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Theatre and War: Notes from the Field

Theatre and War: Notes from the Field Nandita Dinesh
Paperback ISBN: 978-1-78374-258-5 £17.95
Hardback ISBN: 978-1-78374-259-2 £28.95
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This book is a fine addition to the literature, not only on theatre and war but more generally, on applied and educational theatre and art making.
—John O'Toole, Applied Theatre Research Journal, 4/3 (1 Sept 2016): 269-270

Theatre and War provides a vital addition to those theatre practitioners and scholars interested in how the arts might work within contemporary conflict zones. Nandita Dinesh’s work provides insight both to practices in contexts that have not been previously documentedNagaland, Guatemala, Kashmir for example—and also offers an approach to analysis that is refreshingly immediate. Drawing on her personal experiences, and providing a critical appraisal of them, we learn about community theatres in complex sites of violence and upheaval—and in presenting accounts of these interventions we learn about both the dynamics of these conflicts and how theatre might operate to challenge and question them. A great book for all interested in the importance of theatre and the arts to our contemporary, violent world.
—James Thompson, Professor of Applied and Social Theatre, The University of Manchester

Read Nandita Dinesh's introduction to Theatre and War: Notes from the Field on our

Nandita Dinesh places Kipling’s 'six honest serving-men' (who, what, when, where, why, how) in productive conversation with her own experiences in conflict zones across the world to offer a theoretical and practical reflection on making theatre in times of war. This timely and important book weaves together Dinesh’s personal narrative with the public story of modern conflict, illustrating as it does, the importance of theatre as a force for ethical deliberation and social justice. In it Dinesh asks how theatre might intervene in times and places of conflict and how we might reflect on such interventions. In pursuit of answers, Theatre and War adopts the methods of auto-ethnography, positioning the theatrical practitioner at the heart of conflict zones in northern Uganda, Guatemala, Northern Ireland, Mexico, Rwanda, Kenya, Nagaland, and Kashmir. No longer a detached observer, the researcher and practitioner has to be able to meld theory with practice; to speak to ‘doing’, without undervaluing the importance of ‘thinking about doing’.
Each chapter approaches the need for a synthesis of theory and practice by way of a term of inquiry―Why, Where, Who, What, When―and each is equipped with a set of unflinchingly honest field notes that are designed to reveal some of the ‘hows’ from the author’s own repertoire: questions and issues that were encountered during her own theatrical undertakings, along with first hand reflection on the complexities, potential, and challenges that attended her global work in community theatre. Within these notes are strategies that give the reader a practical insight into how the discussion might find its footing on the ground of war.
The range and scope of this book make it required reading for those interested in theatre―practitioners, researchers, and students alike—as well as those seeking to understand the applications of the arts for ethics, politics, and education.

Theatre and War: Notes from the Field
Nandita Dinesh | July 2016
210 | 6.14" x 9.21" (234 x 156 mm)
Applied Theatre Praxis Series, Vol. 1 | ISSN: 2515-0758 (Print); 2515-0766 (Online)
ISBN Paperback: 9781783742585
ISBN Hardback: 9781783742592
ISBN Digital (PDF): 9781783742608
ISBN Digital ebook (epub): 9781783742615
ISBN Digital ebook (mobi): 9781783742622
ISBN Digital (XML): 9781783746286
DOI 10.11647/OBP.0099
BIC subject codes: AN (Theatre studies), ANF (Theatre direction and production), JH (Sociology and anthropology), JPWS (Armed conflict), JWXK (War crimes), 1FKA (India); BISAC: DRA005000 (DRAMA / Asian / General),  SOC002010 (SOCIAL SCIENCE / Anthropology / Cultural & Social), SOC053000 (SOCIAL SCIENCE / Regional Studies); OCLC Number: 1158357978.

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1. Why
2. Where
3. Who
4. What
5. When


Nandita Dinesh holds a PhD in Drama from the University of Cape Town in South Africa and an MA in Performance Studies from the Tisch School of the Arts at New York University. Focused on the role that theatre can play during and after violent conflict, Dinesh has conducted community-based theatre projects in India, Mexico, Costa Rica, Guatemala, Rwanda, Uganda, Kenya, and Zimbabwe. She currently teaches Theatre Arts, in addition to serving as the Head of Arts and the Associate Director of the Bartos Institute for Constructive Engagement of Conflict, at the United World College in Montezuma, New Mexico (USA). In 2017 she was awarded the Elliott Hayes Award for Outstanding Achievement in Dramaturgy.  

Chapter One: Why? 

Why does a researcher-practitioner intervene with theatre in a time and place of war? There are two dimensions to this question: why make theatre at all in a time and place of war? Why make a particular theatre based intervention in a time and place of war? While the first dimension is important to consider i.e., why make theatre at all in a context of violence, my approach to this consideration might be best summed up by Badal Sircar (2003; in Mitra, 2004:68) who says, when questioned about why he makes theatre while faced with the "infinitesimal” social change that his interventions might catalyse, " […] what else should we do? We are people of the theatre. That is the only thing I know how to do". In agreement with Sircar, the theatre being the only thing I know how to do, this chapter on intentionality does not seek to make a case for, or justify why, theatre practice needs to occur in conflict/post-conflict zones. Rather, it is the second dimension to the question that I seek to address: why a particular researcher-practitioner might make a certain theatrical intervention in a specific time and place of war. In addressing this dimension, there are three components that this chapter proposes as being important to clarify vis-à-vis intention: the primary action that the researcher-practitioner will undertake, the specific point on the theatre making/performance timeline the intervention will focus on, and the kind of response that is sought from the chosen action and point(s) of focus.

Chapter Two: Where?

Turning up at a location and offering help can often be more of a hindrance than a help. Know the situation, know the role you can play and know that sometimes others can do a better job because of location, language, culture and so on. Also remember it is 'easy' in so many ways to be drawn to a war zone, or a country hit by disaster-- the need for help is clear and obvious... however, in doing so we often forget the troubles at our own doorstep, the problems of the country in which we live and where we have the easy location, the language and cultural awareness. We do not need to look across borders and oceans to find a desperate need for this kind of work and sadly as so many do so they fail to hear the desperate plea for help closer to home (Abdunnur and Hartley 2007; in Balfour, Hughes and Thompson, 2009:144)

Chapter Three: Who?

So how does one manage a performance in a country at war? First, you have to have a balance of actors. I decided to not choose real Hutu and Tutsi and Twa but to take actors with the physical appearance of Hutu, the physical appearance of Tutsi. I learned very early on that the first thing the audience do is count how many Hutus, how many Tutsi and how many Twa, and they say, 'OK, it is balanced' based on the appearance. Second, you have to balance the crimes committed by both ethnic groups. For example, you have two columns. The Hutus' crimes are typically using 'machetes', cutting off limbs, pounding babies and so on, while the Tutsi's crimes are typically making spears from bamboo, killing intellectuals, killing fathers of families... Then, when people tell the testimony of a Hutu crime then, just after, we hear a Tutsi crime, and it is like that sys-tem-at-ic-al-ly [emphasis in original] (Frederique Lecomte; in Balfour, Hughes and Thompson, 2009:181).

Chapter Four: What?

The fragile balance is kept between the pleasure of discovery, the unexpected, and the unusual, on one hand, and the pleasure of recognition, déjà vu, and the anticipated on the other. To upset this balance in either direction means threatening the success of the complex communicative interaction which constitutes the very life of theatrical performance (Marinis and Dwyer, 1987:112).

Chapter Five: When?

We might also note that there are times when theatre and performance cannot, or perhaps should not, happen. During and after the devastation and threat of war, what might be needed is a pause; stillness and silence while waiting for the dust to settle and some semblance of everyday routine to return. One of the first 'ethical dilemmas' that is raised by these practices, therefore, is when is it desirable and when is it not desirable to make performance in a place of conflict? (Balfour, Hughes and Thompson, 2009:303).


These images are visual representations of the strategies proposed for Why, Where, Who, What, and When: seeking to function as an accessible 'map' for practitioners who are in the field and do not want to carry the entire book with them.

1. Why: The three components to intention
2. Where: The insider-outsider hyphen
3. Who: The grey zones
4. What: The aesthetics of theatre-in-war interventions
4. When: The importance of time
5. How: The Five Ws