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Both Sides of the Wall: Natasha Greenblatt, Political Theatre & The Peace Maker

January 3, 2013

By: Alex ‘Addy’ Johnson

Even for the most well-read and curious person, it is difficult to get your bearings when trying to understand the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Combine centuries of history with modern-day media noise and I’m not entirely surprised that, yes, if you Google it, there is an Israeli-Palestinian Conflict for Dummies.

But when you’re feeling particularly confused and ill-informed, and you would totally read all about it on the Globe and Mail site if it wasn’t for that pesky pay wall, it might be comforting to know that you’re actually part of a greater conversation – the social discourse aimed at creating more social discourse around the issue and, hopefully as a result, more understanding.

This was the bulk of my conversation with Natasha Greenblatt, the woman behind The Peace Maker opening tonight at the Next Stage Festival.

“It’s been a difficult conversation to have,” she says. “It’s been a bit taboo. But that’s changing. Obama started to change the language around it – not quite enough in my opinion, but he started to change the language. The paradigm is shifting. It’s a good time to push that conversation.”

In 2009 (not a particularly calm time in the Middle East), Natasha went on Birthright – the free heritage trip to Israel offered to all young Jewish people. Following that she spent two months in the West Bank volunteering as a drama teacher.

“When I started out I definitely felt [the conflict] was hard to talk about. I didn’t know enough. So I went to find out more.”

I asked her if she feels she knows enough about it now.

“I know enough,” she said, “to know that I have to talk about it.”

The Peace Maker, directed by Jennifer Brewin, is the story of Sophie, a young Jewish woman loosely based off Natasha, herself, and her struggles with ‘identity and justice and the desire to ‘make-peace’ in the Middle East.’ In Natasha’s own words it was inspired by her “time on both sides of the wall.”

The Peace Maker at The Toronto Fringe

Natasha fearlessly refers to The Peace Maker as “political theatre”. I say fearlessly because, like anything with the word political in front of it, a person is bound to get some mixed reactions. And when it comes to theatre, a handful of didactic bad eggs have given the whole genre a bad rap. But I would argue things are turning around, thanks to industry contributors like Praxis TheatreDocket Theatre, Michael Healey’s Proud, and Studio 180.

“I’m very inspired by the work Studio 180 does,” Natasha says. So inspired, in fact, that she wrote a piece for the Studio 180 blog wherein she described her bike ride home from The Normal Heart, absolutely elated with the “realization that people can talk about politics on stage, and it can be emotional and interesting.”

Her blog post continued: “There is sometimes a taboo about ‘political theatre,’ a sense that it is cerebral, or boring, or only for people that know a lot about the specific politics of the play. I have, at times, felt slightly sheepish writing my ‘Israel-Palestine play’. But I now strongly believe that political theatre is really just like any theatre, and that Israel and Palestine was just where my heart was living in 2009 when I     started writing this play. And ‘political theatre’ is for everyone, as long as it’s good theatre.”

Here’s the conundrum about political theatre that has always mystified me: Good drama is personal – the playwright puts their heart into it. And politics are personal – never bring elections up at family dinner. But good drama is also about two things pulling in opposite directions, presenting various perspectives. So how does a dramatist keep that opposing tension going when their heart lies strongly on one side? Natasha admits she struggled with this.

“It was very upsetting to be living in Palestine and seeing people confined. Not able to move because of checkpoints, and in some places really oppressed because of who they were. And I was critical in general of the notion of a state that is for one group of people. But,” she continues, “of course everything is more complicated. Palestinian people will tell you about things that are wrong with their government. And ultimately I can’t convince people to think a certain way. I just have to present a theatrical dilemma and allow people to take whatever they take from it.”

I asked Natasha if she would ever consider touring The Peace Maker to the Middles East.

“I’ve thought about it,” she says. “However, it’s a play about being a North American in a place that is completely different. Sophie is the eyes of the audience. It’s about being an outsider. It can be seen as an allegory for how Canada sees itself in politics as a peace maker, and that doesn’t always work out so well.”

However, while she hasn’t completely abandoned the idea of touring The Peace Maker to the Middle East, it exists in Toronto here and now for all of us to see including (but not limited to) a full band that Natasha described as “wicked.”

With Samuel Sholdice heading up the music, the band features four high school students as well as music from the actors and the well-known Maryem Toller. All told, The Peace Maker features two violinists, a bass clarinetist, a trumpeter, an accordion, two guitars, one piano, and an additional clarinet.

“The musicians transform between Israelis and Palestinians and that function is important to me because it’s about context. So often your identity is defined by context. This person is this person because they grew up on one side of the wall and not the other. The main character believes that music can bring peace and heal everybody and then she finds out that it’s a lot more complicated than that. However, there is still something true in her vision – that music is a universal language. And people can connect to music in that moment and forget all of the baggage that they have, which consists of many things, but it’s also context.”

And now friends, I leave you with:

Natasha Greenblatt’s Top Tunes to Listen To As You’re Getting Ready to Go Out and See The Peace Maker.

– Flatbush Waltz http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TOys7cU_LeI

– Ammunition Hill http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dM1L-ovPEOE

– Rafeef Ziadeh – We Teach Life, Sir! (Spoken word poem) http://www.youtube.com/watch?feature=player_embedded&v=wad5h5K38ms

– Leonard Cohen – Old Revolution http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wNN0804olxw

Artist Bio:

Natasha Greenblatt  – Writer/Producer

A graduate of the National Theatre School, Natasha is an actress, writer, educator and director. She has played Anne Frank in Montreal and Hamilton, and won a Dora Award for Get Yourself Home Skyler James, a solo show by Jordan Tannahill that traveled to high schools in the GTA. She wrote and performed We Lived in a Palace, presented by SummerWorks. She is currently facilitating the Paprika Creator’s Unit and acting in the television show Bomb Girls.

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