Ben Rivers, a drama therapist from UK and Australia, has been teaching playback theatre to help people from conflict-zones tell their stories, and create awareness across the world
Writer, actor and drama therapist, 39-year-old Ben Rivers grew up hearing about the conflict in Palestine, whether he was in UK or Australia. So, after completing his degree as a drama therapist and having worked long enough in Playback Theatre in UK and Australia, in September 2011, Rivers left everything behind to work in Occupied Palestine comprising the West Bank and Gaza Strip.
A session in progress inside Occupied Palestine
A trained drama therapist and playback theatre artiste, Rivers has been working with different communities in the Palestine. He uses the medium to help the people share their stories. Rivers is joined by volunteers from around the world, as well as trained Arab musicians and actors.
A session from Occupied Palestine
“Palestine is a very important issue in todays world. It’s something that features heavily in the news (in both UK and Australia). I grew up reading and hearing about it from an early age. I was eager to learn more. The struggle at Palestine (or Middle East) has an impact on world politics, and as long as there’s conflict in this region, the world itself is at the brink of a devastating war,” says Rivers, who is in the city to conduct a workshop on Playback theatre, as part of Mumbai Local by Junoon.
When Rivers reached Palestine, he was surprised by the generosity of its people. “I was expecting a very bitter, broken and angry people because they had to face such daily humiliation. But people over there, over the last 65 years, have found many ways to strengthen their humanity, and keep their spirits and sense of humour alive. I was overwhelmed by the generosity towards each other and to those who come there. It’s a lesson by itself,” he adds.
Life with guns and spying armies
Rivers believes that working in any conflict area is a challenge, but he was baffled by the Israeli apartheid in occupied Palestine. “As an international in occupied Palestine, I have a bit of a choice of where and when I wish to go, but this choice is limited; decisions like whether I want to stay at the front of a demonstration and be caught in the army firing, or chose to stay behind aren't mine. I live at an international camp, which is a bit safer, but there also, the Israeli soldiers break into in the night, arrest people and imprison them without any civil trial.”
Most of his performances are held in the outdoors — under trees, in caves, in open fields. Though Rivers has not been targeted yet, he says that the Israeli Army often monitors their sessions, take pictures of the participants, and some times stop it in the middle. “They have many ways to harass people,” he shares.
Some of his colleagues have been deported and banned from travelling across Israel. “If you have dark skin, have a Muslim name, you may not be harassed and not allowed to enter Israel,” he warns, adding, “They want to deter internationals from coming and seeing the human rights violations or joining the resistance against this Israeli apartheid. What exists in Israel today is very similar to the Apartheid that was there in South Africa.”
Rivers uses two drama techniques to help conflict-affected people share their stories —Playback Theatre, is a form of community theatre, where he asks people to share their stories, the other is psycho drama or drama therapy, where he usually trains Arab mental health workers or social workers on how to use drama therapy to counsel people.
With this theatre, the intention always is political or community building. But before a performance they have to do a lot of outreach and relationship building work with the community. “We perform only among communities where relationships have been established. We have realised that there is a great hunger in the world to know more about Palestine, but we don’t get much of the Palestinian perspective. They want to tell the world what it's like to live in Palestine,” he adds. Apart from conducting theatre sessions, Rivers and his group also help build schools, and conduct workshops for children.
The global activist
“I have worked in Egypt, Jordan, Lebanon, Australia and North America for the last one month. I have also been working with different theatre groups in India, and people who are struggling from oppression or occupation,” says Rivers.
A month ago, the activist was in Ahmedabad, where he worked with members of a de-notified tribe, using community theatre to help them express their stories.
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