Theatres of Conflict: A Conversation with Susannah Tresilian of Project ARIADNE

"Because we all learn from role models, and these are women who are worth following and learning from and who are eager to pass that on."

Project ARIADNE is a revolutionary global arts movement promoting woman-led theatre in current and former zones of conflict. Their mission is to provide a stage to women across the world making theatre either because of the wars they have lived through, or in spite of them.

Susannah Tresilian is a founding member of the project and its current Artistic Director, collaborating with theatre-makers around the world, including Hope Azeda (Rwanda), Dijana Milosevic (Serbia), Frédérique Lecomte (Burundi), Iman Aoun (Palestine), Patricia Ariza (Colombia) and Ruwanthie de Chickera (Sri Lanka).

Her corpus of work focuses predominantly on the promotion of gender equity within international theatre. Recently, her work has seen her collaborating with the Belarus Free Theatre in London and Minsk on Soul Power: The Opera. The Belarus Free Theatre is an underground theatre troupe banned in their home country by the presiding Lukashenko regime, often described as the last dictatorship in Europe. The artistic directors of the group are currently in political exile in London, and are residents of the Young Vic Theatre. The Arts Council offers a bursary for actors and theatre-makers to travel to Minsk and work with the troupe in lieu of their exiled members. Tresillian is covertly working with them, enabling other actors and theatre-makers such as Jude Law, Michael Attenborough, and Sam West to make the journey.


David Maclean: Can you give me a brief history of Project ARIADNE, i.e. how it came together and what the early days were like?  

Susannah Tresilian: We came together through a combination of everything that interests me in my world and my career. My work in the theatre as a director, and as a radio producer for the BBC, comes from a very specific gender perspective—what I call ‘re-equilibrating’ the gender balance in the theatre industry. So combining that with my interest in conflict zones, and how theatre plays a part in societies that are either dealing with or coming out of war, and the fact that theatre is somehow a constant; it manages to happen despite the war going on, or because of the war going on.

And I was interested in the extraordinary women who are steadfastly making this theatre, despite being a rarity in what are often very patriarchal, very masculine societies. All of them have quite different principles behind what they’re doing, but they’re out there on their own making theatre. And I got fascinated by this idea, and I wanted to start a network that would highlight these women, champion them, and support them—finding out what they do, the effect that they’re having and what their stories are. So I went to the University of Manchester, which is where I read drama, and met with one of my professors, James Thompson, who—in addition to being one of the best people alive—runs a project called “In Place Of War.” I met with him to start talking about this project, fleshing out the idea. He has contacts all over the world, and so he was a very, very useful first point to quite literally give me some contacts; to help me find some of these women. Because again, you know, it’s like finding a needle in a haystack with some of them.

Here in Britain, we wouldn’t know about them. But out there in Burundi, for example, they are famous; but the jump between researching something from London and finding the name of somebody like Frédérique Lecomte in Burundi is fairly enormous. So he was very useful for that and one of the things that gave me a real spur for it was James’ excitement that this is, in his knowledge, the first time that anybody has connected the women making this theatre.

So this is the first time that these women are having the spotlights on them. We started out with five women, and asked if they would like to be involved, be interviewed, have songs made about them. Fortunately, they all said yes! So the first step after getting these names on the dotted line, as it were, was to approach the Arts Council England, who astonishingly funded me and a filmmaker called Georgie Weedon to go to Rwanda and Burundi last year and make the first two films, which sort of became the prototype ARIADNE film.

DM: So many of these stories will involve instances of extreme sexual violence. Does that raise any problems for staging them, and how has the audience responded to some of the production?

ST: That’s a very interesting question. I produced a Radio Four documentary in 2014 called The Theatre of the Abused on how sexual violence is portrayed by self-identified feminist theatre makers. The whole discourse about how whether sexual violence should be shown on stage in the first place, and then if so, how? It is so interesting, dense, and important to think about. The conclusion that we came to more or less is, yes, sexual violence needs to be shown, but my God, it needs to be shown thoughtfully. It’s simply not on anymore to thoughtlessly portray sexual violence with half naked women, a fully clothed man and to make it look sexy; all of these things that consistently happen in theatrical and televisual narratives, and filmmaking as well.

Often—but by no means categorically—women are much more sensitive to showing the reality of sexual violence and not glamorizing it. And not making it something sexy or nebulous, but showing the reality of it—the very dark and gruesome reality of it. Applied to ARIADNE, every single woman deals with things very, very differently. But using Frédérique Lecomte as an example: she works with women who have been victims of sexual violence. Often, these are very young girls who have suffered rape as a weapon of war.

These women obviously give their consent to the work, and then they give their stories. But then, very crucially, those stories are then turned into theatre so it moves specifically from therapy, and standing and reliving your own experience, to stepping into character. The experience might be the same, but there is something psychologically very important about being clear that right now you are an actor speaking these words. And in some instances, Frédérique gets people to swap roles. In other instances she gets them to tell their own stories. But very often humor is used; humor and darkness. These plays might then be performed to anything between two and five thousand spectators at a time. They are all locals, people who know the actors who are performing. So there might be torture victims and perpetrators of torture and everybody knows that Joe is the victim of torture and Jane was the perpetrator of torture, and watching them perform has an extraordinarily profound effect on the people watching it.

But it is a play. It’s absolutely clear that it’s a play. And there is a lot of music and there’s a lot of humor, there’s a lot of darkness, and the effect on the audience appears to be incredibly positive. It’s cathartic; it’s funny; it’s full on, and it’s communal. And it’s all in one space.

DM: Is this where the metaphor of the labyrinth comes in? The idea of being trapped in recurrent or cyclical patterns of violence?

ST: I came up with the name ARIADNE right at the beginning and, apart from the fact that I’ve had to explain it to everyone; there are ARIADNE collaborators who still can’t pronounce it! But I’m sticking with it because whether the maze is recurring patterns or it’s conflict, it’s the idea that Ariadne gave a peaceful route out of the maze. There was something very beautiful and very calming about the idea of handling a thread and that, actually, going in and killing the Minotaur is one thing, but there is no point to it if you can’t get out of the maze afterwards; you’ll die in the act. So the name represents the journey out of the conflict, or out of the maze. And it’s the peaceful sort of journey that is the one that comes good in the end.

DM: Why do you think it is that drama is particularly suited to expressing these experiences?

ST: Because theatre tells every story. Theatre is such an important aspect of countries working out who they are and what they’ve lived through—what they want to live through. Being able to watch other people speak your words, or speak the opposite of your words, but speak from your country’s point of view. It’s one of the deepest ways of connecting and moving forward. It’s when you see yourself (or very passionately don’t see yourself) onstage and have that moment to reflect and emotionally or psychologically respond to the story you are being told. That’s a very different relationship that we have with the theatre-maker or an artist in front of you, then we do with a family member that we are discussing it with over a kitchen table. Or a politician orating in front of us on a soapbox. There is something about art that speaks to the heart and the brain—what better way to nourish a society moving forward? Any society. Goodness knows we are all moving forward. I’m never not conscious that Britain is a conflicted country as well. But what better way do we have than to nourish ourselves in those sort of thought processes?

DM: What does the future hold for Project ARIADNE?

ST: We’ll be starting a mentoring scheme and are hoping to set up the first ARIADNE festival in Rwanda in 2016. The point being to be able to not only showcase the work that, at this moment, five ARIADNE-affiliated theatre makers are producing, but also to start bringing together young women and giving them the tools and knowledge to propagate the next generation of theatre makers. Because we all learn from role models, and these are women who are worth following and learning from and who are eager to pass that on. The other thing is that Trinity College Dublin came to a symposium and was blown away by ARIADNE. That began when the Abbey Theater, the national theatre of Ireland, curated an international symposium called “The Theatre of War” in January and they’d heard about our work and asked us to partner with them. That was extraordinary, as on the one hand, it enabled us to promote and kick-start the whole journey of ARIADNE and our goals in a very public forum, and on the other it meant all of us could meet together for the first time.

And that kind of time spent together is absolutely priceless in terms of creating a bond. I remember during the first meeting I sat at table thinking, “I don’t even know if all of these women are going to want the same thing.” But I looked around the table and it was just inspiring. These women are all leaders, all extraordinary, strong, and brilliant: you really would follow them anywhere. And to have them all sitting at the same table, united by the same, was honestly one of the most thrilling moments of my career.

So they offered us a weeklong residency where we could come together to plan and be categorical about the change that we are going to make. On top of that there is going to be research done on our work by Trinity College and Queens University Belfast’s Anthropology Department. So it is growing exponentially. It’s very, very, very exciting that an idea that sparked a year ago is now taking off in such a massive way. It feels very much like the moment is right.


David Maclean is a freelance journalist and writer based in Manchester, United Kingdom. He is a Marketing Manager for Asymptote and Editor of Angle Grinder Magazine. Their inaugural issue, “North,” will be released in January 2016.

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