A travelling fellowship has allowed a theatre director to put on a powerful new play inspired by the experiences of soldiers returning from combat.
Ailin Conant studied at Wellesley College, the women’s liberal arts college in Massachusetts, and the London International School of Performing Arts before she co-founded Theatre Témoin, which was established in France but is now based in London. She has spent the past year on the road thanks to a Mary Elvira Stevens Travelling Fellowship from Wellesley, “working with ex-soldiers and ex-fighters in different countries to create theatre around the theme of return and homecoming”.
The “incredibly and surprisingly unstructured” nature of the fellowship meant that Ms Conant could visit a number of places where she had contacts and could develop projects once she got there.
In Lebanon, for example, she discovered that “there are only three former soldiers in the whole country known as peace activists”.
Two had fought on opposing sides - one as an intelligence officer of the Lebanese forces allied to the Israelis, the other as a communist field commander working with the Palestinians - yet they both remembered the slide into civil war and had recently come to fear that something similar could happen again.
As a warning about the dangers ahead, they collaborated on a theatre piece designed for performance by secondary-school pupils. The work intersperses verbatim monologues about their experiences with a farcical text written by Ms Conant.
Trauma and healing
Moving on to Israel, she carried out interviews at a centre for disabled veterans and spoke to younger soldiers who had fought in Lebanon. Based on what she heard, she produced a play directly addressing the issue of “trauma and healing from trauma”. This was given a reading by professional actors in a leading theatre as well as one back at the veterans’ centre, where one former combatant broke down sobbing and told Ms Conant: “You’ve understood me in a way even my wife hasn’t understood me.”
Even more remarkable, she got an opportunity to work at a child rehabilitation centre for young Hutu men who had been fighting in the Democratic Republic of the Congo as part of the Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda (FDLR) but were now being welcomed back into their native Rwanda.
“It’s like a holding pen,” Ms Conant recalled. “They are sitting around with nothing to do - boys who are bored out of their minds - so the man in charge was delighted when I suggested they should take part in a theatre project. Some had been fighting in the Congo just six weeks before performing in a play about their experiences.”
The 34 performers came up with a kind of fairy tale, Ms Conant said. “A boy loses his arms and comes home to his family, so they throw him into a river for being no longer useful. He gets swallowed up by a fish and transported to America, where he is spat out, finds he has both his arms back and knows how to fly a plane. So he flies back to his family, who want to receive him. But he says ‘Screw you!’ basically, ‘I’m rich and I don’t need you’, and flies off to America.”
After a further project working in a girls’ orphanage in Kashmir, Ms Conant returned to London and “just chucked an unending amount of material” at the dramatist Julia Pascal. Fascinated by the way the Rwandan story recalled that of Jonah and the whale, Ms Pascal used this as the basis of her new play, set in the belly of a whale, where three ex- fighters struggle to come to terms with the atrocities they have witnessed.
A former child soldier from Sierra Leone and someone who served in the British Army sat in on rehearsals as consulting experts for Nineveh, which continues at the Riverside Studios, London, until 11 May.