Interview with Hector Aristizabal, artist, psycoterapist and activist

Traduzione italiana

Since 2010, ImaginAction ( creative director Hector Aristizábal and co-facilitator Alessia Cartoni have opened up their international social theatre workshops to apprentices from around the world. The interns are able to participate in diverse community projects, experience methodologies including Theatre of the Oppressed, Playback Theatre, Theatre of Witness, council circle, and ritual. They also share living space, reflection on the work and group dynamics, and individual mentoring. Hector will be in November in Italy, invited by the artistic collective TheAlbero (, for a new apprenticeship “Mentor-ship”. In this interview, Hector explain how the idea of a training-internship was born and how is developing, which is the differece between a mentor and a teacher/trainer, how an international context make you more humble, how personal wounds and gifts are connected and he speaks about his next initiative in Palestine.

How was the idea of a training-internship born?

For many years I worked as a theatre artist and also a psychotherapist in Los Angeles and drew on both streams of experience and knowledge in my work with underserved populations and communities in crisis. I invited many of the people who were my clients in therapy to become actors and created plays with me. Some of them were gang members, some of them were so called “youth in trouble” some of them were people infected and affected by AIDS and HIV, some weretorture survivors from around the world. I always invited the professionals who worked with these groups — therapists, social workers, case managers, and teachers — to participate. I thought it was important for them to see their clients in a new way, as full human beings, and also get some ideas so they could incorporate the arts into their work as well. I found myself more and more committed to mentoring and training other practitioners.

In 2000, I also founded the nonprofit organization, ImaginAction, dedicated to my belief that when we access our own creativity and gifts, we can see transformation in our lives. I began getting invitations to work all over the world, which was wonderful, but though I was always able to train some local people, it was almost impossible to offer the kind of ongoing in-depth experiential and reflective training that were so much a part of my practice in Los Angeles. When the Playhouse offered me a one-month residency in Derry, Northern Ireland, I saw it as a chance to create an internship program, bringing together practitioners and students from around the world for an intensive experience, not only working with communities, but living together and exploring our own attitudes to the work, where we are comfortable and uncomfortable, where we experience blocks, etc.

The internships have taken place in different countries and the interns come from different countries. What difficulties come out of this diversity and how does the international context enrich the program?

Our interns have been exposed to diverse communities and their issues. In Northern Ireland, for example, we have worked with prisoners, former Republican (IRA) and Loyalist (UVF and UDF) paramilitary combatants, suicide prevention programs, youth programs, and more. In Colombia, we have worked with the exploration of group dynamics as well as different groups: the Afro-Colombian displazed population in Palomino, the NGO’s working with victim’s groups. Interns have come from the Netherlands, Belgium, Italy, Israel, Norway,UK, Australia, Venezuela, Colombia, El Salvador as well as the U.S. Rather than our different languages and backgrounds presenting a difficulty, I see it as an asset. I always urge practitioners to meet community members where they are, not to impose expectations or meaning. When you are working in your own city or country, there can be a tendency to believe you know all about the community you are working with. In fact, you may be quite ignorant of the social culture of a marginalized group and may overlook the individual characteristics of its members. In a foreign context, we are less likely to think we know best. We are aware of our own ignorance and so it’s easier to remain humble and really see the workshop participants in an authentic way. Ideally, this way of seeing and interacting will carry over into our work when we return to more familiar settings.
I am also very conscious of the privilege that we have of traveling the world and going to different places, meeting amazing people everywhere. So how can we gather and metabolize what we learn so we can give it back to others? One way is that we become hopefully more sophisticated in the way we handle the method and the techniques, how we add new things, how we share it with other practitioners, how we multiply this work. And working in places like Northern Ireland, that are post-conflict, I hope to learn as much as I can from here so when we return to Palestine we bring this, when we go to Colombia we bring what we learned in Palestine and Northern Ireland to Colombia, and then we take it to Guatemala and to Los Angeles and so on. The interns also carry this learning around the world.

During the internship, you say there are sessions of processing, what does it mean?

From the very first residency, we followed our workshops with processing sessions, reflecting on a daily basis on methodologies but also on our own group dynamics and how the personal issues we struggle with each other are also played out when working with communities. I realized how valuable it was for me to reflect when people asked questions about why we do what we do. I found that my experience of many years as a psychotherapist and my understanding of group dynamics made it possible for me to draw out insight and new understanding in ways that would not ordinarily happen in an educational setting. I sometimes think the most valuable lessons the interns leave with is a better understanding of who they are as practitioners.
In processing the day, we observe the tendencies; things we tend to look at and what are the things we tend not want to see because they wake up our fears. In this work it happens that we start connecting to our fears, our obstacles, our prejudices, our cops in the head, our narratives that are not serving us anymore.

How is a mentor different from a teacher/trainer?

Augusto Boal was a mentor to me. I don’t think he would have recognized me outside of Los Angeles. I also recognize mythologist Michael Meade as my mentor, even though I only see him once every few years. The Greeks explained this connection exists when the daemon in a person sees and recognizes the daemon in another person. Once that mutual recognition exists, the mentor becomes part of your psyche, someone you think of when you are in trouble. Or someone who comes to you when you most needed, it’s not necessarily a phone call or an email, it can be just in your mind. We can be mentors to participants in our community-based workshops even if our stay in their place is brief. You may recognize a gift in a young person who has spent his life misunderstood and stigmatized. By truly seeing him, you give him the experience of seeing himself in a new light, and the strength that comes from this mutual recognition can last a lifetime.
The mentor-mentee relationship is a two way process, both mentor and mentee are constantly teaching and learning from each other. What interests me about mentoring is the experience of working with others who share my vocation but have unique ways of expressing their gifts. .
To learn is to transform. True learning is NOT a process of vomiting information. If you are not transforming you are not learning. And learning is an act of love, there’s no other way to learn. The mentor is not someone who is going to give you comfort and a good grade, or just to give you a bad grade and not tell you anything. The mentor has to commit to that part of you that wants to learn. That is something that gets terribly lost in university, where a teacher has forty students, or in virtual learning. Information can be exchanged, but information can only lead to more information, it doesn’t necessarily lead to formation. And you cannot form someone without knowing who they are. Part of the beauty of having interns participate and often facilitate the workshops is that I can observe their energy, their interactions. From living together, I also begin to appreciate different traits. I am then able to offer guidance or raise questions for the individual to reflect on. In most learning settings I think we lose the opportunity to gain insight and become more aware of how we learn and how we teach. Together we explore the things that don’t allow us to learn as well as the things we want to learn.

The internship is a total experience because you don’t just work together. You live together. How does the mentorship continue during those days and hours of everyday residency life?

The living together in community, 24/7, while doing the work becomes a great laboratory for life. It’s interesting that much of our community-based work is about reweaving the threads of communities broken by violence, addictions, or other problems, while at the same time, most of us no longer live in community. We live in our apartments, we go to work, we come home. The apprenticeships remind us what community means, what it means to take the group’s needs into consideration. The difference between this and other contexts is that if there is a problem we deal with it. We don’t hide it, we don’t put up with you and wait for the month to end. We deal with it, talk about it, make necessary changes. During an apprentice residency, hopefully we realize that we all need healing and that we all carry medicine. The way I approach the work is to incorporate healing into Theatre of the Oppressed and social justice, because I do believe that without healing there is not much social justice that is possible, or true transformation. Of course, I do not impose transformation. If the person is ready, it will happen. The same when working with communities, we don’t invite them to come for healing but it is often a meaningful by-product of the process.

What do the interns learn?

I have a role to play that is to guide the process, as much as possible, but my intention is that we all jump in with our gifts, knowledge, questions and enrich the process. I am not teaching a model, I am not teaching a series of techniques, I’m not teaching how to do it. Of course, You will have experience in bringing the techniques and methods into a diverse community of people with no previous theatrical experience. You will live the philosophy of liberation arts and more specifically of Theater of the Oppressed. I sometimes think the most valuable lessons the interns leave with is a better understanding of who they are as practitioners. Christine Baniewicz an earlier intern said something very interesting: “being in an apprenticeship is not about learning how Hector does what he does, not learning how to be like Hector. It is to start learning how to be like yourself and to embrace your gifts and your styles and you unique challenges.”

You often speaks about gifts and you tell a story about the gift of every child. Your autobiographical book is „the blessing next to wound“. Tells how gifts and wounds are connected. What does it mean in the context of a community?

When I mentioned each person carries gifts or medicine and the blessings are next to the wound, I am simply echoing an understanding I have gained from my own life as well as learned from most traditional societies. It used to be understood that each child brings gifts that are needed by the community. When our gifts are not seen, honored, initiated they often lead us into deep trouble. We become dangerous in the world. The role of the community is to see, to bless, to recognize those gifts of each child and provide them the needed nourishment and opportunities for the gift to be given. In mentoring we as a group create the conditions for us to see each other, to both recognize our wounds and our gifts and to have the chance to bless and heal together.
In more modern terms, the working together while using a heightened awareness of oneself and the other we learn to see what gets triggered in us as practitioners while doing the work. I have often observed how some people are great when using the techniques with adults, yet the same person becomes paralyzed when using the same techniques with youth. During the processing we discussed what happened and we described what we observed on that person. We often use rainbow of desire and Cops in the head techniques to investigate and help us unveiled and make conscious some of these mechanisms. Often this inquiry leads to the person connecting to deep feelings of pain and anger that got triggered when working with youth. In a safe and supportive environment we work through the fears and identify the coping mechanisms used by the person. Ideally the practitioner becomes more aware of the fact that this work will trigger in us the things that we often have to deal with on ourselves. An intern reflects : ”I was often bullied as a teen and when the group starts becoming rough or using foul language I get scare or furious and lose my composure,” The invitation then is to recognize that when working with groups our wounds will be re-opened and its important to know that we are also healing ourselves and that we need to find support when this things happen. Our job is not that of having a salvationist formula for people to apply and change, we can only transform by transforming ourselves, participate in healing by healing our own wounds. Theater is about story telling and story listening. It‘s about the use of symbolic language (stories, myths. dances, music, ritual objects) to re-signify who we are, to re-member who we are to ourselves and to each other and to the earth.

In November, for the next apprenticeship „Mentor-ship“, what will be different?

Each mentorship experience is absolutely unique. It has to do with the alchemy of the people involved and with what we can create together with our desires. I am excited to have as part of the focus the desire to problematize this attempt to reconnect with this ancient ways of teaching. I am interested in collaborating with Albero in more horizontal ways of learning together. We are also incorporating other wonderful ways of transformation such as Dragon dreaming and whatever else the new interns are interested in exploring.

Your next initiative is in Palestine, you were invited by the Popular Struggle Committee of Bil’in, what will you do there?

Yes, from Oct 8 to Oct 22 2014, I will have the privilege of working with a group of both international and Palestinian theater practitioners and the community of Bil’in. They have specifically asked us for a Forum Theater piece that we will then tour through four neighboring villages. Guided by internationally known muralist, Francisco Letelier, we will also create a mural depicting the story of their struggle against the Israeli occupation, Finally we will create and use giant puppets to participate in the weekly nonviolent demonstration organized by the village demanding the removal of the wall. “TheAlbero”, in collaboration with “Assopace Palestina Roma”, is organizing an evening (in Rome in the end of October) to tell about our experience in Bil’in. I will bring videos, photos and inter-act with the public in a theatrical dialogue.

Juliano Mer Khamis, co-founder of the Freedom Theatre of Jenin, often repeated that the next intifada would have to be a cultural intifada. What do you think about the role of the arts as tools for social justice and resistance?

Juliano has been an inspiration for many of us around the world and as an artist he was also a visionary. I too share his utopian desire to see the third intifada be a cultural one driven by the spirit of art–by the task of transforming what is and creating something completely new.
My desire as I travel to Palestine, Northern Ireland, Colombia and other places is to re-connect people with the role of the arts as the place where humanity heals. If therapy is the place where the individual tries to heal, Art is what heals the community.

a cura di Ilaria Olimpico

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