Peacebuilding and the Arts: Transforming Conflict

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Cynthia Cohen, Ph.D., Director of Programs, Brandeis University

Peacebuilding and the ArtsBrandeis University‘s Peacebuilding and the Arts program works to strengthen the practice and nexus of the arts and conflict transformation by generating and disseminating knowledge, and facilitating networks of effective action. Dr. Cynthia Cohen is the program’s director who works in cooperation with Theatre Without Borders and other artists using art to promote change in divided communities.

1. What are your long-term goals for the program?

In the long term, I would like to see the Peacebuilding and the Arts Program offer undergraduate and graduate degrees, and perhaps certificates for practitioners. I would also like us to continue to support practitioners — working towards peacebuilding in all different art forms — to document and reflect on their practice, and to create educational and training resources based on case studies and ethical inquiries into practice in all regions of the world.

 2. How does it fit Brandeis’s overall mission?

Brandeis’ mission includes education that advances social justice, and a commitment to excellence. The institution has a longstanding commitment to the arts. I believe that the peacebuilding and the arts program is strongly aligned with Brandeis’ mission.

 3. Why did you choose to partner with Theater Without Borders?

Theatre Without Borders approached me in 2005 just as it was forming and asked me to speak on a panel at its founding symposium. At that time, they were an informal network of theatre artists committed to theatre exchange, and they were very interested in looking deeply at how their practice contributes to peace. After that initial symposium and a couple of informal gatherings, we decided to work together on the anthology. I was drawn to TWB in part because of the stature of the artists involved and because of the passionate ethical commitment they had toward their work.

4. How can theater groups get involved?

Theatre groups can read the Acting Together anthologies, watch the documentary and use the resources of the toolkit to plan their own peacebuilding performance initiatives. They can send their members to trainings that we offer, and participate in the arts and peace commission of the International Peace Research Association. They can collaborate in their own communities on issues of justice and on bringing people together across differences.

 5. Do you have plans to reach out into other areas of the arts?

We already have worked with visual artists, filmmakers and musicians. I would very much like to engage in an intensive research project on the contributions of the visual arts to peace building.

6. What tips would you give to theater groups that might want to work to make a difference on a local or regional basis?

Spend time listening to the stories of the people of your communities. See what stories remain untold, or unheard. What inequalities are present that diminish people’s lives and their abilities to trust each other? What past harms need to be addressed? (All of these questions and more are part of the Guidelines for Planning Peacebuilding Performances in the toolkit that accompanies the Acting Together documentary. I would also suggest that members of theatre groups wanting to “make a difference” look at their own identities and how dynamics of power play out in their own lives. It is very important to know one’s own issues, to have one’s own identities in hand before embarking on “making a difference” in other communities. Also, it can be important to be open to collaborations with “non-arts” organizations — perhaps activist groups, cultural groups, human rights groups, governmental or intergovernmental agencies whose values are aligned with the mission of the arts organizations.

 7. Are there other ways interested artists and groups can help support your efforts?

Artists can join with each other to support each others work, to reflect together on ;how they can make a difference in the world. They can become ambassadors for the Acting Together project, share the film and lead discussions about it. They can use the tools in the Acting Together toolkit and document their own arts-informed peacebuilding efforts.

Cynthia Cohen is Director of the Program in Peacebuilding and the Arts. She leads action/reflection research projects, and writes and teaches about work at the nexus of the arts, culture, justice and peace. She directed the Brandeis University/Theatre Without Borders collaboration Acting Together, co-edited the Acting Together on the World Stage anthology and co-created the related documentary and toolkit. She directs ReCAST, Inc., a non-profit organization partnering with Brandeis and New Village Press on the dissemination of Acting Together resources.

Cohen has written extensively on the aesthetic and ethical dimensions of peacebuilding, including the chapters “Creative Approaches to Reconciliation” and “Engaging with the Arts to Promote Coexistence,” and an online book “Working With Integrity: A Guidebook for Peacebuilders Asking Ethical Questions.”

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Championing Chinese Shadow Puppetry – Annie Rollins

Annie Rollins, Puppeteer and recent Fulbright Fellow in Chinese Shadow Puppetry

How did you get involved with Chinese Shadow Puppetry?

Chinese shadow puppetry is the sum of all my independent interests and, of course, so much more.  As a part-Asian puppet lover with a penchant for the historical, Chinese shadow puppetry has sustained my interest in all of those things and continues to inform my personal and professional life.

How does shadow puppetry differ from other performance arts in its approach?

It is similar to other folk art performance forms in that its main purpose is to transmit oral history to a largely illiterate class and to educate and community build through entertainment and a collective experience. It differs from other traditions insofar as its incredible artistry has really pushed boundaries both with the figures themselves and performance techniques.

What about this art form is important to the heritage of China and to yourself?

Chinese shadow puppetry is an amalgamation of Chinese culture in both content and aesthetics as seen from the masses. While most elite and upper class art forms are well documented and preserved, Chinese shadow puppetry is lesser known and understood but more informative as to the majority’s ideology and beliefs at any given time. In a broader context, this is Chinese shadow puppetry’s most important heritage.

I consider it a high art form in its own right, with regional differences in nearly every province that reflect a rich inheritance of idiosyncratic tradition and craft.  My particular focus is practice-led research in traditional shadow puppet making methods in the three main regional styles and that has remained largely uncovered in research both in China and internationally.  Because the methods and aesthetic significance was largely overlooked until recently, many of the remaining masters have passed already with no apprentices in place and many others threaten the same scenario.

How does this influence your artwork?

My research and creative work have a symbiotic relationship – both inform the other and not necessarily in any particular order. Through research I find questions that can only be explored through creation and vice versa. Currently, my work is almost wholly focused on both Chinese shadow puppetry and how that learning is processed through me as an artist with a very different background than the traditional learner. With permission from my masters, I’m creating my own pathway to modernizing the form that fits within my understanding of how best to honor the tradition.

How is shadow puppetry being preserved in China?

Other than commercial endeavors, little has been done to preserve the form in China. With the official induction into UNESCO’s Intangible Cultural Heritage project in 2011, there is much more attention and support currently being focused on traditional Chinese shadow puppetry, but the long-term results remain to be seen. Little, if any, funding is being given to two designated members of a nominated troupe (equal to a peasants’ monthly wages) and no funding or support for students or apprentices. And, while this greatly eases the stress for shadow puppet artists in the aging stages of their lives, it does little to answer the more imperative questions about lack of students to carry the tradition through to the next generation.

Some people have criticized China for their lack of effort to preserve this and many other dying traditions as their country races towards a progressive modern future, but I find that they are doing what all countries have done at one point or another – prioritizing.  Folk art forms are in this position worldwide.

Are there any schools or programs that specialize in Chinese Shadow Puppetry?

Sadly, there are no formal institutions that teach Chinese shadow puppetry, save a workshop here or there.  The masters who are still working are very open to students – even foreign ones – who show an interest. Because it is a folk art form it is unlikely that Chinese shadow play education would become formalized anytime soon.The hope is that the form will garner more support to continue teaching as they always have – through hands and hearts.

If anyone has interest and will be traveling to China shortly, feel free to contact me for connections. Additional puppetry information is at: http://annierollins.wordpress.com/links.

Annie Rollins is a puppeteer and recent Fulbright Fellow in Chinese Shadow Puppetry. She has a MFA in theater design from the University of Minnesota and has been studying traditional Chinese Shadow Puppetry in different regions of China for the past year. Annie considers herself an artist first, creating experimental puppet shows, design and teaching workshops when she isn’t studying puppetry in China. Recently, she was invited to speak at the Chinese Shadow Puppetry Symposium at the Ballard Institute & Museum of Puppetry at the University of Connecticut.

Bringing Your World to Stage: EbzB Productions

Serena Ebhardt and David zum Brunnen, Founders, EbzB Productions

EbzB Productions is a professional touring company dedicated to developing original theatrical productions to promote integrity, self-discovery and positive transformation of individuals, artists, audiences, and communities. They believe the performing arts encourage positive transformation through discoveries unveiled immediately and upon reflection.

1. What have been the key factors in evolving your careers and your business?

Understanding the business aspect of show business. Negotiating contracts, bookkeeping, public relations and marketing are just as important as raw talent to an artist.

Cultivating real and positive relationships with everyone you meet. We are not talking about “networking” or “social networking”, we are talking about developing real and respectful friendships with your community. Some of our most enjoyable and lucrative work has been the result of ideas generated among friends. We’ve had surprise opportunities with our latest productions from people we knew when we were just starting out – 40 years ago!

Everyone you meet has something to teach, offer, and benefit your development and career. For example, while working at Hedgerow Theatre near Philadelphia, Serena was offered a part-time position by Susan Raab of Raab Associates, a children’s book marketing agency (and now host of this blog). That job, relationship, and friendship not only gave Serena valuable experience in learning professional publicity techniques, database building, technology and relationship building; it also resulted in a valuable friendship which has returned thousand-fold for Serena. Twenty years later, Serena hired Susan’s son, Jeff Raab as an actor in a production she directed. These long-term, cultivated relationships prove most valuable to career success.

 2. What would you advise newcomers?

Educate yourself. Get your university degree. A broad-based education is mandatory because it enables empathy and understanding for the people, events and politics conveyed on stage. Take classes in marketing, business, and accounting as part of your major or electives. Design an independent study that focuses on organizational administration. Actor Conservatory training is great for technique and career networking, but it often doesn’t help you understand the content and context of the material you will perform. It is not enough to perform a song or monologue technically. An artist should be able to interpret, apply metaphor, understanding, and value.

Get as much experience as you can auditioning, performing, working on the tech crew, and volunteering in the theatre’s administrative office. It’s so important to understand all the jobs in the theatre so that you can appreciate everyone’s contribution to your success. You never know when the stage manager may have an opportunity to recommend an actor. He will recommend someone with whom he enjoyed working and who makes him feel appreciated.

Trust your instincts. If an audition or job offer violates your personal values, decline it. It won’t ruin your career to say no. Hold onto your integrity – it is the only thing you can be sure of in this business.

3. What about Do’s and Don’ts?

  • Do be kind and respectful to everyone you meet.
  • Don’t talk behind other people’s back. You never know when the God mic is broadcasting your intimate stage whispers to the crowd in the greenroom.
  • Do get a signed contract when you work.
  • Don’t go against your instincts.
  • Do get attractive promotional materials (head shots, website, resume, demo reel, classic audition clothing)
  • Don’t spend exorbitant amounts of money on your promotional materials. Keep it simple and within your budget. You can upgrade when you can upgrade.
  • Do have a support system. That system should not only include fierce friends who make you laugh, but also equally important activities that make you feel good about yourself when you’ve had a bad day at the theatre.
  • Don’t assume that Broadway and Hollywood are the only definitions of success in the acting business.
  • Do develop your talents to serve in other aspects of life – perhaps as a teaching artist, or drama therapist, or as a communications director. The skills of an actor are extremely useful in corporate, educational, and medical environments.
  • Don’t sell your soul for fame and fortune. Both fame and fortune are simply by-products of a job well done and a life well lived.

4. What resources have you found most helpful?

National Endowment for the Arts  – for information including on Presenter Consortiums

Unified Auditions – StrawHat, SouthEastern Theatre Conference, League of Washington Theatres

Unions – Actors’ Equity Association, Screen Actors Guild

Arts Councils – Local and State Arts Councils

EbzB teaching artists are dedicated to the promotion of dramatic art as a valuable educational tool. They’ve been trained by The John F. Kennedy Center For The Performing Arts “Artists as Educators: Planning Effective Workshops”; The Lincoln Center Institute‘s International Educator Program and the National Center for Creative Aging as teaching artists. EbzB is also endorsed by the North Carolina Arts Council‘s Touring Artists Directory.
Founded in 1998 by Serena Ebhardt and David zum Brunnen, EbzB Productions celebrates the profound impact of storytelling through theater in a repertoire of productions, flexibly designed for easy touring to all types of performance spaces. They’re an award-winning husband-wife, actor-manager team who bring over forty years of experience to the stage. Their careers have taken them from off-Broadway and the U.S. to Canada and Europe. In addition to performances, EbzB Productions, Inc. runs student workshops, residencies, and professional development seminars.
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Creating Documentary Theater on Civil Rights: Mike Wiley

Mike Wiley, Actor and playwright

Brown Versus The Board of Education

 

Blood Done Sign My Name – credit Steve Exum

1. Why did you choose to go out on your own?

I got started out of necessity, drive and hunger – the reasons everyone does! But also, I knew I didn’t want to have to wait for someone to give me a job, and I didn’t want to have to work in another field, just to be able to afford to work in my chosen field at night. So many people end up waiting tables or getting jobs sitting behind a desk, just so they can do theater.

I felt if I did that, it would be easy to start to fall in love with the ease of regular work, and it would take the edge off my desire to work in my chosen field. I’ve seen it happen with others where after a while the day job increases and other becomes hobby.

I knew I wanted to work in theater, act and be creative and steer my own ship all at the same time. I didn’t have a Masters in acting – I had a communication degree, which someone talked me into doing. So, it was good that I understood advertising, marketing, and the skills of design to be able to funnel that into my theater work and to build it about myself.

For several years, I was an actor in New York looking to play multiple characters because I realized, if I could do that, I could do solo plays. I knew I could write, and I just wanted to write pieces I could use full-length or for short, 45-minute performances. Plays that could be performed at a theater, school or college, in regional theater, or on tour.

I wrote, One Noble Journey about Henry Brown. I wrote it because it was a slave narrative that was incredibly moving with things that rang true and funny to me. I hadn’t come across slave narratives that were funny before, so my reaction to Henry Brown’s was sort of nice. It’ s the story of Henry “Box” Brown, who decided he was going to actually mail himself in a box to the North in the middle of summer to escape, which was crazy, but it was the only way he could find to free himself.

For me, writing my own pieces was a way for me to free myself – so Henry Brown was that for me. Before that, I was a sort of a slave to type – I was expected to play an African- American man of certain age and build, whereas now, I didn’t have to be a certain sex, height, type, or color. I could do a solo show and be a white or black male, even female, or child – I could play all of the characters! Doing a one-man show allows me to bridge the worlds of theater and storytelling with few props and no costumes changes. I found I don’t need much of a back drop, just me using mostly voice and posture, and a willing audience.

What I’ve learned, is that the audiences are interested in me and in watching the transformations I make from one character to the next – how two seconds ago I was a young African American male, then seconds later an elderly female pretending to be a white male. What the audience is attracted to is watching the act of becoming the other.

2. How would you suggest someone get started writing their own work?

You just need a pencil and a library card. There are so many true stories out there waiting to be told. The same is true with oral histories, they’re out there waiting to be picked up and be told. If an artist comes along and illustrates or adapts it, then the story lives again, but now it has dimensions it didn’t have before.

I’ve found it’s important to make the commitment to do the research, and then, to get meaningful feedback once you’ve written the 1st, 2nd or 3rd draft. At that point, you or another person should read the piece aloud – so skip the step of having someone read the text you written, you’ll get more across if it’s done aloud.

3. What are your feelings about what’s happening now with performing arts & the arts in education? How has that impacted your work?

I was just reading now in our area about some regional theaters having closed. I’ve found the business model I have has worked because it can go to where theater is wanted and needed. You don’t have to bring in bus loads to a place to see it – and you don’t have to go to a metro area. I bring theater to where people are. Sometimes it’s in a theater, sometimes a local cultural center, other times at schools and libraries – I’ve performed in galleries too. The objective is to give them a great cultural experience, presenting arts and history, and to make it enjoyable and even funny. It can be done affordably, so they don’t need to go to the school board for funding and approval to do it. That makes sense strategically, and I can do it because it’s just me and a stage manager to cover for us to make the trip and mount the performance.

Mike Wiley is an actor and playwright, who’s spent more than a decade fulfilling his mission to bring educational theatre to young audiences and communities across the country. In the early days of his career, Wiley found few theatrical resources to shine a light on key events and figures in African-American history. To bring these stories to life, he started his own production company.

Through his performances, Wiley has introduced countless students and communities to the legacies of Emmett Till, Henry “Box” Brown and more. His most recent works include a one-man play based on Tim Tyson’s memoir Blood Done Sign My Name and The Parchman Hour, an ensemble production celebrating the bravery and determination of the Freedom Riders who risked their lives to desegregate Southern interstate bus travel in 1961.

Mike Wiley has a Masters of Fine Arts from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and is the 2010 Lehman Brady Visiting Joint Chair Professor in Documentary Studies and American Studies at Duke University and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. In addition to his numerous school and community performances, he has also appeared on Discovery Channel, The Learning Channel and National Geographic Channel and has been featured in Our State magazine and on PBS’ North Carolina Now and WUNC’s The State of Things.

 

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