THEATRE BREAKS DOWN THE “WALL” IN PEOPLE’S MINDS

Teaser Myths and Tales
© CIPS / Marcos Gittis

Who is "us" and who is "them"?

“Ha, ha, ha, ha, ha,” was the sound of twelve throats timidly panting. Twelve young people are standing in a circle holding hands and it is obvious what they are thinking at that moment by the looks on their faces: “What the hell are we doing here?!” But Marios encourages them: “Louder!” The actor himself expels his breath in a staccato rhythm, releasing primal sounds. The twelve begin to react to the animalistic sound and then the first of them allow themselves to fall. At last they all close their eyes and begin to lose their inhibitions. They are tentative at first but gradually grow bolder. “Ha, ha, ha, ha.” Until the room echoes with roaring groans that eventually flow into a relieved “Ahhhh”.

Atemübung © CIPS / Marcos Gittis
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But the tricky breathing exercise is only the beginning. The theatrical laymen who attend the theatre workshop at the Goethe-Institut in Nicosia are going to learn to cross many more barriers within the following twelve weeks. And those will be much more intense compared to just ‘making a fool of yourself in front of strangers’. Some time later they will be sitting in a circle and telling each other things like: “We thought you were monsters.” “To us, you were the monsters. We were always told that the only good Turk is a dead Turk.” They will say these things whilst looking each other in the eye. The very fact that they will be able to do that whilst admitting their negative attitudes and prejudices to each other is the outcome of this astonishing workshop.

Who “we” and “you” are can’t be identified just by the participants’ features. They all live on the same small island and yet they are worlds apart. Not because some speak Greek and some speak Turkish. Not because some live in the south and some live in the north of the divided country. But because there is a wall existing in their minds. During the next few weeks they will discover surprising things: not only that the wall in their minds is an artificial obstruction – but they will also learn who it was built by. 

first contact

  • Erste Begegnung 1 © CIPS / Marcos Gittis
  • Erste Begegnung 2 © CIPS / Marcos Gittis
  • Erste Begegnung 3 © CIPS / Marcos Gittis
  • Erste Begegnung 4 © CIPS / Marcos Gittis
  • Erste Begegnung 6 © CIPS / Marcos Gittis
  • Erste Begegnung 7 © CIPS / Marcos Gittis
Achim Wieland, Artistic Director and with Marios Ioannou a founding member of the Theatre Collective SRSLYyours, outlines the project: “We bring young people from both sides of the Green Line together and construct a performance from their personal stories.” The director and the actor, Marios Ioannou, established the Devised-Theatre-Concept in Cyprus and they both know about the strong effect that sets in when the script is not set but emerges from dealing with a certain topic.

Regarding the stories of both sides of the dividing line one may, at first, think of death, expulsion, refugees and missing persons. Almost every participant between the ages of  17 and 35 have terrible ‘memories’ from their own families but, importantly, not from their own experiences because all of them were born long after the war of 1974. Nevertheless  they approach each other warily. Most of them have never had contact with people of the same age from ‘over there’. Now the warm-up exercises begin and they take each other’s hands. They feel that the nervousness of the others is as huge as their own and they find themselves laughing about it. Ayşe, the baby of the group who doesn’t speak English, gets special attention. She is never left out during partner exercises, everybody waits patiently while instructions and questions are translated into Turkish for her.

clash of cultures

Inwardly they are all prepared for the big clash of cultures, especially when it comes to the storytelling. The massacres of 1963 and 1974 that are burnt into the consciousness of both communities will inevitably burst into the room and spark a debate about guilt and atonement.

But then everything turns out completely unexpectedly. The careful dramaturgy of the course avoids confrontation and approaches storytelling from a completely innocent perspective: children’s songs and nursery rhymes. When the first participant begins to sing a Greek lullaby a glowing smile radiates from the other faces – and looks of pure amazement. “You know that song too?” ask the Turkish Cypriots with surprise. The next nursery rhyme is in Turkish and then another one in Greek and the tension is broken. It is now no longer about showing one’s own culture to ‘the others’. Now they are simply young adults that enthusiastically recover long-forgotten rhymes and games from deep within their memories and cavort around the room. They all have the same verses, the same melodies so who cares about the language?
Reihentanz Titel
© CIPS
The afternoon was an act of liberation. To pave the way to the stories of the performance, another game is begun called ‘Cyprus Dictionary’. It goes around the whole group without a pause. “My word of the dictionary is ‘Halloumi’, a cheese that every Cypriot loves.” “My word is ‘Koliva’, a sweet dish made of wheat that is served for Remembrance services.” There it is again, that puzzled sharp intake of breath. “Ahhh, you have that too? We call it ‘Gollifa’.” The checkpoints have been open since 2003 and yet the young generation has no idea about the everyday similarities they share with ‘the other side’.

The ‘Cyprus Dictionary’ game begins to drift closer to the more delicate subjects. Without thinking, what immediately comes to mind when you think about Cyprus? “My word is ‘Identity Card’ which you need to cross the dividing line.” “My word is ‘Forget’ so that we don’t remember the past.” “My word is ‘Past’ – that is what lies behind us.” Then the difficult terms: ‘Hero’, ‘Nation’, ‘Pride’. Every one of these words is politically charged in Cyprus. 

without fear of contact

  • Balance 7 © CIPS / Marcos Gittis
  • Balance 1 © CIPS / Marcos Gittis
  • Balance 2 © CIPS / Marcos Gittis
  • Balance 3 © CIPS / Marcos Gittis
  • Balance 4 © CIPS / Marcos Gittis
  • Balance 5 © CIPS / Marcos Gittis
  • Balance 6 © CIPS / Marcos Gittis
After a few weeks there are no more nervous meetings. They greet each other with hearty hugs and kisses to the cheeks before each workshop that shows the closeness that has developed. The closeness is shown even more so during the warm-up exercises. “Lean against each other and trust that you won’t fall over.” Ellada, the dramaturge, constantly calls for new physical exercises that are based on trust and protection. “Imagine that your partner is desperate and wants to run away. Hold them gently but firmly.” They support each other and now they know that they can rely on each other. 

The concept for the performance begins to take shape. Everyone has found their own narration that is based on the memories of their families. The stories deal with grief, love and faith. The actors are like a basketball team where the players pass their stories around like a ball, play it, pass it, take it. Whoever dribbles, tells – hastily, breathlessly. Everybody wants to finish their story, they fetch their imaginary balls back and protect them from the attackers.
 
  • Ballspiel 1 © CIPS / Marcos Gittis
  • Ballspiel 2 © CIPS / Marcos Gittis
  • Ballspiel 3 © CIPS / Marcos Gittis
  • Ballspiel 4 © CIPS / Marcos Gittis
  • Ballspiel 5 © CIPS / Marcos Gittis
  • Ballspiel 6 © CIPS / Marcos Gittis
  • Ballspiel 7 © CIPS / Marcos Gittis

Cheers! Şerefe! Yammas!

Break! Exhausted, they go to have lunch together. The Goethe-Institut lies on neutral ground in the middle of the Green Line, the Buffer Zone between the Turkish-Cypriot so-called state and the Greek-Cypriot truncated state of the Republic of Cyprus. Their neighbours are the headquarter of the UN Peacekeeping Force in Cyprus which monitors the peaceful co-existence on the island and the Home of Cooperation where groups from both communities meet for projects or drinking coffee. To the right and the left are the checkpoints where pedestrians must identify themselves to get to the other part of the country.

This time the mixed group has set out for the Turkish Cypriot north. In the restaurant Doğgül takes the role of host and he reads the menu out loud and explains the dishes. As the waiter serves the food, the enlightened “Ahhh” is heard again. Of course the Greek Cypriots know the dishes because they eat the exact same things, they just have slightly different names. When they clink glasses you hear a mix of “Cheers! Şerefe! Yammas!” all at the same time. They make an agreement for a working weekend by the sea, the tight-knit group wants to spend as much time together as possible.
 
  • Lunch 5 © CIPS / Marcos Gittis
  • Lunch 2 © CIPS / Marcos Gittis
  • Lunch 3 © CIPS / Marcos Gittis
  • Lunch 4 © CIPS / Marcos Gittis
  • Lunch 1 © CIPS / Marcos Gittis
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At the end of a long workshop day they all sit together in a circle and discuss a documentary that they watched as homework in which Greek and Turkish Cypriots describe the horrors of the past. Everyone in the movie recounts their personal views concerning the events. Who is right? The young people pensively begin to talk about their own experiences. How their mother always talked about her escape from the Turkish Army. How the children at school were taught about the Greek Cypriot atrocities using terrible pictures. How the opposite was taught in Greek Cypriot schools. “We thought you were monsters.” “To us, you were the monsters. We were always told that the only good Turk is a dead Turk.”

 


Up until then they had only heard about what had happened in the past from their own community but it was time to listen to what the other side had to say. There is a saying that goes, “There are three sides to a story – both sides and the truth” and not much remains in these stories that can be considered as definite facts. One of the participants brings the discussion to a point: “There was a war. That is a fact. We don’t want a war anymore. That is a fact!” After only twelve workshops these young people fully comprehend that hate and prejudice are legacies that they have been saddled with by previous generations. These are not their own feelings but the feelings of their parents, grandparents, teachers and politicians and they have to live with the consequences.

In the yard of the Goethe-Institut they say their goodbyes with hugs and kisses and then they go their separate ways. The Turkish Cypriots to the left, to the north, the Greek Cypriots to the right, to the south.

It is about time that the younger generation is allowed to tell their own story.

Good Bye Theatre Director and Workshop Leader Achim Wieland (centre left). Dr. Johannes Dahl (centre right) says good bye to the participants of the workshop. The former Director of the Goethe-Institut Zypern initiated the project. | © CIPS / Marcos Gittis