Human Rites revisited

Madelaine plucks a yellow sticky note from off the rim of her computer screen.
During one of our irregular Skype sessions, the offered quote is intensely relevant:
“Every piece of theatre has to be postulated around a potential miracle.”
I nod reflexively; only breaking into a grin as slowly it dawns on me that the nasty lady is, in fact, quoting me from a previous conversation. There is hope yet…

The thread of reasoning that spun itself into ‘The Society for the Promotion of Human Rites’ has its personal roots in the most visceral, naked moments of my theatre practice, (Many thanks go to the, hopefully now retired, principal teacher of an unnamed school in an unnamed island province, who brushed away my apologies for overstepping the mark – collapsing out from beneath the skirts of my Hobby Horse costume, and onto the laps of a gaggle his grade seven girls with the back flap of my long johns reportedly decidedly flapped; thereby accidentally exposing at least several square centimeters of my most delicate skin tissue.
As a theatre critic, he proved exceptionally understanding: “That’s alright boy, they gotta see it sometime.”)

As a going concern, The Society remains yet another flimsily inflated, perhaps pompous ‘Fictive NGO’ presided over by yours truly on a tragically intermittent basis.
The working premise is resplendent, the practice remains sketchy.  It could easily be remarked, that we still have our work cut out for us…

Indeed, with the exception of the often hit and miss spectacle of the opening and
closing ceremonies of the Olympic Games, the global community’s vital meetings do not yet routinely invite inspired theatre brains to orchestrate their getting togetherness. Contemporary Human Rites, where they exist at all, are rather residual shadows of once pivotal rites of passage — my readings of the weddings and funerals that I attend is that they have been stripped of most synergic moments; similarly, the orchestrated pomp of the Grande Stages of the Earth, tidily wrapped in streamlined convention, offers only indicated, utterly indirect import.

Sadly, the skills of theatre people are kept secluded far from the fora of principled negotiations; people who consciously gather to perform the formidable tasks of generating working agreements and solidifying understanding between nations, do so at events that are notoriously emotionally monotone and dramaturgically dissatisfying.
The dry academic conference, or the sessions of the UN General Assembly, are inevitably frightfully BAD THEATRE. They routinely stifle any deep human exchange.

The premise of the Society for Promotion of Human Rites addresses precisely this: that the core work of theatre is essential to the human gathering, that we theatre artists do it better, deeper, smarter and more. No one has studied conflict resolution like us dramatists. We know our humans.

Or at least, we certainly should.  Sadly, we theatre artists, scrounging a pitch from which to deliver our humble profundities, too often collude with a view of culture that banishes our contribution to being but a clever palliative on the edge of a pressing symptom. Instead of dramaturgically precise, strategic intervention at key junctures of human conflict, we content ourselves with brilliantly orchestrating the complaint of a huddling sub-strain of the oppressed masses.*  Ultimately, we end up being just another consumer durable at the outer extremities of the regional operating budget.
( *aspects of this argument were aired at Theatre for Social Intervention, University of Exeter, 2004 under title Surrendering the Holy Ground of Marginality).

My pursuit of ‘scenarios for human rites’ chrystalised as a sub-concern of my Institute for Non-toxic Propaganda during my two month stay in Eastern Slavonia, inner Croatia, spring 2003. This area is not the sun-drenched idyllic coast of the Adriatic; it is rather the war-torn corner of ex-Yugoslavia where the besieging and bombing were prolonged three more years after the international community had brashly welcomed unilateral Croatian independence. I arrived just as the international post-conflagration, mopping up missions would be unceremoniously making their withdrawal; henceforth, the still psychically smoldering locals would be left to themselves.

To make this emotional climate more intricate, my visit coincided with the initial days and weeks of the UN-approved bombing and subsequent occupation of Iraq.
In a countryside, and among a people, with highly visible scars, the capacity of theatre to provide symbolic human-sized rituals seemed as viable tactic as any employed by the citizens groups and NGOs striving to revitalise a clearly traumatised society.
My fieldwork in the Balkan was a key event in my brief sojourn in academia, and became dissected at length in my resulting dissertation –  Theatre in Denial.

My next HR exploration took place with Parapanda Theatre Laboratory in Dar es Salaam. With my cultural affiliations among a network of demographers and health care providers, my self-prescribed mission in Tanzania was to work with the psychic infrastructure of the very much living. To mitigate my inevitable Euro-centric bias, I consciously adopted as my working understanding, the observation that European values ( and particularly those of the northern European Protestant societies in which I both grew up and lived) were fostered by an extensive experience of chronic post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) that permeated our entire beings. Ever since Europe became engulfed in the Black Death of 1348-70, we, the survivors and survivors of survivors of the pest, have reflexively perpetrated a distress reaction that includes the emotional repression, individualism, and alienation from nature that compromise the classic clinical symptoms of PTSD. This reaction has become our approved, rational ‘culture’. While this reaction is medically understandable, it has brought untold misery upon many throughout the world.

The Scenario explored with Parapanda Theatre Lab chose to circumvent that which had been presented to me as the chronic psychological patterns engulfing significant pockets of sub-Sahel Africa. However, I don’t live in sub-Sahel Africa. The trauma that surrounds me on a daily basis is something other. It is perhaps something equally insidious…


I live in and/or am a citizen of two of the top mega-consumer beneficiary nations of the global wealth distribution network. Despite the apparent barrier of protective distractions, symptoms of chronic PTSS still define the social behaviour among both my nearest contemporaries, and those who have been both democratically, and through default, been given the role of determining societal management strategies. 

It is this core culture of chronic denial that our Society for the Promotion Human Rites chooses to address…

Humankind’s problems are magnificent. They are many; they are daunting.
To resolve them, requires vast amounts of human ingenuity.  The strategy of
this work involves creating the culture of an active organisation at the very
juncture of idealism and effort. We boldly place ourselves upon the Bridge
between the problem and the work required.  By temporarily ignoring
a problem’s true magnitude, and by focusing on the cultural repercussions
of change, we can sidestep considerable paralysis and free the human vision
necessary to create viable paths forward.  By addressing the conjunction
of problem and effort, we seek to distill the essence of this change.



About bembodavies

Theatre worker who long ago abandoned theatres, I remain adept at fabricating projects out of thin air. All proposals welcome.
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2 Responses to Human Rites revisited

  1. writing like a god… – som vanlig!

  2. Pingback: Two Englishmen and a mountain. « Maxwell's Demon

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