Taking Sides and Coming to Terms

Theatre

(crossposted)

Israel/Palestine, of necessity, entails dealing with some very difficult material. As a company we’re dealing daily with appalling death tolls, appalling suffering, and seemingly interminable warfare; at the same time, we’re wrestling with the political hot potato, the crucible of world politics, possibly the most complex and over-determined debate in the contemporary world. How are we coping?

How we deal with death and suffering — how we come to terms with it — is, strangely, perhaps the easier question to answer: we make art about it.  This is what artists do, daily; we use performance as a coping mechanism, as a catharsis, as an expression of how we’re feeling. In the context of Israel/Palestine, we’re working an act of mourning into the piece — a performance which both expresses out feelings and serves as a remembrance of the many dead, a serious recognition of why the issues matter.

And, though it may seem callous, we play games. If we’ve been working on particularly difficult material, we’ll bring ourselves back by playing a silly game, by finding something to laugh about. And it isn’t callous, really: we have to find reasons to keep living and working, we have to remind ourselves why life matters and so why death matters. We need to do the same thing with the audience: as we move to the stage where we’re putting the show together, we have to balance the serious with the energetic, the appalling with the comic, in a sensitive way that keeps our audience’s attention and enables them, too, to cope with and appreciate the material.

How we deal with the sheer difficulty of the arguments is another question. The first answer is that we’ve adopted a policy of not taking sides but showing sides. Each of us has their own opinion, but we each take responsibility for portraying multiple perspectives throughout the piece. “Neutrality”, as a correspondent pointed out to me recently, is not neutral, and so we’re not aiming for a “balanced” argument; instead, we’re making all the arguments we can, and allowing the audience to choose, if they so wish.

And this is the second way we’re approaching this difficulty: by making this piece, ultimately, about the audience. We want to make it clear at every point that we’re not making a coherent argument, that we don’t believe everything we say (there is a difference between performance and reality) — and the best way of doing that is directly asking the audience to interpret the work independently. And the best way of doing that is to simply ask the audience what they think. I believe fervently in this: as part of a performance, as a form of theatre in itself, having a direct conversation with the audience. We plot this, and we manage this, but we insist on it as well.

We’ve taken on something huge. And it often seems absurd that we, 8 Europeans from however diverse backgrounds, think we have something worthwhile to contribute. But we hope that, in some way, we do. That we can help people come to terms — and, if not take sides, then certainly begin to understand them.

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