Conflict survivors find healing in theatre group performance

BRUSSELS Wed Feb 6, 2013 10:26am EST

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BRUSSELS (Reuters) - The European Union won the Nobel Peace Prize last year for helping unite a continent. But one U.S. woman is demonstrating that in Northern Ireland, peace and reconciliation can also be fostered in more personal and expressive ways.

Teya Sepinuck from Philadelphia is the founder of Theatre of Witness, a group that puts on dramas to tell the stories of people who would not otherwise be heard, performed not by actors but by the people themselves.

The most recent production, "Release," portrayed the experiences of six men involved in the Northern Irish conflict which pitted Catholic Irish nationalists seeking a union with Ireland against Protestant loyalists determined to keep Northern Ireland as a part of the United Kingdom.

The show, funded through the European Union's Peace III Program, was designed to bring together people from opposite sides of the three-decade long conflict and reach reconciliation and forgiveness.

More than 3,000 people were killed in the violence, often referred to as "The Troubles," before the Good Friday Agreement in 1998 led the nationalist Irish Republican Army to disband.

"Release" includes a range of perspectives: ex-prisoners, a former prison governor, a former British soldier, a policeman, and a man who survived a car bomb as a child.

"They walk in each others' stories, which is like walking in each others' shoes," Sepinuck said. "It's just incredible. They love each other, so it's like watching love grow."

James Greer, a former member of a paramilitary group, said that although he was reluctant to open up initially, participating in Theatre of Witness was one of the most positive experiences of his life.

He shared the story of a bomb that blew his friend's arm off, and talked about his arrest and imprisonment.

"The first time I did that, the emotions ran so high it was unbelievable," Greer, now 57, said. He performed these stories in "We Carried Your Secrets," which toured Northern Ireland in 2009.

"I felt that I had exposed myself," said Greer, who now works with peace organizations. "Perceived enemies could have seen it as a threat, perceived friends could have seen it as exposing them, but universally it was received."

Later this year, "Women and War" will premiere in Londonderry to share manifestations of loss, rape, emigration and refuge. With the help of peace and social agencies, Sepinuck has recruited women from around the world - Israel, Rwanda, Iraq, Afghanistan - to take part in the production.

"I think that human beings learn by stories and we learn by being in the presence of others," Sepinuck said. "Especially when people are being deep and real and truthful."

The roots of Theatre of Witness date back to the 1980s, when Sepinuck, then a dancer, created a performance about ageing using recorded sounds of laughter from her son and grandfather.

In subsequent years, the group has used its distinct form of storytelling to explore social and political issues in the United States, Poland and now Northern Ireland.

These raw, emotional pieces are not only a form of catharsis for the participants. In comments written after the performances, audience members have expressed how deeply the stories resonated with their own lives.

"Listening to somebody whose husband was made into a human bomb and blown up at a checkpoint and watching her cry can reach people in a way that all the statistics and all the policy isn't going to do," Sepinuck said.

Sepinuck generally acknowledges that policy is needed to achieve change and to work for people. She showcased her work last month at a conference of the European Commission, where she showed video clips and Greer performed a live piece.

Sepinuck has a book coming out in February - a memoir about her experiences with the group she founded, including excerpts of scripts. But in her gentle and quiet, yet resolute voice, she insists that it's all about the performers.

"The people that I work with become my teachers," Sepinuck said. "They are the unsung leaders."

(Reporting By Teddy Nykiel; editing by Philip Blenkinsop and Paul Casciato)

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