and so everyone resorts to their knee-jerk reactions, siding with one narrative or another — because it becomes more or less impossible to do anything else. Here’s what I wrote about these thoughts:

Hashtag lines drawn: #terroristflotilla vs #freedomflotilla . Twitter’s cardinal virtue/vice: brevity makes ideological division so clear.

That Israeli/Palestinian narratives r mutually incompatible & antipathy utterly entrenched never clearer than in responses 2 Gaza flotilla

Follow the war/crisis on Twitter and understand that it is overarchingly a battle for historical narrative.

Territory, faith, revenge, fear, security, cultural imperialism/defence: yes, all of these. But the ends and means are narrative and history

And, of course, historical narrative is here, as ever, delivered through the barrel of a gun.

See, I do take a side, but I take it now with rather more understanding of what the other side is experiencing. When I read a site like Mere Rhetoric, which spins every news item on Israel/Palestine firmly and vitriolically in one direction, I no longer react with disgust and anger — instead, I appreciate the insight into the other side’s mind.

And yet, I do take a side, I can’t maintain neutrality out of the theatre space, and so what am I supposed to do with this knowledge? Ineffectually plead for an end to mutual antipathy and a beginning for understanding? I mean, this isn’t just an argument, these are two narratives fighting for their very existence — for life. Do I want to see the triumph of one? The resolution of both? I don’t really know. I understand more now, but I’m more lost.

I’d greatly appreciate the thoughts of anyone who came to the show.

On Returning

Theatre, Uncategorized

(Less frequent and more theatre-centric blogging due to having been on tour the past week, and preparing the three weeks before that. Back now. Reflecting. Interests diverging again. Wrote this cheesy post for the Open Source Theatre blog:)

We’ve returned from the Israel/Palestine tour: four cities, five performances, nearly 200 audience members, almost £150 raised, and a great deal of intense, exciting and worthwhile performance interactions.

It’s been an exceptional month. In one sense, time goes incredibly fast; it seems strange that as little as two weeks ago we didn’t really know what we were going to be performing. When the creative work is carrying you along, you don’t notice time passing. In another sense, time has been stretched out, because the work is so packed, the moments so full. And when you’re working on a tight schedule, you have to make those moments count. There’s a similar feeling in our performances: they’re only 90 minutes, and, while we’re pretty confident the audiences don’t get bored, it feels simultaneously that so much time cannot possibly have passed and that the moments have been incredibly full. That’s the kind of performance we’re aiming for, at least.

It’s at this point that two things happen, as a director: taking stock and finding space. When a project concludes, something which has taken up every waking moment for weeks, so that even when you’re not working on it you’re thinking about it, there is an enormous space inside you that needs filling up. You try and have lie-ins. You catch up on Twitter and books. You trawl the artsjobs listings. Or, if you’re me, you start compiling performance reports, trying to capture the magic, relive it. This taking stock is a part of my process as a director and human, and part of the whole OST concept: documentation as open source theatrical process. But it helps be cope with the absence, too.

The great thing is, it’s not the end. We began this project not knowing where we’d reach, what performances we’d actually be giving in those five cities, and leaving the future open. But we think this project has been a success, and our time together has been extraordinarily productive, and so we want to take it further. This is always a risky set of feelings: the desire not to let go of a project which has run its course can be crippling. But for this one, there’s a sense of work left on done — we think it deserves development, expansion and wider audiences. We think it has mileage. We don’t want to make the same thing happen again: we want to take it further.

So on that note, I’ll finish this post on this too-infrequent blog (the desire to document every moment is strong, but time is so short!), because there’s a lot of work to be done. Planning. Sketching. Finding venues, funding, dates. Dreaming.

One Down / Politics of Political Theatre

Theatre

(crossposted)

One show down. Last night’s debut of Israel/Palestine went, I felt, very well. With interactive theatre — with any theatre, really, but especially with theatre that relies on audience response at its heart — it never really comes alive until you get an audience in the same room as the performers. And we had a good-sized audience, basically a full house (although numbers are fluid), and a very responsive one. We’d had a chance to test our ideas at our scratch, but this was the real test — what happens when we try with 50 people what we’ve never tried with more than 8? Will they move where we want them? Will they feel what we hope? Will they ask what we’d like? Will they do what we really, really want, which is to react in entirely unexpected ways? And will we be able to respond fluidly, with improvisation, to genuinely take their input into account?

Mostly, it all worked smoothly. A hitch here and there, but nothing major, and each risk we took seemed to pay off. The actors kept the pace rocketing along, and the audience took that desired trajectory from enjoyable participation to serious reflection. But what, really, is the measure of success?

It’s whether or not the audiences felt genuinely informed, empowered and moved. There are three aims I have with this piece: to get some basic information about the crisis across, to encourage people to think about and be involved with the crisis in a genuine way, and to bear witness to death, atrocity and sorrow. So if people tell me afterwards that they want to find out more, or if they cry, or if they engage the performers in an argument about politics, then that’s a success. And they did.

As I left the performance space, I found people having a fascinating argument about the purposes and problems of political theatre. Should it try and get a particular message across? What’s the difference between art and propaganda? What’s the difference between coercion and the emotional manipulation common to all art? Are heartstring-tugging and thought-provoking in opposition? What should theatre do, in politics?

Dan Rebellato asked the same thing in a Guardian article called “Can political theatre change the world?” Like George Hunka in his blog, I rather wonder if he’s not asking the wrong question. I really don’t see my theatre, this piece of theatre, as a major actor in large-scale public discourse and action. And I’m sceptical of whether any theatre could be; as Rebellato admits, theatre plays to small audiences from a restricted range of social backgrounds. I also suspect that the majority of theatre, which only allows freedom in the sphere of thought, and not in movement and suggestion, is restricted in what it can do with audiences: impart new information, at a pinch, and maybe provoke a new thought or two, but certainly not empower, and certainly not involve in genuine debate. So I don’t see how theatre could change the world.

What I do think political theatre can do is be an active participant in the world it finds itself in. That might sound a bit abstract, so I’ll try and explain: in this show, we bring a few dozen people into a room with seven performers, and spend 90 minutes exploring a major political crisis with them. We use our own names, we never pretend that the audience isn’t there, that the performers aren’t performers, and that the space isn’t what it is, even if we occasionally ask the audience to use their imaginations to be transported elsewhere. We are in the room with the audience, and we’re asking the audience to be in the room with us. That means that they’re in the crisis with us, and throughout the performance we’re directly asking them to be involved. We are asking them to act within that world, and so within the politics of the crisis in general. We are working to find a way to use theatre to speak with this small group of people, in this small room, and to act with them. Together, we are changing that world. It’s a sort of “Think Global, Act Local”, I suppose, however problematic that statement is.

So this is an idea for a kind of theatre, a kind of performance technology, which we hope can be spread and used widely. As the manifesto we wrote under What is OST? says, we think that everyone should make theatre. The politics of our political theatre is small-scale, viral, local, interconnected, variable. It’s not big story changing the world, it’s about being together with our communities, working with them, understanding the local performance space. That’s a world I can be part of, not to change from the outside, but to develop, together.