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March 13 2014

Peacebuilder Series

Ken Solway

What is the relationship between peace and art? Ken Solway recently was invited by the Network to explore some connections in a Living Room Dialogue that was part of the Network's peacebuilders series.

Although Ken's life has been marked by tragedy and loss, he has found release through the art of others and in making art himself. From the start, sadness pervaded his childhood home in the Bronx. His father, a Holocaust survivor whose wife and son were gassed at Auschwitz, carried his grief throughout his life and ultimately ended it in suicide. It seems there was no outlet for expressing the pain this experience brought to the family. As a child, Ken wanted only to run from it. However, his mother, a teacher, brought some relief by introducing him to literature and encouraging his creativity.

As an adult, during a period when his life seemed bleak because of personal losses and the breakdown and deterioration of his Bronx neighborhood, Ken found relief in art once again. In the theater, he found his mood reflected in the plays of Samuel Beckett, Harold Pinter, Jean Genet and Eugene O-Neill, particularly those plays characterized at the time as a "theater of the absurd." These plays spoke to him, and it occurred to him that he could speak back by writing his own . In the plays he admired, relationships between characters were often fractured and communication frayed. When he began writing his own plays, he adopted a stylistic technique using silence and repeated short phrases to create sounds and rhythms suggesting emotion or subtext rather than trying to capture feelings in explicit language.

Ken wrote a one-act play called "Son, My Son" which helped inaugurate the Holocaust Museum in Washington, DC 21 years ago. He also has attempted to work through the death of his father with a puppet play. In that play, he asks his father questions he was never able to ask when his father was alive. In this way, he has sought to repair and redeem his connection with his Dad.

He also has written plays with themes of social justice, such as on homelessness and the recent financial crisis. In classroom teaching he has used improvisation techniques with students to act out the effects of oppression and various social issues. The process of writing dramatizations has not come easily to him. He had to begin by collecting his thoughts in short notes and saving them in file folders along with information such as newspaper clippings. In this way, he put together a body of ideas for his work. So far, his plays, stories for children and puppetry have been a labor of love and a way to clear his mind, but perhaps there will an audience for them one day that will find the same sort of solace and inspiration in his work that he found in the playwrights he loved.

After a silent reflection period, participants in the dialogue were invited to speak about what parallels with their own lives were evoked by Ken's presentation or what thoughts came to mind. Several people in the room were moved to tell the stories of the deaths of their own fathers and of a desire to say things to them that were left unsaid while the fathers were alive. One spoke of talking to him all the time still, to keep his memory.

Two participants spoke about moving puppet plays they had recently seen or heard of. One play dramatized relationships in a nursing home between old people with dementia and their caregivers. The participant said that as she aged she greatly feared not being able to take care of herself and becoming a "burden" to others. In the play, the actor caregivers found ways of connecting with the puppet old people through art, viewing pictures together and making up stories using their responses to the images. The point was that although memory can fail, through art there are ways to connect lovingly with those with dementia. The other puppet play mentioned dealt with war and peace. It was Kevin Augustine's Hobo Grunt Cycle, which was currently playing at Dixon Place, a venue for experimental theater. This play features a hobo/soldier who saves a wounded pit bull that has been a trained to fight in illegal dog fighting events. After each performance of the play, a speaker from a peace group invites discussion with the audience about peace within ourselves and in the world.

Several other participants thought of plays involving social or political issues that had been important to them, for example a Danny Kaye one-act play about Apartheid and Eve Ensler's plays about violence against women.

A The New York Times Magazine article was mentioned. In this case a couple with an autistic child watched the child's favorite Disney film with him over and over, eventually leading to acting out the parts themselves. Through this process the child's language and interpersonal skills improved amazingly.

It became clear through the conversation that the role of art in creating a more peaceful world is vital. For starters, war is not over when the last shot is fired. The damage to lives can continue for generations if emotions are not reconciled, and art can help with that. It also can help us to expand our understanding of others we do not know. Art can heal.


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