Building Bridges Through Art

Aung Kyaw Tun (PI) and Daniel Ehrlich (Co-I), Inwa School of Performing Arts, Mandalay, Myanmar; and Pyae Sone Aung (Co-I), Yone Kyi Yar Knowledge Propagation Society, Mandalay, Myanmar

Supported by a P4P Medium Grant, this project tests the effect of using traditional Myanmar performance to organically stimulate dialogue between artists, the general population, and elected political representatives on the theme of deepening democracy. Historically, travelling zat pwe artists were the primary conduit of communication between politicians and people, able to reach the most remote rural areas; and they have remained vital and effective to this day.

Harnessing the continuing power and prevalence of travelling theatre troupes, the project creates original drama pieces in the classical form – themed on democratic ideas of tolerance, inclusiveness and equality – and tours them amongst audiences in Mandalay, for example at schools, progressive monasteries, and in public venues, as well as in the countryside. In order to evaluate reactions and responses to the democratic themes parlayed through zat pwe, the team at Inwa School of Performing Arts connected with social research organisation, Yone Kyi Yar, who distributed questionnaires, conducted surveys, and held focus groups with members of the audience as well as of the performing troupe.

The project team believe that communicating democratic ideas through a cultural and artistic medium can strengthen political reflection, dialogue, and change in Myanmar. But the project team were just as enthusiastic about using zat pwe to explore and remind people of the democratic values already enshrined in so many Myanmar traditions. The overall purpose is to engage people in a more participatory way in imagining and making their, and Myanmar’s, future.

Reflecting on the opportunities and challenges around this, the team noted in their application: “Arts have the unusual effect of presenting ideas emotionally and sometimes outside hardened preconceived positions. The population in Myanmar has been heavily supressed for generations by past governments. People have been intimidated to speak among themselves and in public on ideas that assert a bottom-up role for the general population. The ideas that a democratic nation will incorporate differing groups in a tolerant, inclusive and equal fashion is something the population needs to think about and agree upon. Will the artists be able to open up a freer dialogue so that all parties can understand how to work together to create the future that they want?”

In creating, touring, and evaluating the dramatic pieces, Aung Kyaw Tun and his primary collaborator at Yone Kyi Yar, Pyae Sone Aung, are particularly interested to see how people are provoked by the seemingly distinct notions of responsibility and rights. For example: What are the boundaries of responsibility? What are the challenges to government, and to its citizens, in defining the responsibilities that support democratic rights? What is the citizen’s role in assuring a functioning democracy? Who is responsible for democratic malfunction; is it the citizens or the leaders, or both?

The first round of performances – based on the pre-colonial myay waing (ground circle) style – took place between March and April 2019 and was framed around an original drama piece on toleration. It was staged by graduates of Inwa School of Performing Arts 30 times in 18 towns across upper Kachin state, Taungoo district, and Naypidaw district – and drew enthralled audiences, whose focus group discussions yielded widespread enthusiasm for both the content and form of the performance.  The second round of performances took place between June 2019 and April 2020, and engaged new and mainly urban audiences in performances framed around themes of inclusivity and social responsibility. Audiences reached between 300 and 500 people and took place in venues across Mandalay.

In answer to the question of how the plays and performances were received, Yone Kyi Yar’s analysis suggests that zat pwe and other classical forms are thought of as highly articulate forms of communication, able to convey ideas and meanings that resonate emotionally with audience members, even encouraging them to publicly express their own feelings about equality, tolerance, and inclusiveness.

Two key learnings of the project are that democracy is not new to Myanmar and its people, who regard it as faltering due to resistance by authorities or who themselves do not deem it a right; and that older performance styles, though increasingly rare, are still highly valued as mechanisms for bringing people together in a shared social, discursive, and imaginative space. For the performers, participating in the project gave them confidence to talk about socially potent topics in careful and interactive ways with larger groups of strangers – this is a learning they will carry through their future professional lives as performers.

For more information about the Inwa School of Performing Arts, and their Troupe Tours for Tolerance, visit their website.