Reaching deep into the soul to bring peace after conflict

The first time I heard about Teya Sepinuck and Theatre of Witness was in Derry/Londonderry, while I was taking a course in evaluation at nearby INCORE. It was one of the visits that the program had provided for all of us, and it took us to the Derry Playhouse.

There were a group of women sitting on the stage, of all ages, and the stories they shared were hard to hear. Stories of the years of the Troubles, as the conflict in Northern Ireland was called in earlier times. 

I had been in Derry some years earlier, and seen a heavily-fortified British Army guard post out of the window of the B&B where I was staying. But the British had been gone for a while when I came back this time, following the ground-breaking 1998 Good Friday Agreement, which was also discussed during gatherings held during the course.

It is not easy to make peace after decades of bitter conflict. One of the ways to do it is by negotiations between the political leaders, and that had happened in Northern Ireland. In fact, I remember reading that for one of the early sessions, the leaders were invited to share a house as the talks went on, and bringing them together in this way helped break down some barriers. I mean, can you shout slogans at one another over the breakfast table?

But the way Teya helps makes peace is different, and I think it’s even harder. She finds peoples’ stories and helps them turn those stories into theatre productions, and the people we were meeting on that day in the Derry Playhouse were part of such a play. This is how the process is described on the website:

“Theatre of Witness is a form of performance, developed by founder and artistic director Teya Sepinuck, that gives voice to those who have been marginalised, forgotten or are invisible in society. Their true, life stories, performed by the people themselves, are shared onstage so that audiences can collectively bear witness to issues of suffering, redemption and social justice. Theatre of Witness productions, performed in spoken word, music, movement and film projection, put a face and heart to societal issues of suffering, and celebrate the power of the human spirit to grow and transform.”

Teya, who began creating Theatre of Witness productions in the United States and Poland in 1986, started working in Ireland in 2009 with people affected by The Troubles in Northern Ireland and the border counties. You can see some of the plays that resulted on YouTube.

I don’t remember now the name of the play that the women we met had been part of. What I remember is the sense that grief had in a way been transmuted into community, and peace. It felt like a sacred space that day.

One of the women had lost her husband after the Irish Republican Army had chained him to a vehicle loaded with 1000 pounds of explosives which he was forced to drive into an army checkpoint where it was detonated by remote control.

A much younger girl had been part of the IRA, and had joined after her family moved back to Ireland from England.

They told part of their stories to us, and we asked questions. I don’t usually speak up with questions in that kind of setting, but it had occurred to me that, had our family not moved to Canada from Ireland when I was young, I would likely have been quite a different person.

And this was the first Irish person, with a similar story of ‘who would I have been if my family had stayed in England’, who I could ask that question of. It’s not really a question anyone can answer with certainty; who knows who you would have become, in a different place, a different time.

And that is the power of Teya’s Theatre of Witness, I think. She listens to peoples’ stories, and then helps them turn it into an act of communal witness for the bigger community.

It is a powerful way to build peace, but it is such an emotional journey. And it speaks to people far beyond the borders of Derry, as you can see in the opening of this short film, which I believe shows several of the women we met that day in Derry. It can be hard to watch and listen to, so please be careful if you are triggered by stories of violence.

Theatre of Witness worked in Ireland for a number of years, but Teya has worked on projects like this one around the world, and in the USA. All are so powerful, because people are telling their own stories to each other. This is not people sitting around a table, discussing documents and strategies. This is working with the hard truth of what we can do to one another, from fear, prejudice, ideology, and hate. And it is the most profoundly hopeful thing to see how it helps everyone work with their own stories, and reach a place far beyond hate and fear. 

That is what I remember so vividly from that day in the Derry Playhouse – the reconciliation, the hope, that can emerge when people share their stories, difficult, difficult stories, with each other.

There are other projects that have been using theatre to address conflict. Inverse had a story the other day about a project that is using Shakespeare to work with war veterans who are experiencing PTSD.

“DE-CRUIT is the brainchild of army veteran Stephan Wolfert who left the military in the early 2000s to become a Shakespearean actor,” the story explains. He realized that the training in grounding, breathing and focus he needed for Shakespeare’s plays had helped him manage his own traumas. Since 2015, Wolfert and a team of New York University researchers have used Shakespeare’s work as the basis for a therapeutic treatment for PTSD in veterans.

“When Army veterans sit together and immerse themselves in monologues that match their personal trauma, they take on the shared mission of shedding their collective violent past and transforming it into a shared mission of healing,” the story explains. “Many of Shakespeare’s characters are military veterans, which helps modern veterans warm up to this kind of therapy.”

There are other stories of how communities reached deep into their emotions and pain and grief to make peace. One story that has always stayed with me is a story of grandmothers, in an African country, who had tried everything to bring together two warring leaders, without success. Finally, in despair, they sat down by the river which divided the two territories, and began to weep. And their tears brought the men to their senses, and an agreement was reached.