How can performance prevent rape?

On-stage performance can help us reimagine what we take for granted. This blog looks at how performance can explore different ways to be a woman or a man, and negotiate relationships that are flexible, fun, and freeing.

I suggest that performance can be used as a tool in rape prevention. I look at how performative methods of rape prevention may build upon and develop other forms of social education that work to end rape, creating possibilites for different ways to engage in intimate relationships.

This blog is a personal, theoretical, and performative exploration of how performance can be used in rape prevention.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Drama Therapy and Play Therapy by David Read Johnson and Amanda Gifford

I never got drama therapy. Like playback theatre, I had an active and even vocal dislike of drama therapy. I thought it looked silly. What do you think?

Yeh, I know, pink legwarmers do look silly.

But I am embodying my image of a preferred future, and it was (yes, perhaps only internally) powerful.

What is Drama Therapy?

Drama therapy is a broad name for many different styles of performance, all which have a therapeudic aim. Methods of drama therapy also include psychodrama and play therapy. Drama therapy focuses on expressing a personal narrative that is not exclusively verbal, but also relies on image, sound, movement, and gesture. Primarily, it is an embodied therapeudic practice.

Drama therapists rely on drama to allow clients to distance themselves from trauma. The client is encouraged to describe and work through the trauma using metaphor. It uses drama to assist people solve a problem in their lives, and acheive catharsis.

Unlike the work I do, drama therapy does not rely on having public performances. I attempt to distinguish drama therapy from other forms of applied theatre through this characteristic. I look at drama therapy as an umbrella term that refers to using drama in therapuedic practice that does not have a public performance outcome. 

How are drama therapy and play therapy different to community arts work?
Rather than focus primarily on community-building as I do, my impression of drama therapy is that it instead focus on building the strength of the individual. drama therapy works with a client/s, rather than a community/ies

Here is a picture from one of my community arts performances. These women are community performers from a local women's shelter speaking about their vaginas in front of 2,000 people in one of my productions of The Vagina Monologues.

This show was community arts work, building community, rather than primarily focusing on building strength of the individual. My community arts performances distinguish themselves as working with community rather than the individual through:

  • delivering the show to the performers' communities, with participants performing themselves as strong and capable
  • focus on delveloping skills with the group as a whole, rather than on an individual's achievement
  • the performers support and grow together, becoming a support base and friendship circle

At the Drama for Life festival there were several workshops and performances that utilised drama therapy. I want to have a look at 1 of those workshops.

Drama therapy with David Read Johnson

David Read Johnson co-runs the Post-Traumatic Stress Centre in the States. He believes that nothing cannot be played with. Nothing. Read Johnson works a lot with child survivors of sexual abuse. In order to deal with their traumas he plays with the abuse.

Wierd huh?!

Read Johnson works on the premise that avoiding speaking the truth causes more trauma. Consequently, he wastes no time with his clients in speaking about their trauma. He says he 'does not even bother with hello', before asking 'what happened to you?'.

Unlike playback theatre in which the storyteller sits outside of the action, and watches a replay of their trauma, or some issue in their life, in Read Johnson's work, the client engages their body in a reenactment of their story.
After speaking of what happened, Read Johnson then works with the client using a play-centred approach. He sets up a resistence for the client, attempting to put them into the position of the victim, which they will invariably resist. Read Johnson does this through:
  • clicking the door shut and laughing menacingly
  • shutting the door and saying 'no'
  • simply closing the door firmly
The client resists the role of victim, fighting with Read Johnson, at which point they become perpetrator to perpetrator. After a bit read Johnson then assumes the role of victim, being killed, tortured, or whatever it is by the client perpetrator. Read Johnson begins to enjoy the role of victim, making it look so enticing, playing it with such commitment that the client eventually wants to play the victim.
The client then takes on the role of victim and Read Johnson threatens them. He starts to bring up the actual abuse ie:

  • do you want me to poke you?
  • do you want me to poke you with something hard?
  • do you want me to poke you like your Uncle did?
The client will then fall into grief and begin to mourn the abuse. Read Johnson turns back into himself and comforts the client - if the client's parents or family are present, they take over this comforting role.

Wow. Read Johnson is not afraid of the trauma. He is not afraid.

This work is WILD!!

Drama Therapy with Amanda Gifford

Here is a photo of after Amanda Gifford's drama therapy workshop.

Yes - I look happy cos - despite the pink legwarmers - I have been able to release some trauma. Gifford's work helped me to see that I can make another choice when I am affected by post-traumatic stress. I do not have to live in the past, the fear and sadness. I can instead choose to focus my attention on the present, which i can see is strong, freeing, and totally lovely.

Amanda Gifford has studied with Read Johnson and shares a similar lack of fear for trauma.  She just goes straight in. Her lack of fear strips away a layer of fear, enabling the trauma to surface more freely. It also does not allow the client to back away from speaking through the trauma - the excuse of 'noone wants to know anyway', or 'I don't want to upset anyone' loses its hold on the client's mind. An atmosphere of safety and openness is established.
I suggest that creating a space of openess and trust is essential for those who have been sexually abused. It provides a distinct difference to an environment of secrecy that can accopany abuse.

Protest Theatre and Gender Bending at Witwatersrand University, Joburg

Last week I returned from the Drama for Life festival and African Research Conference at Witwatersrand University, Johannesburg. The festival explores how live performance can prevent the spread of HIV. This year the theme was 'Sex, Actually'.

The festival and conference were mind-blowing. Performers were predominantly students from the Drama and Drama for Life postgraduate course at Wits. There were also performances by critically acclaimed choreographer, PJ Sabbagha, and other local performers.

Local performer, Deep Fried Man

Protest Theatre
On the first night off the conference we all bussed up to Constitutional Hill. Constitutional Hill is the infamous prison that detained many anti-apartheid activists, including Mahatma Gandhi and Nelson Mandela. Later, this prison was transformed into the court which drew up South Africa's constitution, which stands as one of the most progressive in the world. Now, Constitutional Hill is a museum which tells of the struggles of apartheid, and the dreams that wouldn't die.

Students performed excepts from plays they had performed during the year around the old prison. Placed around Constitutional Hill, we walked in groups to each one. The combination of the students' commitment to what they were saying, and the historical landscape in which performances were set, combined to give this performance event deep emotional resonance. the students can act, dance, and oh! can they sing. Nice.

Two student performers at Constitutional Hill

Performances at Constitutional Hill were in the style of protest theatre. These performances told stories of struggle during the apartheid era, adressing themselves to the oppressor, a plea for mercy. They used minimal props and very physical acting styles. A leading writer of protest theatre is Athol Fugard.

In a recent discussion on protest theatre chaired by the head of DFL, Warren Nebe, and between Nobel prize winner Nadine Gordimer and Chilean-American writer Ariel Dorfman, theatre was suggested as particularly important in bringing about change in South Africa. Art's function was considered to be as societies' conscience.

Protest theatre is not the same as agit-prop theatre, as it does not attempt to incite political action or retribution. Instead, protest theatre is more like a lament, an appeal to the conscience of the oppressor. No solution is sought, the problem is simply stated. Or often, wailed.

Here is an example of a the very physical protest theatre in Imobokotho's show

Gender Bending in Jo'burg

The performers and presenters embraced the festival theme, 'Sex, Actually', as many shows explored same-sex desires and gender fuck. As someone who enjoys a bit of queer activist activity this suprised me. I'd heard that due to South Africa's strong and large Christian population it's a taboo to speak about sex, especially sex that's not straight, monogamous, and within marriage.

But the DFL festival did not show this same silence. I wonder if choosing such a provocative theme opened the festival up to exploring riskier work?

Several shows charted a masculinity that is not all sexually, politically and physically powerful.

  • Deep Fried Man sang about being romantically and sexually clueless, and a bit of a geek.
  • Blow explored a man's romantic relationship with his blow-up doll. It was vulnerable and tender, reminiscent of Norweigan film, Lars and the Real Girl.
  • The Tea Party used full-face masks and a puppet-like physical style to unravel the story of a heterosexual relationship gone stale, until the husband starts having sex with strange men in toilets. The wife follows him one day. He stops doing it. And all goes back to normal.
  • Pillow Talk explored the sexual lives of several different characters, exposing people's private lives as definately queer despite their religions and private school uniforms.

The queer narrator of Pillow Talk

Notions of femininity were not challenged with similar gusto, only one show, a piece of performance art, examined ideas of women as being sexually available and desirious.

Monday, September 13, 2010

Playback theatre - Bonfire Theatre, South Africa

I saw Bonfire theatre perform their playback theatre at the Drama for Life festival in Joburg.

Let me make this very clear: I hate playback theatre!!!
But Bonfire theatre, now they are something else.

Why DID I hate playback theatre?

1. Because playback is disconnected.
In playback, people tell stories of their lives, and the actors play this back to them. The little playback I have seen pulled any rawness from the original story, proscribed an ending, and not understood the speaker's intentions.

2. Because playback is airy-fairy.
Playback looks to ways that performance can create catharsis and allow for self-expression. Consequently, I have found this catharsis to be forced - pulling out tears and striving for poetry where there is only shit.

3. Because playback is awkward.
Noone from the audience wants to say their story and someone has to otherwise we all shuffle nervously thinking 'someone better say something important'.

Yet....Bonfire's playback made me want to leap for joy instead of off a cliff.
Mind you, I'm not going back on my criticism of playback theatre just yet.... I am actually putting Bonfire forward as practitioners who really get playback, who have found it's beauty. Although improvisation is often promoted as 'anyone can do it' I think that's bullshit. Maybe anyone can, but I don't know if anyone should. I suggest that Bonfire are astute practitioners who do not neccessarily take the easy road.

Why do I LOVE Bonfire's playback theatre?
1. They are not proscriptive of their audience but let each groups' own stories to emerge.
Jonathan Fox, who together with Jo Salas, created playback theatre in 1975 said that he wanted playback to use music, movement and image to create a narrative on 'deeper level than conscious thought'. Unlike some applied theatre, including theatre of the oppressed, Bonfire did not come armed with what they considered to be our oppressions or issues. They came with a theme to explore. They did not only ask us stories of suffering (so they could solve them), but opened the dialogue up, so we could tell the stories that were burning in our minds. there were no antidotes for suffering. There were no grand morals delivered. Answers were not sought.
It was not awkward because we did not have the pressure of telling the 'right' kind of story. Each story was embraced wholeheartedly. We were warmed up a bit before the public sharing of stories, by telling the person next to us the title of the story of our life right now. Unlike other playback I have seen, I did not feel like stories of the greatest pain were required for drama. My life felt just right for the stage.

2. They help people see the choices they made that created their circumstances.
Those who share stories cannot explain away the positive things in their lives with get away with 'it just happened', or 'he made me feel that way'. The conductor (Paula), who works with audiences to gather stories, insisted 'and what did that show you about yourself?'. No matter what, Paula always brought it back to the purely personal. These were not stories of politics, government, stystematic violence. These were stories about the individual, that brilliantly, seemed to be about each onbe of us.
3. They attempt to find a 'possible' ending, rather than imposing a 'reality'.
Each story was a possibility. I think endings are the hardest - do we give it a happy or sad ending? How does the protagonist end up? Paula asked each audience member/storyteller 'and how did the story end?'. If the storyteller didn't know, the actors would improvise. But these were not proscribed courses of action, nor attempts to find the core or truth of the story. It was simply another story, a story given back to the storyteller and the audience.
4. Catharsis occurs through recognition of story, one's role in the story, and awareness of bigger picture rather than pushing the emotional drama.
Tears flowed and laughter rang out. Children danced and one man decided to love again. This was allowed, rather than forced. The actors did not ride the emotions of the piece - primarily, they told the story. They used image and rhythm, connection and movement. And music! The soundtracks to our stories moved them forward, created tension and drama, mystery, and fulfillment. The musician (Chris) worked so well with the actors, and brought so much energy to each piece.

5. Witnessing played an important role
Playback is premised on the notion of witnessing. It suggests that witnessing one's own story, or witnessing that a person sitting near you, creates reflection, connection, catharsis, and social change.
How does it do this?

How does Bonfire theatre enable transformation of the audience/witness?

You have the opportunity to view your own story, or a story that you identify with from a distance. A broader view is created. You can see yourself within your surroundings.
Telling one's story and having it listened to with such empathy that people can actually play it out in front of you, feels like an enormous gift of listening. Witnesses identify and connect with the story, and through this, each other.

Seeing one's story often brings about catharsis as storytellers both laugh and cry. This was brought about through points of recognition of one's pain. Catharsis is a Greek word that means a purging of emotional tensions. It connotates a releasing of tensions that built up without a release.

Social change
Jonathan Fox understands that playback fulfills anthropologist Victor Turner's notion of social change. For Turner, ritual is a vehicle for social change, rather than a method of maintaining the status quo. Ritual undermines everyday social roles, rules, and responsibilities. New possibilities can be imagined. Traditional theatre positions shift: any witness can become the scriptwriter, and actors then become witnesses. Bonfire threatens the rules that govern who can and who cannot speak. Social rules are transformed and a liminal space is created, in which new positions can be played.

Sunday, September 12, 2010

In Soweto

So you wanna know more about Johannesburg than gangsters and fighting??

Then let me tell you about Soweto!

Orlando West, Soweto
Heard of Nelson Mandela, Desmond Tutu? They both lived on the only street in the world that has housed 2 Nobel Prize winners, Vilakasi street, Orlando West, in Soweto.

I stayed around the corner from Vilakasi street, at Lebo's backpackers. Well, I actually ended up sleeping at his grandmother's place, but that's another story.

Soweto is a township outside of Johannesburg. Millions of people live there, there are millionairres, and there are slums. It grew up as a shanty town when black people couldn't live in the city (like, only 16years ago). Soweto is the home of the struggle that ended apartheid.

Things an middle-class Australian may notice on coming to Orlando West, Soweto:

1. There are no footpaths so you have to walk on the road

2. The roads are full of potholes

3. There is rubbish everywhere

4. Everyone hangs out on the street

5. Everyone knows everyone's business. People live very closely

6. People have lost A LOT of loved ones

7. Some houses do not have running water or toilets. People are overcrowded. There are power shortages. But there are also mansions.
This is a shop. Not a mansion.

7. People drink beer from a carton. Apperently it tastes great (if you like rotten-custard-tasting beer, sure) and should be drunk wholeheartedlyby pregnant women (uh-huh)

8. And here is a number of a local guy who can help out with small penises