Ellen Kaplan, chair of Theatre, professor of acting and directing at Smith College, and Executive Committee member of the OICD, discusses her work with women in Sarajevo.

In the 1990s, Europe saw the worst carnage since WWII, with the breakup of Yugoslavia, in what became known as the 3rd Balkan War.  Seventy years after it was created, Yugoslavia – the Land of the Southern Slavs – no longer exists.    The conflicts that erupted were occasioned by virulent nationalism that erupted upon the death of strongman Tito and the collapse of his quasi-Communist government.  The wars in the 90s between former provinces of Yugoslavia killed 140,000 people and were characterized by “ethnic cleansing” – the driving of millions from their homes.  Ultimately, the Serbian-led drive to create a ‘greater Serbia’ – one of the major factors in the war – was unsuccessful.

In summer of 2011, Peg Denithorne and I interviewed Bosnian women who lived through the 3rd Balkan war and are now trying to recover their lives from the ashes of war.   Denithorne, an acclaimed theatre director, had visited Sarajevo ten years earlier.  She and I were invited by the members of Sarajevo Phoenix, a women’s collective in Sarajevo, to record stories of the war and to create a play based on these interviews.

The city of Sarajevo is a true kaleidoscope of cultures, known for its rich ethnic diversity and cosmopolitan mix of flavors and textures, and its blending of Muslim, Christian, Roma and Jewish communities.  The crossroads of empires, it had its own very distinctive life.  When the wars came to an end, people sought to repair what had been destroyed.   In Sarajevo, a group of women crossed ethnic lines to work and talk; together, they formed Sarajevo Phoenix, an embroidery collective of Muslim, Croat and Serb women who lived through the siege of Sarajevo; these women, each of whom is the principal bread-winner for her family, make and sell hand-stitched items, using the web to generate international sales.  The collective is more than an economic lifeline – it offers the women friendship, and hope.

Our interviews began with the members of Sarajevo Phoenix.  In addition to the primary group, we interviewed women in Srebenica still searching for the missing bones of their relatives; survivors of rape camps; refugees rebuilding their lives; Serb women who opposed the slaughter; and women involved in Heart Through Peace, an advocacy and service organization based in Kostaric, in Bosnia.  Their stories form the core of a play exploring war and its aftermath, as seen through the eyes of women who work together as a means of survival and an act of courage.

Sarajevo Phoenix, a play in two acts, is a collage of narratives from these women.   Their accounts of the war and its aftermath form the core of the performance.

Documentary theatre piece based on extensive interviews with members of Sarajevo Phoenix, a mixed-ethnicity collective, and others who survived the siege of Sarajevo (1992-1995).  The play gives theatrical shape to personal stories of struggle and redemption as the conflict played out – and continues to play out – in Sarajevo.

As a work of Verbatim Theatre, a documentary theatre based on material culled from first-person interviews and pre-existing text, Sarajevo Phoenix draws upon local knowledge to create counter-histories that are inherently political, often lyrical, and deeply poetic.

The play may be seen as a form of Verbatim Theatre which is called “Theatre of Witness,” in which survivors reveal and explore their experiences undergoing social ruptures and civic trauma.  Witnesses are speaking the unspeakable, bearing witness in their bodies.  While at first victims may be too traumatized to speak, re-telling can be a kind of public mourning; expression leads to healing, and makes a contribution to history.  Sarajevo Phoenix allows survivors of the Balkans wars to speak back to history and come to terms with those events that fundamentally altered their lives.  As such, it also contributes to history, as told from the perspective of its agents and its victims.

Unmourned losses are dangerous; theatre may offer a site for both commemoration and celebration.  As outsiders, we have been invited to facilitate memory in large part because of our status as non-participants, in a process that permits survivors to speak back to history.  Sarajevo Phoenix allows for such healing, both in Bosnia and elsewhere.

In this project, witnesses to history have invited us to shape and share their stories; this brings both ethical and aesthetic challenges.  This becomes a story told from the perspective of insiders and outsiders, both; the writers’ responses are part of the story, but if they remain implicit, unstated, or invisible – an opportunity is lost.  In our work, verbatim testimony is selected and shaped by non-participants.  To make this element explicit, we intercut photos, theatrical imagery (e.g. ashes of 2 million books filling the skies), and historical material, offering multiple perspectives without sacrificing the core story of survival.   By developing the script in workshop with adult learners from the inner core of an economically devastated American city, we uncover links between survivors of different kinds of war – we are creating an elastic working script that will exist in different versions, depending on where – and to whom – it is told.

What functions as a theatre of memory in Sarajevo is another kind of theatre when presented in the US.  By developing the script in workshop with adult learners from the inner core of an economically devastated American city (Holyoke, MA) we have uncovered links between survivors of different kinds of war.  Sarajevo Phoenix is an elastic, working script that will exist in different versions, depending on where – and to whom – it is told.

The play presents a wonderful opportunity to share the Bosnian women’s experiential knowledge with people all over the Balkans and the United States.   Their fine-grained memories of war and survival are part of a global project of witnessing, and are appropriate for educational and theatrical venues (including the Theatre of Memory/Theatre MESS Festival to which we have been invited); and for audiences in the US, where the events in the former Yugoslavia are part of a ‘forgotten war.”