Theatre of Witness

Creative peace initative uses the stage to let the voiceless speak. Click Play Audio for a podcast with Teya Sepinuck

'I never expected sympathy or understanding from a loyalist or a policeman. Then again, I never expected to have sympathy or understanding for them.'

The words come from a young man, pseudonymously known as Barry. He is one of a group of individuals who have volunteered to share their painful experiences of the past 40 years, not only with one another but with the general theatre-going public at large, in a new creative peace intitiative entitled Theatre of Witness.

'John' comes from a loyalist background and has been stunned by the common ground he has discovered with a republican member of the group. 'Sharing a room with a republican would have been fairly alien territory a while ago, but now it feels right,' he comments. 'Green and orange, you wouldn’t know the difference.'

Meanwhile, 'Victoria' believes passionately that it is the duty of the younger generation to speak out after years of carrying the secrets of their elders. 'This is not just about Northern Ireland and the Troubles,' she says of the Derry-based project. 'It’s about human stories. It’s time for our generation to raise questions that we’ve never had the opportunity to ask, let alone expect an answer to.'

In October, these new acquaintances will step onto the stage of The Playhouse theatre in Derry and tell their stories in person, in a multimedia presentation that will include original music by composer Brian Irvine and film and video imagery by film-maker John McIlduff. After a four-night run, their production will tour to eight venues on both sides of the border.

Theatre of Witness is a ‘creative peace initiative’, devised and developed some 20 years ago in the United States by dancer and counsellor Teya Sepinuck as a means of giving voice to people in society who would otherwise struggle to be heard.

Playhouse director Pauline Ross came across Sepinuck’s work through the wide-reaching network of international artists that she has built up since rescuing a derelict old convent building overlooking the walls of Derry and turning it into one of the most vibrant arts and play resource centres in Ireland.

Convinced by the possibilities offered by this forum, Ross took up the reins in the dauntingly complex process of applying for funding from the European Union Peace and Reconciliation Programme 2007-2013 – otherwise known as PEACE III.

Northern Ireland and the border region of Ireland stand to benefit from €333million offered by the new programme, which aims to add to the building bricks put in place by PEACE I and II. The emphasis of PEACE III falls very much on reconciliation, with a particular emphasis on cross-border initiatives.

'People here have been through so much over the years. We are crying out for whatever can help ease that pain and hurt of the past,' explains Ross.

'[Theatre of Witness] is a way to bear witness, sometimes to the unspeakable but also to the stories beneath the stories and to find where the healing is,' adds Sepinuck, who has a hands-on role in the project.

Until one meets the participants of the production, it might be easy to dismiss Theatre of Witness as yet another worthy, well-meaning attempt to plaster over the wounds of a troubled past.

But one cannot deny the incredible courage that it has taken for a young man, whose father was killed in shocking circumstances, to share his story with a loyalist and a former RUC officer; for a loyalist and a republican to compare notes on their past deeds and discover how much they have in common; for a former RUC officer to relive the horrors of his job alongside a young woman whose own father served in the force.

Sepinuck has travelled the world and listened to the voices of survivors of the Holocaust and Vietnam, victims and perpetrators of murder and domestic violence, refugees, homeless people, people living in poverty, immigrants, teenage runaways and people in recovery. But, she says, working in Derry is something quite different, like nothing she’s ever encountered before.

'What’s not different is the level of suffering. Deep suffering is deep suffering, wherever it occurs. What’s different about Derry is that everybody knows everybody and is connected to everybody. People have to walk the same streets and see each other.'

The Theatre of Witness initiative is funded by the EU Peace III Programme. The Playhouse is the lead partner, in conjunction with a number of organisations, including Donegal County Council and the Holywell Trust, a body dedicated to community development and peace building.

Jane Coyle