For the academic year 2018, the CERAH is delighted to announce that Master student Sonya Armaghanyan was granted the Swiss Humanitarian Award for her distinctive dissertation “Theatre as Psychosocial Approach in Humanitarian Settings”  

Congratulations to Sonya and warm thanks to CERAH's long-term partner, the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation, founder of this award. Find out more in an interview with Sonya Armaghanyan: 

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The topic of Sonya’s research is extremely innovative and interesting, as it provides a conceptual framework for some practices increasingly used by humanitarian organizations to deal with communities affected by trauma in crisis and post-crisis situations: theatre and drama. Combining perspectives coming from various disciplines, such as medicine, psychology and sociology, allows Sonya to link the psychosocial well-being of affected individuals and communities with the aesthetic and affective dimension of theater and drama. The dissertation fills a gap by exploring the advantages and forthcomings of several theatre approaches.

Sonya, you have been awarded the “Swiss Humanitarian Award” for this year’s best Master’s dissertation. What is your first reaction?

My immediate feeling was happiness. I was very happy to be awarded with the “Swiss Humanitarian Award” and I could not stop smiling. It was a moment that gave me a sense of unique accomplishment- not only on a personal professional level, but in a broader sense. Receiving the award, to me, is an indication that the idea of using theatre and its creative process to assist affected communities and make a positive impact is receiving recognition in the humanitarian field, some sort of validation of such artistic approach. For many years I’ve been trying to combine my passion for theatre with the humanitarian work that I love doing- and it seems that I am headed in the right direction. 

 How did you get interested in the use of theatre for populations affected by humanitarian crises?

For me, theatre is a place of magic. Since early in my childhood, theatre offers me a glimpse into the world- so much broader and, at times, more exciting than what immediately surrounds me in my everyday life. Human imagination, dreams and hopes can come to life in the theatrical space. The creative process of theatre offers an intimate journey to explore own identity, thoughts and emotions as individually, as well as in relation to others and various situations that we encounter in life. It enriches the mind and the soul, seeds understanding and empathy. It is all these elements that I continuously experience in my every theatrical adventure, so the thought and the interest to use theatre for people who are affected by humanitarian crises was quite apparent to me. Theatre in a unique and also in a quite powerful way offers the affected communities a safe space to deconstruct their identities, find their sense of belonging, try to understand what happened and where to go from there.  

You identify a number of challenges for the implementation of theatre activities in yourdissertation. How could these be overcome? 

Just like any other humanitarian intervention, it is important not to impose a pre-structured theatrical intervention on an affected community. An artistic intervention can work if the tools are based on community’s preference of creative expression, considering also the culture and the performative rituals that already exist within the community. This is important, in order to engage people on a deeper level and in a more familiar way. Especially, when working with displaced communities who are torn away from their countries, using familiar to them performative forms may enable a process for community strengthening and creating a space of trust and sense of safety. 

It is also important to remember that theatre is a creative process and it takes time. Often, in humanitarian crisis the response demands urgency in its implementation, however I think it is important to try and not rush the creative process of theatre and allow enough time for communities to fully explore it. 

Another aspect that can be helpful is training theatre practitioners and artists on specific sensitivities of humanitarian assistance and when working with affected communities. As discussed in my dissertation, theatre practitioners are often good at what they do artistically, but they don’t know how to use various capacities of their skills as a tool for psychosocial support. In the same way, it is important that the humanitarian professionals who would like to use theatre as an approach for psychosocial support, understand the difference between various techniques and the concept of theatre. A clear dialogue is necessary between artists and humanitarian workers.

These are only a very few possible solutions to some of the challenges. 

Theatre is an art, not a science, but one needs science to assess its healing effects on the health of human beings and communities. Were you able to document the effectiveness of this approach?

Not completely, at least not yet. My research focuses on the process, on the ‘how’ of using theatre in humanitarian settings. With this paper I want to show and help humanitarian practitioners to better understand how theatre is so closely co-related and can influence the processes of social change, like community stabilization, social cohesion, anti- stigmatization, integration. To be honest, I am not quite sure yet how the impact and the effectiveness of theatrical interventions on psychosocial wellbeing can be exactly measured from the scientific point of view. There are studies in neuroscience that provide with some evidence on positive impact of certain theatre processes on emotional regulation, thinking and behavior, however as discussed in my conversation with Guglielmo Schininà (the Head of IOM Mental Health, Psychosocial Response, and Intercultural Communication Section)- scaling-up specific numeric indicators on the community impact of theatre practices may actually go against the value and quality of theatre and its creative process. So far, the impact of theatre is usually measured with qualitative anthropographic measures. Is this a good enough evidence? I think yes it is. In my opinion, it is important to keep in mind that yes theatre is an art, it is creative and it cannot be entirely predictable- something that works with one group of people, may not work with another, or the effects may have different levels and depth, even when using the same theatre techniques. Each person, each community has its own stories, belief system and emotional richness- theatre helps to express and explore these notions, and I think that partly the effect of theatre also depends on that particular fusion of the group and the art. 

Who would benefit from reading your dissertation? 

My paper is mainly intended for humanitarian professionals and theatre practitioners/artists. I hope it can give the readers an insight on some of the sensitivities and important elements to consider when implementing theatre projects for psychosocial support activities with affected communities in humanitarian crisis and post-crisis conditions. Both, humanitarian work and theatre are closely connected to human stories- I think that humanitarian professionals and artists have a lot to offer to one another and learn valuable approaches from each other. Such collaboration can be enriching not only for the professionals working in this field, but more importantly for the communities that we work with and try to assist. 

Read more about the dissertation here