Cluster #1: Politics of Truth Commissions – Performances in Response to the TRC

It has been generally acknowledged that truth and reconciliation commissions are an important tool in ‘acting out’ and ‘working through’ cultural traumas. The South Africa Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC), for example, aimed at working through the cultural trauma of apartheid, seeking reconciliation between South African perpetrators and victims. Victims and survivors came to the Commission to recount their stories of what happened to them or members of their families, while perpetrators of these abuses could obtain amnesty for the crimes committed if they gave full confessions. The TRC therefore played a central role in community healing and functioned as some form of catharsis: the community was supposed to come to terms with overwhelming emotions caused by the traumatic past.

Truth and Reconciliation Committees such as the South African TRC, however, not only want to raise awareness or provide healing. It also desires to implement community change. The cathartic experience in relation to trauma processing in a truth commission has less to do with a purging of emotions. It is rather concerned with “integration” through a “process of reconstruction” (Herman 2001: 181). A TRC is thus considered not only as an official organ calling for testimonies from the past (truth), but also as a judicial body aiming at reconciliation between victims and perpetrators. While truth and reconciliation committees are concrete tools with a positive impact on democracy and human rights – the TRC is considered an important element of rehabilitation in the development towards a post-transitional democracy – we must not forget that they are collective rituals that are constructed along coded actions. Thompson called this the “strategic memory” at work in collective rituals that ‘act out’ and ‘work through’ traumatic events. The self-definition of a community in a collective act of mourning is coded (2009: 97-100). This inclusive discourse is at the same time exclusive; it excludes differential voices that are not in line with the master narrative. Contemporary performances such as Kentridge’s Ubu and the Truth Commission (1997 and 2014), or Chokri Ben Chikha’s The Truth Commission (2013) insist on asking pertinent questions on the coded actions and the master narrative at work in truth and reconciliation commissions.

Contributions to this cluster may include, but are not limited to the following questions:

What is the narrative, disembodied and meaning-based nature of the truth-telling process in the TRC and the Western approach commissioners took in ‘working through’ the cultural trauma of South African apartheid? What are the coded actions at work in other truth and reconciliation committees? What are the conditions of its master narrative? What is the strategic memory at work? What kind of narrative is impressed upon the commemorators, upon the ‘victims’ and ‘perpetrators’ testifying within a preconceived format? What is the structuring device that maintains a group’s homogeneous and coherent identity? How do contemporary performances raise these pertinent questions?


Cluster #2: Performing Trauma: Postdramatic and Postnarrative Modes of Coping with Trauma

Art in general and performance in particular plays an important role in creating non-verbal and embodied transformative encounters in violated and traumatized communities. On the one hand, art is transformative as it functions as a “protective force”, enabling people to cope with suffering. On the other hand, it can also be “an inspirational force” for creating “a better world” (Thompson 2009: 2). Recent theatre and performance studies developed an exponential interest in trauma and conflict and provide a valuable embodied perspective on what has been criticized as a disembodied dominant Western trauma regime underpinned by the assumption of a linear relationship between trauma narration and recovery. Special interest goes to the articulatory potential of postdramatic and postnarrative modes of coping with trauma that move beyond the structures of language, demand attention for gesture, silence, the mutual dialogue as bodily encounter and acknowledges culturally specific modes of suffering, coping and survival.

Contributions to this cluster may include, but are not limited to the following questions:

How do performances in a post-apartheid era relate to a traumatic past? How do they respond to or resonate with formal institutional discourses of healing and recovery? How do theatre practitioners move beyond storytelling in dealing with traumatic experiences? How can performance practices create non-verbal and embodied transformative encounters in violated and traumatized communities, dealing with apartheid, racism and persistent violence, as well as socio-economic and political problems of postcolonial states?


Cluster #3: Performative Objects and Site-Specific Performativity

Recent theatre and performance studies also developed an exponential interest in how ambivalent embodied entities such as masks, puppets or other ‘dead’ performative objects might be a site of critique, resistance or agency in communities coping with cultural traumas.

In the field of theatre studies and design arts (e.g. Niedderer 2004) scholars outlined that performative objects are social mediators (Kennicot 2003, Cleary, 1998: 24; Lehmann 2006:  140; Bell 2001: 18-25). It has been generally acknowledged that masks, puppets and performative objects are culturally particular modes of coping and survival in South Africa (Haedicke 2001: 254; Kruger 2008: 32.) In Performing Democracy, Peter Larlham refers to puppetry art in South Africa as a particular theatre tool “that assists in re-education after the long period of enforced censorship and disinformation” (in Haedicke 2001: 254). Special interest in this conference goes to the transformative power of the performer as a performative object, based on notions such as “the performer as site of resistance” (Bala 2007) and Erika Fischer Lichte’s suggestion “to reflect on the correlations between the concept of the presence of the performer and that of the ecstasy of things” (2008: 100).

Also, the site-specific performativity in performances dealing with trauma is taken into consideration. Resonating with Boehme’s observation that a thing “practically radiates into its environment (…) fills it with tension and possibilities for motion” (1995: 33), the relation between the performer as object, the site-specific performativity, and other subjects/objects is considered as an interesting transformative constellation.

Contributions to this cluster may include, but are not limited to the following questions:

How do masks, puppets, performative objects and performers as performative objects raise awareness, propose alternatives, provide healing and implement community change regarding the cultural trauma of apartheid in post-transitional South Africa, and/or in other areas of conflict? How do they function as tools of critique, resistance and agency with regard to trauma processing? How can object-driven performances create transformative encounters in traumatized communities? How do those performances dialogue with a site-specific performativity?


Works cited

  • Bala, Sruti. The Performativity of Nonviolent Protest in South Asia (1918–1948). Amsterdam: University of Amsterdam, 2007.
  • Bell, John. (ed.). Puppets, Masks, and Performing Objects. Cambridge: The MIT Press, 2001.
  • Boehme, Gernot. Atmosphaere: Essays zur neuen Aesthetik. Frankfurt: Suhrkamp, 1995.
  • Cleary, Beth. “Negation Strategies: The Bread and Puppet Theater and Performance Practice”, New England Theatre Journal 9 (1998): 23-48.
  • Fisher-Lichte, Erika. The Transformative Power of Performance: A New Aesthetics. Abingdon: Routledge, 2008.
  • Haedicke, Susan, en Tobin Nellhaus (eds.). Performing Democracy. International Perspectives on Urban Community-Based Performance. University of Michigan Press, 2001.
  • Herman, Judith. Trauma and Recovery. New York: Basic Books, 1992.
  • Kennicot, Philip. “Borne in Effigy. If Protest is Theater, Its Biggest Actors are Puppets”, The Washington Post, March 17 (2003).
  • Lehmann, Hans-Thies. Postdramatic Theatre. London: Routledge, 2006.
  • Kruger, Marie. “Puppets in Educational Entertainment in South Africa. Comments on a Number of Long-Term Projects”, SATJ 22(2008): 25-43.
  • Niedderer, Kristina. Designing the Performative Object: a Study in Designing Mindful Interaction Through Artefacts. Plymouth University (Falmouth College of Art), 2004.
  • Thompson, James. Performance Affects. Applied Theatre and the End of Effect. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2009.