NAMAI (ENGL. HOME)
Theatre Projects with multiethnic communities in Lithuania
What does the word “Home” mean to the youth of Lithuania today? And can theatre help communities to find answers to this question? This is the theme of the applied theatre project “Home”, implemented by the Artscape Arts Agency in Vilnius together with the British Council and the Goethe Institute.
The project aims to develop creativity, awareness of teenagers and the ability to contribute to solving social problems of communities. Seven professional theatre artists are working with pupils from native cities and towns. Artists are trained and mentored by applied theatre expert and facilitator Kristina Werner (Germany).
Another feature of the project is the collaboration of experts from different fields, among the project promoters – professional theater practitioners, theorists and sociologists. According to them, in Lithuania there is still a lack of understanding of how effectively applied art can be to create a sustainable society.
LAUNCH OF THE PROJECT IN 2019
The Thinking behind the Project "Namai"
The idea of Namai is very simple, yet powerful. Theatre makers get three workshops in theory and practice of community theatre and directly apply this knowledge in their home town, doing a three months theatre project with a class of the school they graduated from. The advantage we saw to go back to your home town was that they wouldn’t be outsiders of the community, they would connect much quicker with the students and understand their issues on a personal level.
The theatre project the practitioners did in their communities was divided in three phases:
The first phase was about creating a safe space through games and conversation. The creation of a physical and metaphorical safe space occupies high priority in the field of participatory arts as it is considered an important precursor to any collaborative activity. The term describes the transformation of a specific location into a space in which participants feel safe to learn new skills and to develop a way to express themselves. In this sense practitioners were trained to cultivate safe spaces which ground and protect as well as provide opportunities for participants to be creatively mobilised in order to develop self-expression. There are different factors which are crucial to build safe spaces in participatory art settings, but the most relevant one for our purpose were the consideration of rules for engagement that scaffold the creation of new work and invite a greater degree of aesthetic risk and therefore, encourages experimentation. During the first phase the practitioners explored the question which rules of engagement enables their participants to express their feelings, thoughts and ideas. From my previous practise and research I found out that the practitioners attitude towards how to communicate with participants, that emphasises mutual understanding is an important consideration. This is grounded in humanist psychology, especially based on Carl Rogers´s humanist theory on personality as well as the concept of communication in Gestalt Therapy. Although mutual understanding is a never-ending process as people change, just as the common world where people meet changes, the concept can be understood as a basis for further experimentation. As soon as the practitioner understands the participant´s needs and interests, he/she may create an adequate environment in which participants can experiment.
The second phase focused on finding a topic the group likes to work on and engage in a discovery of both their own vision and the group´s vision of the purpose of the project. Is a safe space created within the group, the participants may take risks; they also may explore and focus on things they have not yet worked on, both personally and creatively. The projects the new practitioners facilitated used various drama techniques, like role-play, storytelling and physical theatre to engage the participants in an emotional, intellectual and physical way. The participants described the theatre activities as inclusive, enjoyable and highly creative. The notion that there is no right and wrong was crucial for the projects. Some practitioners used reflection so that the participants get a greater awareness about themselves, because when you start talking about a piece of work and what it meant to you, you are gaining insight of yourself and what matters to you and why it matters to you, what things resonate to you and why. The art psychotherapist Malcolm Learmonth illustrates how important reflection on own experiences is when he states: ´An unwitnessed story will tend to become stuck, and tell itself again.´ Malcolm Learmonth, ‘Witness and Witnessing in Art Therapy’, Inscape , vol. 1 (1994), p.20. By witnessing, which requires the preconditions of being present and suspending judgement, the participants are really being seen and heard in an active and interactive way. The engagement in drama exercises is central to the empowerment of the participants involved in the project, as they gain drama-related skills like creative thinking, voice, and physical training. They also have the opportunity to apply these skills in accordance with their personal and collective goals. Here, theatre enables the participants to become aware of and to connect to themselves. As this relation suggests, giving participants the space to explore their inner feelings might empower them to raise their voice.
The last phase in the project focuses on the performance, the interactions between the performers and the local community during the performance events and analyses the impact of engagement in the participatory arts project. The very act of performing is legitimising the performers´ right to share their work as well as offering them up as worthy of contemplation. The ethnographer Dwight Conquergood states that he ´began doing this kind of work focused on performance as a way of knowing and deeply sensing the other.´ Dwight Conquergood, ‘Performing as a Moral Act: Ethical Dimensions of the Ethnography of Performance’, in The Community Performance Reader , ed. by Petra Kuppers and Gwen Robertson (New York: Routledge, 2007), pp.60/61. As spectators and performers occupy the same space during a performance, so whatever the performers do has an effect on the audience, and whatever the audience does has an effect on the performers. The result is a collapse of the audience-performer binary, and furthermore the notion of who is the subject and who is object in the performance dissolves. The fusion of the subject-object opposition creates what Victor Turner calls the liminal zone. Victor Turner, The Ritual Process (London: Routledge, 1969). Liminality is characterised as a passageway between two spaces rather than a space itself, where the normative structure is reversed, which Turner defines as anti-structure. Performances mark sites where conventional structure is challenged and provide ´a site for social and cultural resistance and the exploration of alternative possibilities (…) seeking a strategy of social engagement not offered by the more culturally-bound structures of the conventional theatre.´ Marvin Carlson, Performance: A Critical Introduction (New York: Routledge, 2004), p.20. Therefore, any performance has the potential to create the liminal zone, which liberates participants from conformity to the general norms of society and stimulates interactions between all participants.
In Dieviensikes the performance of the students showed two sides of the area: the personal stories as well as situations which happen in this area. The audience members were impressed by the high quality. For me, it reflects the connection between engagement, expression and empowerment. A performance is impressive when the performers are feeling what they are performing; when they feel comfortable and safe and when their play has meaning to them. A practitioner can never direct performers to display this inner sensation, but he/she creates the spaces which allow this to happen.
In Radviliskes the performance event invited the audience members to sit in a half circle and engaging them in activities exploring what means home to them. The participants themselves lead some of these activities, for which the audience needed to stand up, placing personal objects on scales or moving around the space. It was a place in which audience and performers shared feelings and thoughts and created new meanings.
The performance in Visaginas was an interactive walk through the city, in which the performers showed and explained landmarks of their interest, invited the audience to take part in games and in the end the audience themselves were directed into a scene on stage. The young performers turned themselves into guides, leaders and directors, sharing their vision how to engage with the city from their perspective.
These performances were an enactment of reality, a liminal zone where all those present socially engaged with each other and created meaning. These dynamic conditions of social interplay are essential to communicate with and generate competence for interactions with people with unfamiliar backgrounds. Even without engagement between audience and performers the performance may enable social sharing, collective meaning-making and a way of communicating with the unfamiliar.
Not all projects in NAMAI achieved this level of engagement with the pupils and audiences. Due to the nature of each group and practitioners we discovered that the projects need more time to evolve as creating a safe space is a slow and subtle process. In our NAMAI team Renata Matkeviciene, evaluated the social impact of the project - you can read the full report below.
In 2020 NAMAI involves new young artists who are interested in applied theatre and engaging with their home community creatively. This year we focused more on people from the community by having the pupils interviewing them and inviting them into the process of making the performance event.