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  • nathanjohnpaul

Theatre as Healer (Part 2)

Updated: Apr 21, 2022

What lies behind us (our current set of memories) has forged our personal constitution, establishing our capacity to self-govern, while regulating thought-patterns that inform and shape beliefs. When strong memories are developed out of abuses and trauma, our beliefs are filtered through negative emotion, the origin of internal struggles, capable of delaying development and destroying our capacity to live out of our truest self. Adjusting mindsets in a healthy direction, thereby promoting personal growth, leads to potential successes and contentment. It's a promising theory that performance-based experience has the capacity to reconfigure current memory; not erasing or changing personal history, but rather providing a context and environment whereby damaging, negative, and painful memories can surface only to be seen through a brighter lens with a more nuanced and enriched perspective.

Anne’s story.

Anne experienced all sorts of trauma as a child, as many of us do. She was raised in a verbally and emotionally abusive household and was reminded regularly that her opinions and perspectives on family matters were of no value. When her instincts informed her of the discrepancies and inconsistencies pertaining to the moral value systems displayed by her parents, she would attempt to address them only to be met with anger and punishment. “How dare you speak to me like that. You’re a child, and I’m the adult. When you’re older you’ll understand what you’re talking about. Go to your room.” Any attempt to assist her parents in developing peace and consistency in the home produced feelings of immense failure. As an adult, Anne feels weak. Her compassion moves her to help those around her but something internally stops her each time. She’s aware of other’s pain, full of empathy, and wants nothing more than to see those in her life succeed, but she’s unable to be the friend she wants to be. “I’m such a weak person. Why didn’t I help them? Why didn’t I say something? I’m just too weak.”

Anne was always a fan of theatre. When a friend invited her to attend a college production of Antigone, she gladly said yes. Within the first few minutes the play, she noticed familiar themes: family disfunction, abuse, harsh parenting and ruling, punishment, and a young woman in an incredibly fearful predicament. In a way, she saw herself. But Antigone was handling her familial situation in a very different way. Even when met with fear, the character spoke her mind. When met with warnings of punishment, Antigone was able to keep her clarity of purpose. Full of passion and drive, the young girl’s desire to help those in need overruled any concern of retribution.

“I was not like, who feared no mortal's frown, To disobey these laws and so provoke The wrath of Heaven. I knew that I must die, E'en hadst thou not proclaimed it; and if death Is thereby hastened, I shall count it gain… Thus my lot appears not sad, but blissful… And if in this thou judgest me a fool, Methinks the judge of folly's not acquit.”

Anne thought about Antigone all evening. Lying in bed that night she questioned, “What gave Antigone her strength? The odds were against her, death was constantly around the corner but she remained true to herself, true to her…convictions”. The word conviction resonated for days. The contagion was taking effect, the reprogramming was beginning. She analyzed her degree of convictions and all that was lacking, realizing that a revival of strong beliefs was needing to take place. Determined to follow the promptings of her instincts and guided by an ever-growing passion, Anne was beginning to trust herself again. Her circle of peers noticed a change, commenting on her clear perspectives and thanking her for the advice she was now willing to share. Her future was no doubt being effected, and soon she stopped hearing the phrase - “I am weak”. Those three words had plagued and defined decades of her life, a lie masking itself as a personality trait. It wasn’t long before she came to the truer conclusion thereby re-writing the context with which she viewed much of her past.

“I’ve never been weak...I’ve only lacked conviction.”

I would suggest that much of what we consider to be personal forward progression contains ingredients of a healed past. Barba nearly comments on the idea when mentioning a generalized agenda of many 20th century theatre practitioners,

"to transcend the performance as a physical and ephemeral manifestation, and attain a metaphysical dimension - political, social, didactic, therapeutic, ethical or spiritual. "

The therapeutic and spiritual dimensions of theatre are accepted by some, but rarely investigated. With many advances made within the disciplines of visual art and music as it pertains to “therapy”, our lack in notable discoveries in the healing capabilities of live theatre is curious, perhaps suspect. It’s worth exploring theatre's ability to reach into the past - the abuses, rejections, failures, and traumatic experiences that trap the human soul and reduce potential and satisfaction - allowing for the rewiring of pathways and patterns of thought - healing at the root in order to change individual and communal future. Evidence of this particular benefit to theatre would add definition to Eugenio's statement on the drive behind performing artists.

"...within this ancient and noble art the most anachronistic passion is the search for something permanent that outlives the performance. A thirst obliges us beyond the wall of the profession, to stand on tiptoe, stretching upward, toward the beyond...a way to protect ourselves from becoming victims or silent accomplices in this tireless tide, this pitiless race that is history. It is an inexplicable compulsion to remain on tiptoe in order to sink our roots into the heavens, while all around us the others advance toward sensible aims at a reasonable pace.”

Barba paints a picture of standing tall and reaching upwards towards our fullest potential. Perhaps in order to access what is above, we must also reach deep within. It is my belief that live performance creates the safe and inspiring environment whereby our stuck-places and partial realities can emerge, providing for us the opportunity to develop. In this way, theatre heals by providing a context for change; not a change stimulated by simple ideological revelation or emotional release, but growth by means of recontextualizing the origin of pain, perhaps reframing the history that follows.


The Essence of Theatre

Eugenio Barba

TDR (1988-)

Vol. 46, No. 3 (Autumn, 2002), pp. 12-30

Published by: The MIT Press

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