Hope to the hopeless

– What difference can a little theatre do, in a place where people no longer dream?

Two female Norwegian theatre makers with equally long experience in the industry, independently started to question their focus as professionals, as the refugee crisis in Europe began to escalate. Eventually they decided, separately, to change the directions of their careers. Katja Brita Lindeberg has now been working repeatedly as a clown in refugee- camps in Greece, and Mariken Lauvstad is currently working on a crime preventive theatre project in Pollsmoor Prison, South Africa. Today, they are both convinced that theatre can create societal change. But is theatre really the right way to help people in critical life situations?

Freelance clown, actress and director Katja Brita Lindeberg (32) has several times been on assignment for the Swedish organisation Clowns Without Borders. The organisation operates in 40 countries, and since June 2015, numerous projects have been active in refugee camps in Greece. In these camps, Katja has completed several missions, mainly in the areas around Athens and Thessaloniki.

Actress and director Mariken Lauvstad (33) has been working closely with convicts and ex- convicts in Pollsmoor Prison (South Africa) since the beginning of 2016. The work exchange program she’s on mission for, «Help, I’m Free!», is financed by Norwegian Fredskorpset, but run jointly by crime-preventive organisations Vardeteatret in Oslo, Norway and the National Institute for Crime Prevention and Reintegration of Offenders (NICRO) in South Africa. The project was initiated in 2011 with the aim to rehabilitate inmates through the tools of applied theatre and the journey of an artistically ambitious theatre production performed at Artscape Theatre in Cape Town.

It is difficult to argue that theatre always reflects the society in which it is created. The purpose often changes according to the societal and political landscape. But how do we use theatrical tools when the goal is to create hope in places where dreams dwindle, and the future holds nothing but uncertainty?

In this article, Katja & Mariken discuss the purpose and function of theatre in the context of «art as aid». They share their doubts and reflect on the complicated position as white, female «do- gooders” from the first world, trying to make a difference.
Theatre in touch with the people

Mariken: You’ve been working as a hospital clown for several years, and produced plays where the clown figure plays a central part. Why did you want to bring your clown to refugee camps in Greece?

Katja: Working in Norway, I find that the art-world can be very shallow. I lose myself in the art discourse, context, form and theory.. But in the refugee camps, all of that becomes irrelevant. When we walk through the camps while we perform, sing and play instruments, children run towards us with the most open faces. Then it seems so simple, and at the same time, I believe it is the essence of what theatre can be. We create moments together. That is the essence of theatre, to me. What was your impetus to travel to South Africa?

Mariken: It was several things. I missed something in Norway that I still can’t put into words, but I guess it revolves around working closer to the ground, closer to life. Here in South Africa, the latest innovations within stage technology or interactive scenography seem insignificant. Theatre is about people, reconciliation, the eagerness to make societal change. I recognise myself a lot in what you are saying, but I wonder, how do you create these «moments» that occur between the clown and a child in a refugee camp?

Katja: I join into the child’s play. I improvise music and dance with them. I can battle- dance with a little boy. I throw invisible balls to them and they throw back to me. It is when playing, I get the children with me. They are the experts, and we can create small moments of play together; jump over puddles, play hide-and-seek, create clapping- games. In Norway, my aim is to bring forth different themes, explore, prompt reflection. In the refugee camps, the material I bring with aims to support the children’s playfulness and imagination. The goal is the child’s play itself.

I once met an aid worker who told me that the children drew dead bodies floating in the ocean, bevelled arms and legs, dead people in barges. My task is not to trigger those traumas, but give all the love I can give and make the children feel seen. That is the most important thing for me. My experience is that the children in the refugee camps have a strong need to be seen, play, laugh. And forget.

White and privileged

Mariken: Do you ever doubt if the clown belongs in a refugee camp? Is clowning the right way to help?

Katja: I often ask myself if I, as a white, middle class woman from one of the richest countries in the world, really am in a good position to «help». The frame is pretty postcolonial. Which ideas am I bringing with me? How can I do the work with respect and equality? From a power perspective, there’s a lot working against both of us in our work. Have you ever been doubting your project in South Africa? Whether it’s working? Your method?

Mariken: Yes, absolutely. First of all, I feel very uncomfortable in the role as white and privileged, as well as with the characteristics I experience that many South Africans read into my person because of the colour of my skin. At the same time, my opinion is that the western world has an incredible arrogance towards Africa as a continent. If there is anything South Africa isn’t short of, its human resources. There are so many competent, local theatre practitioners within the field of devised and applied theatre here in Cape Town, people with a lot to contribute and who in addition, have much better knowledge than me when it comes to South African culture and history.

At the same time, the lack of infrastructure, burgeoning economy and organizational culture is a reality. Currently, we are the only applied theatre program running in Pollsmoor Prison. Even local subsidized organisations and volunteers struggle with the instability of the prison structure. We however, have not given up. I’ve therefore concluded that I as a theatre maker with ten years of experience, don’t have to excuse myself for wanting to be here and working hard to achieve results. The bottom line is the importance of the work being done, and that we try to do it with an approach that focuses on gradual empowerment and independence of the project, from a South African point of view.

We have initiated a collaboration with the University of Cape Town (UCT) Drama Department

and we are focused on bringing in local partners. I may very well have learned more than I’ve taught. It’s been a journey for the inmates we’ve been working with, but it has certainly been a journey for my colleagues and I.

The cultural exchange, however, is a value in itself. For your part, maybe the clown is a figure that removes some of the position as «white, privileged woman»?

Katja: Yes, absolutely. I’ve been thinking a lot about why I wanted to come to the refugee- camps as a clown. And the answer is that the clown makes it much easier to meet the children as an equal: The people I meet in Greece, already have a relation to the clown/jester and as a result, I’m seen as a clown, not as the white person that automatically has a lot of cultural and economical power. That makes the work much easier. The clown is a character that has low social status, it has no given authority. I make both children and adults laugh when I fall off a chair; it’s physical comedy, humour that can be called universal, or in any case extend beyond national borders. I make a fool of myself, I’m clumsy, I’m vulnerable, I go into direct interaction with both children and their parents. And in return, I experience to be accepted. All the laughter and joy we are creating together becomes much more important than postcolonial discourses. To work on the outside the cultural institutions, in other societies and other contexts, gives me more perspective on the world.

Methodological challenges

Katja: For your part, since you don’t have a character you enter, how do you go forward methodologically, to create a respectful and equal process?

Mariken: My speciality is devised theatre, an approach where you don’t start from a script, but where you create material through discussion, guided writing workshops and improvisations. This approach supports a rehabilitation process. Devicing is a good choice when the creative process is also a process of reflection, trust and personal growth. When the performance is a mean to a greater goal, it is evident that the participants get relevant themes, experiences and emotions processed. A part of this processing, is the script writing. The text is jointly developed during the process.

The inmates write all the texts to the performance, but I am the one that considers if the texts are suitable for stage, as in not too personal and exposing. I pick out and mould the texts together to a dramaturgical whole. And as the rehabilitation process is gliding forward, the writing tasks become more profound, and demand more reflection. Consecutively, I have to consider what is appropriate to share amongst the inmates in the group, and what to keep private between the participant and myself. It is evident to me, that all of the participants should be able to go onstage with full integrity and ownership to the whole process, without being misrepresented as some kind of curiosity in an orange overall.

In our previous production, the texts became monologues, dialogues, choreography and action scenes. The play started off quite light, with bright glimpses into childhood and adolescence, but where even the happy moments revealed poverty and struggle.

Gradually, the stories became darker and more desperate, but the play still ended with hope for the future.

Katja: How do you work to make the material accessible for many people? Isn’t there a danger that the performances become too private?

Mariken: Yes. But mastering that balance, is part of my job as theatre educator and director. From day one, my main focus has been to create a meeting point between performers and spectators, where the dehumanized becomes human again. And how to approach that? By reminding the audience of how much they actually have in common with the people on stage. That is why the glimpses of childhood, adolescence, hopes and dreams were important in the start of the performance, to build that bridge over to the audience. Then we witness how dreams burst, and the audience is moved because they have already identified with the performing inmates. A mom is sharing with the audience how much she misses the everyday life with her children; the small, trivial things that we easily take for granted. Not being able to follow your children through their adolescence is one of parents worst fears. The female inmates love for her children is just as strong as every other mom’s. The performance made this mom’s family members look at her in a new way. Today, her teenage son, who refused to visit her in prison for several years, has started to visit her again, after years of anger and bitterness. That too, has value to us.

But for you, by the end of the journey; It must have been emotionally very intense to work in refugee camps. What have the assignments with Clowns without Borders, meant to you as a human being?

Katja: I feel the injustice in this world much stronger. Now I have met the people behind the numbers, I have shared experiences with them, laughed with them, played with them. Coming back from Greece this time was incredibly difficult. The situation for the Syrian refugees is so horribly unfair, so unmanageable. On my previous tour, the people I met were in motion, they were on a journey. The border to Macedonia was closed, but there was hope that it would reopen. But this time, that hope had shrunk, and the refugees knew that their situation in the camps was more permanent. When people ask me where I come from, I try to avoid saying I’m from Norway, because they are so desperate to get to Norway or other European countries. I feel ashamed to be from Norway. I can return to my comfort, while they remain in the camps.

Mariken: I share your experience of feeling the injustice more intensely than before. At times, almost unbearable. Exactly as for you, our work so clearly reveals both what we spark, of new hope and courage, but just as much what we can not change, and that hurts. The prisoners in South Africa have no social safety net. Most return to townships with broken families, poverty, drugs, crime and often also members of competing gangs threatening to avenge crimes of the past. But I don’t thereby conclude that our project is pointless, rather the contrary. To invest in those who have nothing, that feels more meaningful to me than anything I have ever done before.

To not look away

Katja: What happens to the inmates you have worked with when they leave prison?

Mariken: Actually, some of the previous participants have tapped into the the film industry, or started other creative practices. Some have gotten jobs. But we see that people with more stable family situations, families that can help them, do best. In Norway, new friends and a new social network is often the only factor the welfare state can’t provide. In South Africa, the entire safety net is missing. These people come out to nothing. If you grew up in the streets and you’re not even registered with a birth certificate, what do you do? Our organization here, NICRO, is following up on the parolees, but challenges are huge and resources limited. What I know, is that we have discovered and developed talent and built self esteem. That we have created many happy moments in lives where happiness is scarce. That the process has resulted in healthy confrontations with their criminal past, and started psychological processes of healing. That we have played a part in reuniting families. But for a former inmate and drug addict, who picked up their habit from the circumstance of poverty, staying in townships overflowing with drugs and crime, life is probably harder than I will ever fully grasp.

Katja: Yes. And that is exactly why the work is important! For me, to return to the refugee camps is a way to show that I still care. People are so afraid of being forgotten. I try to share as much as possible when I’m home in Norway, tell the stories I’ve heard. Create societal awareness.

Mariken: My view on criminals will never be the same. We need to understand the origin of the gang culture. The modern criminal gangs of Cape Town exist within a broader historical context. It is the continuity of a criminalisation of ‘coloured’ and ‘black’ identity from colonial slavery through Apartheid and into contemporary carcerality. It is a consequence of poverty and inequality. Who are the real criminals of this world? The closer you look, the less black and white, the less good or bad, and the more grey and complex it all becomes.

So what do you think, Katja, can art really make any change in this world?

Katja: Yes, I am very confident it can. But I wish that artists in Norway and the rest of the first world, more often discuss the purpose of the arts in our society. My favourite saying about theatre is the well known, but very true «Art should comfort the disturbed and disturb the comfortable.» When on assignment for Clowns without Borders, I try to do the first. In first world countries and societies with a very stable political situation, I believe we need to focus much more on accomplishing the last.

Mariken: I agree. The common denominator between theatre work in both refugee camps and in prison, must be to re-humanize marginalized and oppressed groups and force people to remember that we are one, one humanity. Theatre is one way of creating a meeting point that encourages people to look again. To see the individual in the mass. In Zulu, the word for greeting also means “I see you”. Sawubona. I see you. And once you have really seen another human being, their unique, individual value, then it’s much harder to look away again. We’re not that different. We’re all just humans.


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