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Theater 31.3 (2001) 119-125

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Change on Whose Terms?
Testimony and an Erotics of Injury

Julie Salverson

It is late afternoon in the early 1990s. I am one of almost thirty people at a Theater of the Oppressed workshop led by Brazilian director Augusto Boal. We have come from across Canada, some new to this kind of theater--some, like myself, practitioners for many years. Everyone is tired, excited, disoriented, curious. Boal ends the final exercise, smiles, and tells us the session is over. Then someone involved with the workshop asks us to form a circle and join hands. We have been doing what we're told all day, happily embarking on a succession of games and exercises. Glad for once not to be the teachers, the leaders, we are pleased to oblige. The organizer then asks us to repeat: "We are from near, we are from far, we are one. We are one." I open my mouth, start to repeat, and become immediately uncomfortable. Something inside me refuses this glib recitation of unity. I sense discomfort in the friend and colleague beside me. Later in the evening he asks me, "Isn't it strange? Here we are, a group of people who fight oppression every day. Myself, I have survived torture, imprisonment, exile from my country. And yet I couldn't bring myself to speak up, to say, 'No, excuse me, I don't wish to repeat this phrase that makes me so uneasy: We are one.'"

This essay is about entering into a relationship with what is unlike oneself; it explores what happens when such a relationship occurs as a public theater event. I am writing within the context of a now well-established Canadian theater practice that considers itself a community-based movement for social change. 1 I'm specifically interested in the performing of testimony, in processes through which artists and cultural workers listen to stories of violation and violence and translate them into theatrical form. Canadian social studies, human rights, and language curricula in both schools and community-based projects increasingly use testimony from survivors of violence. Theater making that engages with people's personal stories has become mainstream, almost trendy. It is no longer enough--if it ever was--to assume that theater is by its very nature about connection; now those of us who practice theater that engages with people's accounts of violent events must articulate the nature of that contact. I want to explore how theater operates as an ethical space in which a relationship between detachment and contact occurs. When, I wonder, is the meeting of lives (the narratives we construct, intuit, and [End Page 119] perform about ourselves) about a contact that consumes the other person and reduces them to our terms? When, on the other hand, is it a contact that lets us come together differently and binds me deeply to another without collapsing either the "I" or the "other" into a totalizing "we"? Is there a conceptual language through which artists and educators can negotiate our representative and pedagogical practices? Without a language that brings together questions of ethics, mimesis, and testimony we are left with an atmosphere of mystification and cannot clarify how performances operate to educate, to envision, to relieve pain, or simply to reinscribe stories of victimization.

The Problem of Being Implicated

Several weeks after a play and video I produced and wrote with refugees in Toronto, Are the Birds in Canada the Same? was finished, one of the men who had been involved met me in a coffee shop to discuss how difficult the project had become for him. Before he would talk, he looked at me intently and asked, "There is something I must know. Will you tell me please what all this has meant to you?" I can't forget his question. The kind of theater I am discussing involves personal contact between survivors of violence and the artists who direct, animate, or in some way perform their stories. What is my part in forming their accounts into testimony, into performance...