FEATURE: Staging Peace

By on May 24, 2016

How a Jackson director is helping people relinquish prejudice and hate in some of the world’s most infamous conflict zones.

An image from the production, See You Yesterday, which embarks on a four-stop tour in Rwanda this summer. (Photo: jackie lessac)

An image from the production, See You Yesterday, which embarks on a four-stop tour in Rwanda this summer. (Photo: Jackie Lessac)

JACKSON HOLE, WY – When the Khmer Rouge came to power in Cambodia in 1974, the infamous ruler Pol Pot envisioned returning the country to a primitive agrarian society. To do so, the regime began a campaign of genocide and forced labor that would last for five years. An estimated two million Cambodians were executed. Ethnic minorities, intellectuals, and artists were specifically targeted.

One artist who survived was Arn Chorn-Pond. Born into a family of performers and musicians, Chorn-Pond was just nine years old when he was separated from his family. He was forced to fight the Vietnamese alongside thousands of other child soldiers. The Khmer Rouge exploited his musical talents and forced him to play music during mass executions. He later escaped and found refuge in a refugee camp in Thailand.

Jackson-based performer and theatre director Bob Berky met Chorn-Pond on a recent trip to Battambang, Cambodia. “He’s a beautiful person, with many ghosts around him,” Berky said.

Berky was in Cambodia with the current generation of young performing artists for a Global Arts Corps project. Though the young Cambodians hadn’t endured what people like Chorn-Pond had, they too felt the ghosts of their country’s history all around them.

A multi-national organization comprised of performers, directors, musicians and human rights activists, Global Arts Corps was founded by Wilson residents Michael and Jackie Lessac in 2009. The nonprofit uses theatre to expand reconciliation in recent conflict zones.

Lessac has earned international praise for Global Arts Corps, including the support of South African Archbishop Desmond Tutu. The organization’s productions have secured top honors at prestigious international theatre and film festivals. Though numerous international organizations exist to address reconciliation and peace, few have the vision and approach of GAC. Lessac asks performers and audiences to delve into what it means to be human. It is in the grey areas between “good” and “bad” that he and GAC have the most transformational impact. While they may not save the world, they do have the power to perhaps change intractable hearts.

“Look, one show is not going to make ISIS throw down their guns,” Lessac said. “Nothing like that is ever going to happen.”

But what does happen, according to Lessac, is the permission to see beyond rigid beliefs and protective “masks” humans wear in the world.“Our work shows that I can drop my mask and I will not die,” he said. “Many of us fear that we will die if we drop our masks. People are subconsciously afraid of empathy.”

Old stories, new beginnings

This spring, the Lessacs traveled to Phnom Penh, Cambodia to see the culmination of Global Arts Corps’ latest project. For five years, theatre artists like Berky have been working with a troupe of young circus performers to create a play about the Khmer Rouge and its legacy. See You Yesterday features high-energy acrobatics and fine-tuned ensemble work to tell the story of the performer’s families’ experiences.

Director Michael Lessac and actor/trainer Andrew Buckland in a workshop in Battambang, Cambodia. (Photo: jackie lessac)

Director Michael Lessac and actor/trainer Andrew Buckland in a workshop in Battambang, Cambodia. (Photo: Jackie Lessac)

“They created a show based on their imagination about what their elders went through,” Lessac told The Planet. “It’s their memory of a history they never lived.”

A six-minute video of a rehearsal (found at globalartscorps.org) shows the troupe’s extraordinary talent and passion. Scenes of torture, coercion, and courage are portrayed in inventive physical theatre. Much of the subject matter has been shrouded in silence between the generations.

“The Global Arts Corps don’t prepare the scene for the artists,” one performer said on the rehearsal video. “Every scene is from the artists themselves.”

Berky explained: “We try to teach out of a sense of commitment and generosity.”

One of the powerful aspects of working for GAC, Berky noted, is the deep level of commitment and care. Cast, trainers, and crew often grow family-like ties. Berky thinks of one young Cambodian performer as his surrogate son, a bond that transcends culture and language. “We became very attached to these people,” Berky said. “They are very dedicated performers and very open-hearted people.”

Jackie Lessac, executive producer for Global Arts Corps, says their work is uplifting rather than depressing, despite the atrocities explored in rehearsals.

“It’s the joy of going on an adventure of uncertainty to find something dangerous but accessible,” she said. “To be a part of that process in itself can be joyful, but it is also a great pleasure to watch. To see young people throw themselves into learning new things without hesitation and without fear of ‘getting it wrong.’ To watch their growth as free thinkers.

“One of our young Cambodian performers was interviewed for a blog,” Jackie Lessac said. “He said that before he started work on this production he was never interested in what his parents and grandparents said when they spoke about the Khmer Rouge. But after working on this production, now when they speak, he listens. Isn’t that what we all want?”

Hatred is a failure of imagination

Lessac began his career in theatre in the 1970s, after graduating with a Ph.D. in developmental and perceptual psychology. He founded the Colonnades Theatre Lab in New York City, which received numerous awards and acclaim. He then worked in Hollywood directing films and TV, including Taxi, Newhart, Grace Under Fire, The Drew Carey Show and many others.

“The beauty of what theatre does in a conflict situation is that it forces people to rehearse things they don’t believe in,” Lessac said. “The craft of theatre has inside of it the way to get inside of you. So you have empathy for other people.”

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Lessac watches a rehearsal in Battambang, Cambodia, with local school children. (Photo: Jackie Lessac)

Lessac works closely and intensely with his actors. His expectations are high, but so too is his respect and compassion for them. “The resiliency and skills need to already be in the actor,” Lessac said.

“If I am a trained actor, I have already trained myself to look at, say, a rape scene, with curiosity, not fear. Pain is something you investigate. Rage and hate needs to be rehearsed and understood.”

Therein lies the specific gift theatre offers. Ordinary people don’t walk around rehearsing rage in order to understand it. Most of us don’t think about rape as something we are curious to learn more about and understand from inside both the victim and perpetrator’s perspectives.

Lessac likes to quote novelist Graham Greene, who wrote, “Hatred is a failure of imagination.”

When Lessac brings together groups of people who have in the past been enemies, he invites them to take another try at imagination. Can they imagine their enemy’s face when it was the face of a baby? What does it take for a rift in the hatred to appear?

Lessac’s next project will address the timely yet ancient tensions between Muslims, Jews and Christians. Though he would like to work in the Middle East, logistics will be easier in France, where he is already beginning to assemble a cast.

Diplomats and other influential leaders, he hopes, will begin to take note of Global Arts Corps. He believes people need to stop accepting that war and conflict are inevitable.“Human nature is just an excuse. It’s a way to say, ‘It’s not my fault,’” Lessac said. “An actor knows, ‘It sure as hell is my fault.’”

In Global Arts Corps, Lessac says, they disprove the ‘human nature’ argument.

A vision for change

The seed of Global Arts Corps sprouted a little more than a decade ago when the Lessacs traveled to South Africa to hear the stories of the translators for the country’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC).

The TRC was assembled in the mid 1990s after the abolition of apartheid. Modeled on restorative justice, victims were invited to give statements in public hearings. Perpetrators could also give testimony. This public airing of atrocity, pain, guilt, and anger was part of South Africa’s intent at finding reconciliation and moving forward as a country. As Nelson Mandela is said to have asked his newly Democratic country, “Can we forgive the past in order to survive the future?”

Because South Africa has 11 different languages, translators were needed during the TRC so that victims and perpetrators could communicate. Michael Lessac became curious about the translators. They were tasked with being conduits for so much emotion and so many horrible stories. This idea of holding other people’s stories inside oneself, and sometimes having to speak your enemy’s words, captured Lessac’s imagination. An idea for a theatrical work emerged.

Lessac gathered a talented group of South African actors and writers and developed a script based on the TRC interpreters. He used actual testimony from the TRC hearings, stories from the real translators, and experiences of the South African actors themselves. Renowned South African musician Hugh Masekela created songs and music for the production. In 2006, the groundbreaking musical Truth in Translation was performed for the first time.

This seminal production garnered awards and acclaim in South Africa and around the world. The play has since been produced in numerous countries, including sites of recent conflict such as Northern Ireland, Rwanda and the Western Balkans.

“It is a marvelous and powerful exploration into events that transformed South Africa,” Archbishop Desmond Tutu told The Belfast Telegraph when the play was staged in Northern Ireland.

The Scotsman named Truth in Translation one of the top three plays in the 2007 Edinburgh Fringe Festival: “It is a show courageously committed to showing humanity exactly as it is, profoundly flawed and often breathtakingly brutal, but not entirely lost.”

Cast members were transformed by the experience as well. Performer Sibulele Gcilitshana said that being part of Truth in Translation “made me understand anger and fighting, and made me ponder when does one put down the burden that your forefathers carried on this earth.”

Actor Nick Boraine said for him, acting in Truth in Translation allowed him to investigate whiteness. “Once you understand what your ancestors were about, you can be proud of them but also realize they were really off track in many ways. There was huge sacrifice and cost to what they did. It was an incredible gift to go on a journey of exploration and realize that I didn’t have to do what my ancestors did.”

Rehearsing foreign beliefs

Global Arts Corps grew out of the Truth in Translation tour, which included performances and grassroots dialogue with communities.

Lessac says that sharing plays and dialogue between war-torn countries is the basic premise of Global Arts Corps’ work. “We are taking the Cambodian show to Rwanda,” he said. “We took the Irish show to a racially charged neighborhood in Boston.

“Our particular approach to theatre has a lot of tools that can be a genuine part of education,” he continued. “It has to do with perception, change of perception, and empathy.”

Over the several years of touring with Truth in Translation, the Lessacs took 200 hours of film footage, which led to a feature length documentary, A Snake Gives Birth to a Snake. Released in April 2014, the documentary follows the South African cast as they travel to Rwanda, Belfast, Kosovo, Bosnia and Herzegovina. In each location, they perform the play and engage with the public to hear their stories of conflict, hate, hope, and sometimes forgiveness.

They wanted to explore the question: “What happens if one country that has come out of violence talks to another country that has come out of violence?”

Lessac said the goal of this cross-cultural dialogue and exposing a country’s wounds rather than covering them up was not to document atrocity. Instead, he hoped to reveal “unexpected and unknown ways of reconciling.”

In a quietly powerful scene in the documentary, a young Rwandan woman speaks during a student talkback session with the cast after seeing the play. Noted white South African journalist Max du Preez, who is traveling with the company, asks the Rwandan students if they have advice for him on coping with how he, as a white person, is seen as a perpetrator.

Several See You Yesterday cast members show off their acrobatic skills in rehearsal. (Photo: jackie lessac)

Several See You Yesterday cast members show off their acrobatic skills in rehearsal. (Photo: Jackie Lessac)

The Rwandan woman, who is from the Tutsi ethnic group, responds, “You must understand that when you kill the parents of someone, they will hate you. You won’t change your name; you won’t change your face. But don’t try. Give them a chance of seeing you.

“I give you an example,” she continued. “My parents were killed in the genocide. My brother was killed in the genocide. So I really know. I think forgiving is accepting what happened to you, and realizing that bad people exist and that anyone can be bad, because we are human. I know some Hutu people. I love them very dearly. They are my friends at school … I talk about them when they are there. I say, ‘I hate the Hutu people.’ But they allow it. They understand that’s how it must be. They understand me. And I love them.”

Lessac says the concept of forgiveness was more on display in Rwanda than any other place he has visited, except South Africa. As with his actors, Lessac does not generally ask people to embrace forgiveness. Theatre, he says, provides a way of rehearsing something you don’t believe in.

“What I look for in actors is that they are deeply committed to their craft,” Lessac explained. “That they are committed to knowledge of themselves and others. They have to want to see things through other people’s eyes. They have to have sense of humor and sense of music.”

When all those qualities exist in his cast members, Lessac says it leads, fruitfully, to people exploring things they didn’t think they believed in. “I’m not asking them to believe in forgiveness,” he said. “I’m asking them to rehearse it.”

The documentary gets its title from the answer often given for why babies are killed during genocide and conflict. The adage, “A snake gives birth to a snake,” encapsulates the way hatred is passed on from generation to generation.

Lessac finds hope in changing young people’s perceptions. He says his experience working with youth in Cambodia convinced him that Global Arts Corps could affect young people. Initially, some performers were reluctant to explore the past. They wished instead to look forward. But over time, they came to see the value of understanding their country’s violent history.

Energized at home & abroad

One day Lessac hopes to work with local students. “I would love to do the exchange program with Jackson Hole kids,” he said. “Both the Latino population as well as the wealthy kids who don’t always know what’s going on in the world.

“I know this is a strange thing to say,” he continued, “but the children of the wealthy are deprived in the extreme because they never get to think about or look at a lot of things. We somehow have made the case that our children should be protected. I think that’s the quickest way to destroy the education of our population.”

According to Nick Boraine, who is now associate artistic director with GAC, Lessac brings a patience for process that is unique. For kids in Jackson, having time to fully explore their experiences with race and class could be a gift in itself.

“Michael is old-school,” Boraine said. “He comes out of the 70s New York City theatre tradition where process was everything. What is extraordinary to what Michael brings is time. He never says things can be done quickly.

“I remember as an actor, working on Truth in Translation, it was such a privilege to have that kind of time to unpack your country’s past and your ancestral past,” Boraine said. “It takes a long time to be honest with yourself and your cast members. The mistake that a lot of people make is that they come in and want to do it as quickly as possible.”

The Lessacs moved to Jackson in 1993 while Michael was preparing to do another movie. “The studio went bankrupt while I was scouting locations,” he said. So the couple decided to use their sudden free time to visit friends at a ranch in Jackson.

“It didn’t take more than four hours before we decided that we had to be here,” Lessac said.

They also have a home in New York City, and an extensive travel schedule. He acknowledges that his Jackson home provides an escape from the pace of urban life. But escape troubles him less than entitlement. “What is important is that we don’t escape by wrapping entitlement around us,” Lessac said. “That means that you have wrapped yourself in a wrap of denial.”

See You Yesterday choreographer Belle Sodhachivy Chumvan (second from right) and cast members as Chumvan’s mother Nou Sondab talks about the Khmer Rouge. (Photo: jackie lessac)

See You Yesterday choreographer Belle Sodhachivy Chumvan (second from right) and cast members as Chumvan’s mother Nou Sondab talks about the Khmer Rouge. (Photo: Jackie Lessac)

At 75, Lessac shows zero signs of slowing down. This summer he and Jackie will take See You Yesterday on a four-stop tour in Rwanda. “We will perform in two Burundian refugee camps occupied by people who have escaped over the border to Rwanda to seek safety for their families from a genocide many believe is brewing in their home country,” Lessac said.

Boraine noted that this will be the first time GAC presents a production in a current conflict area. Brundians are fleeing the threat of genocide right now. “It’s a major departure from where we’ve been before,” Boraine said. “We don’t know what the result will be. We are not sure how it will go down.”

Other work currently in progress includes Hold Your Tongue, Hold Your Dead, a play developed in Northern Ireland that brings together actors from opposite sides of the conflict and fragile peace in that region. The production will tour in 2017 to areas in the United States struggling with racial, ethnic and socio-economic tension and violence.

Additionally, Global Arts Corps is eyeing the creation a production with a cast of French Muslims, French Jews and French Christians.

“Someday I’d like to put 10 conflict groups onstage,” Lessac said. “Because they would be looking from so many different sides, an absurdity would surface and float upon the whole conflict. We would begin to see a mirror of ourselves in a way we’ve never looked at it before. That would be something brand new to bring to the table.”

Global Arts Corps associate artistic director Nick Boraine working with kids in Belfast, Ireland. (Photo: Jackie Lessac)

Global Arts Corps associate artistic director Nick Boraine working with kids in Belfast, Ireland. (Photo: Jackie Lessac)

Lessac has set a goal for himself to create an international “festival for radical reconciliation” by the year 2020. Though there are only a few theatre companies doing work similar to Global Arts Corps, there are some, including the organization Cambodian Living Arts, founded by Arn Chorn-Pond. Cambodian Living Arts was a co-presenter of the Phnom Penh performance of See You Yesterday.

When he saw the Phnom Penh performance, Bob Berky said it brought home the reason Global Arts Corps members are so dedicated to their work. “You really understood as an artist how powerful art is, how useful it can be.”

Lessac says the usefulness of their work is not about making people hold hands and kiss one another. He allows for a more realistic outcome. “Maybe reconciliation is not what everybody thinks it is,” he said. “Maybe we are not going to be friends. But at least we could agree not to kill each other’s children.” PJH

Learn more about Global Arts Corps at globalartscorps.org.

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About Meg Daly

Meg Daly is a freelance writer and arts instigator. She grew up in Jackson in the 1970s and 80s, when there were fewer fences, but less culture. Follow Meg on Twitter @MegDaly1

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