Archive for July, 2017

July 19, 2017

Learning Conflict Resolution through Theatre

This morning (very early!), I joined Amanda Semenoff and C.D. Saint for their podcast, Overthinking Conflict.  The topic we discussed was how watching live theatre can be useful for conflict resolution professionals. Our discussion was wide ranging, and we touched on a number of reasons a conflict resolution practitioner might want to watch live theatre (many of which apply to other forms of art, too).

During the conversation, I was asked about recommendations for shows, and was sorry that I couldn’t refer to the upcoming Vancouver Fringe Festival performances because the Fringe program hasn’t been released yet.  (The launch party is Thursday, July 27th, 2017.)  Fringe Festivals are a particularly rich opportunity for conflict resolution professionals to explore plays. After all, there’s always a hodgepodge of domestic and international performers; plays are short, so risk is low (you aren’t trapped for hours wishing you’d made another choice!); standing in line for one performance gives you the chance to hear all about a dozen more shows; and the variety is incredible!

As I told Amanda and C.D., I’ll put together a list of recommendations for conflict resolution practitioners once the program is available, but, in the meantime, I wanted to ruminate further on the kinds of learning one can take away from live theatre.

Ultimately, I came up with a list of 8 ways in which watching live theatre can serve a learning purpose for a conflict resolution professional:

  • Observing and analyzing a contained conflict text
  • Observing, analyzing, or participating in a dramatized conflict resolution process
  • Learning about other ways of viewing the world
  • Engaging with metaphor
  • Reading meaning through physical theatre
  • Observing others’ skills in scripted or improvisational form
  • Explorations of historical conflict
  • Explorations of neuroscience, mental health topics, and other content that enriches our practice

Just as my conversation with Amanda and C.D. allowed only enough time to discuss a few ways we could talk about theatre as “homework” for conflict resolution practitioners, a single blog post doesn’t really give me scope to reflect on all of these topics either.  As such, I’ll concentrate only on the first topic here, and revisit the question over the next short while to discuss the remainder of the list.

Observing Conflict – Cause and Effect

Theatrical performances, especially those following the pattern of traditional European theatre, almost always focus around a central conflict. While there are variations to the pattern, and artists have consciously sought to create productions that resist that pattern,  theatre generally explores conflict.

In a typical, chronological narrative structure, the audience is able to observe a conflict develop and come to a point of crisis. Unlike real life conflicts where it’s virtually impossible to witness all the contributing factors, the contained nature of a well-structured drama allows the audience to see how conflict builds – often from multiple perspectives. As a student of conflict resolution, this chance to observe whole stories and to understand multiple perspectives creates an opportunity for reflection: Where have I seen those patterns of communication before? What kinds of changes in the characters’ communications could prevent the looming crisis? If a mediator were inserted into the mix, when and how would they seek to shift the dynamic?

Some years ago, I was involved in a project that asked the question: what if Hamlet and Gertrude had been able to mediate their family dispute? Our initial intention was to create a short video we could use to start a conversation with large law classes about the differences amongst dispute resolution processes. Instead, we launched many conversations about conflict prevention across multiple narrative art forms! I can say now with great confidence that there are hundreds of ways in which conflict resolution practitioners could have saved Romeo and Juliet! (I won’t even try to describe how little show would be left if conflict resolution students were set loose on Seinfeld: if you strip away the conflict, it really is about nothing.)

Over the years, conflict resolution students have shown me that some of the deepest, and clearest, conflict analyses comes from grappling with a performed, and contained, conflict. The finite nature of the material coupled with the relative linearity of most performances – or sometimes the intentional non-linearity chosen to highlight aspects of the conflict – offers a much tidier “text” for examination than any real life conflict can. Just as role plays are utilized to learn conflict resolution skills (even when some students must observe due to numbers), observations of performed plays allow for both individual reflection and discussion with co-learners.

One further reason that it is relatively easy to grapple deeply with issues in a play is one’s emotional distance from a performed conflict – all the more so when the conflict is known to be fictional. As mediators (or lawyers, arbitrators, etc.), we often try to find a place of empathy with enough distance to be able to offer alternative perspectives. Theatre allows us to step into that place and to become familiar with its feel. Film and television offer similar experiences, but the degree of control we have – to pause, rewind, re-view – makes the experience less immediate (less like the experience in real life) than live theatre.  With live actors, we experience greater immediacy, and, of course, there is a risk of things going wrong, of something unexpected happening, which connects the experience more viscerally with real life.  In fact, sit in the front row and the experience is entirely different than watching a film!

Here are three plays coming up soon on Vancouver stages that offer great opportunities to observe and examine conflict.  Consider getting out to the theatre this summer! And bring a colleague for post-theatre discussion!

  • Bard on the Beach will be showing The Merchant of Venice this year, and, even better, showing Shylock for a short run at the end of the season. Most people know something about The Merchant of Venice, and it certainly offers lots of familial and commercial dispute, a discussion of the interrelationship between law and mercy, and a great deal to discuss in terms of anti-Semitism and, by extension, other forms of bias. Shylock is a play that is often performed in combination with The Merchant of Venice because it explicitly examines the challenges of performing a text that cannot be separated from the prejudices of its times. It is well worth watching both!
  • In the Next Room (or The Vibrator Play). I haven’t seen this yet, but its nomination for a Tony in 2010 bodes well. I’m anticipating that this one will offer a study in cognitive dissonance as its characters struggle to recognize the possibility of mistaken assumptions underlying culturally accepted “truths”. The fact that it involves a marital relationship increases the likelihood of it offering a window into a familiar interpersonal conflict.

 

 

 

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