Written from a practice-as-research perspective, this thesis focuses on the use of testimony in creating material for the stage. Designed as a reflexive performance ethnography and action research study, the work is concerned with developing a new performative strategy to address the memory of pain in the aftermath of conflict and to contribute to rebuilding communities dispersed by social and political unrest. Informed by methodologies and performance practices involved with the curation of testimonial content and conceptually inspired by the work of theatre director Augusto Boal, anthropologist Victor Turner and psychiatrist Dori Laub, Memodrome, as I named my technique, resides within the field of Applied Drama. It is intended to facilitate the direct interaction between a testifier and an empathic witness while generating simultaneous narratives based on the memories of the participants and their synergetic experiences.
By using testimonial performance to explore aspects of the exilic and diasporic experience of Romanians in the UK and by making reference to the political and social tensions in the aftermath of the 1989 anti-communist revolution, this research aims at contributing to the understanding of how the experience of pain can reshape the cultural behaviour of a community and address feelings of belonging. Memodrome: Incubator, Memodrome: Roots and Memodrome: Home, the three performances I have created for the purpose of this PhD research, are experimental laboratories based on the particular and various experiences of life impacted by coercive and oppressive political governance. Memodrome: Incubator presents the testimony of a Romanian refugee artist who escaped a 30 years sentence in a communist prison by fleeing to the UK. Memodrome: Home explores testimonies of four Romanian migrants in the UK while Memodrome: Roots, constructed as a counter performance, captures the testimonies of six Romanians who are still based in their native country but reportedly feel that life under communism affected their feelings of belonging.
The three case studies mentioned above constitute the foundation for developing a new performative strategy aimed at supporting communities affected by conflict to claim their past, commemorate painful experiences and celebrate survival. Examining the role of collective memory in the formation of public narratives, my proposal offers an alternative space where tensions can be negotiated through democratic means of spectatorship and collective authorship. This project demonstrates how capturing and performing personal testimonies can bring members of the community together and bridge differences.
This work is structured in three main parts, each organised with several chapters and subchapters. In the first part of this thesis, I will provide a brief historical context and discuss how Romanian cultural behaviour has been reshaped in the shadows of the communist oppression. I will explore issues of identity in the aftermath of the anti-communist revolution in 1989 and argue that Romanians formed a new nation, one of people who lost their sense of place and belonging.
I will also present my methodological approach articulating my affiliation with the practice of Applied Drama and explain how my academic and cultural background allowed me to engage with this work from a performative ethnographic perspective. In addition, in the first part of the written work, I will reflect on theoretical aspects with reference to memory, trauma, identity and nationhood and show how testimony can provide a powerful and restorative device in negotiating the tensions within communities affected by pain and oppression.
In the second part of the research I will illustrate the conceptual framework of how I developed this new performative strategy to address the life of communities affected by painful pasts and to promote routines of reconciliation between its members by using testimony and performance. I will be reflecting on performativity, performance and the making of the self from an experiential perspective.
Moreover, I will provide a theoretical framework to locate my practice alongside existing practices including Augusto Boals’s Forum Theatre technique and his concept of simultaneous dramaturgy that has influenced my thinking and technical approach. I will be articulating performative aspects which inform my strategy and establishing in particular how participative performance, as an art of experience, can provide a valuable platform for democratic spectatorship and collaborative authorship.
The present study is carried in the form of a practice-as-research PhD and therefore I will describe the process of creating three performances – Memodrome: Incubator, Memodrome: Home and Memodrome: Roots – and using them as investigation tools to design a new performative strategy I have called Memodrome. The third part of this work is concerned with the illustration of the practice and demonstrating how performance art, especially Applied Drama, is defined by the process rather than result.
The three case studies that I will be presenting emphasise how performing testimony and the staging of oral histories can respond to questions of belonging and social interaction while driving the negotiation of identities in the public sphere. For example, Memodrome: Incubator – where I staged the story of Mariana Gordan, a Romanian exile living in Britain for the past thirty years and Memodrome: Home – where I staged the testimonies of four Romanian migrants living in London – can both be read as counter narratives to the story of Romanian migration in the UK. They all articulate frames of selfhood that have been only very rarely, if never, represented in the British mainstream public space with connection to the Romanian diaspora: the role of the artist, gender diversity, women activism, otherness versus togetherness. Likewise, Memodrome: Roots, produced in Romania, provides an insightful picture of the struggles concerning the identity of the Romanian self and the contrastive narratives of its cultural embodiment.
I will conclude each case study with the learnings and reflections extracted from each performance and describe my decision making based on those findings.
A relatively new way of engaging with both research and arts or producing new knowledge1, the practice-as-research model can yet pose some challenges and tensions within different academic frames. As a practitioner at core, my writing will be aiming at capturing the essence of the practice in the making, the process and the experience.