Connecting people through the arts for reconciliation, activism and healing.

In the midst of an ongoing Arts Festival, two panel discussions on the Think!Fest programme today delve into the context of theatre and the arts. In particular, the South African context, where theatre can be considered a tool for reconciliation, activism and healing. However, we’ve got a long way to go.

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The first panel, which was chaired by Kimberly Segal and included Andrew Buckland, Gertrude Fester, Marcia Blumberg and Paula McFetridge, spoke about the idea of reconciliation in and through performance, and how they attempt to achieve reconciliation in their own work. On the second panel chaired by Chris Thurman sat Alex Sutherland, Emma Durden, Gita Pather, Mike van Graan and Peter Marx. This panel discussed whether theatre is a tool for activism and healing.

One issue that was mentioned and agreed upon throughout both panel discussions was that for theatre and art to serve any purpose in reconciliation, activism and healing, it must be inclusive, accommodating and accessible to marginalised people, and must be more communal and more about connecting people.

Buckland stated that theatre for reconciliation seldom engages with the people who need to engage with those kinds of ideas. Theatre should go outside of the usual spaces like elite urban theatres, and into communities, using workshops for instance. He stated that it should be less about works about reconciliation, and “much more about human beings meeting each other, using the tools of theatre as a way to create a safe structure in which people can honestly confront themselves and each other… in order to find reconciliation person to person”.

Panelists agreed that if art is going to make the claim of being a tool for activism and healing, art needs to be responsible and self reflective.

“As artists we are really responsible for the context and when is the right time to tell a story, and I think sometimes we get that wrong and we need to be very very careful,” says McFetridge.

“What is the right form? What form do you use to have the right impact? Why are you the artist that should be doing that project? What is the best form to maximise engagement?” These are just some of the questions McFetridge believes art makers should be asking.

Pather notes that institutions also need to be changed, as they are often still inherently chauvinistic and prejudiced. “An institution can diminish artists by virtue of their physical presence and their structure and their processes,” she says.

Relating to whether the arts have a role in changing things, Sutherland warns that theatre should not be thought of only as a means to an end. She believes that the process of creating art, particularly through projects and workshops, is in itself a humanising experience for those involved. “We can talk about arts being transcendent but I think it’s very difficult to transcend the systemic social injustices that people face everyday,” she says.

“I think any opportunity to feel, whether it is anger or empathy or sympathy or love is a good thing, and I think I would not work in the arts […] if I believed that the work that I did could not [have an] impact,” says Pather.

“The play is a provocation to facilitate discussion, to allow people to get angry, to question things, but it is also key that we don’t re-traumatise so we need to do it in safe environments and in communities that are ready to hear it,” explains McFetridge. “Hopefully we give people a new lens by which they can look at old narratives, where they hear something they’ve never heard before but also where they bear witness to another story […] an Irish playwright says it takes 7 decades to get over conflict. We’ve got a long way to go,” she adds.

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