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 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.