What do people need to help them process the trauma they have experienced during conflict? The answer to that question will not be the same for everyone. Over the last few weeks, I’ve highlighted the insights from the RTE Radio One ‘Picking up the Pieces’ series, which features the grassroots peacebuilding work of groups throughout Northern Ireland and the border counties. The diversity of the responses to conflict featured on these programmes has demonstrated the wisdom of developing a variety of approaches to healing and reconciliation.
The final instalment, ‘Arts and the Community,’ features some of the most powerful stories of the series. In this programme, presenter Barbara Walshe (a graduate of my School’s Master’s in Reconciliation Studies) focuses on the work of the Playhouse Theatre in Derry/Londonderry and its ‘Theatre of Witness’ programme.
It does not always make for easy listening. For example, Robin Young, a former RUC officer, describes his experience of responding to the Omagh bomb, which he prepared for the ‘We Carried Your Secrets’ production:
There is no way to describe the horror. … The endless clearing up, two weeks of body identification … and trying to make them presentable to their loved ones. The second night as we left, a group of people had gathered … for a spontaneous prayer service. They applauded as we walked by. I wanted to scream, why are you applauding for us? We didn’t fix anything. We can’t bring anyone back from the dead? … At 3 am [I am] awake. … I see a baby crawling on the ceiling … but the baby has the face of the Omagh dead … I wanted to take my own life. I didn’t see my marriage falling apart, I didn’t see my sanity slipping away.
Stories of conflict are unavoidably grisly, and people should not be encouraged to share them to satisfy other people’s morbid curiosity. But these stories are important in post-violence transitions, for the healing role they can play for victims and survivors – and for the reflection they should prompt among others.
Theatre of Witness, originally developed in Philadelphia in work among prisoners on death row, is described this way on the Playhouse website:
[Theatre of Witness] 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.
I think that one of the shortcomings of Northern Ireland’s post-violence transition has been that untold numbers of people who have been traumatised have not had the opportunity to have their stories heard. There has been no one to ‘bear witness’ to their pain.
In other post-violence contexts, truth commissions have provided this type of platform. Truth commissions are not effective because they actually uncover ‘truth’ (whatever that may be, for people will always have differing perspectives on the truth) or deliver ‘justice’, but because, in the best examples, they provide the opportunity for people’s stories to be publicly acknowledged and their suffering recognised.
In Northern Ireland, Theatre of Witness seems to be filling this public recognition and acknowledgement gap in some small way.
These lines from the production, read out during the programme by Victoria Geelan, illustrate the burden that untold stories can exact on people – passed down from generation to generation:
‘Why do we measure who has suffered the most? Not one of us who has lived through the violence here has been left unscathed. We all have our scars, seen and invisible. I was born in the middle of the troubles. We have been carrying the secrets of those who came before us, ever since we were born.’
The nature of theatre is of course dramatic – it literally provides a stage where emotional or difficult stories can be shared in a safe and controlled way. Theatre of Witness also facilitates post-production discussions, considered vital to helping people process what they have just encountered on the stage. As one of the participants told Walshe:
Audiences didn’t leave the theatre after the performances, they sat. It was like they were given permission to speak, and for many audience members it was the first time they spoke … about their particular trauma … this type of theatre is need to help reconciliation and to help the healing from the hurt.