Ph.D. student improves therapeutic theater performances for refugees

Elizabeth Hlavinka

80,000 people in Jordan’s Zaatari Refugee Camp sleep in temporary trailers, surrounded by crime, gangs and sexual violence. But in the heart of the camp, they find a way to transport themselves to an alternate reality: with a script, stage and set of props.

Syrian refugees are using theater to become active citizens in their community and escape the oppressive nature of the camps. Performance as Public Practice Ph.D. student Bart Pitchford is studying the effects of theater on the refugees in two camps across Jordan.

“Theater is an extremely imaginative space,” Pitchford said. “It allows a person to picture a different future or world than the one they currently have. When you’re able to bring [that] to life on stage, it really allows you to reform and reshape what your world is.”

Pitchford, after earning a theater master’s degree and teaching at the high school and college level, took several jobs before joining the army in 2006, where he learned Arabic and traveled across the Middle East. “I was kind of burned out on theater,” Pitchford said. “I felt like the work that was happening around me was very entertainment-based and didn’t have a lot of value beyond that. I wanted to see more, see different cultures and meet people who challenged my perceptions of who I was.”

In Yemen, Pitchford worked with a youth radio station, producing radio dramas that covered issues directly affecting children, such as low employment opportunities and the corrupted government. It was in Yemen that Pitchford was inspired to come back to the United States to pursue his Ph.D. in PPP. In his dissertation, Pitchford observes the content, politics and audience of the plays. He said he hopes to develop criteria for open performances, which give the refugees a chance to explore their own scripts, politics and futures, instead of prescribing to ideas that have already been created for them. If the play is done well, the refugees can establish a sense of self in a community that often strips them of their identity.

One play, for example, “Love Boat,” performs canonical texts such as “Don Quixote” with stories of the Syrian refugees threaded throughout the scenes.

The cast is made up entirely of refugees, and the stories they act out have actually happened to them. Eman, for example, a 17-year-old Syrian refugee with prosthetic legs, acts out the moment she was injured during the bombing of her home in a comedy. She sits in her front lawn, stirring her tea, when a pilot arrives in a plane to drop his bomb. After she loses her leg, Eman throws her prosthetic at the plane in anger, and it crashes onstage. She ends the scene by taking a sip of her tea and telling the audience it is the best tea she has ever tasted.

“Instead of identifying as a victim, she’s taking power and control over that story and reimagining it in a way that givers her that power back,” Pitchford said. “At the same time, it prevents the audience from feeling a catharsis about the trauma — it forces them to recognize the politics behind this.”                        

Scott Blackshire, another Ph.D. candidate in the PPP program, said Pitchford’s work is important because it enables the refugees to break out of their prescribed roles and create their own identities.

“[Pitchford] is creating an intervention to help not only the people that need help in telling their stories, but for the rest of the world, who need to hear their stories,” Blackshire said.

Non-governmental organizations, or NGOs, often run the refugee theater programs. Pitchford said the organizations often have good intentions but create the performance scripts without specific context to the refugees’ experiences, culture or situation. He said “Love Boat” is a good example of a play that avoids the more paternalistic approaches these NGOs often take.

“Even international organizations that are here to help tend to lock everyone into this identity of ‘refugee,’ [which] takes away the individual understanding of a person,” Pitchford said. “While it can help to build identity, it can also help reaffirm the ‘refugee’ identity.”

Paul Bonin-Rodriguez, an associate theatre and dance professor and member of the PPP faculty, said Pitchford successfully exhibits the role of artist as citizen, a fundamental part of the department’s mission statement.

“The theater programs he’s researching are trying to get people to a place of articulating what could and should be their rights as humans,” Bonin-Rodriguez said. “He’s looking at theater as a method of empowerment.”