An Academic Paper for The University for Peace in Costa Rica – by Caroline Kennedy


The first time I became personally involved with “global initiatives” involving theatre was in 1982 when Peace Child International, a British NGO, was conceived in the living room of a friends’ house in Buntingford, Hertfordshire, some fifty miles north of London. “Wouldn’t it be wonderful,” they asked “to find out what our children really think of this world? If we gave them a voice, what would they want to change? What would they demand of our politicians? What would they be prepared to do to save the planet?” Thus Peace Child International was born. peace child international

For the first decade, during the Cold War, Peace Child’s main objective was bridging the gap between East and West. Children from the USSR and the USA were brought together and encouraged to talk – about their lives, their dreams and their aspirations for the world’s youth. From the first series of meetings it became obvious that children of any age could easily overcome language barriers, political complexities and deep-seated animosities. They were, after all, children first and foremost and, no matter their varied backgrounds, cultures and religions, and no matter the prejudices they perceived in adults, they instinctively understood each other and wanted the same things – the right to a peaceful coexistence and a healthy planet.

Under the direction of Peace Child International President, David Woollcombe, the children were then challenged to write a musical, the Peace Child Musical.

*Peace Childis a curriculum, a movement and a passion,” wrote Woollcombe at the play’s inception. “I love children to be real on stage and the best way of making them real is to have them write their own lines within the framework of an exisiting play. I must be one of the few playwrights in history who actively encourages children to rip up my text and rewrite it in their own words.” david woolcombe

The story, set in the future, tells of an American boy and a Russian girl who meet in Washington DC where their parents are diplomats. Initially, they distrust each other because of the negative influences and long-held prejudices of their respective families. But they realize too, they are equally frightened about the risk of a nuclear war presented by the world’s two superpowers. Determined to “do something” to halt this rush towards nuclear armageddon, the children slip unannounced onto a TV talk show. They express a wish for peace, they become young celebrities and get an opportunity to meet with their respective Presidents. Inspired by the efforts of the children to negotiate peace, the two Presidents go off on a fishing trip together, determined to get to know each other better and discuss making the world a safer place for future generations.

* “Each child involved in the play,” wrote Woollcombe, “knew that they helped to create it. The two leading children are empowered to believe that they could become the two children in the story and that they could bring peace to the world.”

“Peace Child – The Musical” resulted in the first Russian children being brought to Europe and the USA on a cultural exchange. It has since been performed all over the world, opening up dialogue between almost 1000 high school student groups in over 120 countries. These children had discovered what many already knew – namely that acting can be used as an instrument of peace, reconciliationand social change.

*Gandhi said that “the only demons in the world are in our hearts and that is where the battle must be fought and won.” The children’s musical was a direct appeal to the hardened hearts of their politicians. peace child musical

It would be interesting to speculate at this point what might have resulted had the children, instead of using dramatized theatre as a tool to change their governments’ stance on the nuclear arms race, used drama techniques devised by Augusto Boal. How, for instance, would their audience have responded to “invisible theatre” on the subject of the nuclear arms race? What if these child actors had actually mingled with the public on the streets of Washington and Moscow forcing issues and opinions out into the open? How would the public have reacted? What if the children had used this method while attending an international forum at the UN? What debate would have ensued? And what effect would it have had on the world’s politicians?

According to *Boal: “Invisible theatre erupts in a location chosen as a place where the public congregates. All the people who are near become involved in the eruption and the effects of it last long after the skit has ended.”

Following the break-up of the Soviet Union the Peace Child Musical reinvented itself. The threat now was not from the Cold War and the fear that Russia and America would annihilate themselves and the rest of the world with nuclear force but, rather, on the issue of global warming and climate change that could be equally damaging, if not worse. Despite the fact that scientists and politicians could not agree among themselves on the harm to the planet presented by these two apocalyptic scenarios children around the worldappeared to be in no such doubt. Their planet was threatened and, as a result,their lives and their futures were threatened. They were in this together and they needed to stimulate discussion and find a resolution. There was, they unanimously agreed, a great need to act and to act “now”!

Some of the loudest voices from among these youth activists were invited by Boutros Boutros Ghali, the then UN Secretary General, to put their views across to members of the United Nations. The children, not one of them over the age of 16, did not mince their words. Politicians from every country in the world listened and understood the urgency of the message conveyed by these young ambassadors. And thus the Peace Child Musical adapted to a new, very real and very worrying threat – a threat that affected them and the future of the planet.

Sadly for the children, disagreements, blinkered vision and obfuscations by individual politicians and governments led to delayed acceptance of the threat posed by climate change and, thus, far too little has been accomplished to date. But the children never gave up hope. Teenagers from Peace Child International agreed to become principal partners with Global Vision in a series of films about Sustainability and produced an accompanying book,* “Rescue Mission – Planet Earth”. The book was first published in London and then Nairobi following the Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro. It involved thousands of children from over 100 countries.

rescue mission

*According to former US Vice President, Al Gore, for him this was a long-harboured dream come true. “When I was chairman of the Space Subcommittee, I strongly urged the establishment of a Mission to Planet Earth, a worldwide monitoring system staffed by children designed to rescue the global environment. “

The year was 1995. Since the start of the Balkan War in 1992 I had been working in the refugee camps of Bosnia and Croatia. Apart from delivering medical and surgical supplies to the beleaguered hospitals in frontline war zones, such as Zadar, Karlovac and Mostar, the organization I helped set up sponsored a “Children’s Village”. This was a camp comprising of refugee children from all sides of the conflict. Again, as is so often the case, this was not their war but it was they – the young and the old that suffered most from it. During my time working in the Children’s Village, I organized an art exhibition by some sixty children of all ages and all ethnic backgrounds on the theme of “Homelandlessness”. I supplied the children with a variety of art materials but gave them no coaching other than suggesting the theme. The artworks turned out to be a poignant mix of nostalgia for everything familiar, such as toys, homes, weather, food, pets and school to violent depictions of villages being bombed, communities destroyed and families split apart. As a Founder Trustee of the London International Gallery of Children’s Art I was able to exhibit the works there. The exhibition was opened by Glenda Jackson, the local Member of Parliament and, coincidentally, an old friend of mine from her days with the Royal Shakespeare Company. The exhibition was then transferred to the United Nations where it was opened by the then new Secretary General, Kofi Annan.


*Rochelle Wallace, a certified mediator, states in her booklet, Positive Resolution of Conflict: Techniques, Tools & Theories that “by working to resolve conflict at a profound level, we experience a bridging of the gulf between individuals – and it can be deeply moving, fulfilling and joyous. We find that the fears of humanity – separation, alienation and loneliness – are, in reality, illusions and that underneath the fear, if we could allow ourselves to feel it, life is connected and unified. We are in the dance of life together, enemies, and friends, foes and  lovers, and we are just beginning to allow ourselves the risk of experiencing it.”

I found this to be very true when I lived and worked in the Children’s Village. Here were people whose families and communities had been torn apart by war but who were now living together in harmony while the war still raged around them. Any previous animosities they had between them, stirred up and fuelled by the war and their nationalist politicians, were immediately forgotten in their need to survive. And, by surviving together, sharing accommodation, food, water, memories and experiences, their differences swiftly faded until only their similarities remained.

In early 1997 I became the in-country representative in Azerbaijan of the Leonard Cheshire Centre of Conflict Recovery. Our organization had been invited by the Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Humanitarian Affairs of Azerbaijan to set up a medical and surgical programme for refugees with disabilities. The former Soviet Republic, situated on the western edge of the Caspian Sea, is surrounded by Russia to the north, Armenia to the west, Iran to the south and Turkey to the southwest. It is a partly blockaded country with apopulation of 7.7 million. When I arrived in the country in 1997 *I wrote about its main problems which were the following:

  • 70 years of Soviet control
  • A territorial war with Armenia which lasted about 5 years with no resolution.
  • 20% loss of its national territory
  • Destruction of its industrial, agricultural and medical-social infrastructure.
  • Nearly one million refugees and internally-displaced persons within its borders.

After a year living and working among the Azeri refugees, who were based in five camps, situated mainly to the south of the capital Baku near the Iranian border, I discussed the possibility of introducing drama as a means of therapy for the many children attending the makeshift schools within the camps. I had been concerned, during my tours of the camps, visiting every single tent and shelter, that domestic abuse was rife. In this secular Muslim country it was not a subject that the women and children found easy to discuss. However, since they knew me well and trusted me, the women finally broke the code of silence and explained the reasons behind the abuse. Their husbands felt guilty, they said, as they had lost the war with Armenia, been forced to leave their homes and their livelihoods and were now living in refugee camps with no way of making a living. The men were deeply frustrated and were taking their frustrations out on their wives. The women, in their despair, were then turning on their children. A cycle of abuse had been established within families and there was no counseling to help them resolve the problem.

I spoke to a friend of mine, Nancy Secchi, a qualified drama therapist, and she devised a course of supervised play and drama therapy that could be applied to the young children in the camps. *Freud, in his book The Psychopathology of Everday Life, wrote “play of the child represents the first traces of imaginative activity”. And the British dramatherapist, Ann Cattanach, has written extensively on the importance of play and its links with dramatherapy.

drama therapy team

Nancy and I then approached Sally Mackey, head of the Collaborative Outreach Course  (Collout) at Central School of Speech & Drama in London (CSSD). This “Collout” programme was devised by Sally specifically for drama education students wishing to forge a career working with ethnic or indigenous communities in the UK or overseas. Sally agreed to send four handpicked 2nd year students to the refugee camps with Nancy for six weeks as part of their coursework.

*“It was amazing to see the results.” Nancy wrote afterwards in Compass Magazine, “After just a week of “structured play” one little boy who, from the outset, had been hostile towards everyone finally arrived smiling and couldn’t  wait to start the game playing. Another little boy who always arrived carrying a large pair of scissors and threatening anyone who came near him, finally left the scissors at home and joined in the games.”

Under Nancy’s supervision the CSSD students created puppet theatre with the children, demonstrating to them how easy it can be to make simple puppets out of ordinary everyday materials. Puppet theatre then developed into actual theatre with a play written and acted by the children. I was keen to get the whole refugee community involved and thus fathers and older brothers were recruited to build the stage and design the set. Mothers made the costumes and older sisters worked with their younger siblings on masks and make-up. For the first time since I had arrived in the camp over a year earlier, the whole community was engaged in a productive activity together and had an event to look forward to – the performance of the play.

mayumi teaching movement

Since I was working for an organization caring for people and refugees with disabilities, it was decided that the theme of the play would be disability. It was not an easy subject since historically and culturally in Azerbaijan children with physical disabilities are either hidden away or placed in mental homes alongside people with severe mental disabilities. The story the children created was of a bird with a damaged wing. A shepherd finds the injured bird and immediately wants to kill it. But the shepherd’s son pleads with his father to carry the bird back to their home and care for it until it can fly again. The bird turns out to be a magical bird and, when it is time for it to fly away, it grants the shepherd’s son a wish. The son wishes for happiness.

Many of the refugee families had at least one child with a physical disability, a skin disorder or a chronic pulmonary condition and so I hoped that the play’s simple message would be understood. The high incidence in Azerbaijan of these conditions is directly due to two things, intermarriage within families and the toxicity of the soil, air and water due to the leaking chemical plants that were abandoned by Russia following the breakup of the Soviet Union.

During the six weeks drama project, many recognized techniques of drama therapy were covered. These included, intentional use of play and drama to achieve therapeutic goals. The use of game playing, puppet theatre and drama to help the children tell their stories, solve their problems, express their feelings and achieve some form of catharsis. As we have seen with the “hostile” boy and the boy carrying a pair of scissors, behavioural change was achieved and the whole community expressed the view that the project had been a success.

While these games were suitable for the very young children in the camp, they could not attempt to help the older children with their own specific memories or experiences. Had we involved teenagers and young people in this programme it would have been useful to use techniques such as image theatre and forum theatre as recommended by Boal or, even, playback theatre where the children could have recited their stories and the drama students would then have reenacted them. These devices would have provided a useful tool to assess each person’s problems and offered the opportunity for the drama therapist to address them individually.

As Jonathan Fox points out in Gathering Voices, “playback theatre can be adapted to many different needs in education and mental health. This means that as a method it spans the conventional categories of theatre, psychology and education.”

Properly applied playback theatre could, thus, be a useful medium in addressing a whole variety of physical and mental problems faced by refugees in their everyday lives.

This programme in the Azerbaijan refugee camps became part of CSSD’s curriculum and, from 1997 onwards, two sets of students traveled to Azerbaijan to take part in similar game and drama projects in the refugee camps. The students are accompanied by a designated drama therapist and assessor so that their work can constantly be supervised, evaluated and, if necessary, adapted to suit the situation.

These two programmes involving children provide an example of two types of Peacebuilding through drama. The first, “Peace Child – The Musical” gives an opportunity to children around the world to voice their opinions, to try to influence their politicians and to try to encourage a peaceful solution to the world’s problems.

The second, a much smaller and less ambitious project – the Azerbaijan dramatherapy programme – was designed specifically to help the refugee children come to terms with the loss of home and all the familiar things that are now missing in their lives. Both projects have their merits, one on a grand scale and one on a small scale. Both were designed to enable and empower children and young people. For it is vital for children to know that they do have a voice, that adults will listen to them and that they can use their voices to improve their lives and the world around them.


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