Tim Licata's War Games

By Anna Jeffereys '93

In 1994, in an off-off Broadway theaterin Manhattan, a young actor performed in a production of Bertolt Brecht's early absurdist tragicomedy of war, Man Is Man. The story portrays four men in a British machine gun unit in India, each of whom is far more interested in drinking beer than in fighting the British cause. As the play unfolds, the comic gunners persuade an innocent man they pluck from the street that he, too, is a soldier; by the final scene, the comedy has turned to tragedy. The new recruit has become the most vicious soldier of all and joins in the attack and burning of a fortress that turns out to be full of innocent women and children.

Performing this play by day and returning home each night to watch images of the Bosnian conflict on the news, Tim Licata '86 was struck by the play's relevance to the situation in Bosnia. "One news program featured a special report which included an interview with a sniper hidden in a Sarajevo highrise," Licata recalls. "Only his voice was heard. He described how he would shoot people in the streets below. I remember him saying, 'By now I don't see people as human anymore, just targets. I am a completely different person than before this war.' This is exactly what this play is about." Licata remembers thinking, Man Is Man should be done in the Balkans.

Over time, Licata's idea took on more particulars. He began to imagine Man Is Man in a clown rendition, cast with actors drawn from the Balkan's several ethnic groups. Clowns operate in a politically neutral area, and in their realm everything can remain play and exist as a game. Despite the horrors of Brecht's story, it has, says Licata, a Laurel-and-Hardy style plot that makes it perfect for a clown treatment. He remembers a teacher-Philippe Gaulier-saying that "a clown plays seriously as far as he can possibly go. Buster Keaton driving a train will keep driving it until it is completely destroyed." The soldiers in Man Is Man follow their mission until a village is destroyed. Only afterwards do they realise the tragic and absurd folly of their actions. They cross the line from humor to tragedy. While the evolution occurs in front of the audience's eyes, they can identify and laugh with the four soldiers' reckless but very human quest to "drink a beer and have a smoke" while escaping the grim reality of their situation.

"My vision was to work with performers from various regions of the Federation of Bosnia & Herzegovina and the Republic Srpska to give people an opportunity to work together creatively, and, most importantly, to create a play that could make people laugh," says Licata.

He had no illusions of dissolving ethnic barriers, reconciling estranged neighbours, or nurturing the prospects of long-term peace, but he did feel that the processes involved in such a production could help to build up the bricks that were essential to forge individual trust and understanding in specific communities. Young artists are in a position to start the cultural wheels rolling again; the work they create can be enjoyed by everyone and help to begin to rebuild a sense of community.


Tim Licata graduated from Vassar with a theory-rich degree in drama in 1986. But it was in Paris, where he studied for a year with Gaulier and Monika Pagneux-both formerly teachers at í‰cole Jacques Lecoq-that he feels he received his education as a performer. Through this training, which encompassed many styles of performance, including Clown, Bouffon, and work with masks, Licata found himself drawn to a more physical style of theater. Since then, his ten-year career has taken him all over the globe, from New York to Warsaw to Vienna. He has delved into both physical and traditional theater, getting involved in children's theater in Paris; working with the award-winning Theatre Sans Frontieres in Britain; and performing in traditional productions of Charlie's Aunt and The Importance of Being Earnest with the International Theatre in Vienna.

It was not until 1997, after having moved to Scotland, that Licata had the opportunity to follow through on his idea of bringing Man Is Man to the Balkans. The Dayton Peace Agreement had been signed in 1995, and there was no longer active fighting in Bosnia. He knew he had to approach this subject carefully since people's war experiences were so raw. "I felt the play was very relevant but was not sure if people in Bosnia would be ready to see a play dealing with war in any form." He developed contacts with arts centers in Bosnia through Bosnians living in Edinburgh. The International Cultural Desk in Glasgow and the British Council in Sarajevo were extremely helpful resources, but there was only so much he could do without actually being in the country. Licata went to Bosnia for the first time in December 1997 to meet people and present them with his idea.

"My original desire was to make a production involving actors of different ethnic backgrounds from each of the former Yugoslav territories-Slovenia, Croatia, Serbia, and Bosnia-Herzegovina. I envisioned the production touring through all of these areas. After meeting with people in Bosnia and Croatia, I quickly realized that this was a totally unrealistic idea."

Photo of hand holding something
Photo of hand holding something
Bosnia, however, had been home to people of all of these backgrounds-indeed, this was the cause of the worst territorial fighting during the war; the country offered a more manageable area in which to tour a play. Licata met with arts centers, theater groups, and youth centers in Sarajevo, Tuzla, Mostar, Travnik, and Banja Luka. The young people he met were very receptive to the idea of a collaborative multi-ethnic project, though everyone thought it would be very difficult to achieve. At that time he didn't realize how right they were.

Licata's first hurdle was to find performers of different backgrounds from different parts of the country. Working with Dom Mladih (House of Youth), an arts center in Tuzla, he decided that the best way to move forward would be to offer clown workshops for young performers in several cities. Clowning has always been integral to the cultural tradition of Eastern Europe, and Licata had his own training and experience in this performance art. Clown workshops would give him the opportunity to introduce both his vision of the play and the style of playing to a wide variety of people.

He spent six months organizing and fundraising to accomplish the series of workshops, securing grants from the British Council, the OSCE, and Pro-Helvetia, a wing of the Swiss Arts Council, which will also help to fund the production of Man Is Man this year. In June and July of 1998 he led clown workshops in Sarajevo, Mostar, Tuzla, and Travnik in the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina, and Banja Luka in the Republic Srpska. Young independent theater groups as well as individuals from all ethnic backgrounds participated. Initially, these workshops were the first step toward a production, but they became an important event in their own right, focusing on elements of performing that involve trust and communication.

Licata encourages the movement toward trust among his actors through simple games that develop a relationship of play and a sense of complicity between players, and he began each workshop with them. Complicity-or the agreement to play-he says is the key to clowning. Within this complicity performers can travel on amazing imaginary journeys together-be they fun, comic, serious, or tragic. "Playing provides an emotional safety net to explore everything, which can include difficult and sensitive issues. There is the safety of being able to step out and say, 'It's not me, I'm just playing.' Theater exists when that special agreement is held by everyone and when everyone is playing together," he says.

This complicity was hard to build in Bosnia, where trust has to a large extent been completely obliterated. In Travnik, Licata conducted workshops with two theater groups in close competition with one other. There was little in terms of contact or communication between them, and each had a completely different working style. With both groups he started by introducing games to develop a relationship of play. On the second day he began working with clown exercises, and gradually the barriers started to melt. Often all that is needed is one natural clown to unite a disparate group. In Tusla he had it in Selma. Selma had the crowd in stitches as she improvised soldiers in a rifle drill. With a mop and a broom as a rifle, she developed her personal clown by drawing on details from her work on an SFOR base-Nato's Supervision Force in Bosnia.

The young performers in Tusla had been a part of the Bosnian army whose role it was to protect towns and villages. One young soldier's story stuck in Licata's mind. The young man was serving on the front line in the mountains around the city with the enemy-either Serbian or Croatian forces-facing him in a trench just 20 meters away. Looking over the enemy line, he recognized one of the opposing soldiers as a close friend and neighbour from his youth. He called over and they started to chat. They eventually came to an agreement that neither would shoot at the other-nor at anyone else-unless the other side started it first-an absurd Man Is Man scenario.

Most of the young people, aged 16 to 32, involved in the workshops had remained in Bosnia through the war. They had experienced horrific events and had all been affected by the death of friends or family members. Many had problems with focus, concentration, and, interestingly, with rhythm. "I found out that these can all be symptoms of posttraumatic stress," said Licata. The workshops led him to become very interested in how performing arts can be beneficial to people who have been through traumatic experiences. "But," he adds, "I'm not a drama therapist and did not set out to be doing any kind of 'therapy' with people. I think it was good to deal with people professionally as performers because this implies respect for them."

One young girl, Anja, was seventeen at the time of the Sarajevo workshop. During the war, when she was twelve years old, she was with a group of fifteen children when a mortar exploded next to them. She was the only survivor. More horrifying was that many of Anja's severe injuries had come not from the mortar shrapnel, but from the bone fragments of her friends. For two years following this event, she was unable to speak. "It is impossible for me to imagine such an experience," says Licata. "What are the profound effects of something like that? When all life around you, everything is obliterated, shattered in an instant." But Anja has survived. She resumed speaking and has worked with the Sarajevo Puppet Theatre for several years. Though Anja is still reserved, Licata watched her as she laughed and interacted with others while working on a clown character she had created. "Human beings are incredibly resilient," he observes.


Back in Edinburgh, as Licata writes off proposals to Radio Scotland, applies to do a movement course in Santa Fe, and wraps up various directing projects, Bosnia seems very far away. It is hard for him to believe that this year-funding permitting-he will realize a vision he has held for the last five years. "It continues to be difficult to raise money for this project," he says. "Many organizations are contributing aid to Bosnia and particularly to Kosovo. This money is necessarily funding shelter, food, and medical programs, which is as it should be, so it is hard to find funds for a 'nonessential' project. It will take many years for the wounds inflicted by this war to begin to heal, but if anything like an integrated society is to develop, trust and goodwill need to be engendered. A cultural project can create a lot of goodwill and can speak to people in all communities. Creating an event which can bring people together in laughter can be a unifying experience. This is what I would like Man Is Man to be."

Keeping him going is the knowledge that through his workshops last year he made people laugh as they teetered on the fine line between comedy and tragedy and, through this, encapsulated the very essence of Brecht's play. During the Tusla workshop, he led an improvisation in which three clown soldiers concocted a machine gun out of a wooden scythe handle and a fly swatter. Their weapon was absurd yet realistic, and they fired it with manic pleasure. The effect was both funny and horrifying. "It was exactly this sense that I wanted Man Is Man to have." said Licata. "Right here lay the reason why I felt these people would be the best ones to tell this story."

"A clown plays purely to win the love and laughter of the audience," he says. "It was very satisfying to feel that the qualities we explored in the play of clowns touched a need in this region where trust and communication had been so much destroyed."

For more information on this project you can visit the Man Is Man project web site at: www.bigleap.force9.co.uk

Anna Jefferys taught in a school in Rajasthan, India, for a year after graduating from Vassar. She then moved to New York, where she worked as a journalist (Conde Nast Traveler Magazine) for three years before completing a master's in development studies at the London School of Economics. There, she focused on the political economy of war in Sierra Leone and the politics of ethnic identity in the context of civil war.