Activism & Volunteering

“Can you teach me about Pol Pot?” An interview with the founder of Global Arts Corps

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TheGlobal Arts Corpscreates theatre productions out of stories of violent conflict from around the world. In Cambodia, they work with young circus performers and an extraordinary collective of artists, themselves former child war orphans, who take care of at-risk children and young adults between the ages of 6 and 23. This is an interview with Michael Lessac, founder and artistic director of the Global Arts Corps.

I’m a theatre director from America traveling with four professional actors from South Africa. Our work together goes back to 2006, when the five of us collaborated with seven additional South African actors from opposite sides of racial and religious divides to create a production based on the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of South Africa. For three years, on and off, we traveled to international conflict zones to tell that story and to ask the question:

“Can we forgive the past to survive the future?”

The play was called Truth in Translation, and, out of its success, we founded Global Arts Corps with the intention of continuing to create theatre productions out of stories of violent conflict from around the world. We are currently preparing similar works with Albanian, Roma, and Serbian actors in a project about Kosovo, Loyalists and Republicans from Northern Ireland, and most recently a group of second generation orphans of war in Battambang, Cambodia.

We have just returned from Battambang after our first phase of work with young Cambodian circus performers. We were invited there by an extraordinary collective of artists, themselves former child war orphans, who take care of at-risk kids between the ages of 6 and 23. The village of artists is called Phare Ponieu Selpak (The Brightness of Arts). It is a place of hope.

Our young circus performers were members of that group. They are storytellers; their language is circus. We were there to teach them acting and to create a story about their recent perceived and imagined history. We were invited because we had experienced such a journey personally and felt we could help these young performers probe into places where, at the moment, they are hesitant to go and where their teachers, quite reasonably, might be hesitant to take them.

So all of us were searching for a theme, a question that had to be asked to create this production.

When we started our workshop a young boy asked, “Could you please teach me about Pol Pot?”

I think he knew about Pol Pot. Why would he ask this question of a foreigner? Is it because he feels like it should be clearer in his mind? Is it because of what he’s heard, what he’s pieced together from his elders’ whispers and off-hand references that never made any real sense (eat your rice…we died for that rice)? Is it because these kids feel a kind of shame that he doesn’t understand? Or is it that Pol Pot just wouldn’t make sense to a kid? Is it, possibly, he feels that there is something out there that has to be forgiven? Or is it perhaps because Pol Pot was Khmer, just like him?

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These kids are amazing performers. They have pride and power in their bodies and their athleticism. Boys and girls alike protect each other from physical injury on stage. They are young gods. They are authentic. They will be listened to by world audiences who also have come through history of violent conflict.

We ask ourselves: Can they begin to deal with an horrific past that is not their first hand experience and yet … is absolutely theirs? Yes, they talk about it openly in buzzwords but only in that innocent politically correct kind of way that makes its way into textbooks and seems to be expected. Or do they read it on the faces of tourists like ourselves who are looking for answers, or, for better or for worse … looking for a play.

Probably all of the above. But what interested us most how they read it in the eyes and the sighs and the avoidance of real engagement they receive from their elders.

We start with warm ups. But almost within hours they allow us, even encourage us, to take them to a place where they will have to meet these imagined memories in a time of their lives where they are faced with radical poverty, HIV, corruption and adult denial. Some are shy. Some are brazen. All are totally in the moment.

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At night when we recap we ask ourselves: Do we have a right to do this? Shouldn’t these kids be allowed to move on without opening wounds that are not really theirs? And we ask ourselves, does our recent experience apply here? As we cross borders, how much does culture impact on the way people examine the past, on how they need to examine their identity?

Days pass. These kids are amazing. Brave and joyful and fantastically talented. They have been brilliantly trained. We have tentatively decided to call our production “Landmines”. As real things, they are all over the place. People still get blown up with regularity. The thought occurred to me watching their work—these magnificent bodies could create one hell of a great “explosion” on stage. The metaphor was good, the structure promising: the simple story of the next generation having to unearth the horrors of the past like some infantry soldier asked to dig up land mines with zero experience. Is it wrong of us to come in and hand our inexperienced troops a spade and say, “Start digging!”. What if they hit an historical or emotional landmine that blows off one of their emotional body parts.

But then we come back to the question that brought us here: What if they don’t dig? What if those land mines stay buried? Then every one walks on egg shells for the next 50 years until we forget that they are even there … and some madman or arms dealer with an agenda decides to remind them of what was done to them sometime when back then. BOOM!

As the Global Arts Corps, we create our plays to disturb denial. We make them to create mirrors for audiences, for one culture rising out of violence to share their need for healing…or their fear of it. We create them so victims and perpetrators alike can share their fear of dropping their masks, and perhaps even explore why they can’t give up the idea of vengeance and revenge.

But are these kids in denial? How could they be? They weren’t even there when “IT” happened.

… but what if they don’t dig. In the production we are creating in Belfast, we were told that no one wants to dig into the past now that they have ratified a peace accord. So why, since the peace accord was signed, are there 38 new sixteen-meter walls with barbed wire barriers to separate themselves from each other? What do their kids think of that? In Belfast, the kids told us they wanted to know what was behind those walls, perhaps not realizing that it was themselves.

In Kosovo, where we are creating another production, they go back four hundred years to find their entitlement to kill.

“Tell me about Pol Pot.” How did he get the way he got?

Are they asking, “Could we become the way he became?”

We talk about forgiveness but should we not be talking about shame and how shame leads to denial and about how denial becomes an addiction? Denial helps to develop sanitized versions of history that insist that we are neither victim nor perpetrator. Denial helps us forget. Denial creates a mask that is almost impossible to take off. Should we not fight to disturb a fear of knowing even if we do it with the chaos of multiple truths gotten from theatrical investigation? Even at the risk of opening old wounds?

As actors we are asked to drop our masks every day. As we rehearse we find ourselves reconciling many truths because we have to adjust our masks for the sake of finding a joke or a dramatic moment. We also create new risks as we do it. We look at each other differently even if we still disagree across cultural and religious divides. This is the professional actor’s craft - it’s what we do every day on stage.

Do we have a right to do it in real life with other people’s histories?

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What kind of truth would be found by these kids if they decided to investigate their history through their own imagination in order to tell their story within the circus context? What if we gave them video cameras to interview their elders, to hear the stories that have been told so many times that we all aren’t even sure are true memories any more. What if they brought those videos back as testimony to be used to create a story out of all those multiple truths garnered from survivors and ex Khmer rouge who might have even known their parents who orphaned them? Would it open old wounds or would it open new avenues to perception of “us and them”?

If someone ever asked forgiveness for their past, would these kids know how to give it? These are questions that we wrestled with over the week, circling the various truths, the various possibilities. This is just the beginning of our process here in Cambodia - there is a long journey in front of us still. Whatever the answers are, they will come from these brave circus performers.

And we will be listening.

The Global Arts Corps is currently producing shows in Northern Ireland, Kosovo, and Cambodia. As the numbers of productions continue to grow, this expanding pool of professional actors is steadily becoming a multi-lingual, multi-cultural resource for training, education and reconciliation development across conflict zones around the world. To learn more, please visit