Workshop at the National Gallery in Kosovo. Photo: Emily Russell

Workshop at the National Gallery in Kosovo. Photo: Emily Russell

Features The Ideal Cosmopolitan Classroom is the Stage On applied theatre interventions for perpetuating peace in Kosovo

Perpetuating peace will be a lifelong commitment in Kosovo and many other regions of the world. But for five weeks in historic Pristina, a group of former strangers became friends, collaborators, and confidants, telling stories of our truths, discussing our histories, and spinning worlds from words. Peace, for a while, persists.

Published in the printed edition of Baltic Worlds BW 2019:3, pp 12-16
Published on balticworlds.com on December 30, 2019

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Throughout the past two decades, independent identities in the Balkans have been continuously shaped and reshaped. Among the events leading to these identity-forming shifts is the Kosovo War, which dragged on in the small mountainous territory in the late 1990s until the US and NATO-led interventions in 1999. The conflict preceded and contributed to Yugoslavia’s dissolution in 2003 and the subsequent emergence of Serbia and Montenegro. The decades which followed were marked by processes of development among the young nations; Kosovo became the newest member of the Balkans when it declared itself sovereign in 2008, a sovereignty which remains contested by neighboring Serbia. The end of conflict did not constitute the solidification of peace. To call any post-conflict country one at peace would be a misnomer.

Paragons of peace

Staging creative interventions in the postwar period of nascent nations, therefore, is not for naught; on the contrary, it is a way peace may be made perpetual. In the summer of 2019, just over a decade after the state declared independence, the project “Playwriting for Peace” was launched in Pristina, Kosovo. “Playwriting for Peace” operates under the notion that the theatre is a place to develop empathy and explore one’s own humanity, suggesting creative expression is instrumental in establishing a common understanding from which sustainable peace can be created and enacted. The summer-long project utilized multiple forms of verbal and nonverbal techniques as well as varied artistic mediums, including visual arts, text, music, and movement to empower participants in developing their artistic voices while engaging with theories of peacebuilding. Activities like these constitute the active learning strategies behind applied theatre — an umbrella term which encompasses theatrical education staged in non-traditional spaces or involving participation of marginalized groups. In particular, this intervention encompassed a multitude of goals centered on the primary aim of inspiring a generation of young people to resist repeated violence and become, themselves, paragons of peace.

 

Kosovo was a strategic choice for the project’s genesis. The country’s population comprises a youth bulge, with nearly half of the current population below the age of 29 and almost 18% between the ages of 15 and 24. It is this generation that inherited the scars of war and must decide to heal them. Further, many routes of violence still loom: the proposed development of a large-scale Kosovar army in December 2018 threatened to incite state-sanctioned violence and arm the nation’s youth, while the unhealed tension and trauma from the war creates a risk of return to communal or border conflicts. Particularly salient are the mixed ethnic identities in the country, with an Albanian majority living alongside Serbian, Bosnian, Croatian, and Roma groups. The preservation of peace here, as anywhere, relies on these apparently different groups being able to envision themselves as part of a shared human community.

Cosmopolitan education on stage

Guiding the development of such a community is the theoretical “cosmopolitanism,” which, when applied in micro-settings of education, has the power to change narratives of identity and belonging, and bring about an enduring peace. Cosmopolitan education lays the groundwork for cooperation and peace beyond all identity boundaries, and importantly, beyond the boundary of nationality. In the Balkans, this is the salient divide. Martha Nussbaum, a pioneering scholar on cosmopolitanism, advocates “[students] be taught that they are, above all, citizens of a world of human beings, and that, while they happen to be situated in [a single country], they have to share this world with the citizens of other countries.” Building this shared world is critical where oppositional identities prevent the full realization of peace, and is the task of a cosmopolitan education.

Nowhere else can we so viscerally come to see ourselves as part of an expansive, united human group, struggling with similar situations, emotions, and relationships, than on the stage. This makes it the ideal cosmopolitan classroom. Where else can we so plainly tell our stories and have them received and understood by people unlike ourselves? And where else can we become, for an hour, someone new whose struggles we will adopt as our own? These are the precise questions — and assumptions — on which the Kosovar intervention rested.

 

Scholarly writings on cosmopolitanism were integral to the program’s development, including those of Kwame Anthony Appiah, one of the leading contemporary voices on the subject. He identified the phenomenon of starting conversations across boundaries of identity which otherwise separate us. “The cosmopolitan curiosity about other peoples,” according to him, “does not have to begin by seeking in each encounter those traits that all humans share. In some encounters, what we start with is some small thing we two singular people share.” “Playwriting for Peace” began, too, with this notion. On the first day of workshops, a group of former strangers gathered together in a spacious creative warehouse on Pristina’s south side. The walls were littered with slogans in Albanian and English, shouting “No one is illegal!” and “Creative Open Safe Local Inclusive” Split into pairs, participants engaged in activities like “Craziest Common Thing,” where in the course of fifteen minutes, they had to find out enough about each other to determine the unlikeliest of their shared oddities. What was immediately obvious was this: more unites us than keeps us apart.

Cultural specificities and fundamental sameness

As visiting foreign playwrights, the importance of cultural exchange was not lost on us. Facilitators participated daily in the activities, joining in learning “sameness” across international borders. In return, during our first week together, students excitedly shared their traditions, preparing “Russian tea” in Turkish glass cups with lemon and sugar. They DJ-ed writing sessions, proudly introducing us to Kosovar pop musicians and Albanian operettists; some brought homemade baklava after weeknight weddings and others insisted we indulge in eating llokuma together in the mornings. While cosmopolitanism is often advanced scholastically in opposition to nationalism, interventions in Kosovo proved its nuances; nationality is an identity we hold, and with it, the traditions, languages, and specialties it brings. Cosmopolitanism asks us to celebrate these cultural specificities, but in doing so, not to lose sight of the far more profound qualities which connect us. It is not a call for homogenization, but rather, a call for a celebration of the particular among the many.

Exploring our fundamental sameness became routine, and participants became familiar with putting seemingly dissimilar voices into conversation. In “Calling Strangers,” students wrote various individual identities on notecards, then drew a card at random, taking on that identity for the exercise. Partnered with another participant, each pair wrote a dialogue between the two “strangers.” Nussbaum states that in a cosmopolitan education, “[students] must learn enough about the different to recognize common aims, aspirations, and values” among the human community. In the workshop activity, students had to ask: is there a relationship between an astronaut and a young actress? Between Beyoncé and a social media influencer? Between a sunglasses seller and an alien? Certainly. The list of strangers goes on, and the dissolution of strangeness follows.

 

Our students refined their skills of expression and collaboration, and as summer passed, another powerful tool of the theatre became clear. The very essence of dramatic scene-writing embodies conflict resolution without much prompting. Whether a monologue, ten-minute play, or full-length production, dramatic works are always driven by a conflict, and their denouements contain its resolution; the time between is merely a set of tactics and perspectives that move characters out of stasis and toward change. Using dialogue for conflict resolution is the purpose of theatre. (But it sounds an awful lot like diplomacy, too.) In “Dinner Party,” students passed around papers in a circle, adding one thing to each drawn “table” — some added the meal, others the guests, and still others the conflict. Each student was then given a table and had to draft a dialogue in which each dinner guest spoke, and by the scene’s conclusion, they resolved a given conflict. Sure, the issues at hand were not globally consequential — a daughter wishing to move to Paris and her parents’ opposition, encouraging young kids to read more books, and determining who would pay for the meal. But the activity allowed us to consider, literally, who is at the table and what, together, they might accomplish.

Places and creative conflicts

The program reached its mid-way point with the arrival of August, and workshops moved to the second space: an intimate, plant-covered, sunlight-harboring public space in the north of the city, where only a few steps outside landed us in a historic bazaar, ancient infrastructure of exposed bricks, and the towering mosques for which Pristina is architecturally known.

Beneath the street’s marble pillars, our students discovered the three main pillars of writing a short drama; namely, the setting, the characters, and the narrative arc. Place (or setting) affects the telling of a story, and through the daily workshops our students began to explore both the macro- and micro-locations which fuse to set the stage and determine the conflicts that will be addressed. Micro-settings, like park benches or living rooms, might host personal dramas, like those between friends or lovers. Yet, the conflict remains contextually dependent on a macro-setting: a city, a country at war, a particular year in history. How does a night spent on a summer balcony differ in the roaring American 1920s, from that of the war-torn 1998 Kosovo, or the Nazi-invaded 1941 Warsaw ghetto? Every story has a macro and a micro place, and it is in understanding both that we disentangle their continuities and nuances.

Places can also inspire new stories, as it did for one of our students who expertly used conversations overheard on Pristina’s promenade to write her dramas. “Street drama,” as we began to call it, was the real-life observation of human stories taking place in the publics all around us. And while the street certainly plays host to the complexities of human relationships, performance can also be staged intentionally on the streets — removing the hierarchy often associated with closed, formal theatres. To highlight the transformative power of performance in nontraditional spaces, “Playwriting for Peace” sponsored a guest workshop by Haveit, a radical four-woman collective using public performance as activism. They have been described as “new super girls who fight for freedom of expression and the liberty of being.” As reported to Kosovo 2.0, they stage their demands through performances on the street because “it is between art and activism.” Our students gained a heightened understanding of their own creative power.

 

While dramatic writing confronts the transformative power of dialogue, the workshops initially focused on facilitating a deeper exploration of our personal complexities. Students constructed identity collages, drew their “inner and outer worlds,” wrote letters to past and future selves, and hung their private wishes anonymously on tags on a planted tree. These activities rest on the notion that prioritizing introspection is a critical part of understanding others. If we can recognize in ourselves a complexity which we possess but do not externally wear, then we can also recognize that complexity in others, even when it goes unseen. Foundational to this complexity are our emotions, which, try as we might to conceal them, regularly dictate our actions. Emotions shape the entirety of theatre, and understanding our own emotions makes them recognizable beyond ourselves. A student can write a scene about Marilyn Monroe grieving her unborn child because he, too, knows grief; in scene-writing, he not only recognizes it, but replicates it. The situation causing grief matters little — the important thing is that we can look upon those in grief, recognize the emotion, and respond as we would have others respond to us. Theatre allows us to embody this understanding.

Concluding in peace

As August ended, the workshops moved to their third and final location: Kino Armata. The students’ works were eventually staged here, the first time any dramatic work has been performed in the theatre since its re-opening last year. The building, formerly used for the Yugoslav People’s Army, was out of use for nearly thirty years. Barbed wire and railings surrounded the building until its revitalization in 2017; the space, itself renewed, symbolizes the acceptance of change and purposive efforts towards healing through the creative arts.

In the performance, we strategically cast our students in the reading of one another’s works. Dialogue allows many storytellers a role in a single story and each occupies a different situational perspective, riddled as they are with their own backstories. The telling and embodying of the lives of their fellow playwrights and characters become habitual. In giving voice to a character that may seem dissimilar from them, our students find ways to relate to anyone.

The intervention in Pristina continues to inspire further action, including collaboration with transcontinental civil society organizations, like Changing the Story, which leads art-based peacebuilding projects in post-conflict countries around the world. Also important to the program’s continuity was the training of other local facilitators on the Serbian border in Mitrovica. Should regional tensions amplify, local practitioners will be prepared to take action. Though small, the intervention begins innovating in geopolitical applied theatre techniques.

Perpetuating peace will be a lifelong commitment in Kosovo and many other regions of the world. But for five weeks in historic Pristina, a group of former strangers became friends, collaborators, and confidants, telling stories of our truths, discussing our histories, and spinning worlds from words. Peace, for a while, persists.

A central aim of students of cosmopolitanism is to “learn to recognize humanity wherever they encounter it, undeterred by traits that seem strange to them, and [to] be eager to understand humanity in all its strange guises.” What is the stage, if not a place to disguise humanity so as to reveal it? ≈

References

  1. Philip Taylor, “The Applied Theater: Building Stronger Communities,” Youth Theatre Journal 16:1 (2002), 88— 95.
  2.  “Kosovo Human Development Report 2016,” United Nations Development Program, 2016, http://hdr.undp.org/sites/default/files/human_development_report_2016.pdf
  3.  CIA World Fact Book, “Europe: Kosovo,” 2018, https://www.cia.gov/library/publications/the-world-factbook/geos/print_kv.html
  4. Kwame Anthony Appiah, Cosmopolitanism: Ethics in a World of Strangers (New York: W.W. Norton, 2006).
  5. Martha Nussbaum, “Patriotism and Cosmopolitanism,” in For Love of Country: Debating the Limits of Patriotism, ed. Joshua Cohen (Boston: Beacon Press, 1996).
  6. Appiah, Cosmopolitanism, 97.
  7.  Nussbaum, For Love of Country.
  8.  Valmir Mehmetaj, “Haveit — The Powerpuff Girls of Pristina,” Kosovo 2.0, 2017. Accessed August 11, 2019. https://kosovotwopointzero.com/en/haveit-powerpuff-girls-prishtina/
  9.  Mehmetaj, “Haveit.” 2017.
  10. Plator Gashi, “Yugoslav-era cinema reopens its doors in Pristina,” 2018. Accessed August 11, 2019. https://prishtinainsight.com/yugoslav-era-cinema-reopens-doors-prishtina-mag/
  11.  Nussbaum, For Love of Country.
  • by Emily Russell

    Assistant researcher on the Consequences of Contention project, at the University of Michigan and has been affiliated at research centers in Reykjavik, Iceland and Delhi, India. A Beinecke Scholar and member of the national Dramatists Guild.

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