Exorcising trauma through drama

Published 28 February 2018

Drama therapist and community development worker Ben Rivers holds a PhD in Peace Studies from the University of New England. Six years ago he founded Dawar for Arts and Development, in Cairo, where people impacted by poverty, war and displacement are learning the transformative power of theatre, drama and art.

In this interview, Ben describes his journey and his work.

What do you do?

I use psychodrama, Playback Theatre and other arts-based methods to help communities deal with violence, trauma and adversity. I’ve practised in Asia, Australia, Europe, the Middle East and North America, working with people who have a passion for healing and social change.

I started leading psychodrama and Playback Theatre workshops in Egypt in 2012. Following my initial workshops, psychiatrists, psychologists and other mental health workers began asking for longer-term training programs, where they could learn drama-based ways of working with traumatised communities. After a few years, the people I was working with and I started to dream of establishing a community arts and health centre that would offer opportunities for healing, solidarity and cultural expression. The communities we worked with were stating a clear need for this in response to the turmoil and oppressive crackdowns that were destabilising the entire region. Dawar was born, and became a haven and meeting place for people from extremely diverse religious, cultural, social and economic backgrounds.

What is the difference between psychodrama and Playback Theatre?

Psychodrama is a group-based method that uses drama for personal growth and healing. It promotes creativity, connectedness, empathy and expression. It invites insight and the practise of preferred actions, and is used in therapeutic and community-based programs around the world. In Egypt, we are using psychodrama mainly for trauma healing.

Playback Theatre also uses storytelling and improvisation.  However, in contrast to psychodrama (which mainly occurs in private, confidential settings), Playback is a public form, where trained actors and musicians enact stories volunteered by audience members. After each story, the troupe turns each account into a short, improvised enactment that honours and illuminates the teller’s experience.  Playback can be used to promote social inclusion, community building and consciousness-raising around certain topics.

Explain what Dawar does.

Since 2011, Egypt has been a place of refuge for thousands of Syrians displaced by war. However, many face extreme difficulties in meeting their basic needs. Work visas are rarely granted, rendering them vulnerable to maltreatment and exploitation in the informal employment sector. With limited financial resources, Syrian refugees struggle to gain adequate food, shelter, health care and education.

Refugees are sometimes the target of prejudice and hostility from sections of the host community. As one effort to build bridges and social cohesion, we founded Dawar Foods, a food and catering business run by Syrian and Egyptian women. We have just completed construction of the Dawar Foods Kitchen in Ezbet Khairallah, one of Cairo’s largest informal settlements. As well as providing employment, the kitchen will offer training and cultural programs for workers and the broader community.

Since 2016, we have used psychodrama and Playback Theatre with over 600 refugee women and men from Syria, Yemen, Sudan and other neighbouring countries. Our interventions have addressed sexual and gender-based violence, social discrimination, collective trauma and other issues arising from the experience of war and displacement.

Our facilitators and theatre troupe give monthly theatre performances, and conduct workshops that promote community health and social change. Most recently, we’ve been commissioned by Care International, the United Nations Population Fund and the United Nations World Food Program to work with refugees in Cairo, Damietta and Alexandria.

Dawar also hosts cultural events for new and emerging artists, including theatre performances, film screenings, art exhibitions, live music and poetry readings. In addition to this, we offer professional training in therapeutic drama, applied theatre and arts-based community work for educators, community workers and mental health professionals.

Dawar’s vision is a world where creativity, equality and compassion are actively embraced at all levels of society.

Why is psychodrama used increasingly in the Middle East?

The impulse towards creativity and expression is a universal phenomenon.  However, these impulses can become magnified under adverse and oppressive conditions. When oppressed, we strive to speak truth to power. We long to connect with each other in a vibrant and embodied way, as in Palestine, where dabke (an Arabic folk dance) and songs of resistance play an important role in keeping people’s spirits alive and strong. Likewise, participatory theatre and other community artforms offer a space where people can gather, share, dream and rehearse for a better world.

For three years, you lived and worked at The Freedom Theatre in Jenin Refugee Camp, in Occupied Palestine. Describe that experience.

In Israel-Palestine my eyes opened to the horrific consequences of an apartheid regime intent on colonisation and subjugation of the Indigenous people.  Living there was, of course, different to learning about it vicariously. Living in a place, you build relationships with people and places. You hurt differently when it is a friend or colleague who is arrested, tortured or killed. You feel strongly, and are moved to action when you see land stolen, homes demolished and people routinely humiliated.

At the same time, Palestine taught me that we can live with humour, kindness and generosity under the most brutal of conditions.

What benefits have you seen for the individuals and communities in which you’ve worked?

Imagination and solidarity are the number one targets of all oppressive regimes. The arts offer us a way to keep these powerful forces alive and well.

What inspires you about what you do?

I, too, benefit when we come together to dance, move, sing and share stories. Connection, play and creativity are medicine for practitioner and participant alike. At the same time, I find myself working with people who live with hardships and suffering that I have never had to endure. This continually reminds me to make best use of the resources and privileges I hold.  In every community, I come across extraordinary people, survivors who are serving others with hope, love and commitment. These people are a beacon for me, pointing towards a form of strength and resilience that is truly inspirational.

Describe your experience of studying at UNE.

While completing my PhD in the Middle East I chose to use a highly participatory form of research – engaging closely with the communities, movements and practices I was writing about.  I feel grateful for all the support and encouragement my supervisor, Dr Rebecca Spence, gave me throughout this process. The opportunity to conduct original, in-depth and applied research felt like an antidote to my prior educational experiences. I was travelling in unchartered territory, discovering, learning and co-creating with the people I was working with. This felt extremely exciting and meaningful. I feel very fortunate that UNE enabled this experience for me.