World theatre day: on (dis)connections

Posted on March 27, 2019

World Theatre Day was established in 1961 by the International Theatre Institute (ITI) and is celebrated annually on 27 March across the globe. The day has at its core the vision of theatre as an actant of peace. Each year, the ITI invites a prominent figure in the broad domain of theatre to reflect on the theme. Cuban director, playwright and theatre educator, Carlos Celdrán’s message for World Theatre Day 2019 centres on theatre as a mode of human connection.

‘Theatre’ is a contested term, shaped and re-shaped by continuously expanding relational markers in its application to an ever-increasing range of expressive, creative, cultural and political modes of enactment and communication. Amidst the multiple interpretations, disruptions, dislocations and contestations of the term and its terrain, exploring human experiences and (as Celdrán emphasises) human connections, surface as constants amidst this flux.

Theatre offers a means to make meaning of our experiences in our historical, social and political contexts by storying and re-storying modes of human (dis)connection. Theatre offers a way of looking at, critiquing on and engaging with these (dis)connections. It captures time(s), spaces, histories and cultures and is captured in time(s), spaces, histories and cultures. As South African theatre histories demonstrate, theatre is also tied to the politics of voice. During the apartheid era, theatre both echoed and disrupted the overarching discourses of colonialism and apartheid. On the one hand was a voice largely steeped in a British theatre tradition that inculcated values of the dominant regime and purportedly associated racial and nationalist imaginings. On the other hand was a voice of resistance against an oppressive regime, demanding a different mode of human connection, a different kind of social contract. Post-apartheid South African theatre continues to demonstrate that it can offer a means of challenging, disrupting and interrogating the complexities of our experiences, histories and continued (dis)connection.

In a society struggling to come to terms with itself and the trauma of its history, theatre offers a space for multiple voices to co-exist, to dialogue, to negotiate meaning, to explore the complexities of living in a contested space and to recognise alternative possibilities of being in the world of connecting. Amidst the multiplicity of voices, voices steeped in social conservatism also surface. These voices often mythologise the past and reify notions of identity that encourage cultural isolation and stasis in the face of continued social challenges. A toxic synthesis of nationalism, cultural memory, coercion and power collude to foster collective amnesia about privilege and accountability in the face of a shameful history. This amnesia impacts on social ‘worlding’ - reflected in the fictional worlds that theatre conjures up and on the ways in which we relate to and uphold these worlds.

Twenty-five years after the dawn of democracy, theatre artists and audiences have to ask themselves what the reiteration of historical privilege and power (however masked) in theatre contributes to healing a society, to acknowledging continued injustices, to connecting. They need to ask themselves how dismissing the experiences of another assists in forging new social contracts. They need to critically reflect on the kind of social worlding and human (dis)connection such acts engender.

Unmaking collective amnesia, unveiling the mechanisms and strategies of historical power and privilege, dismantling an increasingly prevalent rhetoric of hate and division and forging human connection are civic responsibilities – also for theatre artists.

Marie-Heleen Coetzee is an Associate Professor of drama and film studies in the Faculty of Humanities at the University of Pretoria

- Author Marié-Heleen Coetzee

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