Who Can Listen to My Story? – Anne Dirnstorfer

Playback Theatre on wartime experiences in Nepal

Anne Dirnstorfer

Working with Playback in Nepal has been in my mind for more than ten years, since I first took a Playback Theatre training with Kirstine Due from Denmark in 2004. This was during the time of armed conflict in Nepal, when the Maoist People’s Liberation Army (PLA) was fighting their armed struggle against monarchy, social exclusion and discrimination (1996-2006). The vast majority of Nepalis living in rural areas found themselves torn between threats from either side, the Maoist or the Nepali Army. There was an atmosphere of fear and mistrust and the media was widely censored. During that time, Nepali theatre activists couldn’t imagine Playback Theatre to work in their communities. They assumed people would not dare to speak up. Telling personal stories would expose individuals too much and maybe also be generally inappropriate in their collectivistic culture.

In 2006, a Comprehensive Peace Agreement was finally reached which eventually led to the abolition of monarchy and paved the way for democratic elections. When the peace process started, the atmosphere slowly changed. Debates became more open and the media also reported more on the time of conflict. Nevertheless, the root causes of the armed conflict (such as structural discrimination, poverty, exclusion and marginalization) did not get much attention even after the Maoists won the elections in 2008. Further, the legal prosecution of atrocities committed during the conflict by state actors as well as by the Maoist People’s Liberation Army remained a social and political taboo. For many years it seemed that the only common agreement all political parties in power shared, was not to touch the past. Victims’ organizations claimed the inadequate responses of the government(s) when it came to compensation payments or acknowledgment of past wrongdoings. Most of the times the victims’ voices were unheard.

In 2014, more than seven years after it had been agreed upon in the Peace Agreement, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission Nepal was formed. Provisions that would have allowed blank amnesty to war time crimes were ruled out. However, the hopes that the commission in its current setup can satisfy the claims for justice raised by the civil society are small. The gap between the interests of national level political parties and the needs at community level seems just too big.

My idea to design a Playback Theatre project for working on reconciliation in Nepal had been on my mind for a long time, but it had needed to ripen. I did not want to lead one-time workshops for people who might then not use the approach. I wanted to design a comprehensive peacebuilding project that would give space for long-term change. I felt that Playback is quite complex to learn for actors, and also challenging for them when the stories carry a lot of traumatic weight. So the project had to address different needs.

How would I guarantee a proper set up?

How would I make sure that the actors were able to enact the stories with the right dignity and respect?

How could we avoid potential spoilers to hinder us from addressing the violent past?

How would I guarantee that there was a supportive framework that would avoid re-traumatization or secondary trauma?

All these questions were shaping my thoughts. My vision was that locally initiated Playback Theatre dialogues would contribute to the social cohesion at community level. A bottom-up reconciliation process based on personal sharing and acknowledging could start from the grassroots level and would support the communities even when the national-level truth-finding process remained unsatisfying. It would address the need to reconnect in the community.

From my experience in Nepal I learned that theatre has always played an important role in historic change processes. Nepalis from all different backgrounds (gender, caste/ethnicity, hill/plains, class, age) love to watch theatre and theatre, dance and songs work as a strong social connector in each community. The street drama movement in the 1980s used theatre as a relatively accepted way to express political opinions and formed an important force in the democracy movement back then. Methods of the Theatre of the Oppressed, like Forum Theatre, were started from 2002 and were widely spread to address topics of discrimination and exclusion.

I had done research on Forum Theatre in 2004 and was living in Nepal from 2009 to 2014 working as a trainer in Conflict Transformation and Theatre. For most of that time the past seemed to be too delicate to touch upon and people preferred to focus on present conflicts in the communities, mainly in the field of domestic violence and caste discrimination. Theatre of the Oppressed provided the perfect tools to reflect on social patterns as well as to open up spaces for discussing potential for change. I trained groups in different parts of the country and encouraged them to work together and also to find ways to access local funding. The experience was overwhelmingly rich. Tremendous personal development happened for the actors and actresses through their theatre activism. Young women, especially, boosted their self-esteem by exploring the physical expressions around the topic of oppression. The actors suddenly seemed to perceive their own community life in a different way and learned ways to speak up for more justice.

However, while I was seeing many changes on the individual level I realized how difficult it was to see community-level change happening through theatre activism. It takes a lot of time and energy to properly observe how audiences get affected through theatre activities. Obviously, there is a need to work in the same community with continuity and strong locally grounded commitment on certain topics.

How to make sure that the trained artists are performing regularly after the training is over?

How to maintain the transformative quality of the theatre activism instead of letting it slip away into pure entertainment?

The Project: “EnActing Dialogue”

My belief was that a Nepali Playback programme had to be locally rooted in the communities with high needs for reconciliation. So I decided to focus on villages where high numbers of Maoist ex-combatants have settled over the last years. My assumption was that these communities were especially challenged regarding their social cohesion. Former community members often perceived the ex-combatants as potential actors of violence. The ex-combatants on the other hand see themselves as the ones who struggled for social justice and change and who mostly did not get the merits for their achievements. They are frustrated to see their new communities being full of discriminatory patterns that they had risked their lives to change. There is mutual distrust as well as feelings of fear, guilt and shame. At the same time people are meeting every day and there is an obvious need to cooperate for the development of the community.

But how can Playback Theatre activities contribute to the social cohesion of such communities?

What is the Theory of Change behind my assumption?

Will people be willing to share their stories?

Does sharing stories and seeing them enacted in Playback by itself bring people together?

Would we do harm for actors or audiences?

What will happen after the performances?

In my vision the project had to have an artistic and at the same time a sociopolitical focus. We needed to work closely with Nepali artists, as Playback Theatre had to be translated into a “Nepali way” of doing Playback Theatre rather than a copy-paste version of something done in the West or elsewhere in the world. However, I felt that theatre artists from Kathmandu would not be the ones who would help the project to be strongly locally rooted in the communities. When performing in the communities, they perform as “actors” but not as people with a shared knowledge of direct experiences from the war. As professional artists they are outsiders in the communities which is an advantage and disadvantage at the same time. At first it seems easier for them to open up delicate issues like the armed conflict and to invite painful memories on stage. Later on, audiences might feel distance as the actors do not stay close to them for long and they do not live with them after starting the dialogue processes.

Keeping sustainability and long-term change in mind, it was crucial to train people from the very communities to whom we wished to perform; people who could regularly perform Playback in their villages. People who shared the experiences of the audience, people with similar caste backgrounds and people who shared the same languages.[1] So, we started a partnership with Pro Public, a Nepali NGO that had already trained local dialogue facilitators in the target communities. Half of the people they trained were ex-combatants, the other half were members from the communities. They had worked in small dialogue groups for more than a year, sharing their own stories face-to-face, and experiencing – many for the first time – the relief of talking about what had happened to them during the armed conflict. With the idea to extend these small dialogue efforts, we decided to train these dialogue facilitators in Playback Theatre.

The Process: Chautari Theatre in Nepali Communities

Basic Training in Gaidakot

As a first step we formed a group of twelve professional Nepali actors based on their skills in improvisation, music, physical expression but also on their general attitude and capacities for empathy. We conducted a short workshop session for the selection of actors, where they had to present to each other and where we could already see their capacities for active listening and empathizing with others. The final selection was also based on a criteria of inclusion, so that we had a mix of male/female, low caste/high caste and different ethnic backgrounds presented on stage. These criteria of inclusion were challenging, as many of the professional Nepali theatre artists are male and high caste. However, I had to insist that it did matter as the inclusive representation on stage would define our credibility in the communities and also our capacities to really create an artistic resonance for their stories.

Together with our Partner Organization, Pro Public and my colleague Christoph Werthmann, we started the project by organizing a joint “Playback Theatre Laboratory” with these twelve actors. Besides teaching Playback skills we jointly developed the Nepali terminology for the Playback approach and chose the forms we thought to be suitable for the Nepali context. The name “Chautari Natak” (=Chautari Theatre) came up in order to connect Playback Theatre to the Nepali tradition of having social gatherings under a Bar and Pipal tree (called “Chautari” in Nepali).[2]

During the artist’s laboratory we organized a small first performance, by inviting the people from a village next to our training place. It was a nearby community in the Kathmandu Valley, a region that was not particularly affected by the war. The actors were excited as most of them still thought that Chautari Theatre might not work that well in Nepal. However, to everybody’s surprise, the stories popped up easily. The villagers came to the teller’s chair and without asking for it, stories from the armed conflict emerged. Some people even said that they had shared stories for the very first time. You could see the relief in their faces and they expressed gratitude while having tea afterwards. You could feel the need for spaces of empathic listening and acknowledgment. Spaces that do not exist anymore in most communities, maybe because of the fear, divide and mistrust that the war has created.

After the laboratory we split the actors into two Chautari ensembles and traveled in two teams to Eastern and Western Nepal (our target communities were located in six different districts in the Nepali Terai region). The teams were each accompanied by one staff member of our Nepali Partner Organization, one by my colleague and one by me. At first, we organized performances for each community, so that they would see Playback for the first time. Then only would it be possible for the dialogue facilitators from the communities to imagine what Playback work is all about.  Only then would they be able to decide whether they were interested to take part in our training process. So, after every performance we had an interaction with the dialogue facilitators, asking for comments and also offering them the chance to be part of our programme. They were impressed by the method but also a bit shy: will we be able to do what the professional artists from Kathmandu just showed us?

We had to encourage them to trust that Playback can be learned by anyone who is ready to open his or her heart to others. Based on their interest, their former dialogue experience, their general stable personality and the mentioned criteria of inclusion, we formed dialogue facilitator’s Chautari Teams of eight people in each district.[3] The artists managed to motivate the dialogue facilitators and by the time of the first training their fear started to slowly disappear. We trained forty-eight dialogue facilitators in different training groups and in two rounds (basic & advanced training), each time working in tandem with some of the professional Nepali actors. During the advanced trainings the dialogue facilitators had their first “own” performance in their own community. They did not think it would work, but the experiences were just like the artists’: the stories popped up easily and the audience was happy and relieved after the performances.

Afterwards, the dialogue facilitators organized their own performances individually. The project staff of Pro Public and some of the artists came to visit them from time to time, in order to give them feedback and a space to reflect on their own learning process. Towards the end of the year, they felt really comfortable with the method and are now eager to learn more and spread their performances.

Advanced training in Mahottari; dialogue facilitators rehearsal with their own stories

Our Learning: Insights and Responsibilities of the Process

We learned to fully trust the Playback process. Wanting to contribute to reconciliation and healing from the armed conflict, we did not have to give any theme to our dialogue events. The issues emerged through the atmosphere we created and the kind of audiences we invited. The audience was mainly composed from former combatants of the Maoist PLA, so-called conflict victims, local politicians and security personnel. Gaining trust in the Playback ritual, they started to share their stories from the war or stories from the present which most of the times were somehow linked to the root causes of the war. Some audience members were surprised, as witnessing a Playback performance suddenly evoked an urge to share their story. There was a woman of a village in Banke district who came to me and some of the actors after the performance, telling that she also had a story, but that it was too heavy to speak about it. We had tea and biscuits together and I told her, that it is totally okay not to share, if she feels the time is not ripe. However, while having tea, somehow she went into her story and started telling the “untellable”. In the end it was easier than she had thought. She cried and thanked us for coming. When we returned to the same village about two months later with the group of local dialogue facilitators having become the actors, she was again in the audience. She happened to be the first one to go on stage. But when sitting down on the teller’s chair, she decided to tell a different story, one that was a bit “easier” and had fewer feelings of guilt and helplessness connected to it. However, as the performance moved on and three or four other stories had come up, she kindly asked the conductor, whether it was okay to come and tell a second story. The conductor agreed and she told “the” story; the one that just two months before she felt could never be told. Afterwards she was proud and seemingly relieved of a lot of emotional weight. For the first time she had found a space where her story could be listened to.

Performance in Dang: former combatant facilitating dialogue in the community

Heavy stories were also shared during the training process itself as we encouraged all participants to be the teller at least once. One day, when we were about to practice the free story form for the first time, a dialogue facilitator told a crucial war experience. He was a jolly fellow, the best dancer in our group, and behind his big smiling face one would have never imagined what he then revealed. He had been a child soldier and when joining the PLA, almost the same day he was handed a gun and taken into a major combat. He was extremely afraid and felt completely lost in the crossfire situation. In the middle of the invasion he got shot in the leg and lost his consciousness. Somehow he was rescued and they were able to save his leg, which eventually healed well.

While telling he was sweating and trembling and struggling to keep up his smiling face at the same time knowing that his story had a “happy end” (as our joint dancing, jumping and acting had proved to everyone in the room). When he finished, there was a short moment when I felt the impulse to stop the actors. I thought they were not “ready” enough to enact such a heavy story in an adequate way. It was their first free story improvisation and it happened to be a story of trauma, a story that needed to be represented with special care. The dialogue facilitators on stage were all new to Playback and new to acting, so I was worried that they would do injustice to the story. At the same time I had a sense that this jolly dancer badly wanted to see his experience on stage. He consciously picked his time to tell and he knew who was there on stage to present.

So, I let it happen, thinking that it might be superficially improvised and would leave him unsatisfied. However, I totally underestimated the fact that two men and one woman on stage were themselves ex-combatants, possibly with similar stories. So, when the moment of the cross firing happened, the musician, of ex-combatant background, went wild with the drums and the actors made guns out of cloth and pointed at each other. Their physical expression on stage created an unbelievable intensity.

Bardiya: Dialogue and change of perspective “within” the Training process; ex-combatant is enacting the story of one of the lead artists, when she had to hide under the school table during crossfire between PLA and Nepali Army in 2004.

The teller was sweating and sweating, his hands were shivering and tears dropped from his eyes. He was overwhelmed with emotions and unable to speak for a long while. It was obvious that we could not go on with the workshop’s rehearsal. It was already late afternoon, the room was full of emotions and due to a regional heat wave, the temperature was almost forty degrees. So, we had a physical ritual to jointly step out of the roles. We had some cold drinks to cool down the emotions and then started to share our feelings on what had just happened. The other ex-combatants said that they were happy to have the trust and the task to perform this horrible situation for him. The non-combatants on stage felt much more insecure about how to show it and were afraid of making mistakes. Towards the end the teller expressed his gratitude of being able to see his story on stage. He felt like he was now more part of the group than before.

The next day of the workshop we introduced the topic of self-care, an important part of our advanced trainings. As the dialogue facilitators would go on to continue the performances on their own and would only get our support from time to time, it was crucial that they knew how to protect themselves from getting negatively affected by the stories. We talked about personal boundaries and ways to communicate them.

Are there stories I cannot enact and what will I do if they emerge?

Where do I feel it in my body if that happens?

We practiced deep breathing and personal positions of strength in order not to be “drawn” into someone’s story. We also encouraged them to use eye contact and sign language to switch to the music or go off stage when they feel they will not be able to act. So, far it has not happened often, but there have been incidents when they switched place to protect themselves. They managed to do so without the audience noticing it. We also highlighted the importance of regular rehearsals to prepare for the performances and joint exercises to step out of the roles afterwards. We encouraged them to regularly share their feelings in the group so that they do not take the burden of the enacted stories home. However, we feel that it remains crucial to accompany the Chautari ensembles, so that they have a regular opportunity to process their experiences.

Conclusion & vision: Continuing the Process

Our experiences have shown us that Playback Theatre has tremendous potential in Nepal. Sharing personal stories with the support of theatre art seems to be widely accepted. We did not face any situation where people wanted to stop the Playback ritual.[4]  The possibility to receive the empathy of the actors through their enactment is creating relief for the audience. At the same time I feel that the actors carry a lot of responsibility to keep up the quality of the performances and also to stay emotionally stable. Regular training inputs as well as feedback and coaching are important for them to continue their work without being distressed. It is desirable that the support of professional artists for the grassroots dialogue facilitators can continue as they can be strong role models and sources of inspiration.

With more than eighty performances we managed to initiate grassroots dialogue on the past in the selected communities throughout 2015. On many occasions, stories from opposing sides (ex-combatants, community members, army personnel) were shared and enacted in one room. Being touched by everyone´s story, an atmosphere of mutual respect and empathy has been strengthened in the communities. In order to connect these bottom-level reconciliation efforts with the national level, we have produced a short documentary that was screened in the capital in November 2015.[5]  We invited selected dialogue facilitators from all districts to share their experiences with members of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission and the national level peace worker community. The goal was to raise an awareness that reconciliation has to be worked for at all levels (grassroots and national level) and that truth seeking also needs to include personal healing and the integration of traumatic experiences. At the government level people were touched by our Playback Theatre work and expressed their general support for its continuation.

Seeing the good impact of the Chautari performances, the professional artists also took over the ownership of the approach and included it in other projects. A few weeks after we initiated our first training process, Nepal got struck by two major earthquakes that killed more than eight thousand people and destroyed whole villages. The artists have started to perform Playback for earthquake survivors in these places. Also there, people appreciate to have a space where they can share their feelings and experiences connected to their losses. In the present humanitarian crisis Playback has proven to be an approach that can support healing and reconciliation in the Nepali communities. A growing number of Nepali artists are working with it and hopefully will continue to spread Playback Theatre in the near future.

Performance in Mohatari,  Warm-Up with the audience

Performance in Dang: Actors performing the story of a local political leader describing his feelings during a bomb blast in the police station near his house.

Audience in Dang watching our performance that

was organized in a tent in the open space

[1] More than 120 languages are spoken in Nepal.

[2] Chautari is a community place where the Bar and Pipal tree are planted together (traditionally a Hindu marriage ceremony is organized for the two trees). It exists in almost every Nepali village and many of the trees are of impressive size. Here, people can strip-off their heavy load, take rest in the shadow and interact with each other. Traditionally, the Chautari is also the place in public where conflicts are being settled by village elders.

[3] The groups consisted of four male/four female, four ex-combatants/four community members and members of different castes and ethnic groups. Some of the members also had disabilities that were mostly linked to war time injuries. Even though most of them had worked together in the previous project, a big effort was needed to build trust between them.

[4] Given the fact that open dialogue and war time atrocities are still a taboo and something that shall only be done by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, it is impressive that through theatre we can create a space for personal narratives. Although we sometimes hear stories of army or police torture and extrajudicial killings, our Playback performances have not been perceived as politically charged and thus have been accepted by all sides.

[5] Link to the documentary “EnActing Dialogue – Storytelling for Reconciliation and Healing”: //