ImaginAction’s look back on 2015 and start of 2016

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We at ImaginAction wish you all the best for the year 2016 as we share with you a look back on 2015. This last year that brought deep transformation and evolution in our work including internal changes as well as consolidation of new directions internationally.

We started 2015 with two new original productions: “Estamos aqui…where do we go?” a Forum Theater piece created with the Latino community in partnership with the Pasadena Playhouse and their project Mi Historia/Mi Manera funded by the James  Irvine Foundation. 


Our second original play, “Second Chances,” was inspired by the Theater of Witness model. Torture survivors served by the Program For Torture Victims (PTV), our partner of many years, performed their own stories in their own words for the general public. The program was supported with grants from the LA Department of Cultural Affairs and from California Humanities. In a second phase of the funded project, we created a website,, to present oral histories not only from PTV clients but many other survivors of State-sponsored violence.

In May, Angelo Miramonti, UNICEF’s Child Protection Specialist in West Africa played matchmaker bringing our director, Hector Aristizabal together with Diol Mamadou , director of the Association Kàddu Yaraax , a Senegalese theater company dedicated to using the techniques of Theater of the Oppressed.

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Our group of internationals lived together with extraordinary Senegalese artists in the fishing village of Toubab Dialaw as we collaborated on a piece of Forum Theater dealing with issues of women’s rights and the organizing of a fishermen’s union.

The Hector returned to his native Colombia where he has been developing projects connected to the current peace negotiations taking place in La Habana between the Colombian government and FARC, the oldest guerrilla group in the world. Hector has offered trainings in the use of Theater of the Oppressed, Council Circle and Healing Rituals to psychosocial teams from different international NGO’s including OIM (International Organization of Migrants and IRD (International Relief Development

With these organizations and in collaboration with Corporación Otra Escuela Hector traveled to several communities affected by the Colombian conflict and developed original Forum Theater pieces that facilitated dialogue and explored alternatives to the many challenges being faced by these communities. 


11402586_10153097504286559_1792920674940920327_oSoon we will be able to share some videos from the different processes that took place in the community of Bojayá, Chocó where FARC committed their worst act of war, killing almost 80 people. We were asked to be part of the complex process of asking the community if they were willing to consider offering the act of forgiveness demanded by FARC members.

Hector also traveled twice to the border city of Gaziantep, Turkey where he offered trainings to people working inside Syria as well as with the growing crisis of Syrian refugees in Turkey. This work was supported by GIZ (German International Cooperation).

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GIZ also supported his work in 2015 with The Mandala Theater group in Nepal

On the other hand Alessia Cartoni ( has moved back to Europe where she has been developing her unique line of work ,“Unveiling myself”, which she took to Belgium, Spain, Italy, Colombia and The Basque Country. These series of workshops are nurtured by the introspective techniques of the Theatre of the Oppressed arsenal,  elements of creative ritual, art therapy, mythology and autobiographical storytelling.

IMAG2799 copiaIn her hometown, Madrid, Alessia continues to develop her social work by working with at-risk and special needs youth in the multiethnical Orcasitas neighborhood, one of the most affected by unemployment and its consequences in Spain. In her groups, Alessia uses elements of Theatre of the Oppressed, movement and Council Circle to address diversity, bullying, evictions, racism and poverty.

In September 2015, Alessiirenea travelled back to Colombia where she was invited to offer an intensive workshop on Theatre and Historical Memory at the Second Theatre of the Oppressed Festival of Bogotá, hosted by Corporación Otra Escuela. There, she also shared her experiences with Theatre of Witness as a model for working on processes of Historical Memory honoring the past of a community. In Bogotá she also offered her workshop Unveiling Myself- Desvelándome.

Besides collaborating with Hector in developing the scripts for “Estamos aqui .. where  do we go/ and “Second Chances”, Diane Lefer also worked with Sayda Trujillo (our wonderful new collaborator and co-director on “Estamos aquí”) on a Forum Theater project funded by the Jarvis and Constance Doctorow Family Foundation through which we were able to bring our methods to members of the POPS the Club at Venice High School. POPS is an innovative program that provides support and opportunities for self-expression to young people affected by the criminal justice system, usually due to the incarceration or deportation of a parent.

We have started 2016 with new projects and challenges. Hector is working in Colombia with OIM and Casa Ensamble in a unique theatrical experiment with 20 victims of the Colombian conflict, including: 5 civilians, 5 soldiers, 5 ex-paramilitaries and 5 ex-guerrillas. Hector will be working in the psycho-social aspects of this project using theater as a laboratory of reconciliation. Later on in the project we will work with the psychosocial teams of La Unidad Para Las Victimas in designing laboratories of reconciliation using theater and other methodologies with communities affected by the war.

Diane’s relationship with PTV (Program for Torture Victims) in Los Angeles  has deepened at the invitation of new Clinical Director Carol Gomez. She now offers multilingual creative workshops in which English speakers, Spanish-speaking Latin Americans, and Francophone Africans use their imaginations and focus on hopes for the future rather than past trauma through writing exercises, games, improvisations, song, and shared meals to build community among people who often find themselves living in isolation in their new country. She also serves PTV as interpreter for the LGBT Resilience project and periodic asylum-readiness workshops. 

Brian Biery laid the groundwork for us with Victor Vasquez and the Pasadena Playhouse so that during the entire month of February our team will work with the community in District 5, developing an original Forum Theater play exploring the issue of gentrification. The play will be performed February 27 and 29.  (As we return to Pasadena, we will miss Jennifer Iadevaia who brought her multiple skills and vital Prescott energy to our project and Julian Scharmacher who came to us from Leipzig, Germany for an internship after completing his Psychology degree and brought his talent,  genuine warmth – and his ukelele – to the work on “Estamos aquí” and “Second Chances”.

Then Hector is on the road again. In March he will return to Colombia to work on projects of reconciliation. From April 4 to April 10, he has been invited to the A. E. Havens Center for Social Justice at the Sociology Department at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, US, and he will return to Oberlin College for the 10th year in a row from April 14 to April 18 to work with both student groups and community members.

From April 20 to May 1 Hector has been invited to return to Ukraine to work with the Theater of the Oppressed groups operating in that country.

We have many more exciting projects that we will announce on our website and Facebook page. Please stay tuned and thanks for your support. Also let us know how you might wish to get involved. We are constantly on the lookout for new allies who feel called to work with us.

Thanks for supporting us,

Hector, Diane, Alessia






Bil’in adds something new to protests-Article published by MiddleEastEye on October 28, 2014

Bil’in adds something new to protests


The village famed for its successful protests hosts an artistic residency, but has success of the villagers attracted too many “conflict tourists?”

A demonstrator waves the Palestinian flag in the village of Bilin, 29 August 2014 (AFP)
Creede Newton's picture
Last update:
Tuesday 28 October 2014 23:53 GMT

Bil’in, Occupied West Bank: On 9 October, a group of artists and activists, more than two dozen strong, began a two-week “artistic residency” in Bil’in, a village famed for its creative resistance. The group collaborated with the residents of the village in theatre, mural and puppet-making projects.

Bil’in has been the subject of countless articles, radio stories and documentaries for its ten years of weekly protests against the Israeli separation barrier that lines the occupied West Bank.

The barrier, often referred to as the “apartheid wall,” keeps Palestinians from entering present-day Israel, while simultaneously annexing huge swaths of land reserved for Jewish-only settlements.

Many feel that Bil’in has served as the West Bank’s mirror to the outside world, reflecting its struggle.  “What is happening in all of the West Bank, the ever increasing settlements, reflects here,” Fidaa Ataya, one of the organisers of the residency, told Middle East Eye.

The agricultural village sits across the barrier from the Israeli settlement of Modi’in Illit. The settlement was built on Palestinian land taken from five villages – Nil’in, Kharbata, Saffa, Dir Qadis and Bil’in.

Abdullah Bitoli, a tour guide originally from Kharbata who now lives in Jerusalem, happened upon the activists painting murals on the main road that connects Bil’in to Ramallah.

“I think it’s great. We need as much international solidarity as possible. We love to share our culture, and the olive harvest is a big part of that,” he said, mentioning the olive crops being picked throughout the area.

For many Palestinians, land is livelihood. The Israeli occupation takes away the opportunities of Palestinians to study where they want, pursue careers, education, travel abroad, or even travel freely from one West Bank city to another.

As a result, farming is a popular occupation, both for the reasons previously listed and a desire to remain close to the resource being stripped of Palestinians on an almost monthly basis.

The protests of Bil’in saved approximately 173 acres of this resource. The separation barrier was rerouted in 2011, thanks to international support and legal action undertaken by the villagers of Bil’in.

Since then, villagers have continued the weekly protests. However, a feeling of protest fatigue has been growing since the wall was rerouted and “Five Broken Cameras,” a documentary that attests to the struggle of Bil’in, earned its director an Oscar nomination for best documentary.

Fame accompanied these successes. The protests, which have cost two residents, siblings Bassem and Jawahar Abu Rahman, their lives, now draw many “conflict tourists.”

MEE has recently reported on the rise of conflict tourism from Bil’in. “In many places, tourists are attracted not despite of conflict, but because of this conflict,” Dr. Rami Isaac, a senior lecturer and specialist in conflict tourism at the Netherlands’ Breda University, told MEE in May.

The 17 October protest was a prime example of that phenomenon.

Internationals from Europe, the United States and Latin America had all been in attendance from 9-16 October. Hector Aristizabal, a native of Colombia and director of the theatre outreach programme, Imaginaction, and Francisco Letelier, the son of Chilean diplomat, Orland Letelier, who was assassinated in Washington DC by the then-dictator of Chile, Augusto Pinochet, guided the activists and residents in theatre and mural making.

“We are not here to teach people what to do, we’re here to conjure the imagination of the community so that the potential alternatives come from them, not from us,” Aristizabal said, stressing that it was not his intention to do anything other than imagination. “These people know how to handle conflict. What can you do in front of people with weapons? Survive.”

On the morning of the protest, the activists dressed in costumes celebrating the olive harvest and marched with props created for the protest through the streets lined with murals that had been painted over the past week.

Once they reached the traditional starting point of the protests, the numbers of the group ballooned.

Suddenly, a cacophony of languages could be heard. Swedish mixed with German and Japanese as older tourists marched with the group towards the separation barrier.

The Israeli army was waiting on the hilltop. They began firing tear gas and noise bombs at the group. Many of the newcomers stayed at a safe distance, while the activists and protest veterans of Bil’in rushed past two army jeeps.

“Maybe we should head back to the bus soon,” a tourist with a thick German accent said to their tour guide.

The group, armed only with cardboard olive trees, a “teargas monster,” and a sun and moon graced with the faces of the Abu Rahman siblings made it to the separation barrier. Two of the protestors, including organiser Ataya, were shot with teargas canisters at close range.

The discrepancy between the conflict tourists and those who had been in Bil’in for at least a week and, at most, their entire lives, was glaring.

When asked about the large number of internationals joining their protests for one day only, Ataya had her reservations. “Palestinian life isn’t simple, it isn’t as the outside world sees it,” she said, commenting on the small amount of time these conflict tourists spend in her home. “We don’t need help searching [for] our freedom in this complicated political situation.”

But the invitation to those who had a genuine wish to experience the struggle, and culture, of the Palestinian people was always open. She wants them to come “taste our food” and “to live with us, to really hear [us].”

“As much as we can, we’re looking for people to come to us just to feel the humanity inside of Palestine,” she concluded.

– See more at:

When culture and resistance meet in Bil’in- AlJazeera article published on Oct 23, 2014

When culture and resistance meet in Bil’in

Bil’in – As the sun set and call to prayer rang out, a mixed group of Palestinian and international actors presented a scenario in which a family is forced to choose between paying $600 for their grandfather’s surgery or to release their daughter from an Israeli prison.

After it concluded, the audience was invited to discuss what interested them in the play, and what problems they had with the production, employing a style known as “Forum Theatre.”

“The play does not resolve the problem, it asks a question and presents a crisis,” Hector Aristizabal, director of Imaginaction, a non-profit theatre outreach company based in Los Angeles, told Al Jazeera. “It’s not about finding an answer which doesn’t exist, it’s about creating an aesthetic dialogue where people from the community try to deal with their own questions and conflicts.”

Aristizabal and others are in the West Bank village of Bil’in, famous for its weekly protests against the Israeli separation wall, for an artistic residency that runs from October 9-22.

Artists and activists from as near as neighbouring village Kufer Ni’meh and as far as South America are in attendance.

“This is the first time anyone has attempted this in Bil’in,” Fidaa Ataya, one of the event organisers, said in an interview. “It’s a huge responsibility, but we have an opportunity to help the villagers of Bil’in use creative ideas for their struggle,” she continued. 

RELATED: In Pictures: The bees of Bil’in

The projects include theatre, murals and puppet making, all with input and encouragement from locals. This week, the group marched through Bil’in towards the site of the weekly protests in a parade celebrating the positive aspects of culture and resistance, as well as the importance of the olive harvest occurring across the occupied West Bank.

Francisco Letelier, a Chilean muralist, who began his career as a young man during the presidency of Salvador Allende, oversees the painting of murals on the main road of Bil’in.

“What we’re trying to do is recapture a feeling of ownership of the physical environment and empowering people to know that they can affect their surroundings,” the muralist told Al Jazeera.

He went on to say that he was attempting to engage the villagers “in a process that asks ‘What’s important to you? Who are you?’ For many people, this was the first time that their ideas were being considered in a serious way. So it’s already a success.”

Participants were invited to draw their own designs for the walls lining the street. Hamza Badran, 21, was responsible for one such mural. A month earlier, Badran decided to switch from a jeweller apprenticeship to study at Ramallah’s International Academy of Art.

Now here I am, a month later, making my first mural,” Badran said while putting the finishing touches on his first exhibition.

Land is one of the most important driving forces behind Bil’in’s weekly protests, which entered their tenth year last March. The Israeli separation wall that lines much of the occupied West Bank threatened to separate the village from a huge portion of farmland on which the olive trees harvested this week sit.

After protests and legal action, the Israeli Supreme Court ruled that the wall be re-routed, which took place in 2011. Approximately 700,000 square metres were saved for the villagers.

That same year, “5 Broken Cameras“, a documentary about the village’s Friday protests, was released to international acclaim. Its director, Emad Burnat, would be the first Palestinian nominated for the Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature. After these victories, some suggest that the weekly protests are losing steam.

“When the wall moved, for sure, people thought ‘We won something, we’ve got back our land,'” Ataya said. According to her, people began to focus more on their personal lives. “This is logical, human beings also need to live.”

As one of the organisers, she stressed that these victories were not enough, and that people still had a hunger to protest for their rights.

Ken Sdrjak, the puppetista who guided the creation of cardboard olive trees and a “teargas monster” used in the parade, agreed with Ataya.

“After plugging away at their resistance for so many years, it’s exciting to know that they’re inspired for keeping up innovative tactics,” he said while searching Bil’in for plastic tubing to be used to create the teargas monster.


Sdrjak also helped create a sun and moon on which residents placed images of the village’s two martyrs: Bassem and Jawahar Abu Rahman. Bassem was shot in the chest with a high-velocity teargas canister at close range on April 17, 2009, and Jawahar died from tear gas inhalation on December 31, 2010. They were siblings.

On October 19, the group prepared for the protest. They dressed in olive tree costumes, hoisted the puppets, and marched towards Israeli forces already waiting for them.

In an improvised move, activists also placed the image of Bahaa Badr, a 13-year-old boy shot and killed by Israeli forces the night before the parade, alongside the members of the Abu Rahmah family.

The parade marched past two Israeli jeeps and through billowing tear gas to the separation wall. Aside from two protestors who were shot in the leg with tear gas canisters, there were no major injuries.

The following day, the group returned to their projects.

Reflecting on the decades old occupation, Aristizabal said thatwhatever is going to change this conflict is already here. We need to imagine what it is that will allow these two peoples to live in this land”.

Ataya was pleased with the imaginative efforts of the group. “Without creative ideas, without teaching the people to do something else, nothing new will happen.”

In the coming days, the artists will take their play to the villages of Nabi Saleh, Nil’in and Budrus. Ataya hopes that it will resonate with both the neighbouring communities and the world at large. “We tried in this gathering here in Bil’in to show them something different. I want to tell everyone to come and [visit] Palestine. Not in a hotel, but with the people.”

The Olive Harvest Celebration

For a week we prepared for the Friday protest and Olive Harvest Festival on the 17th of October. We exchanged ideas with the Popular Struggle Committee of the People of Bil’in, then Ken presented the drafts and ideas he produced together with members of the community.

The olive tree, possibly the strongest symbol of the land and the people, was chosen as the main visual component of the project. A group of olive trees was to be made from cardboard and wood, and painted, to be carried by protest participants.


Brown robes became tree-trunks with slogans, worn by people who carried olive branches in their hands and on headdresses. A teargass grenade with a fluffy tail of smoke was produced, to scatter the people, who would recover and regroup. The two martyrs of the city were represented as the sun and a star.

Add to this a group of visitors, young men who would dance the traditional dabuka dance at the parade, and a trumpet and a drum to initiate the movement of the tree-people.

And last, but not least, Wagees orange tractor, decorated with olive branches and driven by his son, who usually is at the front of the demonstrations with a sling.


It was decided that the parade would start a short distance from the mosque in the center of the city, then it would pass the murals, and the energy of joy and celebration would grow to meet the people as they exited from the mosque after the friday prayers. The timing was not perfect, since we did not want the noisy parade to interfere with the prayers, but the energy was vibrant!


As the parade passed first the mosque, then later the Friends of Peace and Justice Center, more and more people joined in – old, young, traditional and modern, Palestinian and foreign. A joyous and celebratory atmosphere permeated the entire parade, with singing voices, dancing bodies, invigorating drumming, and passionate shouting.

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The constant moving of the parade made it impossible to perform the rehearsed choreography. The feeling was that everybody wanted to move – forwards, onto the road, out of the village, towards the wall.

As we exited the village, we discovered that the road we used the previous Friday had already been showered with teargas, and it was evident that we would get a massive dose of these filthy fumes if we were to proceed in that direction. The organizers directed the demonstration away from the tear gas, which caused some scattering of people, but did not stop them. Two trees were leading our way, carried by strong men.

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Eventually we met with the Commander and his small group of soldiers near the top of the first hill.

As the Commander conferred with Mohammed, I could imagine his and his soldiers’ confusion as the presence of joy, singing and dancing trees emerged and engulfed them. He was told by Hector, and several others, that this was a celebration, and everybody came with intentions of peace. Probably not the easiest environment to make a strategic decision to disperse the crowd with a barrage of gas and concussion grenades. And maybe harder to respond to joy with aggression?

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The cardboard trees looked to me as a force of nature, which shielded the carrying protesters, and fortified their strength and resolve.

We succeeded in passing the soldiers, and the parade continued. We tried to talk with them, but there was no response. One can only wonder how they percieved the situation and what thoughts and emotions they experienced.


Then we became seperated as the soldiers launched tear gas from a position close to the wall and near the gate that allowed entry to the other side. The larger group was forced to take position on a hill overlooking the wall and the settlements behind. A smaller group was ahead, and succeeded in avoiding the tear gas, but got caught on a slope below the soldiers.

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The soldiers were shooting teargas canisters directly at us from a distance as little as 35 metres, and one succeeded in hitting a young woman in the thigh. She was carried up the hill towards the road where an ambulance could reach her. There was panic in the air and the soldiers were not providing any help. Instead they threw concussion grenades directly at the men carryinng the hurt woman. The anger inside me was boiling. ”Talk with your commander!” I shouted, and then realised that he was the one throwing the grenades. Though handthrown concussion grenades cannot be fatal, the agressive act in this situation seemed extremely inhumane.


A few of the protesters sat down in front of the soldiers, singing and drumming. The joy was gone with the violence we endured, but we connected with our humanity and each other, even in this situation. This is the power of resistance.

At the end of the day, everybody I talked to felt a great accomplishment in bringing the celebration of life and that which cannot be occupied to the demonstration. ”It was like a wedding party,” said one of the organizers from the Popular Struggle Committee.

This celebration was not the first in the long history of the Friday protests of Bil’in, and we hope that it will not be the last. The exchange of ideas and the collaboration of artists, volunteers and the local community, organized in connection with local activist groups, has once again shown its merit.


The importance of international solidarity, and the relationship between people that arises from sharing a creative experience of struggle, fortifies the hope that grows in our hearts. Much stronger than any tear gas.

Andreas Engholm, Bil’in                     Photos copyright Brian Biery

Arts and Activism in Bil’in

With an invitation from four Palestinian organizations including the Freedom and Justice Committee of Bil’in, a two week internship was conceived by Hector Aristizabal with co-creators Francisco Letelier and AKen Srdjak. The outcome to be a forum theater play for several villages, painted street murals for Bil’in and large puppets for the Bil’in regular Friday demonstrations. The creative work Hector Aristizabal has crafted is powerful and rich. He has a very fluid style that can feel like carelessness and in the end you see your way through to insight and resonance.I find myself weeping a lot – questioning my own oppressed history as well as the plight of Palestine. It’s surreal what goes on here akin to apartheid and ethnic cleansings.

Practioners came from Europe, Australia and the United States to participate in the workshop, motivated by their own reasons – strengthening their TO practice, transforming ways in which one handles conflict and learning more about the occupation in Palestine. Many will bring this work back to their own communities and incorporate these learnings into their own practices – dance, theater and social justice.


The first few days were filled with TO context, theater games, a Palestinian wedding and the Olive Harvest Festival. These events gave all a chance to meet the local community and settle in. Understanding why we are truly here and what role we play in the story is tricky, but the “container” Hector is helping us create allows for self reflection, community building and most importantly – LOTS of laughter.

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The group is remarkably cohesive considering most are strangers in a strange land. Hector notes, “Imagination is our greatest human right. We have come together by fate and we are here to witness, to open up to new possibilities and to explore new ways of seeing and acting. This work is about healing and humanizing “the other” and especially ourselves. We are working with people who are beautifully complex. We don’t ask them to act, we ask them to be themselves and to perform something in which they are experts. It is impossible for anyone to mess up if they are allowed to be who they are on stage. We are not here to fix or change anything. We start from the social and political issues of the people and from there we become interested in their personal conditions and emotions. This is where the magic happens.”

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Francisco and Ken also took key participants to begin the process of designing the mural and puppets. Francisco notes, “Our greatest aspiration in creating works of public art with the Bil’in community and young artists from the region is to play a role in catalyzing a movement that uses the power of visual language to appropriate public space. The process thus far has given more results than anticipated. Because there are no large mural walls, we decided to create a team of artists based on the Chilean brigade style that would intervene on houses and walls in order to create a visual impact that could be felt by both community and visitors. We are now actively working on six sites and connecting them. By the end of the project we will have covered a long stretch of the main avenue in a chain of images that will extend for a mile or so; the beginning of a visual language of symbols and understandings we hope will continue to resound long after we are gone. This will take the form of the Ward Brigade (ward is Arabic worked for flower and pronounced like “word”). “Ward!” (sounds like Word!) is an expression used like “What’s up?” by young people. A core group of 7 local artists and international artists are now making plans for the future. Working on the streets brings us into close contact with hundreds of individuals on a daily basis as we create ties that bind and engage in true solidarity. The local artists are enrolled in an emphatic manner and we look forward to charting their experiences and accomplishments as they continue their work in the future. This experience has been a seed. They will be the flower.


Mid-way through our first week the Israeli army came through at 3AM with sound bombs and gun shot looking for their most wanted. Two days later, they invaded the nearby village and killed a young teenager. The assault to your senses is tremendous. The night bombing left me nauseous and unable to sleep – I lay awake thinking of all the terror and horrors that Francisco and his family had to endure. I also felt a serious grieving for these people, our son and all the ways we oppress each other without even thinking about it.

The view from the hill near the wall looks at two large settler developments. One is as new as ’75 and there are refugees all over the local hills that were forced off their land and out of their homes. It’s like a giant resort in the middle of a gorgeous mediterranean landscape surrounded by barbed wire and a 30 foot wall that reeks of fear and oppression. I can’t help wondering what the folks in those highrises are thinking. They have an incredible view and every Friday the booming sounds of war enter their lives, a good reminder of the atrocities they are supporting in their comfortable home. The hills remind me of our southern California landscape and I definitely feel at home here sans the terror of war.

The olive picking is my salve. I feel the connection to the land as do the Palestinians. Wagee owns the trees and land we worked on this week. He measures his wealth in trees and family and happily plays the pied piper at the front lines of the demonstrations playing his flute and sharing poetry. I found myself wanting to be adopted:) He lost hundreds of trees and 84 dunnams in the occupation and has a profound connection to the land, sharing his favorite smell is the soil, but there is a sorrow he possesses none of us can really understand. The terraced hills are ancient and have a long history of cultivation. Wagee plays out this history continually nourishing his land, planting young olive trees and other medicinal plants – his prize possession, an 1100 year old olive tree that would take 3 or 4 people to hug! I loved it and it still grows olives. He grows 90% of what he eats .

Olive picking is a family affair, tarps thrown beneath the trees to catch the olives as they fall. Some of the young trees have only black olives while the older ones have all colors and sizes. One of my favorite feelings was the raining of olives as someone on the ladder picks while I am standing below swiping the branches with my hands to get every last olive. Once the olives are on the ground the sorting begins – NO LEAVES or sticks can go into the bag as it clogs the machine that processes them. There is laughter, so much laughter; wonderful tea breaks accented with sage; and homemade food that nourishes your soul and body.

Israel is systematically dismantling the infrastructure in Palestine – destroying the olive trees, terrorizing the people, digging wells that rob them of their water and setting up check points at will to stop individuals on their way to work and school. Perhaps one of the more humiliating situations for Palestinians is having to work in the settlements to earn a living since their olive trees have been taken or destroyed.

I find the people warm and inviting although being a woman from America is an understandable stigma. Sometimes I wish I could pretend I was from Belfast – that would mean solidarity. I am not yet sure how to help. Of course I come with my entrepreneurial eye and want to create a revenue stream, a cooperative one to be sure. The streets are full of garbage and waste management does not happen in any meaningful way. There is a resignation to the state of the place and the thought of beautifying is fairly non-existent as the sentiment is Israel will take it all in the end. I don’t recall such a blatant land grab like this in modern history.

Our first demonstration was preceded by a carefully crafted “how-to” at the Freedom and Justice Committee headquarters. Eiyad showed us the weapons used, what to expect in the demonstration and how to take care of oneself with the tear gas and other ammunition regularly used. Most of us tasted the gas strongly emphasized with through red faces, bloodshot eyes and much spitting. We did not get far as the IDF came up from the wall to keep the demonstration at bay – out of site from the settlers perhaps?

Another huge highlight and healing process has been the “lady cave” – the women’s sleeping room filled with thoughtful women from all over Europe, Australia and the US. There are 10 of us and we have had several long evenings processing our work and our feelings. POWERFUL. I feel like I am back in London with my 80s feminism ablaze and my political brain firing on all cylinders. It’s rejuvenating and invigorating. We range in age from 20’s to 50s and I may be the oldest. I do have an elder compadre from Australia, Xris. She is an experienced practitioner of Theater of the Oppressed (TO) as well as possessing a thoughtful and deep political mind. We have shared many walks and talks that have enriched my visit beyond measure. Her son has followed in her footsteps and is also a community organizer. She works with tribal people in Australia using the TO techniques which range far beyond the Forum Theater Hector has used on this internship.


We are about to embark on our second demonstration. A parade has been planned with olive trees in celebration of the Olive Harvest. We will have music and drummers and march right past the murals Francisco has worked on with groovy art students from Ramallah – the hippest city in Palestine. The tear gas is really strong. A slight wif and your eyes are crying and you are salivating and spitting. I see some of the frontline fellows have learned how to deal with it and they taunt the soldiers with stone throwing and a sly game of cat and mouse. Theoretically, the olive trees are a type of protection if you are picking but we’ve come to realize there are no rules.

We’ve come to understand the wall as metaphor – the walls around the settlers as well as the invisible walls that separate us in our community regarding gender and culture. Bil’in is a devout muslim town – no alcohol, women in hijabs and a real distinct set of moral values that dictate touching each other, dress and other behaviors. I found myself feeling a bit exposed yesterday wearing a short sleeve T and a mid-calf skirt – quite a change from my standard outfits in hot weather. Another aspect the wall presents to our community lies in how we integrate the children of Bil’in. They are keen to be with us, play our theater games and have fun. They are exquisitely beautiful and free – a beacon of hopel. Many of our group play music with them, swirl them and know how to be kids with them yet we struggle on how to find space to create the language of our theater piece as well as make time to engage them. It’s always interesting what comes up as triggers for the group at large. The gender politics and policies of inclusion are doing their infinity dance as we get deeper into our time together making us all take a moment to listen, think deeply and resolve.

El Arte como antídoto de la Tortura

Videocolumna con Rubén Luengas, Los Ángeles, Septiembre 2014.

Héctor Aristizábal, actor y Francisco Letelier, pintor muralista, llevan a cabo una misión, la de llevar hasta aquellos que lo necesitan, el reconfortante poder del arte. La tortura ha sido durante la historia de la humanidad, esa herramienta que utiliza el poder para callar las voces de aquellos que les resultan incómodos. Aquellos que han atravesado por esos traumáticos procesos de tortura, padecen posteriormente secuelas, sí físicas, pero las psicológicas son las más difíciles de llevar. Las primeras sanan, las segundas tienen un desarrollo muy diferente. Héctor y Francisco representan la voluntad de sacar adelante por medio de la expresión artística a todo aquel que necesite sanar de los estragos que la tortura pudieran ocasionarle a la víctima, y así lograr continuar con una vida plena. La videocolumna de esta semana.

Theatre in the Community and Mentoring

10486304_10150404057404964_4467663762358598300_nAn interview originally developed by María Heras and Giusy Baldanza with Alessia Cartoni and Hector Aristizabal. Edited by Diane Lefer, Angelo Miramonti and Ilaria Olimpico (TheAlbero). Published in September 2014 by

Since 2010, ImaginAction’s ( creative director Hector Aristizábal and co-facilitator Alessia Cartoni have opened 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 a living space, reflect on the work and group dynamics, and develop individual mentoring.
Hector will be in November  2014 in Italy, invited by the artistic collective TheAlbero (, for a new apprenticeship: “Mentor-ship”. In this interview, Hector explains how the idea of a training-internship was born and how is developing, what is the differece between a mentor and a teacher/trainer, how an international context makes you humbler, and how personal wounds and gifts are connected. He speaks about his next project 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.

You can also read this interview in Italian here: Translation by Ilaria Olimpico, TheAlbero.

After party

We must all do theatre –

to find out who we are, and to discover who we could become.

Augusto Boal, Aesthetics of the Oppressed

As we approach the end of 2013 we at ImaginAction want to thank the many people that accompanied and helped us during this year.


At a time when so many people face so many threats to existence, when circumstances seem to be beyond any ordinary person’s control, it was a privilege to witness how the theater arts offer a way to envision new scripts. We took our methods around the world, offering tools so that people could tell their own stories, make invisible wounds visible so that they might at last heal.


It was a year in which we strengthened our collaborative partnerships:


With the Program for Torture Victims and with support from the LA Department of Cultural Affairs, we created “We Are Here,” a Theater of Witness production in which six torture survivors from Cameroon, El Salvador, Guatemala, Russia, and Uganda performed their own accounts of torture, resiliency and healing.


With the Playhouse-Derry, we were able to return to Northern Ireland for our fourth extended stay. We worked with ex-combatants from both Republican and Loyalist backgrounds, community-based afterschool programs for at-risk youth, women’s groups, suicide prevention centers and the three prisons in NI: Maghaberry maximum security prison, Hydebank Wood youth prison, and Magilligan prison where we worked with some political prisoners as well as the ordinary criminal inmates. Alessia was privileged to collaborate with Theater of Witness creator, Teya Sepinuck in Sanctuary, and is now developing her own TOW production with the Families of the Ballymurphy Massacre who seek justice for their murdered loved ones.


We found new partners:


Arte Red brought us to Palomino, Colombia to create Forum Theater with 50 young people living in great social and cultural deprivation and where the landscape and a way of life is threatened by transnational mining companies and big Agro. Arte Red wants ImaginAction to return in July 2014.


The  Jarvis & Constance Doctorow Family Foundation will help us bring services in 2014 to refugee youth in Salt Lake City, Utah.


Our apprenticeship program continued:


During each extended residency, we were able to provide experience and mentoring to interns–30 of them this year–coming from Australia, Belgium, Canada, Germany, Israel, Italy, Morocco, The Netherlands, Northern Ireland, Panama, and Spain, as well as the United States.


And it feels like we’ve been everywhere, from Utrecht, The Netherlands to Oakland, California to Bogotá, Colombia, from Oberlin College to Graz, Austria, from the Nordic Conference in Bergen, Norway for people working with survivors of trauma to the annual Pedagogy of Theater of the Oppressed Conference in Oxford, Ohio where Hector gave the keynote address and a pre-conference workshop. We’ve been to the Panel for Peace organized by our friends at FORMAAT; the Bakea Soremena Festival in Euskadi dealing with the conflict in the Basque Country; the theater festival in Casalbordino, Abruzzo, Italy in collaboration with our friends from The Albero. We reached mental health providers and teachers and students, social workers and social activists and hundreds of grassroots people coping with difficult circumstances in their lives. 


And of course we returned to Fort Benning, Georgia for the annual SOAW vigil. This year marked the 30th anniversary of Father Roy Bourgeois’ act of civil disobedience, when he entered the military base and placed a boom box atop a tree so that Latin American military officers could hear the voice of assassinated Monsignor Romero from El Salvador imploring them to stop killing their countrymen. We participated once again in the mournful ritual to remember the many people killed, tortured and disappeared by the School’s graduates.


As always, we reached a broader audience through journalism, photography, video, print and broadcast interviews and discussions.


2013. It was a year that marked new beginnings. Josephine, who appeared in “We Are Here,” was granted asylum. Duc Ta, whose case we have championed for many years, was finally released from prison.


Now, will  you help us continue?


We invite you to be part of our vision by donating time, energy, or needed funds to support our projects. We are already planning a return in July  to Palomino, Colombia to continue our work there, a 10-day internship in the village of At-tuwany in South Hebron, Palestine and other projects soon to be announced on our web page.


Thanks as always for your support.