Reconceiving Conflict

GAC co-founder Michael Lessac reflects on what conflict means and how it transforms and ebbs and flows between peoples over time—and what that means for an organization like ours.

Reconceiving Conflict

When we began our work in 2001 to develop the production of Truth In Translation we set out to tell the story of the South African Truth Commission through the eyes of the interpreters who channeled both victim and perpetrator of Apartheid.

I had wanted to bring what I thought was a story of forgiveness, reconciliation and justice back to my own country which itself was beginning to go to war fueled by lies and misconceptions. I admired that the people led by Mandela and Desmond Tutu were looking only to tell truth and although they were looking for the miracle of reconciliation...they were most motivated by the search for truth. At the time, the buzzwords in the field of conflict mediation were Forgiveness, Conflict Resolution, and Reconciliation. Later “conflict resolution” had morphed to “conflict transformation.” As we began our work on the stage, we began to doubt all those words in one way or another. We soon realized that the truth of it all was far more intimate and infinitely more complex than translated words. People had to be interpreted, not translated to the home page. The young interpreters whose story we were telling knew that better than any of us. The first part of our work was just listening to them.

Our cast consisted of seven different language groups, many of whom were rehearsing in third and fourth languages. It was clear that the words we used to talk about story left us wanting in terms of the emotional truths for which we were searching. In fact, the words prevented us from listening to each other; we learned quickly as theatre interpreters that Truth and Reconciliation interpreters were more than translators, they were channelers between victim and perpetrator. We began to see that they were in many ways torchbearers for the people giving testimony. The interpreters were in more stress than any other group at the commission because they realized their interpreting could determine whether someone lived or died -- they bore the weight of listening with empathy for both sides. Something you don’t see around the world very much. Their job did not afford them the luxury of looking away from terrible atrocity when it became too much to bear. The production then became about all of us.

The idea that we were searching for empathy never came up—not even the word itself. But we lived in its shadow for four years to create this production. Even as we moved into the North of Ireland/Northern Ireland (where there is even disagreement about what to call their country), we realized that a hatred not only still simmered but could explode at any time. It happened in our rehearsals with regularity. We struggled to find a story that all the actors could agree upon. It was more than Protestant against Catholic; it was also man vs woman, generation vs. generation. The suicide rate had doubled after the peace accords, teen pregnancy had jumped 60 percent, and there were now three to four times as many walls erected after “The Troubles” during the “peace process”. In early rehearsals Forgiveness was the “F” word. It was either a joke or it was something to be despised and ridiculed. For three years we traveled back and forth looking for safe places to get something done without killing each other. We couldn’t find a solution.

In the third year, the children showed us the way.

When rehearsal had ground to a standstill two young cast members wrote stories about themselves that they wanted to play on stage—one about wanting to commit suicide or go to Iraq to fight with ISIS, the other about having a baby at 16 in order to be respected as a woman. This created a new conflict, which showed us the way to deal with the old conflict. Very simply we came to understand that only the children of the combatants could make them look at themselves. All of a sudden the motivation was intimate, not political. Very simply...they just could not tolerate their children dying young or dying in hatred.

All too often claims of reconciliation and forgiveness are one-sided. And very conveniently instead of the perpetrators making a vow of “never again”, the victims were asked to do it for them.

I soon began to talk about our work as a need for conflict preservation. I felt it was crucial because it emphasized the point that conflict doesn’t end it just becomes quiet. What we needed was real courage to be wrong about where our bigotry comes from and ultimately revisit how we got this way. I decided we needed to theatrically revisit the past, with the people who are living in it’s aftermath to find the source of our embedded hatreds and fears.

Our next project, in an ancient country, helped all of us to understand what this would mean. It was Cambodia, 2012. We began a journey with an amazing group of young Cambodian world-class circus performers who offered us a new solution to reconciliation, forgiveness, conflict, identity, and memory theatre.

And the key to all this was re-imagining empathy and creating an intimate respectful place where generations, separated by a shroud of silence, could become family again.

And when we completed this project playing in Congolese refuge camps on the border of Rwanda where we had premiered Truth in Translation a decade earlier. It was now one genocide meeting another genocide, not having known that the other existed. It was also performed at teacher training centers in Cambodia where these young performers offered a new way of understanding the past, and by the time it was performed in a magnificent theatre (ArtsEmerson Paramount) in Boston, Massachusetts in the spring of 2019, where the adventurous audiences met the brave youth of tomorrow, we had our completed plans for our next project, The Maelstrom Reckoning.

Michael Lessac,
Artistic Director/Founder