Why art thrives during war

Michael Balfour

In Place of War was a 4- year research project that led to the publication of Performance: In Place of War http://www.press.uchicago.edu/ucp/books/book/distributed/P/bo8364297.html.

The project has led to further research in the area of refugee theatre and arts work with returning servicemen from Iraq and Afghanistan. The question at the heart of these research projects is an exploration of why and how the arts can exisit in times of conflict and war.


There were two turning points for the research – first, during In Place of War I interviewed a Commander from KLA who was a sniper at the front. He talked about his experience: After being half-starved and half-crazed by fighting for months, he had a sudden idea that he wanted to put on a play. So he went back to camp, organised some other soldiers and they started to rehearse this play in a forest a few kilometres from the front.

Every night they would return and they would have to re-cast because either someone had been killed or injured. Eventually he persuaded the officers that a morale boosting performance/concert should be staged for all the fighters – so they assembled a crowd and they staged a show.

When I asked him why he had done this he said that the idea, the story, the production had ‘nourished’ him – had kept him human at a time when he felt utterly diminished.
I was fascinated by why and how the military might turn to the arts. So I started looking into this seemingly odd relationship and exploring the history through various wars in different countries.

I found a very rich seem of material that suggested a range of different practices – music, art, photography. Some of it was used as simplistic morale boosting – but others were designed to create counter narratives to militaristic propaganda.

The second turning point: When I got to Australia I started to talk to various people about contemporary issues facing soldiers/military personnel. This was 2004-5 so mid Afghanistan and Iraq – Australia was part of the coalition forces.

I met a Vietnam veteran and he talked about this web site he had founded called Young Diggers. He had set it up because he knew a younger generation of service personal was returning with the same issues as the Vietnam veterans and nobody was doing anything about it.

So at the age of 60, he set up a website that aimed to support/advocate for the younger vets. Through him and the guys I met I became interested in the ways in which digital stories or films might help people connect and raise awareness of some of the Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)/transition issues they were experiencing.

That’s how it started. I collaborated with a team of researchers – Professor Don Stewart, Public Health, Griffith University, Associate Professor Peter Nasveld, Centre for Military and Veterans’ Health, University of Queensland, and Professor Patrick Fuery, Chapman University USA, and the project grew into a three-year study involving digital films and songs, a documentary/verbatim theatre piece and a psycho-education program that uses enactments and role plays.

For further reading online http://www.applied-theatre.org/blog/limits-failures-and-ethics-theatre-and-war

[signoff icon=”icon-username”]Professor Michael Balfour
Chair, Applied Theatre, School of Education and Professional Studies at Griffith University

Michael’s research is in the social applications of theatre. His recent work has focussed on theatre with communities impacted by war; returning military personnel, refugees, and artists in sites of conflict.[/signoff]