The Scholar and Feminist Online
Published by The Barnard Center for Research on Women

Issue 2.1 - Public Sentiments - Summer 2003

Private Trauma/Public Drama: Theater as a Response to International Political Trauma
by Steven Reisner

An earlier version of this essay, titled "Staging the Unspeakable: A Report on the Collaboration Between Theater Arts Against Political Violence, the Associazione Culturale Altrimenti, and 40 Counsellors in Training in Pristina, Kosovo" appeared in Psychosocial Notebook 3 (June 2002), 9-30, in a special issue on "Psychosocial and Trauma Response in War-Torn Societies: Supporting Traumatized Communities through Arts and Theatre." Psychosocial Notebook is published by the International Organization for Migration.

This article features video reproduced with the permission of Steven Reisner. To view the video, you will need a Quicktime Player, available as a free download by clicking here.

Psychology, with its relentless effort to reduce the unknown to the known . . . is the cause of this decline and this terrible loss of energy. . . . And it seems to me that both the theater and we ourselves must have done with psychology.
                                -Artaud, The Theater and Its Double

In January 2000, I was invited by the International Organization of Migration to participate in their Psychosocial Trauma Response in Kosovo. This project was particularly noteworthy because it attempted to approach trauma intervention in a multi-modal fashion: included were a psychotherapeutic response, a witnessing response (the "Archives of Memory"), and a theater response ("The Body in Exile"). I was invited to participate in the theater response as a theater artist and as a psychoanalyst and also because of my experience with the use of artists' discourse as a corrective to the therapeutic discourse in addressing the suffering of victims of political violence.

Introduction: Kosovo/Kosova, 2000 [1]

From my journal, if I had written it then knowing what I know now:

February 21, 2000. First day. Crossing the border into Kosovo. The Kosovar countryside, along the road to Pristina from Skopje, is dotted with empty houses. Shells of old houses, once white, now burned, and new, brick houses, just being built, almost complete. None of these houses, old or new, have windows. The torched, once white, houses have blackened gaps with gray shadows staining the walls above; the new brick ones have empty spaces, gaps for windows that haven't arrived yet. The houses are scattered upon the empty hills, nearby and distant; for every burnt house, its windows put out, blinded, there is a new brick house, that does not yet have the ability to see.

February 26. Departure from Kosova. Last night, which was the culmination of the first phase of the theater project, we tried to celebrate at the Schota, the National Dance Theater of Kosova, where we have been given rehearsal space. Maurizio [the set designer for the project] created an installation, an environmental work of art, within which we danced and laughed and consolidated the experience of the three weeks of the theater project. On the walls were photographs, on the floor were candles and objects, on the ceiling slides and films, images and symbols, solid, transient, transforming, evocative of the surprises and familiarities of the three weeks of theatrical imagination afoot. Rock music aspiring to be a common language of the youth of Europe, interspersed with the folk music of Kosova; formless wild dancing alternated with the familiar forms and steps of folk dance. Suddenly, the music changed. . . . A heavy, relentless beat, a chorus of voices intoning a repetitive drone, which sounded to me like "oojekay! oojekay! oojekay!" I dimly realized that these sounds had been coming from the café across the lobby all evening long; only now they had been introduced into our sound system. Michele [the director of the video archive ] leaned over and spoke into my ear, translating for me what the music was saying: "U-Ç-K! U-Ç-K! U-Ç-K!" [K-L-A! K-L-A! K-L-A!] The café of the Schota, it turns out, is a gathering place for Kosovar Nationalists in general and former members of the KLA in particular. Eventually, we reclaimed our sound system, and the sounds of folk music and rock music were restored, and the heavy echo of the music of the KLA withdrew to the other side of the lobby.

On the two sides of the lobby of the Schota National Dance Theater of Kosova, on the evening of February 25th, 2000, could be found two responses to war trauma. These two responses frame what I have to contribute to a discussion of international interventions in trauma in general, and about using theater specifically as a response to trauma.

First, I must offer a context from which I write. Who am I? What brought me to Kosovo on that frozen February afternoon? And why should anyone care what I have to say?

I am a psychoanalyst, a teacher and a theater director. I come to trauma by birth, that is to say, vicariously and seductively: my mother survived Auschwitz, my father, whose family was killed in the Warsaw ghetto, fought as a soldier in the Soviet army. He was wounded twice and he killed people. I have turned vicarious traumatization into a relationship with trauma, a relationship that includes elements of witnessing, voyeurism, and an urge to make changes, to do some good for others and myself. I do these as a psychoanalyst, as a professor of psychoanalytic theory at Columbia University and of trauma interventions at the International Trauma Studies Program at New York University, and as the director of a theater group called Theater Arts Against Political Violence, which creates works of theater derived from our dialogues with people who have been victims of political violence, torture and exile, and with those who work on the front lines of human rights interventions with such people.

These various aspects of my life contribute to what I have to say about trauma, international trauma interventions, and theater as a response to trauma. So, with that full disclosure, I begin.

Theoretical Trauma

1. Traumatic Event Vs. Traumatic Effect

The term "trauma" is used in two distinct ways that in recent parlance have been confused. "Trauma" can refer to a traumatic event or circumstance and it can refer to a traumatic response or effect (it's the latter that I will be referring to as "trauma"). It is important to distinguish these two because, contrary to the writings of many recent trauma theorists, traumatic circumstances do not always lead to traumatic effect, and calling them each a "trauma" can cause people to believe that they do.

A traumatic circumstance can be defined, in part, as an overwhelming physical, emotional, social experience - a shock or disaster, acute or chronic, which tears through or tears apart the ego's protective organizational fabric. This organizational fabric is woven from many threads. An individual's protective matrix includes the physical body, the social support network, individual and social customs and belief systems. This organization or "ego" (individual and social) is formed of beliefs and practices that allow for a measure of predictability, social order, and means to ensure or restore safety and/or stability. Some circumstances are quite terrible, but research shows that if they are predictable and find a place within individual and cultural meaning systems, the incidence of trauma, which follows, is relatively low. On the other hand, circumstances which may not cause extreme damage, but which undermine the organizational fabric, can lead to traumatic reactions.

For example, here in New York City, following the September 11th massacre, the appearance of anthrax was extremely distressing, raising the anxiety levels considerably, and returning people to the feelings of helplessness and fear which followed the attack. However, the crash of a jetliner in the city had no such effect for those not on the scene, because, even though there were many more fatalities than had been caused by anthrax, the plane crash, though terrible, was an event which was understandable within our organizational fabric. Thus, it is not the traumatic event per se, but the event in its context and its meaning, that leads or does not lead to trauma.

As Freud and Breuer pointed out in 1893, trauma is produced when there are traumatic circumstances and where there is no opportunity to react to those circumstances:

The fading of a [traumatic] memory or the losing of its affect depends on various factors. The most important of these is whether there has been an energetic reaction to the event that provokes an affect. By "reaction" we here understand the whole class of voluntary and involuntary reflexes - from tears to acts of revenge - in which, as experience shows us, the affects are discharged. If this reaction takes place with sufficient intensity [as for instance, with revenge] a great part of the affect disappears as a result . . . (1893, 8).

Taking this further, it might be said that trauma results when there is a tearing of the integrity of the psycho-physiological or psychosocial system - and where that system cannot be psychically restored and/or energetically reasserted. But where strong reaction is possible, or where a belief system is reasserted, trauma may well be averted.

Thus one might say that to avoid trauma a person must react to the traumatic circumstance in an active way; a way in which previously held meanings are reasserted, energies are discharged, the social fabric rewoven and belief systems and practices are reinforced.

2. Trauma Avoidance Vs. Trauma Transformation

I have argued elsewhere (Reisner 2003) that most responses to trauma, particularly group or social responses, are aimed at trauma avoidance. Circumstances which tend to produce international aid, such as war, political and ethnic violence, and natural disasters of a huge scale, are by their very nature, challenges to human beings' sense of safety and order. They are potentially traumatizing both to those who experience the tragic circumstance and those who offer help afterwards. Each group marshals, according to their capacity, trauma avoidance mechanisms. Often these mechanisms are at odds.

So, for example, after September 11th, Americans from outside of New York City, frightened by the events they had watched on television, responded with the particularly American cultural response to trauma: they sought to identify the innocent suffering children and to express sympathy and attempt to alleviate their suffering. One way this was done was evidenced by thousands of stuffed animals raining down on schoolchildren in downtown New York (so many, that there is, at this writing, still a warehouse full of the overflow of these toys and animals). This collective response can be understood as an attempt on the part of Americans to cope with their own feelings of vulnerability, terror, and helplessness, by focusing their attention on the fantasy of comforting these distant children. It may have given the senders some relief. But for the most part, these stuffed animals, with their comforting notes, served as constant reminders to the children that they were thought of as suffering and scared, reminders that something terrible had happened nearby. The children's own processes of coping and healing (and avoidance) were repeatedly interfered with by these intrusions, as they had to contend with the coping mechanisms of so many others.

To be fair, New Yorkers, too, imposed their fantasies of need and care onto these children; the professional community and the press collaborated to overwhelm them with therapy, assuming, without appropriate assessment, that more traditional mechanisms to help them cope with their loss and their fear were not up to the task. (Not surprisingly, older children made little use of this tidal wave of treatment, preferring more familiar processes to avoid dwelling on the fearful aspects of the loss.)

Similarly, many international psychosocial interventions in trauma, in Kosovo and elsewhere, overtly offer trauma treatment while covertly undermining traditional mechanisms for dealing with trauma.

Overtly, there is an attempt to treat the traumas of war, genocide, and exile using accumulated clinical knowledge. To accomplish this, creative mechanisms are being employed to allow the safe confrontation and working through of the traumatic experience and the repair to the functioning of the social system, which has been traumatized by the recent war, the exile, and the murder of so many non-combatants solely because of their ethnicity.

Yet simultaneously, and this is most often unacknowledged, there is the attempt to deter the survivors of traumatic circumstance from using their culturally familiar methods to avoid being traumatized by these circumstances when those methods clash with the values and fantasies of the therapists or the aid organization.

The therapists and aid organizations often bring with them an image of those they are trying to help, not unlike the image therapists and altruists from across the country projected onto the children of New York City. For example, it is not unusual for those who offer international aid and comfort to harbor the presumption that victims of political violence will welcome what the international community has to offer: the human rights perspective, which validates their experience of trauma and offers a forum for condemning the abuses they experienced. But the presumption that victims of such abuse would welcome the precepts of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights is often simply not the case, as many victims of political violence are no more interested in extending such rights to their enemies than their enemies were toward them. Nor are they eager to change traditional culture to suit the values of the international organizations that suddenly hold economic and often political power; in fact, it is not unusual for culturally familiar modes of coping with trauma to stand in opposition to those values.

Cultural mechanisms to avoid traumatization which are thus overtly or covertly frowned upon may include, but are not limited to: fantasizing or carrying out revenge strategies; strivings for an ethnically or religiously unified environment; sanctioning social models which are traditional and non-egalitarian; isolating certain segments of the population as cultural scapegoats; espousing a religious system which depicts the suffering as somehow holy or valuable, guaranteeing a better life in the next world.

These methods do not fit the Western image of the traumatized as innocent, isolated sufferers, whose lives are to be restored to their prior idealized state; nor do those who practice these methods make for useful objects of sympathy and narcissistic identification. If, as Losi (2001) has argued, the covert structure of Western international intervention is defined (by those who intervene) in tripartite terms: the foreign or political aggressor, the displaced, disenfranchised victim, and the international savior, most often those receiving foreign aid resent and resist the passive, grateful victim role that is offered them. However, their own culturally sanctioned responses to trauma (which in Kosovo, and elsewhere, include practices of revenge) are often a direct challenge to the position offered and paid for by the well-heeled aid organizations.[2]

The unfortunate result of the covert attempt to deter survivors from using familiar methods to avoid the traumatic effect of traumatic circumstances is that it supports a lack of understanding and communication between the parties. Experts in the field of international trauma intervention have long been puzzled by the fact that psychosocial treatment does not reduce the incidence of revenge or violence (Jensen, personal communication) following genocidal clashes. But this is not surprising, since most international trauma treatment covertly suppresses acknowledgement of such culturally sanctioned, collective modes of response, while, as in Kosovo, international military intervention suppresses organizations whose aim is to carry out such responses. In this way, trauma treatment, like much international intervention, becomes an unacknowledged struggle to influence the outcome of treatment according to the values and fantasies of the therapists.

3. Trauma Intervention as Dialogue

An alternative approach would be for the help to be contextualized as a dialogue among equals. It is a dialogue that is familiar to the psychoanalyst: it is the question of what method is best employed in response to traumatic circumstance. Should the trauma be discharged and avoided, or should it be acknowledged, symbolized and transformed? Is the most benefit to be gained by tying the social knot and tradition tighter through acts of revenge, penitence, scapegoating, prayer and/or rewriting the cultural narrative into a story of heroism, punishment, or martyrdom? Or is there a greater benefit in acknowledging the rend in the social fabric, mourning the tragedy, and attempting to transform the experience into a reorganizing of the cultural structure so that it includes a humbler acknowledgement of limitation, mortality and human compassion? This is a question of competing values, and has been the subject of debate within and between cultures, worldwide, for centuries. If psychoanalysis can contribute one thing to the discussion it is that imposing values and repressing alternatives does not work. The repressed returns, often with a build-up of explosive energy. The alternative is dialogue, articulating a value system, and upholding it by choosing the response to trauma. A chosen response is invariably painful, because it includes compromise with complete energic discharge, and it does not permit the simple characterizations of the participants proposed by both the survivors of trauma and by those who would aid them.

Without finding the space for bringing these different perspectives to the surface we, who offer our aid in trauma circumstances, run the risk of taking a superior, moralistic position, which is given lip service by those we are attempting to "aid," who all the while privately maintain a distance, perhaps a contempt, for what we are imposing. [3] The danger is that international aid organizations will be seen as a new kind of missionary, espousing the religion of human rights, while creating an environment of Western social and economic values.

From a psychoanalytic point of view, we know we are asking a lot of both sides simply to engage, instead, in a dialogue. It is difficult for the "helpers" to dispense with their own mechanisms for avoiding trauma - in this case, the position of superiority. Even more difficult is to ask that the traumatized abandon their familiar modes of avoiding trauma - in Kosovo for example, we are asking the Kosovar Albanians to give up the opportunity to avenge their dead and memorialize them with an independent Albanian country - when all we have to offer in their place is the experience of the pain of trauma, coupled with techniques of treatment that most often focus on the individual experience of and working through of that pain.

As my own analyst, Martin Bergmann, put it, we are asking for the trauma survivor to exchange revenge (or a host of other mechanisms of trauma avoidance) for memory:

I believe that the cultivation of memory is a sublimation of the wish for revenge. It is certainly nobler and more civilized than revenge, but it also raises problems. Revenge is a form of discharge. By contrast, the cultivation of memory remains a psychically active force, but one without an outlet. (Bergmann and Jucovy 324)

Bergmann's biases are clear, memory is "nobler and more civilized" than revenge, and I have to admit, I share them. I believe that, although we are asking a lot, what we have to offer in exchange is something extremely valuable. What we are offering is the opportunity to learn something new from the past, to transform the traumatic experience into a gain for humanity, so that victims do not continue the cycle of violence and hatred, so that survivors transform, rather than join, the evil. The psychoanalytic position, I believe, is that if the traumatic pain can reach a level where it is tolerated, rather than avoided, there is an opportunity in which everything may be productively questioned, and psychical and cultural alternatives may be posited and put into action.

A major difficulty, as Bergmann has pointed out, is that when we offer memory in exchange for revenge, what we are really offering is a way to keep the trauma active, but with no outlet. Memory and memorializing maintain pain, maintain energy, but do not present a mechanism for returning the energy to the world; memories alone, whether held in the psyche, symbolized in a memorial or placed in an archive, do not make for an active response to trauma.

I believe that to make this exchange - the exchange of trauma avoidance in favor of trauma transformation - possible and worthwhile, at least two things are required: first, a mutually respectful dialogue, validating the humanity of the experience and response of all participants and an active outlet for trauma transformation, to counter the many active outlets for trauma avoidance (nationalism, religious fundamentalism, revenge); an active outlet that is creative, rather than destructive. One way has been to add mechanisms of justice and reconciliation to truth commissions. Another, to draw upon or create rituals of mourning. A third, relevant to the current discussion is to turn to the artist and to the arts.

Theatrical Trauma

Among the arts, theater offers a vehicle for addressing complex individual and cultural traumatic processes that is in some ways unique. What does theater in particular have to offer?

First and foremost, the theater provides an activating forum for the energy stirred by the memory of the trauma. The theater is physical, it engages the body[4] and the voice; it returns the energy to the world in the form of performance, as a creative, interactive force, rather than in the form of disconnected destructive discharge. In fact, in theater, the expression of the stirred passions can be magnified, their meanings can be enhanced and their effects can be profound. The theater, like all the arts, offers not simply the sustaining of the trauma through memory, but the mode of its transformation.

Theater provides a series of relatively safe spaces for exploration of trauma, analogous to the therapeutic space, but without the emphasis on the individual, the confidentiality (which implies a secret that must be kept), or the pathologization (which implies shame) that the therapeutic space assumes. In theater, trauma is not viewed as an individual, private, or pathological experience, but as shared experience, appropriate to a public forum. This is an essential antidote to the tendency on the part of those who would intervene in trauma to designate the sufferers as in some way abnormal or psychosocially disturbed. In the artistic discourse, the traumatized is viewed as having experienced something terrible, something that has shaken human values. The space of theater is safe, symbolic and communal.

The artistic response to suffering offers an alternative to the tendency to construct memorials after trauma, and offers a different standard. The memorial has as its premise the loyalty to the pain, to the dead, and to the memory of the dead. The work of art has as its value loyalty to the work of art as art; artistic truth in the place of historical truth.

The artistic response to trauma has as its most essential aim to allow the difficult questions to linger, even if unanswered. But this does not mean that the energy of the pain lingers, it is expressed interrogatively through the work of art itself.

The artistic response, like the therapeutic response, aims to provide a forum for testimony, witnessing, symbolization, and transformation of experience that had heretofore been unsymbolizable, because of the very nature of trauma. Art provides an active response to trauma where the action is a form of language, rather than a form of discharge. Therefore, the artistic standard eschews cliché, shortcuts, or reverence. The aim of art is to make full use of the moment, including the traumatic moment.

February 21, 2000. First night in Pristina. Robert and I were taken by our Italian colleagues to an Italian restaurant. After 20 hours of travel from New York, through Zurich, to Skopje, then overland across the border, past the blinded and sightless houses, the wreckage of bombed factories, the tanks and soldiers, and after arriving into this frozen, darkened city with occasional electricity, no traffic lights, and buzzing generators, we found ourselves eating gnocchi among a robust collection of Italian theater artists and historians. The other tables were occupied by people of every race except Albanian, looking more comfortable and gregarious than I'd expected of foreign Aid workers. In fact, they seemed altogether like tourists. Trauma tourists.

February 22, 2000. Second day. We arrived at the first workshop late because I had to have a coffee before I could be coherent. We enter the lobby of the National Theater to see a familiar theater exercise in process. A group of 19 counselors is walking in a procession around the room. They have lifted the 20th counselor up into the air and are carrying him about high on their uplifted arms. I know this exercise; it's aim is to build cohesion of the group, to offer a sense of strength and sensitivity in acting together, and most of all, to help engender, in the one being carried, a sense of complete trust in the group. He is let down slowly, and another is lifted. There is the delightful sound of their thrill of discovery, their pleasure in working together. An Italian woman is speaking instructions firmly yet sensitively. A young Albanian is translating. The process reaches completion, and the woman announces our presence. She suggests that we be brought into the exercise. The translator repeats this and in a moment I am lifted up by 20 Albanian strangers. I have done this exercise before many times and am quite comfortable. I feel the strong hands of the ablest men and the gentler hands of the women. They carry me around the large room and then slowly, carefully, gently, I am lowered to the ground; many hands touch me, as I am let down. I come to a rest and find the hands do not leave. They brush me off, they rest softly on my chest and legs, one adjusts my arm to make it more comfortable, one strokes my face, as if to make sure that I am settled and arranged in the right way.

In the year 1999, there were two theater groups attempting simultaneously to use theater to create an international dialogue on trauma and exile. In New York, Theater Arts Against Political Violence had been working with Chilean and Tibetan torture survivors, with asylum lawyers, poets, and front line human rights workers. In Italy, the Altrimenti group was planning their Kosovo theater project, "The Body in Exile," sponsored by the International Organization for Migration (IOM). After a collaborative meeting between the two theater groups in Milan in January 2000, two members of TAAPV (myself and Robert Gourp, a French theater director) were invited to participate in the Kosovo project, at first as consultants and eventually as full participants.

The Kosovo Theater Project was an essential component of the IOM Psychosocial and Trauma Response in Kosovo, the aim of which was the training of 40 Kosovar Albanians as counselors in trauma. The IOM PTR-K was divided into three aspects: the psychosocial training of the counselors, the Archives of Memory Project, and the Kosovo Theater Project. The theater project took place over three periods in the year 2000; in February, in June and, culminating in a performance at the National Theater of Kosovo in Pristina, in October.

The Archives of Memory

Both the historical Archives of Memory project, and theatrical "Body in Exile" project aimed to address the formidable, interconnected issues of memory and trauma; the archives through history and history-making, the theater through art (verbal and imagistic) and play-making. Yet each approached the material of memory, history and cultural interchange with different values and expectations. The Archives set out to engage survivors in the field in a way which opened communication of painful events and preserved the history of those events and experiences both in recorded language and in memorial objects. The theater aimed to create primarily nonverbal representations derived from the imagery and emotions of the recent painful events.

One of the strengths of the Archives of Memory project was that it benefited from half a century of research on the experience of survivors of the genocide ("a cross reference [which] seems to refer almost exclusively to the experience of the Holocaust and the Shoa," Losi 5). But there are key differences between the circumstances of the survivors of the Nazi holocaust and the survivors of the Kosovar war. The research of the experience of the survivors of the Shoah was undertaken, for the most part, long after the event itself. The survivors were refugees, living on foreign soil, with little expectation or desire for returning to their former homes. The Kosovar survivors had, for the most part, returned to their homeland. They were interviewed very soon after the terrible events. The role of memory among the Holocaust survivors was complex and changing, but for many of the Holocaust survivors "memory," and the dictum "never forget!" served primarily to overcome a desire to forget, on the part of the world at large and, to a great extent, if only unconsciously, on the part of the survivors as well. Memory in Kosovo, on the other hand, is seen by all sides to have a value; the meaning of the memory, however, is the subject of contention. In Kosovo, there is little attempt to forget the recent tragedy.

In fact, given the intense energy devoted to documenting trauma in recent years, one must question whether there is any longer a connection between trauma and forgetting. Once, trauma-memory was the subject of individual and cultural repression; today, trauma-memory is a commodity, subject to a struggle for control of its meaning and value. In today's world of international trauma intervention, the question is not so much, will the traumatized be able to remember and will memory serve as a basis for healing, but to what use will the memory be put? What are to be the meanings of the memories and what are the values held by those who gather, hold and present the narratives of memory? Orwell (1949) foresaw this use of the politics of memory in his novel 1984, when he wrote, "Who controls the past controls the future. Who controls the present controls the past."

An archive of memory, as I see it, is not only about remembering the past, but also about the act of remembering in the present, and, perhaps most important, the vision of the future in which the documented memory will have meaning. In other words, the archive is not only about the claiming and constructing of the past (individual, collective, and multiple), but about envisioning a future for which the memories are collected and given meaning. During the collecting of the memories, one progressively discovers and interacts with the future that is envisioned. As Nietzsche (1995) put it, "The voice of the past is always the voice of an oracle: only if you are architects of the future and are familiar with the present will you understand the oracular voice of the past."

One may discover, for example, that the interviewees believe they are giving testimony for war crimes cases, that they are contributing to a national inventory of persecutions requiring revenge, or that they are creating an archive of human experience to teach lessons of the horrors of ethnic hatred. At play is the unfolding understanding between interviewers and interviewees as to the hoped for meaning of the memories collected in the archive. If this process is overt, the interaction between interviewers and interviewees is dynamic. One cannot know beforehand how it will unfold, thus those involved in the project do not always know themselves what the future of the memory project will entail or require. The project itself mimics the constructed and reconstructed nature of identity and memory (re-collection).[5]

Kosovo Theater Project

In the theater, there is also an improvisational quality of the interaction. The theater exploration, which attempts to transform the traumatic impressions into shared artistry, complements the archival research, which aims to transform the traumatic impressions into shared history.

February 23, 2000. Third day. Robert decided he would begin our contribution by leading the two theater workshops in the "puppet" exercise. A square cloth is tied with five knots; one at each corner, a fifth tied in the center. The cloth lays on the ground, lifeless. Five students surround the cloth. Each is to take hold of a knot; one for each leg, one for each arm and the center knot becomes the head. Robert, explains, "The puppet does not yet exist. You bring it to life. You each take a knot into one hand and work together to wake it up to life. The puppet wakes up, it takes a nice walk, and lies down again." In the morning session, the "younger" group tried the exercise. The first five students leaned down, surrounding the puppet. They each gingerly and tentatively took a knot in one hand. The puppet jerked up and jumped about, but was not very coordinated. A second team tried it; Robert, ever the teacher, knew to remain silent, allowing the second group to learn from the first. The puppet arose with greater coordination, and was soon leaping about. The third and forth group taught the puppet to dance, before the puppet dropped to the ground lifeless again.

In the afternoon, it was the "older" group's turn. Again the first five were clumsy. The second five were better, raising up the puppet more slowly, a bit more lifelike this time, but instead of walking, it glided across the floor like a ghost. Robert spoke to them, as the third group of five took up its position, "Very lovely. But you must take your time. And remember to welcome the emotion. Always welcome the emotion. The puppet is born, gets up, takes a walk, and lies down again. When it returns to the ground, the exercise is over." The translator translated Robert's French-accented English into Italian for the Altrimenti group and into Albanian for the counselors. As the third group gets ready to begin, Robert invites the other students, not directly involved in the exercise, to make sounds and add light to the scene with a flashlight. Slowly, with exceptional coordination the puppet begins to move. It sits up and rubs its eyes. The sound of an infant crying is heard. The puppet tries tentatively to stand; the sound of tears turns to curiosity, a bit of laughter. It's up! Then a few fitful, toddler-like steps. The steps turn into a walk, slowly across the room. The sounds of animals are heard, the puppet stops and listens. Then it continues, as if growing older with each step. A drumbeat accompanies the puppet as it walks through its life. Suddenly, the dream beats out a harsh series of taps. Gunfire. The puppet shakes. It stops, and then it sits, wounded and simultaneously tired. More gun fire. The puppet is hit again, and slowly descends to the ground completely. It is dying. A mournful song arises from somewhere. The puppet lies still. The exercise is at an end. But no, it continues. A student lifts the arms of the puppet and crosses them. Another brushes off the body, another straightens the legs, a fourth strokes its face. The light shifts from the puppet to the students, from face to face. One student leans over and kisses the puppet; another whispers a prayer. The mournful song becomes a funeral dirge; the faces of the students are streaked with tears.

This workshop took place less than a year after the end of the war in Kosovo. Conditions were harsh. Aside from the water and electricity outages, the soldiers, the tanks and patrolling helicopters, there were violent outbreaks, protest marches, fear among the girls of abductions. Nonetheless, the workshop of 40, divided into two groups, dedicated themselves completely to learning these theater techniques, with their emphasis on the non-verbal communication of meaningful experience. With great enthusiasm, they learned to become more trusting of one another; improved their communication skills; developed a sense of their own creative abilities; came to feel more confident that people who don't know each other can have something valuable to offer one another; came to understand, through experience, that people from different backgrounds can share values and deeply emotional experiences in a mutually beneficial way. They also learned the value of creative expression as a way of responding to and transforming traumatic experiences in a manner that neither forgets the past nor maintains the trauma. And, most important for me was the verification of my belief that in the immediate aftermath of suffering, the soul cries for attention and expression as much as the body, and that offering artistic expression to the survivors is as important as offering any other kind of medicine to the wounded.

Interestingly, the two groups of counselors demonstrated different group "characters" and created different styles of improvisation, along with differing themes. It happened that one group of 20 consisted predominantly of the younger students, whereas the other group was, on average, substantially older. The younger group was more playful, interested in moving onward, and in ending things happily; they tended to structure their improvisations with the conflict coming early and ending in a resolution, which could include nationalism, marriage, birth, and a return to a fantasized normalization. Bad experiences were quickly turned to action; in other words, the younger group tended to prefer scenarios of trauma avoidance to scenarios of trauma transformation. When a group of young male counselors was complimented on a piece of work, one shouted, "We are more than good! We are perfect! We are Albanian!"

The older group was more able to tolerate the complex feelings brought on by the war; they addressed their mourning processes symbolically. They were less likely to turn the work towards nationalism, towards happy endings, toward answers. In the puppet exercise of the younger group, the puppet tended to dance, and the group followed Robert's instruction that when the puppet lay down again the exercise was over. For the older group, only when the puppet lay down at the end did the puppet scenario begin in earnest.

February 23, 2000. It is midnight, and Robert and I are each writing our impressions. A bright spotlight from a noisy military helicopter sweeps past our window and over the entire area, reminding us that the streets are still not safe at night. I am covered by three blankets and a sleeping bag. The thermometer on my clock reads 6°.

Earlier this evening, at a meeting of the Altrimenti group, I was presented with a problem. The group did not know how to end this first part of the theater intervention with the students. They had decided on a closing ceremony for all participants: an installation and party which is to be a work of art, a feast, a sharing celebration of what has been accomplished so far and a promise of what is to continue. But what to ask of the students for the final class? I told them that my teacher in the theater, Joseph Chaikin, taught me that the ending of a piece of theater is the most important part of the work because it determines how everything that came before it is to be remembered. I suggested that we meet tomorrow with the entire group of 40 students and ask them, as a final exercise, to present us, their guests, with a parting gift: an improvised performance which makes use of what they have learned so far.

The final workshop session of the February session brought together both groups of counselors, translators, theater artists and guests. The students were presented with the final task, to give us, as a farewell gift, an improvised performance, which makes use of what they have learned so far. They were given an hour to prepare.

The younger group went right to work, arguing and planning, searching for props and laughing. The older group dispersed; they did not speak to one another very much, other than to share a cigarette or gather around the heaters. A few of the women disappeared into the bathrooms. I was perplexed at the apparent lack of response among the older group. The younger group presented their improvisation first. They had recreated Robert's puppet. Five of the students brought it to life with an energy and focus that they hadn't been able to give it before. The puppet stood and walked toward those of us watching. It approached each one of the teachers and offered a silent, specific and emotionally rich farewell. The puppet could bow, entreat, and cry on behalf of the students. They found a perfect gift for us, a farewell completely inscribed in the non-verbal realm of the theater, which expressed complex emotions in the simple poetic movements of a piece of white cloth.

Then, the older group began its performance. Certain actors arranged themselves onstage in full costume, with instruments and props, drawing on Kosovar folk traditions. It became evident at once that the older group hadn't needed the time to develop an idea because they had organized and rehearsed a farewell performance for the teachers on their own, in secret. It consisted of the enactment of the story sung in a traditional folksong: a bride is preparing for her wedding with her family and friends. Meanwhile, unbeknownst to them, the groom has been kicked in the head by a horse. He is lying dead, while the family awaits the moment of the wedding. Slowly, one, then another and eventually all, up to the bride herself, discover that the bridegroom is dead. The bride is a widow before ever experiencing the joys of married life. The performance had no dialogue, only the mournful singing of the folksong by the women onstage. The audience watched and cried. Tears flowed unabashedly as the story of unexpected tragedy unfolded.

Concluding Thoughts

I came to understand in Pristina that when the soul is traumatized it must be attended to with a sense of humanity; otherwise the inhumanity that underlies the trauma will take hold there and be repeated. This appeared to me to be the ultimate conflict I saw in Kosovo, the question of what will fill the place left by the tear in the soul of the people: will it be a nationalistic desire for revenge, or will it be a compassion for fellow human beings, in all our complexity and suffering.

February 25, 2000. Plane from Zurich to New York. Nearly home.

After the "older" group finished its performance, I couldn't stop my tears. The image of the bride turned widow, the tender caring for the dead bridegroom. I wasn't the only one crying. And after the applause died down, one of the older Albanian men in the room began almost shouting, "If there was a psychologist in this room I would ask him a question." A few people knew I was a psychologist and said, "Steven! Ask Steven!"

He looked at me, his eyes red, his voiced choked. He spoke, and the translator translated: "I have seen now more than I ever thought I would see in my life. I went back to my village after the fighting stopped. The villagers dug up a mass grave and lined up 30 corpses. My neighbors. My friends. My cousin. I didn't cry. I saw many terrible things, and I did not cry. But today I am crying. Why? Why? Before now I couldn't cry. But today I am crying. Why - Why???" I was shaken up, and gave an answer that I can only hope was improved by the translator. I hope what the translator conveyed was something like, "Before, there were no tears because, before, tears were not enough to express what you were feeling. Before, there were no tears because, before, there was no use to which the tears could be put, and there was no place where the tears could be put to use, and there were no tools to put the tears to use. Here, together, we created the use, the place, and the tools, to use tears and art and laughter to make something of greater significance than grief alone.

The dangerous result of traumatic circumstances is not that trauma will result, but that the attempts to avoid trauma will be destructive - both to those who have been traumatized and to others when the traumatic reaction is discharged destructively.

The danger after traumatic circumstances is that there will not be trauma where trauma belongs, and the destructiveness inflicted in the traumatic circumstance will be perpetuated in the traumatic reaction. The theater work is one attempt to tolerate and creatively transform trauma in a public and artistic sphere, with the hope of securing an artistic and, perhaps, moral gain from the traumatic experience in the name of humanity and compassion. And, perhaps, there will be a side effect of healing as well.


1. "Kosovo" is the Serbian spelling for the country. It is also the name preferred by the international community, because the aim of the Americans and Europeans has been the ultimate reunification of the country, in some manner, with Serbia and Montenegro (which until recently had been called "the former Yugoslavia"). The Albanian spelling is "Kosova," reflective of Albanian nationalism and the desire for a country independent of Serbia. In speaking the name of this country, then, there is no neutral position; one aligns oneself immediately with a political vision of the future and a story of the past. I find myself using Kosovo at certain moments and Kosova at others; the usage can be taken to reflect my emotional allegiance (or my antagonism) at a given moment. [Return to text]

2. In this way, Western interventionists can be like Western tourists, in that the tourist entertains the fantasy that he or she can temporarily become a part of the foreign, idealized authentic culture and are not, simply by their presence, radically altering that culture; similarly the interventionists aspire to restore the authentic (idealized) culture, with little regard for the radical transformation their presence engenders (for example in offering salaries for locals employees that are of an order of magnitude above the salaries of traditional authority figures, in challenging traditional gender hierarchies and undermining family and community power structures, in imposing alternatives to traditional justice systems, in enforcing their own cultural ideals using economic power. This list could go on and on. [Return to text]

3. One Kosovar participant in our project described this process as a "parallel system," a reference to the covert Kosovar system for maintaining Albanian culture during the Serbian occupation. In contemporary circumstances, this referred to a surreptitious, culturally sanctioned mode of dealing with international aid organizations, almost as if they constituted another occupying power. [Return to text]

4. In fact, the theme of the IOM Kosovar theater project was "The Body in Exile." The expectation was that the body would bear the scars and deformations of exile, even after the refugees returned to their towns and villages. Even in the IOM Project, there was a fantasy of a return to a former idealized state, in that it was thought that the theater work would restore to the body the freedom and innocence that was enjoyed before the trauma. This, too, was a fantasy - in fact, the bodies of the counselors were actually engaged by the theatrical response to the trauma in ways that they had never been engaged before. The result was not a restoration, but a new and enriched bodily experience, derived from pain, pleasure and the creative, energetic interactions the theater work provided. [Return to text]

5. Unfortunately, much collected trauma testimony follows a tight, predetermined interview structure. Wittingly or unwittingly, the form limits the meanings that may be discovered in the act of remembering and in the dialogue that elicits the memory. [Return to text]

Works Cited

Bergmann, Martin S., and M.E. Jucovy, eds. Generations of the Holocaust. New York: Columbia University Press, 1982.

Losi, Natale. "Beyond the Archives of Memory." In Natale Losi, Luisa Passerini, and Sylvia Salvatici, eds., Archives of Memory: Supporting Traumatized Communities Through Narration and Remembrance, Psychosocial Notebook, Vol. 2, Geneva: IOM, 2001.

Nietzsche, Friedrich. Unfashionable Observations. Palo Alto, CA: Stanford University Press, 1995.

Orwell, George. 1984. New York: Signet, 1950.

Reisner, Steven. "Trauma: The Seductive Hypothesis." Journal of the American Psychoanalytic Association 51 (2003): 381-414.

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