Ten months ago, I was doing my Masters in Performance Studies at New York University (NYU). Embroiled in the philosophies of Michel Foucault, Roland Barthes, and the like, I was enjoying my new found artist/intellectual status; wandering around the streets of New York, wondering how all these theories I was reading about would help me as a theatre practitioner who was interested in making theatre with war stricken communities. And then I got a late night phone call. “You got the Watson fellowship!” they told me. “If you are ready to drop everything and leave in the next week, you can travel to Guatemala, Northern Ireland, and Rwanda, and research how theatre can be used to heal nations torn asunder by violent conflict.”

A Watson Fellowship is a one-year traveling fellowship awarded to graduating college seniors to pursue an independent study project of their choice. It is a chance to explore your passion, whether or not it is linked to your academic interests, and to have the freedom to pursue it in a manner that best benefits you. Some people would say that I made a rash decision. Putting a school like NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts on hold to go traipsing around the world pursuing my “passion.” But ten months later, having completed my Watson fellowship and now on my way back to New York —man, am I glad to have been so rash!

I grew up in a small town in South India. I went to a convent school, and until I left home to attend the Mahindra United World College (UWC) of India in Pune for my last two years of high school, I thought I knew exactly how my life was going to turn out: I was going to become a chartered accountant, and get married by the age of 23. Going to the UWC changed everything for me. It changed my academic interests, it changed my intellectual pursuits, and it entirely changed my way of looking at the world. It taught me that idealism was not something to be dismissed lightly. That the world is amazingly small. And that maybe, just maybe, I was not going to be a chartered accountant after all.

UWC led to Wellesley College in Massachusetts; Wellesley’s incredible liberal arts program led to an exploration of the Theatre Studies department (I didn’t until then know people could actually “study” theatre); and a semester spent in Uganda, trying to combine my passion for theatre with my interest in Development Economics, led me to the fascinating subject of “Theatre and War.”

Every day we are bombarded by the media with fresh stories about conflict—Iraq, Lebanon, Somalia, Sudan, Congo—a seemingly endless list of pain and suffering. We see pictures of starving infants, refugees, bomb blasts, and we see it for what it is: horror. What we do not often see are the stories of hope and beauty that continue to exist behind the ravages of war. Be it a former child soldier who won himself a scholarship to study in the United Kingdom, or the rebel who voluntarily decided to put down his arms, or the population of an Internally Displaced Peoples camp who organized “cultural evenings” to stave off the boredom and fear that comes with each passing day.


As someone who has long since been embroiled in the performing arts—performance has been a part of my life since I started learning Indian classical dance at the age of three—I always look to the theatre for such success stories. The idea that there could be a group of actors somewhere in Baghdad or Kashmir or Sri-Lanka today, who get together amidst the chaos and still find time to make theatre—well, it’s such ideas that help me read the news everyday without thinking that the world is coming to an end.

So when I started on my journey through Guatemala, Northern Ireland, and Rwanda, it was with equal amounts of trepidation and excitement. Trepidation about the potentially intense situations that I would have to bear witness to, and excitement to finally meet people who would help me realize the answer to my question: Is there a place for theatre in a place of war?

If there is something that strikes one immediately about being in a “post-conflict” nation, it is the realization that the conflict will never completely be a thing of the past. In Guatemala, or Guate, it was a struggle between the guerilla fighters and the government forces, in Northern Ireland between the Loyalists and the Nationalists, and in Rwanda, between the Hutu and the Tutsi ethnic groups. All three conflicts have lasted about three decades. All three conflicts are said to have ended in the 1990s. The peace accords in Guate were signed in 1996, Northern Ireland made its Good Friday Agreement in 1998, and the 1994 genocide is said to have terminated three decades of repression and suffering in Rwanda.

But what do these dates really mean? Sure, the peace agreements might have been signed on a certain day and in a certain year, but what those accords really mean for the issues they are purported to have reconciled is an entirely different thing. I cannot forget the words of a colleague in Guatemala who told me, “You know Nandita, the war in Guate is not over. It’s just that now, we don’t know who is fighting.”

As a self-proclaimed artist and activist, I have often looked down on the notion of “theatre for theatre’s sake.” I thought in the past that political art involved a certain degree of radical thought and action. What I had not considered much was the fact that contemplating doing theatre in a time of war is in and of itself a radical thought. To find a space to express yourself when there are bombs dropping outside your window is, by its own virtue, a political act. What happens beyond that is just the icing on the cake.

I used to think that a piece of theatre did not have much value unless it incited some spark of revolution in its audience. But now I have begun to play with the idea that perhaps practicing art in a time of war is more about the artist than it is about the audience. Because apart from the effort to simply stay alive, the effort to do theatre enables the artist to realize that she is in danger of losing that which is integral to her definition of herself as artist: the freedom to create. She might not know what the public wants or needs; their benefit is a by-product. But she knows she must create. Her responsibility at that time is more to herself than to the society she lives in.

One of my mentors in Guatemala was a guerilla in the days of the war. A university graduate with a degree in stage design, he found a place for theatre even when he was up in the mountains fighting a bloody war. Be it pre-combat plays to inspire his troops, or post-combat plays to celebrate a “victory,” or radio plays to entertain his counterparts on their days off, he was constantly on a quest to use his art. But while his work did evoke a positive response from his fellow guerilleros, he himself admits that the reach that a piece of theatre can have is minimal whilst a war is being fought.

A theatre artist’s responsibility to society heightens once the war in question is seen as being over. When the nation is in relative peace, she must find a way to make her art serve as a bridge between the past and the future. So that the losses suffered in the years of conflict are honored, but none can forget the road ahead.

In this process of finding a balance between remembering the past and looking to the future, I have found the theatre to have an incredibly important role to play. In post-war contexts where many subjects are labeled “sensitive” and so many topics cannot be openly discussed, there is a thirst for an art form that will provide the comfort of a fictitious world, while dealing with issues that are very much relevant to nations today and our present political circumstances. In present day Rwanda, for instance, where discussions about “ethnic identity” remain muted, it is only within the imaginary walls of the theatre that people feel even remotely comfortable voicing their opinions.

People often say that when there are more serious problems in the world—HIV, malnutrition, water shortages—why devote oneself to something like theatre? I tell them that it is not about theatre in itself but what theatre can do in conjunction with other elements in a society. Whether or not we live in war zones or seemingly peaceful societies, we all need an “alternate universe.” We all need time in which we may put aside the realities that plague us and indulge in the beauty of the imagination. Not to escape our reality, but to face it in a manner that seems bearable. In a manner that will not break our spirits, but rather spur us on toward action.

After something like a war or genocide, people are constantly on a quest for that which will heal their wounds. For some, it becomes alcohol or drugs. Some devote themselves to improving their financial circumstance. For others like me, it is the theatre. We want for theatre to play its part in a nation’s future. To be a tool that heals as much as it provokes, calms as much as it enrages, and reminisces as much as it dreams.

Making theatre in nations coming out of war is as exhilarating as it is devastating. Exhilarating because you can see the solace a theatrical world provides to someone who has perhaps witnessed the violent death of his entire family. But devastating because you are also forced to realize that however powerful the theatre might be, there are some wounds that can never heal. So we use our art and our theatre not to tell survivors to forget the past and move on, but rather to provoke a discussion about how we might prevent history from repeating itself. At the end of the day, all I can hope for as a theatre artist is to be able to use my art to lessen the pain that exists in the world.


In the last few months, I have become involved with a non-governmental organization called Never Again Rwandathat focuses on working with youth in the nation, talking about issues of conflict resolution and peace building. All of the youth in this organization were affected by the 1994 genocide in one way or another. Each of them has a story that is intimately connected with the conflicted history of the nation and each of them has opinions and aspirations concerning the future of Rwanda. Therefore, we have been designing a theatre program that blurs the lines between human rights and art. Our primary aim is to give rise to a culture of “creative activism.” To inspire youth to think outside the box when it comes to making their voices heard. To enable them to understand that it is not about how loudly you yell or how violently you protest against injustice, but about how effectively you communicate.

I started my journey in September 2006, telling myself that I should not be too idealistic. I have come out of this experience believing in the power and potential of the theatre a lot more than I did upon starting out. I have seen theatre serve as solace for a survivor in Rwanda, heard about theatre’s role as a lifeline for an ex-guerillero trying to come to terms with his violent past in Guate, and witnessed theatre being the only source of entertainment for an ex-IRA soldier in Northern Ireland.

Of course, I still acknowledge the limitations of the theatre. I know that wars and genocides will not cease, not in my lifetime anyway. I struggle sometimes to balance my respect and my hatred for human nature. When all is said and done, however, be it on the shores of Guate’s beautiful Lake Atitlan, or the streets of Belfast, or the many glorious hills of Rwanda, the show does go on.

The sound of bombs continues to be defused by the applause of appreciative audiences all over the world. The silences of curfews are broken by laughter inside small underground theatres. And the vagaries of war are being slowly and steadily replaced by the exploits of the imagination.


A Taste of Theatre-Activism in India and the U.S.

GUJARAT: The Darpana Academy of Performing Arts was founded in 1949 by Mrinalini and Vikram Sarabhai and is directed today by Mallika Sarabhai. Mallika’s work reflects her commitment to social justice and bridges the divide between dance and theatre. Her performance pieces, including “Shakti—The Power of Women” and “Itan Kahani—The Story of Stories,” have shed light on images of womanhood, oppression, environmental issues, and the manipulation of culture. In recent years, Darpana has worked with rural artists and marginalized communities in order to create interactive programs. Darpana for Development works to train individuals from tribal areas to be “actor-activists” and policy makers. See www.darpana.com

CALIFORNIA: El Teatro Campesino was founded by Luis Valdez in 1965 as an offshoot of the United Farm Workers. Valdez and his players initially performed in order to raise funds for farmworkers on strike (often performing on flat bed trucks in the middle of fields), but eventually the troupe of artists began to produce plays that addressed questions of racism, education, and war. Today, El Teatro Campesino is housed in San Juan Batista. Seewww.elteatrocampesino.com

ILLINOIS: The Silk Road Theatre Project was founded by Malik Gillani and Jamil Khoury as a response to the events of September 11, 2001. Gillani and Khoury wanted to counter pervasive negative representations of Middle Eastern and Muslim peoples, and they decided that theatre was the ideal medium through which to create change. The Silk Road Project supports playwrights of Asian, Middle Eastern, and Mediterranean backgrounds whose work addresses themes relevant to members of their respective diasporic communities. Silk Road productions have addressed issues including the Israel-Palestine conflict, suicide, cultural otherness, the war on terror, and even a Bollywood version of Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice. Seewww.srtp.org

Nandita Dinesh is a graduate student in the Performance Studies department at New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts.