Narrating (in)security

About the project

This project seeks to illuminate and understand the many ways in which the Sri Lankan civil war (1983-2009) affects women and the continued impact on their lives, their social and political relations, and their communities through art-based approaches. Using applied theatre approaches and videography, the project engages with a group of Tamil women living in Batticaloa, in the eastern province of Sri Lanka whose lives have been affected by the conflict. They adopt a creative and critical process of crafting, reflecting, and sharing their individual and collective experiences surrounding issues of identity, memory, and trauma in war.

In total, 5 women participants and 5 theatre facilitators have participated in workshops that took place over the course of two years using storytelling, image theatre, and playback theatre exercises as part of the creative process. This work has led to the development of the video installation “Now You Must Bear Witness” and a film essay titled “Journey” which have been shared with the women and local audiences in Colombo and Jaffna.

The workshop performances, installation and film essay created through this process-centred project hold an archive of narratives authored by the women. They provide evidence of the power of theatre as a medium to reveal the human condition (structures of power, inclusion and exclusion) in the midst of conflict in ways that expand our understanding of gender justice and security. Furthermore, the project seeks to show the distinct value of arts-based approaches in bringing theory and practice together to support collaborative storytelling and inquiry.

We used movement and sometimes the journey was just walking from one side of the room to another, but you were almost tracing the course of a particular event or a particular moment in your life, and you work with that emotion, or you walked with that weight.

Key reflections

Arts-based research methods can be applicable to a wide range of participants and participant-needs. Arts-based research methods like applied theatre are designed to work with diverse groups, including those with, or without a wide range of artistic experiences and backgrounds. None of the participants in this project were professional artists, but everyone resonates with, and contributes to the process.

The process of arts-based research is just as, if not more, important than the product of the research: Arts-based research is a journey rather than an end goal. Careful planning, and the willingness and ability to adapt in response to the participants and the process are both essential to this work.

Ethics, safeguarding, and permission seeking: Ethics is central to the research process and is instrumental in the decision-making on how the women’s stories are told and how they emerge. In this sense the ethical decisions in the structures that sit around a project are integral to the process. The ethical and safeguarding process requires continual adaptation and takes new shapes and forms in response to the needs and aspirations of the participants. Thus, ethical considerations are a constant negotiation with ourselves, our practice, and principles.

Active listening and witnessing. The creative process works through pairing a participant and facilitator for the storytelling process. This means that two people are in dialogue together, supporting each other. As such, when a particular type of story is being shared, of personal pain for example, an active witnessing begins through the presence of the facilitator and is extended through the space of the workshop and the practice of storytelling. To build a context of trust and witnessing, requires the facilitators to actively listen in the first instance, and then as an interpreter retell the story as a creative exercise. This principle of active listening is transferred through the facilitators into their performances, which acts almost as a gift that the witness gives back to the storyteller through their performance.

Working with strategic arts-based partners. Choosing to work with arts-based facilitators from the Suriya Women’s Development Centre in Batticaloa is central to the process. Working closely with the facilitators in advance and working through dynamics and relationships in a workshop space, enables the facilitators to really thrive in partnership with the women participants. They are able to support them in being co-creators that leads and drives the artistic process.

Playback theatre as method. Playback theatre, an applied theatre approach where participants share a story from their lives and then the facilitator interprets and enacts it back to them, is integral to the storytelling process. This method gives space to the women to author their story, and for it to be re-authored thereafter in a process where the story is being constantly negotiated. This approach allows for the centring of permission and enables a more organic and horizontal process that is testament to both ethical and collaborative storytelling

No theatre process is absolutely democratic. Whilst using applied theatre and arts methodologies can be participatory in nature, it can still never be fully democratic. Once the data and stories have been gathered, the project team still fundamentally shapes and develops a structure for how the stories are shared and have the final word on what the end product looks like. This is an added layer to storytelling, and one that we should always be aware of, as representation is ultimately an act of power, but can still be done with the utmost care and reflexivity.

It was both permission seeking, but it is also collaborative storytelling because the participant told the story, it was interpreted, permission was sought, but then there was also a collaboration that took place.

Recommendations

Researchers and academics.

  • Mainstream arts-based research methods in conflict-affected contexts. Researchers working in conflict-affected contexts can use the arts to facilitate spaces for survivors to come together, share and process their experiences, and learn from one another. The arts can help create an intimate space for learning amongst participants and researchers, particularly as it relates to complex issues of identity, trauma, and memory in violent Academics and researchers should work to make the arts a mainstream methodology, rather than ‘fringe work’ or ‘extracurricular activity’’ that pushes this impactful approach to the sidelines.
  • Arts-based methods should commit to participatory research that centres ethics. Arts-based approaches should be trauma-informed and centre ethics at all points of the research process. This requires both careful pre-planning and strategic partnerships as well as consideration of how to share the artistic works created in ways that respect participants’ concerns and on-going safety considerations. This is of utmost importance in conflict-affected contexts, and when working with marginalised groups. Grounding the work in a participatory approach that creates space for dialogue with participants about these decisions, and for participants to feel ownership in the process is a key way to engage with these challenges.

Donor and funders

  • Acknowledge and support art-based methods and research and value this in funding decisions. The arts are more than an add-on or extracurricular activity, they can be a powerful process of learning, data collection, and research communication and dissemination that impact new and larger audiences inside and beyond academia.
  • The process is just as important as the output. Acknowledge the importance of the research process in funding guidelines, budget allocation, and reporting requirements. The process through which research is designed and conducted should be given the same value as the output itself.

Policy makers

Arts-based research can provide distinct insights to inform policy interventions. The process of arts-based storytelling and testimony in post-conflict contexts should and can relay back key narratives from those most directly affected by the conflict to inform policy decisions. Policy makers should actively engage with these kinds of projects and actively listen to bear witness to lived experiences through policymaking.

On the last day we were bidding each other goodbye and one of the women tapped me and said, but “you’re not done, we are not done yet”, and then she pointed and said, now this is your story.