Thursday, November 24, 2005

Conflict: Should It Always Be Resolved?

Conflict can be uncomfortable, no question. How many corporate dollars and hours go into workshops that aim to resolve it?

What happens if you allow conflict to continue exist, even as you apply curiosity and analysis to it?

Getting away from explicit approaches to creativity in business, l found this approach startlingly useful in another context.

A Little Background

Groups like the Creative Arts Team (CAT) in New York do a great service by teaching conflict resolution in schools and giving voice to seemingly contradictory positions to develop empathy and better social relations. It's not news that kids and adolescents can feel particularly confused about their feelings -- and about ways of showing them, articulating them, and behaving when under their influence.

CAT demonstrates that the value of drama here is not theoretical. The group offers ways in which conflict and creativity can develop new insights. Check them out if you know of a school that can use them.

And by the way, their work is much more powerful than their website.

An Extreme But Specific Example

Through CAT, I was involved with in the first Palestinian, Israeli, Jordanian adult theater collaboration after Oslo. This took place in New York, by the way. I had spent a few months the year before writing about such productions in Jerusalem, but all cast members in those cases were Israeli citizens. I had written one story for The Voice, and they offered me the chance to do another.

Through an actor with whom I worked with before and my own strong feelings about theater, I gained the trust of the rest of the group and was became the only reporter allowed in rehearsals by the Palestinian Authority.

It was a remarkable experience in its extreme focus on the question of whether or not it's possible to resolve conflict and the kind of creativity required to remain curious about the question, both personally and professionally.

Like the Palestinian/Israeli productions about which I had previously reported, individuals were forced to simultaneously sustain their emotional histories as citizens while as professional actors they had expressly come to collaborate with those they considered the enemy for artistic reasons.

All of the Israeli participants had served in the army and continued in the reserves. Many had lost family and friends to these wars. All of the other participants had lost at least one family member as well to the Israeli armies.

What made it more complex is that even those of the same nationality didn't agree on politics or share the same socio-economic background. Artistically they differed as well -- the Israeli acting style was more European and naturalistic while the Palestinian and Jordanians had a more presentational approach.

Rehearsals were built on each cast-member's stories. Although the specifics varied widely, they all shared a great deal of pain from trauma that felt fresh. Clearly, there was a desire to move forward or none would be working on the show in the first place. However, in each case, there had been a history of both nursing specific grievances and of healing them.

The national stories and mythologies complicated the interactions further, and arguments broke out regularly. However, as days past and everyone began to understand each other's perspective, respect and genuine affection grew amidst the anger and pain. One comment I heard a lot: "I love these individuals, but I hate their countries."

Amazing Insights But Bad Theater

Ultimately, the play's story comprised a fictionalized collective history of the group. Unfortunately, the production was a lot less complex or interesting than the rehearsals to which only I was privy.

However, I don't think it's for the reason Tristan Tzara says in Tom Stoppard's Travesties: "the odd thing about the revolution is that the further left you go politically, the more bourgeois they like their art."

Most of these artists were heavily influenced by theater more abstract than Anglo/American contemporary work, so the social constructivist sort of art they produced was not really what any had in mind when they started.

It seemed that the energy it took to come to a common language among themselves made it important to be clear about their intentions onstage for themselves as much as for the audience. The internal disagreements and conflicting national loyalties remained side-by-side with the personal connections and affection each felt for the other. They had come too far in their respect for each other's differences to harbor any ambiguity of purpose when it came to the production.

Still, A Creative Coup

However, there were remarkable creative insight that could only have resulted from this deepest-felt constant conflict, pain, and argument. It was the emotional understanding that each gained into the otherwise abstract principles and experience of the others they considered enemies. The fact that intellect and feeling could combine while holding opposing points of view -- enemy and friend -- simultaneously was the insight that came out of this work.

Unfortunately, it's one of those experiences that might be hard to understand on a gut level without having lived through the details. My point is that conflict can generate insights creatively that would be impossible to discover otherwise.

After all, inspiration is the meeting point of intellectual and emotional insight. The ultimate results -- good art, bad theater, applicable solutions, theoretical impossibilities -- come from the skill with which one works with other necessary elements for innovation. This usually holds true across contexts.

More in future posts.

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