Recently, Dr. Cynthia Cohen, the program director of Theatre Without Borders at Brandeis University, talked with ArtsoMarket to discuss how artists are using art to promote change in divided communities. Below is a re-print of the interview.
The Peacebuilding and the Arts program, part of the web based, artist to artist, people to people, network, works to strengthen the practice and nexus of the arts and conflict transformation by generating and disseminating knowledge, and facilitating networks of effective action; in essence, creating people to people connections across borders.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.