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  • Alissa

trauma in theatre

Updated: Aug 24, 2021

Perhaps you’ve had the experience of reading a book, or watching a movie or a play, and in the story, something awful happens. It might happen to one of the characters individually, or to the whole cast environmentally—something violent, tragic, or even just humiliating or frightening. It’s part of the story. It might be fictional, but even in the case of nonfiction, this is just a re-presenting of something that happened before, to somebody else—it’s not happening to you, right now.

And yet—you might have gone away from that piece of art feeling haunted by that piece of the story. You might have difficulty clearing the images out of your mind to focus on something new, or you might have a pit in your stomach that lingers, or you might be irritable or sad for no obvious reason after reading or watching that story. The painful part of the story might even reach the level of an intrusive thought or an unwelcome flashback, popping into your head when you are in very different contexts, messing with your focus or your mood.

This doesn’t happen to everybody, and even for those who are sensitive to this sort of response, it doesn’t happen every time they witness a portrayal of something traumatic. As a trauma therapist, a theatre-maker, and a sensitive person myself, I’m very interested in what makes some trauma portrayals possible to digest without inflicting new pain, and other portrayals incur what looks very similar to secondary traumatic stress, sometimes called ‘vicarious trauma.’ (For more on that phenomenon, there’s a good breakdown here: )

It might be tempting to say something like—'good lord! We don’t want to be traumatizing our audiences! Let’s remove the traumatic material from our story to avoid causing harm.’ But from a story-teller’s perspective, this is an obvious non-starter. If a story has no challenge, no drama, no pain, it’s not much of a story. Not only that, but I think theatre, books, movies, and all forms of storytelling media have a critical societal role to play in encountering the painful aspects of the human experience, so that we can collectively process, digest, transcend, and heal from them. Any therapist can tell you that “let’s just avoid talking about that” is a strategy that might increase comfort in the short term but thwarts the possibility of long-term healing.

So what makes the difference between a piece of, say, theatre that inflicts vicarious trauma on its audience, and one that promotes the compassionate witnessing of trauma that leads to healing?

I was thinking about this during a recent Nebunele meeting in which one of our core members, Nicole Pearson, was workshopping some beautiful writing in her piece about forced migration and generational trauma. I noticed that, despite some intense material, I actually didn’t feel trauma impact from the reading of this piece, and it suddenly occurred to me that ever since learning to practice Somatic Experiencing (SE), I have not felt secondary trauma from the painful stories that my clients have shared in my office, either. Something that made this click for me was a part of the piece in which the speaker connects with her hand—so fragile and precious, suddenly—and it made me look at my hand, actually, and take a deep breath. And I think that presence in Nicole’s piece is incredibly wise.

A core concept in SE work is that lingering trauma is a result of the body having a fight/flight/freeze reaction in the moment of danger that then doesn’t have the opportunity to ‘clear,’ or be processed by the body afterward in a supportive way where the nervous system can identify that the danger has passed. This can happen for lots of reasons—maybe the person was in danger for a long time, or still is at some level, and never got to really breathe and shake off the adrenaline; or maybe something distracted them right after the trauma was over and they had to move on to the next thing without really digesting what just happened; etc. Maybe they grew up in a culture or a family where you don’t show ‘weakness’ or demonstrate emotions. So a big part of the healing process involves re-engaging with the traumatic material, but in small doses, and then staying with the physical response the body has to it until the body re-settles. By ‘small doses’, sometimes this means the client tells just the very first part of a traumatic experience to the therapist, then stops telling the story and focuses on the body until the wave of nervous system activation has passed. Then they move on to the next bit of the story, and so on. Sometimes it’s ‘pendulating’ between the pain and something the client can hold in mind as a resource, like--a supportive person they trust--or the fact that they survived the experience, which is proof of resilience or strength--love, gratitude--or even just a concrete sensory experience in the present, where one is at least temporarily safe, assuming they trust their therapist (I keep rocks, scented candles, and chimes in my office for clients to orient to if necessary.)

The ’small doses’ of trauma can be intense. They are painful and can even seem borderline unbearable. The trick for the therapist is to keep the client grounded in their body the whole time, so that they are able to let the body do its work, which is naturally oriented to healing. A good analogy that was used in my training is: if you cut your finger, it will heal up all by itself. You don’t need to ‘do’ anything to heal it. But if there’s dirt in the wound, it could get infected and last a long time and have negative impacts elsewhere in the body—so what you do, or what a doctor helps you do if it’s a big wound, is you clean and bandage the cut to protect it so that the body can get to the work it is ALREADY PROGRAMMED to do. By bringing conscious attention to the body’s healing process, you help intercept the things that get in the way—shame is a big one, and overriding pain so you can be ‘functional’ or ‘get on with life’ is another big one—and sometimes just the sheer intensity of the pain that comes when you really attend to how something awful impacted you is simply overwhelming, and frightening to contemplate.

The main job of the SE therapist is just to remind the client to keep breathing and paying attention to their body and letting it do its work. A lot of the time there is shaking or trembling involved as the nervous system re-wires itself to a sense of groundedness and peace. It’s really important to take it slow and not interrupt the process. A therapist in authentic relationship with their client tries to keep track of how much capacity their client has for holding the intensity of the pain and works hard to help them stay near their threshold but not crossing over the upper limit of what they can bear, which tends to result in dissociation. There is often a ‘peak’ of discomfort in a session, and then a client’s system will often naturally start gravitating toward comfort and resources, and end feeling more powerful and peaceful.

As I listened to Nicole’s piece, I realized that she had done the same thing in her writing. Could this be a generalizable technique? A storyteller builds up a resource (in Nicole’s piece, there was some interaction with a supportive community of other people on a healing journey, and connection to the power of the ocean) and then touches the pain (a generational trauma flashback, in Nicole’s piece) then brings it back to the body (in Nicole’s piece, this came with a meditation on the speaker’s hand. Fragile, precious. Healing. Hand, breast, heart.) Then repeat.

This rhythm, from resource to trauma to body, is exactly what I do in session with my clients. Each time they repeat the cycle, the client has capacity to tolerate a bigger chunk of the painful stuff, until it’s an integrated part of their story, a part of the story of how they became so powerful and wise and compassionate, a story about deep learning instead of about becoming broken.

There are so many ways that humans connect and heal. It’s inspiring to think about the potential for unifying principles in seemingly disparate fields like theatre and therapy.

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