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Shameless Self Promotion: Theater of Witness

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My research has mostly revolved around virtual witnessing, but after attending a recent show at Amnesty International headquarters in London I decided to look into another kind of witnessing. I was a “drama geek” through most of middle school and high school and then got involved in Shakespeare acting in college while studying International Relations almost solely as a social activity. So I’m looking at an old interest in a completely new way!

Live theater is a thriving business in big cities like London and New York, and has a long history of political involvement in places like Russia, so it really should be no surprise when societies start looking toward the theater to tell difficult stories and inspire change.

That’s part of the premise of my new article at openGlobalRights. Here’s an excerpt:

Theater is also a highly adaptable medium, able to be molded over and over according to the vision of its social and cultural location. How many places in time and throughout the world have versions of Romeo and Juliet been produced? What if the two leads were not male and female, but male and male? What if one was a black African and the other white and British? What if one was Hindu and the other Muslim? The story remains the same and yet the meaning is given new life. Old texts adapted and applied to human rights issues can help us understand the universality and timelessness of struggle.

This was the vision for Queens of Syria, which mixed Euripides’ 410BC text of The Trojan Women with the real-life stories of women refugees from Syria. The UK based charity Developing Artists, which seeks to support the arts in post-conflict nations, worked with a drama therapy group, as well as British and Syrian directors, to translate the ancient play into Arabic while journalists added archival footage that played on a screen above the women. Queens of Syria sold out in a number of venues throughout its three-week UK tour in 2016 and was featured in The Guardian, Financial Times, and on the BBC. Audiences were given supplemental materials about the conflict and the actors in their programs and encouraged to learn more about the refugee crisis.

I attended the show already knowing a fair amount about the subject, and the play itself was very light on context, focusing instead on emotion. While I may not have learned anything new, what I felt while watching and being in the presence of these women who were engaging in a creative form of post-memory work was certainly an arresting experience. To do so in the presence of others, who laugh when you laugh and who applaud when you applaud, creates a form of consensus. The audience members certainly already had empathy for the actors, which is why they bought the tickets, but the experience created a new and intimate connection.

Thanks for checking it out. Maybe share some of your experiences with live theater in the comments?

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