Interview with Chen Alon

Dr. Chen Alon is a founding member of the organization “Combatants for Peace”, professional actor, theatre director, facilitator of Theatre of the Oppressed and lecturer at Tel Aviv University. He served for four years in the Israeli army and then, for 11 years as an operations officer in the reserves. As a Major (res.), Alon was a co-founder of "Courage to Refuse", a movement of officers and combatant soldiers who refuse to serve in the occupied Palestinian territories, an action for which he was sentenced to prison. In “Combatants for Peace” he is working with former combatants from Israel and Palestine in order to create spaces for dialogue and the search for a non-violent conflict solution. He co-developed the Polarized model of Theatre of the Oppressed. 

June 2014 by Robert Klement

… about radical intimacy and missing visions


Robert: What was your way into theatre and why did you stick with it in the end?


Chen: That’s a complicated question. The real answer is that I don’t know. I can remember myself as a child doing a lot of shows with my brother. I think we tried to make my father happy. Then, at school, I remember directing a newspaper theatre as a small child. It wasn’t newspaper theatre as we know it. In 1976, when I was 7 years old, there was an event with Israeli hostages, a kidnapped airplane and a military operation. The Israeli defense forces went to Uganda and rescued the hostages and released them. I organized some children from my class and we made a show about that. That’s my first memory of theatre. I wanted to embody an event that touched me. Then, later on, it was really about becoming an artist. I think that theatre was the medium that I felt best to express myself and to be seen. It’s as obvious as that. I loved arts since I was a very young boy.


R: What was your main theatrical influence - any play writers from a traditional Israeli theatre scene?


C: Absolutely. There is one Israeli play writer and he is a genius at the level of Shakespeare, Molière, Beckett, Pinter and others, of course. I assume that you don’t know him. His name is Hanoch Levin. He is one of the best and I really love him since I was very young. There is quite a lot Israeli (so-called) theatre that deals with political issues. There is one mythical theatre performance from 1948, the year that Israel was established. It is called “He went in the fields” and was considered to be the first Israeli Zionist patriotic play. Each and every student in Israel studies that play, the production and the mythical story behind it. Theatre is a deep component in the Israeli culture.


R: When did you start to study theatre?


C: After the service in the army. Almost nobody studies before that. You graduate from high school when you are 18. The vast majority of the people go to the army – men and women. So, people don’t start studying before they are twenty-one. In Israel, the mandatory service for men is 3 years. But as an officer I volunteered to serve an additional year; so I served 4 years in the army. Afterwards, I went to the most well-known acting school in Israel.


R: What is your path from rather traditional theatre to Theatre of the Oppressed (TO)?


C: I was in the professional artistic scene of repertory theatre in Israel. But there was a turning point in my personal story, a transformation that I went through as a citizen and as a reservist officer. After the terrible actions we were doing in the Second Intifada in 2000 and 2001 and after the Camp David Summit I went through a crisis. As a consequence, I participated in an initiative that wrote a petition that we would refuse to serve in the occupied territories. I didn’t know this was going to change my theatrical life as well. I thought it’s only a Civilian decision of disobedience. I was sentenced to jail for a month and when I was released from jail it was clear to me that I am not willing to serve in the army anymore. It was clear to me that I cannot continue with the repertory theatre. It was a process of a year or two when these two decisions were made. Afterwards I was lost. I left the theatre but I had a daughter – so I had to make a living. I did a lot of children’s shows and stuff in the TV. Then, I decided to go to university because I knew I didn’t want to change my “profession” (because of Boal I say “profession” with quoting marks; making theatre used to be only my profession). I signed up for the theatre department in Tel-Aviv University and during the first year I heard about Augusto Boal and the Theatre of the Oppressed. In the meantime, while I was an activist, I searched, in a very naïve way, for ways to implement my need to do theatre. I got an offer to work in prison. I tried to do some Theatre of the Oppressed exercises from Boal’s books with prisoners. Then, I heard there was a budget for a project with Israeli and Palestinian youth. They took me because I was playing for 6 years in the repertory theatre. In order to work and study with Boal, I flew to the US to have a workshop with him. But he didn’t show up. He was sick. That was really frustrating. But I got to know his son Julian, who invited me to Paris a few months later. Julian thought it was interesting that I was doing Forum Theatre with Israelis and Palestinians. He invited me to do a workshop and a presentation for his group. Just before I started he said “You are going to have a special guest tonight.” It was Augusto Boal – so our first encounter was him sitting in my lecture. He was coming to listen to me. I met him again in Pula in an international TO festival and in other occasions.


R: So what is “Combatants for Peace”?


C: “Combatants for Peace” is a movement of ex-combatants – who were combatant soldiers and officers who served in the Israeli army and Palestinian combatants who were fighting in an armed struggle against the Israeli occupation (Israelis would call them terrorists; they define themselves as freedom fighters). Most Palestinians who founded “Combatants for Peace” were ex-prisoners who were put to jail for struggling against Israel. In this movement, we are committed to education and spreading the message of non-violence. All of us are committed to struggle against the occupation non-violently. We see the occupation as the main problem. We promote actions and projects related to these principles. We have the political vision of a 2 state solution with East-Jerusalem as the capital of Palestine, evacuating all Jewish settlements, etc. But personally, I believe that this is not the updated vision. We are in transition right now from a 2-state solution to interesting other ideas. We are still trying to manufacture consensus within the movement. Because most of the people don’t think that a two state solution is visionary and would be a viable solution.


R: The conflict between Israelis and Palestinians polarizes many people around the world. It’s such a complex situation – why do you think that theatre is something useful within this complexity?


C: I will quote Augusto Boal: “Theatre is a form of knowledge”. I believe it’s more sophisticated and deeper than that. I think it’s a form of knowledge, which is able to avoid, bypass or subvert obstacles such as the resistance to no ideas, the resistance to feel for the other or identify with the other. They are all things that prevent us from being transformed. Theatre allows us to take an action and to observe ourselves at the same time, to put ourselves in the shoes of the other or to embody another person: I truly believe that these qualities of theatre are transformative.


R: So what is it when you talk about “radical intimacy”?


C: I call it “radical intimacy” or “polarized intimacy”. It’s a special kind of non-stereotypical intimacy that we experience in “Combatants for Peace” in specific moments, hours and transformative events. The context of our encounter connected with the past we have and the quality of transformation we have been through preserve the conflict and its roots and, at the same time, allow us to live the ideal image, to live our vision in present. It’s what Augusto Boal was calling metaxis. You experience two existences, inside and outside of yourself. You can feel that with another person that was literally shooting at you in the past. Some people in “Combatants for Peace” have been in the same battle fields. When you take it as a theatrical image, imagine two men shooting at each other, two men demonstrating together against the occupation and two men doing theatre together. During our scenes we represent ourselves like we were 10 years ago trying to kill each other. The imposition of these two events is providing an existence which I call polarized intimacy.


R: Where do you see the main difference between the original model of Theatre of the Oppressed and the polarized model Theatre of the Oppressed?


C: Reality shows that Israelis and Palestinians around us often choose violence as a solution. I know there are a lot people on both sides who do not actively participate in violence. But I think that most of the people are passive. Doing nothing means they are responsible for the violence as well. The classical Theatre of the Oppressed is demanding and requiring non-violence only in the theatre making but not in the reality around it. In early writings, Augusto Boal was referring to the violent guerilla as part of the solutions that are discovered in Forum Theatre. For us, it’s not forbidden to use violent solutions in Forum Theatre but we emphasize that this is not acceptable, not only in theatre but in reality as well. Violence is always the problem and never the solution. Everywhere in the world people are doing Theatre of the Oppressed in a non-violent way. But then they discover violent solutions for their problems in reality. Our idea is to be committed to the principles of non-violence in order to create a dialogue between reality and theatre. We don't accept it as something which is true for theatre but not true for reality. From this perspective, I think we are more radical than the classical Theatre of the Oppressed. Another important root is the re-humanization. We have to heal the wounds of our bloody past through a constant reconciliation and trust-building process. This is irrelevant for the original model of Theatre of the Oppressed because you don’t want to build trust with oppressors; you don’t want to heal wounds on both sides or re-humanize both sides. We train ourselves to be able to transform from passive to active. I think that empathizing and sympathizing with the other, seeing the other, feeling and acting for the other are transformative healing powers which are needed for people in conflict zones.


R: What do you think is the biggest challenge for the TO techniques and network?


C: I think that Theatre of the Oppressed is in a crisis. I am not preaching for anything; I appreciate everyone who is doing whatever they feel is the right thing to do within their context. Personally, I have very limited options because the context is so constraining and demanding. In my context, I don’t have to search for a field of work. I respond to a specific need and I think my life is easier (as a Joker) from that perspective. But the crisis I see is that there are more Jokers than struggling groups in the recent years. I don’t think it’s a problem but it’s definitely a bad sign. TO has become a more of a market and less struggling arenas. People are more into selling and buying products. The work has become more about the technique and trainings. One experience is followed by another. This is the de-politization of Theatre of the Oppressed. Not enough communities in need get a connection with Theatre of the Oppressed and are engaged in long term processes/struggles. There are too many Jokers who do not settle to develop their own groups – groups which have a political vision, a goal, a strategy, tactics and so on. This is the heart core of Theatre of the Oppressed. Contextualization means having a clear vision, strategizing and finding the suitable theatrical tactics. The techniques themselves are only tactical tools. They are not the goal of Theatre of the Oppressed. People are walking around in circles. Not enough jokers stop to develop something that can be rooted. But there are also other examples of jokers and companies which are rooted, engaged and struggling for a long time with in the same contexts.  Some of them are quite institutionalized but still they have a vision within their communities. They have a strategy of how to use Theatre of the Oppressed in order to fulfill their vision. They organize trainings and tours, but still they do Forum Theatre with a clear vision and a clear strategy.


R: Do you think it’s harder to find a vision in Western Europe because superficially we have the feeling of everything being ok?


C: The Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Žižek refers to the problem that you're describing in your question as a failure of the "Western world" to have a contra-vision to Capitalism. We don’t know what we want instead of it. We know that we don’t want Communism; we don’t want so-called Socialism and other camouflages of Marxism. But what is it we want? It’s a failure for many years and it creates stagnation. Like in forum theatre we end up with an unsolved question that invites for an intervention.   


R: Thank you.