Frédérique Lecomte uses drama to help child soldiers, as well as other victims and perpetrators in conflict zones, writes Ellie O’Byrne.
When Frédérique Lecomte was working in the Democratic Republic of Congo earlier this year, she encountered a scenario that she thinks sums up the therapeutic power of her work in theatre and reconciliation.
The Belgian theatre director, who visits Ireland this week, was improvising a scene with a group: one young man, Ushindi, was enacting a scenario with painful resonance in his own life.
“The other performers all started shouting, ‘Don’t shoot me, Ushindi! Ushindi, I am your school mate, I am your brother, don’t kill me!’ And then the commandant ordered him to kill them, so he did.”
Art was imitating life. Ushindi, like far too many young Congolese people, is himself a former childsoldier.
And child soldiers, Lecomte explains, are often ordered to kill and perpetrate other atrocities against members of their own family by their recruiters.
“It’s a weapon of war to oblige the child soldier to kill those they know, because after that they are completely under the control of the soldiers,” Lecomte says. “Afterwards, they are open to kill anybody.”
Ushindi agreed to perform the same role in the touring playLecomte was organising, saying, “it’s hard for me, but I can do it because it’s theatre.”
“After the scene, we talked about it, and I said, ‘I know most of you were made to do these things and that you weren’t responsible for what you did. It was the adults who made you do it that were responsible.’
"Through repeating the scene, I’m sure it was therapeutic not only for him, but for the audience.”
Lecomte, through her work with the theatre group she founded, Theatre & Reconciliation, has worked under such charged conditions for over 15 years.
With a degree in sociology, she turned to community theatre as a graduate, before finding both her calling, and the father of her children, with a visit to south Senegal to work with rebels in the separatist Casamance region.
“I made theatre with the rebels and it was my first confrontation with war and theatre, with working in the mother tongue of people in a conflict zone,” she says. “And I met my future husband; he was a rebel.”
And after that? “We got married, we had children, and I took the rebel to Belgium and he’s not a rebel any more, but this is another story,” she says with a laugh.
As well as being a company name, Theatre & Reconciliation is atechnique and a manifesto. In 2005 when Lecomte was working in a prison in Burundi and had theopportunity to work both with Hutu prisoners who had been sentenced to death for war crimes, and displaced Tutsis, their sworn enemies.
“It was during that experience that I said to myself, ‘Ah-ha! This is what I need to do in life.’
"Theatre is a common ground where people can express themselves and build a performance which can be heard by all parts of the audience, even enemies.”
As a Belgian, her most recent work in the Congo is called ‘War is not a Children’s Game’, Lecomte can’t help but come with a heightened awareness of being a “westerner”: The Congo is a former Belgiancolony, the centre of the early 20th century rubber trade notorious for the brutality of the colonisers.
“I’ve just been in the Congo with a big team of white people, because we worked with 30 Belgian and European performers and 25 former child soldiers, and I can feel that people are very guilty and afraid to reinject a form of colonisation into the process,” she says. “Yes, I’m white and I come there with white money and work with child soldiers. We are stuck in a contradiction inside a contradiction.”
Lecomte recognises the issue but avoids going down the route of self-flagellation. “You can’t deny what was done but to construct a performance on this is not healthy. Reconciliation arrives if there’s a connection between people. My work is in the connection on stage, and that’s how I save myself from colonisation.”
As well as her work in countries like Burundi, Rwanda and the Congo,Lecomte’s theatre company alsouses reconciliatory processes in Belgium, working with marginalised communities like refugees and people suffering from addiction.
She’s also participating in this week’s Dublin Arts and Human Rights Festival, where she’ll give a workshop on theatre in conflict zones and another on ‘Freedom trails’, which commemorate the WWII Resistance movement and its efforts to help soldiers and civilians escape Nazi- occupied areas.
“Of course, as artists, we all have a big responsibility to draw a world we would like to live in,” she says.
“It happens all the time, in different ways; theatre is like a magic wand, a ceremony, a process where some healing can get in.”
Frédérique Lecomte will give a workshop on Methods for Theatrical Practice in Conflict Zones on Thursday as part of Dublin Arts and Human Rights Festival. The preceding Freedom Trails of Europe event, in which she is also participating, is sold out.
Co-hosted by Smashing Times International Centre for the Arts and Equality and Irish human rights organisation Front Line Defenders, DAHRF sees performances and workshops highlighting the role of the arts in promoting human rights. It takes place in various Dublin venues from Thursday to September 29. Info: www.smashingtimes.ie
Escape Routes and Freedom Trails
A network of escape routes founded by ordinary men and women helped Allied soldiers and civilians escape Nazi-occupied territory in World War II. A varied evening on the theme includes a musical performance by Cork singer-songwriter Hilary Bow and Liam Ó Maonlaí.
Pat Kinevane’s Olivier award-winning one-man show tackles the impacts of homelessness and mental illness through the inner world of his protagonist, Tino McGoldrick. Followed by a panel discussion on dignity in human rights with Kinevane and Pieta House founder Senator Joan Freeman.
A video art installation created by Sinéad McCann, exploring the intersection of prisoners’ rights, both historic and present-day, and mental illness. Voiced by Fair City actor Tommy O’Neill, the piece has previously toured other sites with a connection to the Irish penal system, including Kilmainham Gaol and Spike Island in Cobh.
Righteous Verse – An Evening of Spoken Word and Music
Libyan-Irish musician Farah Elle, Dublin theatre-maker and spoken word performer Vicky Curtis perform at an evening that fuses music, spoken word performance and activism.
The Artist Speaks: Arts and Human Rights
Visual artists, poets and performers including Jesse Jones, Ríonach ní Néill, and Raymond Keane will discuss how awareness of human rights informs their creative practice. Also includes a poem, Unsettled Woman, by Traveller writer and activist Rosaleen McDonagh.