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Timaru enacts anti-violence message

By Paul Titus

Accompanied by strains of clarinet music and percussion four black clad members of a Playback Theatre group used body sculptures and drama to enact the stories Timaru church people and community workers told about their efforts to deal with violence and young people.

The Playback Theatre performance on the evening of Hiroshima Day, August 6th, was the latest effort of the Timaru community to become non-violent. Unlike many events marking the occasion around the world, this one had the backing and participation of local government because in 2002 the Timaru District Council adopted a Violence Free Charter.

The Charter calls upon the district council to promote non-violence and urges the community to oppose violence and support both victims of violence and those who strive to live without violence.

Jo Goodhew and Jacqui Robinson of Timaru’s Safer Community Council have the responsibility to work with groups to promote the Charter. They say key NGO and government agencies, as well as schools and other groups have adopted it.

“The challenge we currently face is how to continue to make the Charter a living document, and to get it out into the community. Promoting the message in ways that will reach those who experience or perpetuate violence is a big challenge,” Jo and Jacqui say.

Projects the Charter group has carried out include the design and production of kits for those experiencing violence in their lives but will not accept professional help and a Week Without Violence that features lunchtime programmes and media events. Speakers they have sponsored include Bill Rogers, who addressed parents of children with challenging behaviours and anti-violence researcher Ken McMaster.

New Zealand coordinator of the Decade to Overcome Violence (DOVE) Rev Robyn Cave is impressed with Timaru’s commitment to be a non-violent community.

“Timaru has shown huge initiative and courage to say we will not put up with violence any longer. The Charter came from Timaru’s own experience with violence. Out that awareness they worked away and now they have a mandate to reach out into parts of the community with the anti-violence message.”

Robyn helped organise and sponsor the Playback Theatre performance at The Playhouse in Timaru. She says Playback Theatre is a method of social change through story telling that enables people to reflect on their experience.

“Playback Theatre is a means of communication and decision making that can enable people to get a deeper understanding of what is happening around them. We don’t often reflect on violence, we just get swept along and assume it is inevitable and inherent to human nature.

“The complexity of violence is that it inhibits us from coming to terms with it. Unless we put understanding at the head level alongside our own experience we never get to look at possibilities of being more peaceful communities.

“Story telling can help us do that. The Bible is filled with stories of conflict and destructive violence between friends and families but also stories of reconciliation. Jesus used parables to give people caught up in the world new understandings. He knew some people wouldn’t respond but others would.”

Some poignant as well as humorous stories emerged during the Playback Theatre performance in Timaru. Jo and Jacqui say while some people were hesitated to share their stories during the performance they believe the technique will be a useful tool to work with victims of violence. In particular a community worker who runs a group for teenage mothers believes it would be a good way to help them reflect on their own experience and behaviour.

Ali Watersong is a facilitator for the Christchurch-based Playback Theatre group that performed in Timaru. She says the improvised performances Playback Theatre presents are a way of building community through giving people who may not otherwise have it the opportunity to tell their stories.

“Many people in Playback Theatre have a strong commitment to social justice issues. But also perform at celebratory occasions such as birthday parties and reunions when people want to tell their stories. Our recent performances include two 60th birthday parties, a midwives’ conference, a forum for Catholic women, and a Maori women’s refuge conference.

Playback Theatre is a world-wide movement. Last year Ali attended a conference in Japan which included Playback groups from North and South America, Europe, Asia, and Australia. In New Zealand six Playback Theatre groups are active – in addition to the Christchurch troupe there are ones in Dunedin, the West Coast, Wellington, Auckland, and Northland.

Contact details for local Playback Theatre group are available on the website