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Theater puts human face on nuclear crisis, life in Trump era

nn,tgv.jpgDai Matsuoka of the Japanese butoh dance troupe Sankai Juku performs in “Falling Out.”

August 29, 2019

Six dancers silently toss black garbage bags across the stage as images of the areas around a crippled nuclear power plant scroll over a large screen.

Whenever a survivor of the 2011 earthquake and tsunami, which triggered a triple meltdown at the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear plant in northeastern Japan, begins to speak on screen, the dancers imitate the individual’s gestures to emphasize his or her words.

The filmed interviews with those who experienced the Great East Japan Earthquake and its consequences form the heart of “Falling Out,” a theatrical production featured at the inaugural CrossCurrents Festival, held this spring in Washington, D.C.

The festival was the brainchild of Georgetown University’s Laboratory for Global Performance and Politics, whose goal is to “humanize global politics through performance.”

Other productions showcased at the festival centered on such topics as the global refugee crisis, climate change, and the rise of polarization.

(The productions) engage with issues that are important to people and present them in a very powerful way through some form of narrative,” said Cynthia Schneider, a professor of diplomacy at the university and a co-founder of the Lab. “Each performance provides a deeper context than one might read from news reports.”

Falling Out” is a collaboration between Phantom Limb Co., a New York-based multimedia theatrical production company that works with marionette puppetry, and Dai Matsuoka of the Japanese butoh dance troupe Sankai Juku.

The black bags onstage are symbols of prolonged recovery efforts, representing bags containing soil and other debris contaminated with radioactive materials that remain scattered in Fukushima Prefecture more than eight years after the nuclear accident.

I was surprised at how little had actually happened in the recovery process,” said Jessica Grindstaff, artistic director of Phantom Limb, who spent three months in the Tohoku region in 2018 to interview residents and film footage of the devastated areas.

The spirits of the people that I met with were strong and beautiful … but in terms of infrastructure and logistics, very little had changed since the tsunami. There was no real clear plan on how to rebuild the city.”

The butoh dancers interact with life-size puppets throughout the play to complement the stories of the survivors, representing their loss and life after the disaster.

Matsuoka, one of the performers in “Falling Out,” told The Asahi Shimbun that in butoh performances, the dancer’s body is used as an empty vessel to hold an artistic message.

Grindstaff said “Falling Out” shows that environmental and nuclear issues impact and connect all of humanity.

It doesn’t just belong to Japan,” she said. “These are global issues, and we all need to start thinking about what role we play.”

BRINGING ARTISTS, POLICYMAKERS TOGETHER

The Chibok Girls: Our Story,” another production presented at the CrossCurrents Festival, is based on interviews with the survivors of the 2014 Boko Haram kidnappings of schoolgirls in Chibok, Nigeria.

The play was written by Nigerian playwright Wole Oguntokun, and the second act is comprised of 20 monologues about specific incidents based on the survivors’ accounts, punctuated by drumbeats from a supporting percussionist onstage.

Schneider, who founded the Laboratory for Global Performance and Politics in 2012 with theater artist Derek Goldman, said the Lab seeks to engage policymakers, artists and audiences, drawing on its strategic base in the nation’s capital.

We find that artists and policymakers really enjoy this engagement together,” said Schneider, U.S. Ambassador to the Netherlands from 1998 to 2001. “The Lab is about bringing those two sides that are usually kept apart together so they can learn from each other and audiences can learn as well.”

After a performance of “The Chibok Girls,” Linda Thomas-Greenfield, a former assistant secretary of state for African affairs, offered reflections from her tenure, such as the Nigerian government’s long-standing denial of the kidnappings, during a talk-back session with the audience.

People seem really hungry for the kind of substantial, rich, wide-ranging, inter-disciplinary conversations that we have at our events,” Schneider said. “People really want something more than just go to a play and leave or go to a play and hear the playwright talk about how they made that play.”

Falling Out” has sparked conversations in different ways.

Phantom Limb created a Memory Telephone as a chance for audience members to share their thoughts on “love, water, nature and loss,” either in person or over voicemail. The company puts a mix of the voice recordings together and plays it in the theater while audiences wait for a subsequent performance to begin.

I’ve spoken to people about the experience, and they’ve all said that they felt that they were a part of the show, a part of the story,” Grindstaff said. “It’s really easy to read the newspapers and detach from everything you see, but if you can get people to emotionally feel connected, then I think that’s one thing … we can do together to start (taking action).”

Audience members approached her to discuss ways to use the arts to start dialogues on nuclear power, both with the public and international organizations such as the United Nations.

The kinds of conversations that happened and are continuing to happen were very productive,” Grindstaff said. “It actually felt like it was starting bigger conversations that could potentially start to create change.”

PARTICIPATING IN PLEDGE OF ALLEGIANCE

The Laboratory for Global Performance and Politics has also served as a catalyst for conversations through its own play, “I Pledge Allegiance,” which Schneider says was “very much provoked by what Trump has been doing.”

Devika Ranjan, an Indian-American Georgetown alumna from the class of 2017, developed it at the Lab during her senior year to explore what it meant to be young immigrants and people of color who grew up during the period between the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks and the era of U.S. President Donald Trump.

The presence of racism and imperialism in the city was so tangible,” Ranjan said, looking back on the time period after the 2016 presidential election that she spent in Washington, D.C. “Hate crimes started happening on campus, and people were openly harassed … it was a really difficult way to leave D.C.”

Ranjan and four of her classmates created a series of vignettes drawing from their own personal stories, their ancestors’ experiences of coming to the United States and interviews with young immigrants both on and off the Georgetown campus.

Premiering at the World Theater Congress in Segovia, Spain, in July 2017, “I Pledge Allegiance” has since toured the United States. Whether the cast performed the play domestically or internationally, the members found that audiences could relate to the ideas of exclusion and underrepresentation.

The play is an evolving production, influenced both by the cast’s conversations with audience members after each show, as well as by their own developing personal and societal understandings of the Trump administration.

Ranjan, who spoke in a telephone interview from London, described “I Pledge Allegiance” as a “continual call and response.”

We listen to what the audience has to say, and we offer our own feedback and thoughts and then take those things into account in the next development of (the play),” she said.

In a striking moment of the play, the performers, who have considered their national identities and their connections with the Pledge of Allegiance, invite audience members to stand and participate in the pledge.

Many audience members look to each other for reinforcement when they are suddenly called on to consider what the pledge means to them. While some stand after others stand, others remain seated and put their hand over their heart, according to Ranjan.

This instance of active participation in the play allows audience members to connect with the performers and their perspectives, often provoking conversations during the play’s talk-back sessions.

Falling Out,” “The Chibok Girls” and “I Pledge Allegiance” are all testimonial in nature, built from the voices of the people who experienced the featured events, and place reality front and center for audiences to experience.

None of these stories have definitive conclusions.

The recovery efforts in Japan’s Tohoku region are still ongoing. According to Human Rights Watch, 112 of the Chibok girls were still missing as of April 2019, five years after they were kidnapped. And Americans are grappling with the implications of the Trump administration’s constantly changing immigration policies.

These are not isolated stories but are part of the collective human experience.

The idea of humanizing global politics through the power of performance has remained and if anything been reaffirmed when we see how effective it is,” Schneider said.

http://www.asahi.com/ajw/articles/AJ201908290018.html?fbclid=IwAR28ktvEWPDGgDOF2Q6VF39VKN_qLDFOzShrJXMxEeqIx1Othas4hbtZhUo

September 8, 2019 - Posted by | fukushima 2019 | , ,

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