Theater as a way of peacebuilding
Written by Maya Sankaran
University of Michigan seniors Emily Russell and Matt Harmon share a unique, yet powerful love for storytelling.
To pursue their interest, Russell and Harmon co-founded Playwriting for Peace, a project that aims to bring artistic-based peacebuilding interventions into post-conflict areas.
This summer, with the help of a Kathryn Davis Projects for Peace Grant, they held a five-week playwriting and theater program for youth in post-conflict Kosovo.
Traveling between three different locations in the capital city of Pristina, the duo and their local partners held workshops about writing dramatic works, monologues, storytelling with personal identity, getting on the stage and learning the elements of drama with improvisation.
The culmination of the program was a final showcase where all of the participants performed their work—a 10-minute play in Kino Armata, a Kosovar theater turned post-war peace symbol.
“Being a global citizen means recognizing shared humanity when we see it and being willing to see it across national identities or national boundaries,” Russell said. “Being willing to do things like storytelling and dialogues without saying a word.”
Russell and Harmon received help from a Michigan alum who is now a professor at the University of Pristina and leads the Kosovo branch of the civil society organization Changing the Story.
Russell first got interested in the topic when she received a Beinecke Scholarship for her graduate studies. She wanted to follow up on her work about security force violence and human rights research in India and Iceland.
Playwright for Peace illuminated a new pathway for her future studies where she aims to take on the role of a practitioner rather than just a researcher.
Over the last couple of years, Russell and Harmon have collaborated on several plays at U-M before applying for the Projects for Peace Grant.
For Harmon, the theater workshops have been especially impactful for exploring diverse male characters. He sees it as a way to encourage male emotional vulnerability and break down existing stigmas against male creative expression.
Watching the role of a domestic abuser partner played by a male in a female-written piece struck a chord within him.
“That was the moment I saw theater as a really, really impactful way to promote empathy and peace building and get people to listen to each other’s stories,” Harmon said.
Kosovo was just the first step in a very promising program. Workshop activities and lessons were compiled into a training manual for future facilitators. The team also hosted facilitator training events and established a fund so that future facilitators can apply for their own interventions in the Kosovar city of Mitrovica.
With the help of Changing the Story organization, Playwriting for Peace is hoping to reach many more countries to collaborate with local practitioners.
“A lot of time we think about building unity as something that requires assimilation,” Russell said. “What this workshop really demonstrated is that we can preserve the particularities and nuances between us and still be a unified group.”