Going through the Wringer

Michelle’s right – I do get a little nervous bringing in activities that are expressly about changing behaviors or that feel too much like therapy.  I’ve yet to determine whether this is cowardice or good sense.  The Blagg is a new exercise for me; although I’ve read about it and participated in it during one of Katie Dawson’s Applied Theatre classes, I’d never seen it done in a jail or prison setting.  I also read an interesting critique of the Blagg by one of its practitioners, Jenny Hughs.  She took it into a women’s prison and realized that when they were constructing the character of Jo and discussing how she ended up in prison, Jo was acted upon as much as she acted for herself.  So Jo had been abused from a young age and he abusive boyfriend pimped her out; she was using drugs as a way to deal with her life.  While not all incarcerated women have had these experiences, many have experienced serious trauma from a young age.  How, exactly, do you fix behaviors that are reactions to trauma?  Will cognitive behavior therapy (which is what the Blagg is based on) work?  Or does it reinforce victim blaming?  Is it fair to call incarcerated women victims?  That’s a loaded word, and certainly dangerous to apply across the board to a large group of diverse women.  Honest questions here because I haven’t worked it out for myself.

I’ve now undergone extensive work for trauma and it’s not something that can be reasoned away.  The body and the nervous system carry physical memories and patterns that need to be understood, explored and soothed.  Neural pathways need to change.  The way one’s body handles emotions needs to be expanded.  So I’m curious – what, as theatre makers, what can we do to aid in this process?  Is it possible?

When confronted with questions like this, I tend to try and remind myself that I’m a theatre maker and an artist, first and foremost, and one thing I do know how to do is make theatre.  So when I’m feeling uncertain, I take things back to that framework – hence my approach to the Blagg.  Yes, let’s talk about these issues, let’s talk about our stories but let’s put it into this structure that allows for less finger pointing and recrimination.  The conversations and discussions should still happen – why is Jo in this situation and how did she get there?  Is there anything she can do in the future?  Who can help her? – but let’s put it in fictional terms so we can all examine it with a little bit of impartiality and detachment.

And it’s silly in the end, because usually whatever I’m nervous about works out fine.  I’m not working with delicate little teacups, but flesh and blood women who have already been through plenty.  My pushes and pulls probably won’t be that proverbial last straw, so though I always proceed with respect, a little less caution might lead this class down some interesting paths.

One of my least favorite things about applied drama is all the hand wringing, the oh-god-we-might-do-something-wrong approach that can keep whole classrooms of students arguing about theory for hours until they’re so afraid to do anything at all, and facilitation becomes a terror.  Reflection and introspection are excellent tools, but I also have a tendency to overthink it til it’s already failed five times in my head.  Blagg is a good test of trying to break free of this – we ended last class with writing assignments from Jo’s and other character’s points of view, and we’ll pick it up again with Jo’s background.  I hope to use those writings to start constructing a script this Friday, in order to launch into a new kind of performance for Conspire Theatre.  It’s all worth a little bit of nail biting in the end, yes?

-Kat Craft







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