Theatre as a spiritual path | Hector Aristizábal

Theatre has run throughout my entire life. At university, while I was studying psychology, I would dedicate all my nights to the collective creation of plays that addressed social issues. As actors, we decided to support the revolution in Colombia from the stage.

As a psychology student, I started using improvisation to submerse myself in the themes that interested me. In the shoes of characters like Zicotico, I walked the streets of Medellín like a psychotic wanderer, getting into the sewers of my city, waking up with the bastards and the prostitutes in parks and on dirty sidewalks, gathering in my body and soul the social and emotional world of what many treated as human garbage.

A lot of them were characters that I created in my desire to understand the human soul in constant struggle with the social conditions of growing inequality and violence. The public space was taken over by the war between various guerrillas, paramilitary groups, the police and the army at the service of power and the new cocaine mob with its armies of young men ready to kill and die at any cost. Life lost all its sacred value and chaos took over our lives. We made theatre to keep the soul alive, even if very few people came to see our plays.

In 1982, I was arrested and tortured by the army on the accusation of being a guerrilla. I survived and resisted some more years until the assassination of various friends forced me to leave the country. The fate of destiny led me to the United States, the imperialist country that caused the majority of our problems. Without money, without knowing anyone, while I was learning English, theatre allowed me to start working in schools. I fell in love, had two beautiful children, returned to university, made theatre in schools, then in prisons, and with TAYE’R performance collective and the use of grants, I directed and created numerous community theatre plays.

In 1990, in Omaha, Nebraska, at a conference on Pedagogy and Theatre of the Opressed, I met Augusto Boal and my life changed drastically. As a psychologist, I immediately started using the Rainbow of Desire, which, combined with psychodrama, now gave me a powerful methodology to move from the intrapsychic and the intersubjective to the social. I directed numerous forum plays with gang members, with people affected by HIV/ AIDS, with torture survivors, immigrants and in prisons.

Meanwhile in Colombia, in 1998, my brother Juan Fernando was abducted, horribly tortured and killed by paramilitary groups. Pain, anger, helplessness and hatred took over my psyche. In a way, I was experiencing symptoms of PTSD, I didn’t seem to find a way out. The pain and the murder of my brother and my childhood wounds being reopened led me, together with a group of friends, to create the monologue Nightwind, in which I talked about my torture by the Colombian army in 1982 and the abduction, torture and assassination of my brother by paramilitary groups. I was tortured when I was 22 years old and 22 years later, I was able to summarise that experience in a play. It was my ritual way of becoming the author of my life, and not the victim or the survivor. Theatre once again literally connected to my life in a totally organic way by integrating and redefining the most traumatic aspects of what I was experiencing.

I was invited to universities, symposiums about torture, social organisations. Eventually, with ImaginAction, the company that I founded in 2000, I started giving trainings in the use of the techniques of the Theatre of the Oppressed in pedagogical and therapeutic work and in activism. I designed trainings for psychosocial teams in war and post-war zones and in areas with natural disasters or extreme violence.

Theatre of the Oppressed was complemented by Playback and above all by my meeting in Northern Ireland with Teya Sepinuck, creator of the Theatre of Witness. In this way, in the last 20 years, I have had the privilege of learning from communities in more than 50 countries. However, it is the work in war zones and post-conflict areas that has most marked my personal process. Working with ex-combatants in Northern Ireland, Guatemala, South Africa, El Salvador, Nepal, the Basque Country, Palestine, Israel and other countries was preparing me – without me knowing it – to be able to return to my country and face my own shadow again.

When the discussions between the FARC guerrillas and Santos’s government about a peace agreement started to appear definitive, I took the decision to return and to completely dedicate myself to the process of peace and to offer the medicines that have helped me heal.

In 2016, I returned to Colombia and with a wonderful group we created a project called Reconectando to accompany the challenging work of the Truth Commission. The project invites 20 people, from ex-combatants of all groups, their victims, social leaders and other people interested in 24 003 participating in an intense 5 day-process, literally in the womb of Mother Earth. In these spaces we combine deep ecology, social theatre and healing rituals to connect us as people who have lived through war and are committed to peace through uncovering truth and creating conditions for coexistence and non-repetition.

Today, theatre is the way to connect with our ecological being, with what we have always been, daughters and sons of the earth, natural beings with the capacity to symbolise, biological beings with the capacity to make theatre. For many years, despite loving nature, I was trapped in anthropocentric paradigms that separated me from our essence.

All human beings come into the world to bring gifts, to deliver our medicine, which is unique and unrepeatable in the way it is expressed in each of us and which the world needs. Theatre is one of the medicines that houses my soul and that has allowed me to give my gift to the world and in this way participate in the constant creation of life. Theatre has been my spiritual path.

Hector Aristizábal was born and grew up in Medellín, Colombia during the civil war. He works all over the world in post conflict and war areas to help people tap the transformative power of theatre. He was honoured with the prestigious Otto René Castillo Award for Political Theatre.