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Theatre as a mirror to reality

Her young son had been picked up by soldiers. She came running to the spot where he lay on the ground, soldiers surrounding him on all sides, their guns pointed at him. They asked him to move to the right, to the left. She cried and told them that he hadn’t done anything, but they didn’t listen.

She went away and came back again, and still it was the same. This went on for hours when finally they let him go.

This was a story told by a Palestinian woman. “She was not soliciting sympathy. She was sharing the truth of her experience,” said Ben Rivers, drama therapist, who spoke at the MACE (Modern Academy of Continuing Education) auditorium at Modern High School recently after visiting other parts of India. An Australian, he says he felt “compelled” to move to occupied Palestine, where in 2011 he founded the Freedom Bus initiative, a playback theatre project.

Rivers and other theatre activists from his group go into the villages and listen to people telling stories. Then the actors improvise a play out of the story and perform it before the villagers. This is playback theatre, a form that originated in the Seventies, and is widely used around the world as a form of self-expression for people whose voices are not usually heard.

The telling of the story —the mother, for example, talking about watching her son being held at gunpoint and tortured, Rivers seemed to say — is an end in itself. For very often one’s freedom lies in being able to tell one’s story. Those in power silence the voices of those who are ruled.

And then to see the story enacted by others gives it more validity. “Playback theatre is like a mirror. Reality reflected is transformation,” said Rivers, when asked what actual change his theatre has been able to bring.

A resident of Jenin refugee camp — which does not look like a typical refugee camp, for it has been there since the 1950s and is a cluster of concrete structures — Rivers works with non-violent Palestinian communities. The Freedom Bus works a lot in Area C in the West Bank: about 60 per cent of West Bank lands have been classified as Area C and are under full Israeli control.

These are poor villages. “Most are subsistence farmers here,” said Rivers. Here going to school for children can be an odyssey, a “safe route” takes hours, but in order to avoid Israeli soldiers, a child may not reach school at all.

The conflict, Rivers said, was about much more than hatred. “It is an exercise in ongoing colonisation.” Which is why he is sceptical about the “peace industry”. There is no point in bringing members from Israeli and Palestinian communities together for cooking classes, for learning to make falafel side by side cannot solve the real problem.

But Rivers was surprised on first coming to Palestine, by the spirit of the people. “It was an incredible spirit” that maintained the humanity in the oppressed. There is a word called “samud” in Palestine, said Rivers. It means “steadfastness”. “Stories impart this steadfastness,” he said.