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How research into testimonies of Chilean refugees shaped an award-winning play

Creating a partnership around memory and theatre

Ramon Ayres and Professor Alison Ribeiro de Menezes.

In 2019, an exploratory conversation between Professor Alison Ribeiro de Menezes and Ramon Ayres, Director of Ephemeral EnsembleLink opens in a new window physical theatre company, kick-started a partnership that created an internationally acclaimed play – REWIND. The performance, which revolves around a team of forensic anthropologists uncovering a mass grave, won critical acclaim from audiences in the UK and Latin America. This academic-theatrical partnership provided a new way to explore how to deal with unresolved historical legacies.

REWIND – Physical theatre of the disappeared

Ramon approached Alison about her research while Ephemeral were developing a performance about resistance and rebellion which echoed the dictatorships of South America. Knowing that they needed to ensure they treated the subject in a respectful and sensitive way, Ramon looked for collaborators with expertise in cultural memory and trauma. Alison’s knowledge, values, and curiosity about communities, culture and loss, connected strongly with Ephemeral, and when she shared the testimonies of Chilean refugees affected by dictatorship, these became the focus for their performance.

An authentic award-winning artistic collaboration

Ramon describes Alison as a mentor, partner and team collaborator, who asked questions, shared details and analyses from her research, and facilitated conversations with her research communities in the UK and South America. For Alison, Ephemeral’s use of creativity opened up new research questions and themes about how culture might creatively confront the past, and how communities deal emotionally with unresolved historical legacies.

In Colombia, where the peace process is still underway, the search for the disappeared remains controversial in certain sectors of society. Using forensic anthropology to locate the disappeared can be interpreted as a humanitarian act as well as a scientific process, which makes it potentially rebellious. By hosting public engagement programmes in Colombia and Chile, including workshops with relatives of the disappeared and forensic anthropologists, Ephemeral have been able to hone their aesthetic to expose loss while retaining a hopeful and forward-looking vision of the importance of memory for social repair.

Creating impact and innovating research

When Ephemeral, still a young company with only a few shows to its name, performed at the Edinburgh Festival to critical acclaim, it had already won an international reputation. This has revealed how high-quality art enables audiences to engage and consider how building a future may be transformative. Through collaborating, the partners were able to probe their overlapping interests from different perspectives and explore how art and structure can connect with audiences to help manage situations of unresolved trauma.

Research rigour and creative performance

The success of the REWIND collaboration has established an enduring partnership between Warwick’s School of Modern Languages and Cultures and Ephemeral Ensemble. The research rigour and creativity that they combined, through a fluid and informal creative process, enhanced the culture of research and rooted the performance in authentic detail. REWIND continues to tour the UK and the partnership is now working on a new project with La Máscara, a women’s theatre collective in Colombia, to explore the theme of the sustainability of water – a scarce resource. Working with ancestral farmers with a memory of the changing landscape around forests and rivers will bring new voices from remote communities into research and theatre.

“There's something really special about Alison, she has this beautiful thing of seeing how academia fits into the real world. She's always thinking about a community to reach beyond the university. She is so well connected with the subject and the people who work in it that she really was key to the play. I don't think we would have been able to take it to South America or that the company would have achieved international recognition. Performing in South America really transformed the piece into something that was more meaningful for everyone.”

Ramon Ayres, Director of Ephemeral Ensemble